The Woodmen of Arden
Part 1 of 2
THE Woodmen of Arden of all societies has adhered most closely to the traditions of the archery of the Restoration. Up to the present moment the regulations of Finsbury Fields are perpetuated on the sward of the Forest of Arden. The Woodmen share with the Royal Scottish archers the exclusive distinction of shooting for their principal prizes at the statutory distances prescribed by the obsolete legislation of a period when the exigencies of warlike archery made it expedient that practice at lengths exceeding nine score yards should be Compulsory; and, with the exception of the John o' Gaunt Society, they are the only county archery club which has celebrated a centenary; never, in fact, during the 109 years of their existence having failed to hold a meeting or compete for the annual prizes. Several of the present members of the society remember shooting at the turf butts erected by the care of Secretary Digby in 1786 upon the Packington Outwoods --the ground leased to the Woodmen by Heneage Finch, fourth Earl of Aylesford, their founder and first warden-- wedge-shaped erections with 'crown-clods,' the semblance of one of which still adorns the card of the society, though the actual structures themselves, having fallen into disrepair, were taken down in 1852, and replaced by the moveable contrivances now in use as supports to the targets.
No doubt a higher antiquity has been claimed for the society, as has been the case with other ancient institutions, than in all probability it can legitimately boast. The Warwick-shire gentlemen who met at the Bull's Head Inn, Meriden, in November 1785, professed to revive certain ancient meetings of Woodmen of the Forest of Arden, but that they could trace any direct descent from the verdurers of the Forest, of whose mythical prowess- 'clapping into the clout at six hundred yards' Dr. Dasent speaks in his 'Annals of an Eventful Life,' or even from the county heroes who figure in the animated description of the shooting match with which Mr. Gresley opens his historical romance of the Forest of Arden, is more than dubious. It appears from Mr. Digby's diary that 'Paradise,' the recreation-ground, as nowadays it would be called, of the village of Meriden, had no butts when the society was formed; and we may with greater probability conjecture that the revival which Sir Ashton Lever and the other founders of the Royal Toxophilite Society had set going had infected the gentle-men of Warwickshire than that any lingering tradition of local archery inspired them with an ambition to continue it.
Be this as it may, Heneage Finch, fourth Earl of Aylesford, a man of many accomplishments, and of mental as well as physical vigour, diligently promoted the well-being of the archery club of which he was the founder, and on its inception was elected first warden. In conjunction with an Italian artist, Bonomi, he arranged the well-proportioned room which forms the older portion of the deforest Hall, an oblong octagon, in a recess at one end of which is a fine bust by Banks, representing the Lord Warden in the act of drawing his bow Round the walls are arranged fifty aschams for the bows, &c. Of as many shooting members, the door of each being distinguished by the owner's crest or arrow-mark. These marks are emblazoned on the parchment roll of the society, which, with its 460 names from 1785 to 1885, is a most interesting relic of past archery. On the upper part of the walls of the hall are tablets recording the names of the winners of prizes from 1785 to 1885, and certain trophies of Oriental and African bows, arrows, &c., presented by former members, as well as an interesting old curved horn, covered with leather, supposed to be an old English bugle horn deprived of its mounts. The winners since 1885 have their names recorded on a tablet in the adjacent and larger hall into which the folding-doors at the lower end of the old apartment open, this having been erected in 1845 as a dining-room and ball-room for use on the ladies' days. Prior to this the ladies had gone to dinner to the inn in the village, where tradition asserts that they were allowed a pint of port wine apiece, as well as two gentlemen to carve for them!
At the end of the new hall is a bust by Nollekens of Mr. Wriothesly Digby, the first secretary of the society. On this gentleman's resignation in 1826 the Rev. J. Coker Adams was elected: a most felicitous choice, as he combined excellent bowmanry with good business capacity and happy social gifts. He died in 1851; the late Earl of Dartmouth then filled his place, and ten years later he was succeeded by Colonel Frederick Granville, who in 1871 gave way to the Rev. E. J. Howman, to whom, on his leaving the county five years afterwards, the Rev. E. A. Waller, the present holder of the post, succeeded.
The rules and orders of the newly-organised society were signed on August 30, 1786, by forty-four Woodmen present at the Wardmote, for thus it was resolved their regular meetings should be styled; the order of precedence at the target being the warden, the master forester (first gold at the annual target), the secretary, and the senior verdurer (second gold), for which distinctions gold and silver medals were presented in 1789 by William Palmer. No member ranks as verdurer of the Forest until he has hit the gold or made a clout at one of the regular meetings of the society.
