The Grand National and other Public Meetings
Part 1 of 3
THE GRAND NATIONAL MEETING
IT has been shown in the last chapter that public archery meetings have taken place in England for a very long period. Putting aside the earlier meetings or shooting matches held while archery was used in war, which correspond more to our present rifle meetings at Bisley than to meetings designed solely for amusement and display of skill, we have the 'feasts' held by the Finsbury Archers, the Scorton and similar meetings, and the Blackheath and Dulwich Meetings. The Finsbury competitions began in 1654 (or earlier) and lasted till 1761; the Blackheath and Dulwich Meetings existed from 1789 to 795; the Scorton was started in 1673 and still continues; so that when the first Grand National Archery Meeting was started in 1844 there had been public archery meetings held continuously for about two hundred years. It is true that part of the time is only covered by the Scorton Arrow Competition, which, although open, was practically confined to the North of England but this meeting it was which first suggested the idea of a Grand National.
The first Grand National Archery Meeting marks a completely new era in archery. The meetings held by the Finsbury Archers were feasts, pageants, and opportunities for display, the excuse for which was holding an archery meeting; fine clothes, banners, music, &c., were thought of more consequence than the actual shooting. The slow and cumbersome way of shooting two and two at a single target precluded the possibility of any large number of arrows being shot, and was of itself much against high scoring. Knowledge of the science of archery was absent, and the habit of drawing the arrow behind the eye made it out of the question for accurate shooting to be attained. This description of shooting was all very well in war, when the great object was 'to shoot a length' (namely, the same distance), and strong, but at the target it was out of place. In war it was necessary that the archers should shoot volleys of arrows which should reach the enemy, who was drawn up in several ranks, and pierce the 'pistol-proof' jerkins ; for this accuracy was not required, and drawing to the ear was well enough, as it enabled a longer arrow to be drawn to the head, and greater penetration and range to be obtained.
On the 'revival' of archery the traditional way of shooting was followed, and consequently no good scores were made. As before stated, nothing could be done at the end of the last century without a large amount of parade and eating and drinking, so that we find at the Blackheath meetings and in private societies conviviality reigns supreme; and absurd customs, such as sounding a bugle when the gold was hit (which was done in one society till quite recently, if it is not continued to the present day!), crowning the winner with laurel leaves, &c., are common. We must not, however, be too hard on the archers of that time; it was the custom to do everything in the same way, and things which seem to us absolutely idiotic were looked upon then as quite correct.
We can scarcely imagine, say, after a Grand National at Cheltenham, seeing the champion with a wreath of laurel placed round his manly brow stalking solemnly in triumph at the head of the vanquished archers, marching two and two with banners flying to the strains of the best procurable German hand, through the streets to the Queen's Hotel, to appear later at dinner in a clawhammer coat, and sit next the championess, both decked with evergreen headgear! Yet a hundred years ago it would have been done, and no one would have looked upon it as childish or silly. The majority of the archers of the 'revival' period were probably archers more for the sake of joining a pleasant company than for any love of the sport itself, the result naturally being that few, if any, efforts were made to improve the shooting, though the reverse was the case with regard to the dinner.
On the first Grand National being held we find quite a different state of things. Customs had changed, dining and show were beginning comparatively to take a ' back seat,' and men were commencing to think more of athletic pursuits; so that, though the first meeting or two did not produce any high scoring, competition soon brought about improvement.
The exact facts as to the starting of the first Grand National Archery Meeting are not very clear: the founders, with one exception, are dead, and it is a long time back to remember details. It seems, however, evident that the idea originated among the Thirsk bowmen: the late Mr. Peckitt, writing in 1878, says that he got the idea of holding a general meeting of archers from the Scorton Arrow Competition, and Mr. Higginson informed the writer that the first steps taken in this direction originated from a conversation which took place in his drawing-room. It is quite clear that it is to these two gentlemen, no doubt assisted by others, that archers are indebted for the starting of the meetings. The course pursued was to send out circulars to everyone interested in archery, asking their co-operation in holding a meeting at York. Mr. Gray, the secretary of the Thirsk Bowmen did the clerical part of the work, and the result of his labours was that a ' general meeting of archers was held at the Black Swan Hotel, York, on May 14, 1844, for the purpose of taking into consideration the design of holding a Grand National Meeting of the archers of Great Britain at York during the ensuing summer.
The correspondence received in answer to the circulars was laid before those present. It appeared that about sixty archers had intimated their intention of subscribing towards the proposed meeting, but this number was not considered sufficient to carry out the design in a satisfactory way. As, however, the idea had met with universal approbation, it was thought likely that more subscribers would be obtained, and the following resolutions were passed:--
That it is highly desirable that further steps should be taken towards carrying forward the proposed meeting, and further exertion used towards obtaining an additional number of subscribers, and raising an adequate fund for prizes, &c.
That the meeting should be held if a hundred archers shall send in their names as subscribers before July I next, and that the design be advertised as soon as that number is attained
That the subscription be one guinea towards the fund for purchasing prizes to be shot for at the meeting, and that all subscriptions should be paid and the subscription list closed on July 15. All members who shall not have paid their subscriptions by that time to be excluded.
That the incidental expenses of providing targets and keeping the ground, &c., be paid in equal proportions by the archers who shall compete at such meeting.
That the meeting should be held during the first week in August.
That at such meeting the distances at which the prizes are to be shot for shall be 60, 80, and loo yards, and that the number of arrows to be shot at each of those distances respectively be settled at a future meeting of the subscribers.
lt was further suggested that the prizes should be allotted as follows, viz.:--
To the highest gross score ,, second ,, ,, greatest number of hits ,, second ,, ,, most central hit ,, greatest number of hits in the gold But that no archer shall take more than one prize.
That the Rev. J. Higginson and H. Peckitt, Esq., be requested to undertake the correspondence requisite towards carrying forward the design.
WILLIAM GRAY, jun.
Sec. pro tem.
These resolutions were sent to everyone who was thought likely to respond; the result being that sufficient subscriptions were finally obtained, and the first Grand National Archery Meeting was appointed to take place on August 1, 1844, on the Knavesmire, York. It was decided that the meeting should last only one day, and that the round which had been shot for some ten years previously by the West Berks Club, consisting of seventy-two arrows at 100 yards, forty-eight at 80, and twenty-four at 60 (now known as the 'York Round '), should be adopted, prizes worth 1251. being offered to be competed for by gentlemen.
On the appointed day the weather was unfavourable. Six dozen arrows were shot at 100 yards, but not without several interruptions caused by heavy showers After luncheon matters instead of improving became worse, and it was determined at five o'clock to postpone the remainder of the shooting to the next day, the archers present agreeing to share the extra expense caused by the adjournment. The second day proved more propitious, and the round was completed, the shooting being, according to a contemporary writer," excellent,' though, as the highest scores were 76 at 100 yards, 93 at 80, and 77 at 60, we should scarcely think so now. The prize list is worth comparison with one of the present day:
The last-named gentleman seems to have shot the whole round and scored 8 with two hits at 60 yards, a remarkable performance, which certainly deserved reward.
A committee was appointed to arrange a second meeting to be held on August 25 and 26, 1845; and they lost no time in setting to work, as, on August 16, 1844, they issued an appeal for subscriptions, stating that they intended to offer prizes worth 500 guineas. The circular of the meeting, sent out later, puts the first prize at 100l.; but the winner did not obtain this sum, as the funds were insufficient. Six prizes were offered to ladies, who were to shoot ninety-six arrows at 60 yards, and eleven shot for the first time at a public meeting, their targets, which on the first day had been placed near the gentlemen's, being the next day moved closer to the grand stand for the convenience of the spectators. This, perhaps, accounts for no entries being forthcoming from ladies the next year; it would be a bold secretary who attempted such a thing in these days. A third meeting was held at York, fewer competitors putting in an appearance among the gentlemen (eighty three as against 110), and no ladies shooting; but, in spite of bad weather, the improvement in the general shooting was very apparent, and there was a close contest for first place between Mr. Hubback and Mr. Meyrick, as the former scored 519 to the latter's 517, each having 117 hits. The third day's competition was introduced at this meeting, and devoted to shooting at the popinjay, which was afterwards abandoned, the handicap being substituted. The first idea of instituting a Grand National Archery Society appears to have originated at this meeting, and a resolution was passed forming a society which was joined by several archers; the scheme, however, does not seem to have been carried out, though the medals presented to Messrs. Peckitt and Higginson are inscribed 'Grand National Archery Society.'