In 1788 the number of members was limited to seventy-five, increased in 1815 to eighty; and there can be little doubt of the favourable effect of this resolution upon the prosperity of the society. It caused it to be regarded in some measure as a county club to which it was an honour and a duty for Warwickshire gentlemen to belong, whether archers or not; so that almost every family of distinction in the county has had representatives upon the roll, in many eases to the third or fourth generation. the present senior Woodman is Lord Norton, whose grandfather's name occurs fifteenth upon the list in 1786.
The most distinguished name upon the list of former members is that of the second Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, who in 1835 was elected without a vacancy, the limitation rule being relaxed in his favour. He thus became the eighty-first member, and at his death his place was not filled up. A characteristic anecdote is current that Sir Robert visited the Forest Hall during his premiership, and, his health having been drunk by the Woodmen present, the secretary fined them all, himself included, for joining in a toast to a Woodman 'who held no office, and had obtained no honour,' while, sad to say, Sir Robert Peel himself was also fined for acknowledging an irregular toast.
In 1787 the warden presented a very massive and handsome silver bugle, which it was determined should be shot for at a distance not shorter than nine score yards, nor greater than twelve score, to be drawn by lot. In 1788 the Countess of Aylesford presented a silver arrow, which it was resolved to shoot for always at nine score. - In 1818 Mr. Digby presented a gold medal, Optime merenti, for the greatest number of hits at 100 yards during the August meeting, and a silver medal, Bene merenti, for the second best. In 1856 the Rev. Egerton Bagot presented seven silver medals for best golds at June and July meetings; and in 1864 Heneage Finch, sixth Earl of Aylesford, presented a gold medal for the greatest number of golds in the August week, a hit in the clout being reckoned as a gold. In 1887 the Royal Scottish Archers presented a silver bowl as a challenge-prize for clout-shooting, and it is competed for by points at nine and ten score, a medal struck by the society being worn by the holder.
In lieu of an historical chronicle, which, in the case of an institution depending so largely upon its social character, and from its constitution kept aloof from the waves of change which have affected so many of the other archery gatherings, must of necessity be somewhat meagre of incident, perhaps it will be better at once to describe the mode in which these various competitions are carried out, and the results obtained by the successful contestants. With reference to the 100 yards prizes, therefore, it is a necessary preliminary to observe that the target and the order of shooting differ from the ordinary use. The target, affixed to a canvas-covered butt at a height of eighteen inches only from the ground, is three and three-quarter inches less in diameter than the ordinary one, which, with the exception of an inner white circle instead of blue, it otherwise resembles, and the mode of scoring is against the shooter, i.e. if the arrow breaks the line which divides two circles, the lower one has to be reckoned. The shooters, who only discharge two arrows at an end, do so in pairs, alternately, the leader having shot his first arrow filing off to the left, and his partner (in Forest parlance his 'butty ') taking his place.
Should there be at any target an uneven number, then, of the trio who come last, A advances and shoots, then B. then A again, and C, B. C in turn. The marker, stationed near the target, signals each arrow with a napkin on a short staff. This he waves backwards for over arrows, droops forward for short ones, extends his arms for wide shots, and points with derision at a 'butt or spoon' (sarcasm intensified when the unlucky arrow is nine-tenths in the outer white, so that a prolonged scrutiny is required before the fiat is given). For the outer white four distinct flaps of the flag are the signal, three for the black, two for the inner white; a hit in the scarlet elicits a brisk shake of the napkin, knee high; for the gold, a dance of triumph and the removal of the gold-laced hat, which, with the green coat and white waistcoat, breeches, and stockings, perpetuates the old uniform of the society in the costume of the markers. On the conclusion of the 'end,' two clerks come forward, and while one registers each hit by his acquaintance with the mark indicating the ownership of the arrow, the other places upon the nook a small ring of coloured bone, which as the successful archer draws his shaft he pockets as a tally against his score, the shooting members being paid for their hits by a tariff beginning with sixpence for the outer white, and rising to half a crown for the gold. At one time the members of affiliated societies shared in the rewards, and paid their own expenses for dinner, &c. ; but in 1850 a resolution was proposed which from that time put them on the footing of other guests. In the early years of the society visits from members of the Royal Toxophilites, the Kentish Bowmen, and Broughton Archers were not infrequent; and, later on, Mr. Horace Ford and Major Hawkins Fisher have both been guests of the Woodmen, the contest between the latter and Mr. Nesham for the Jubilee prize in 1885 being a very remarkable one: a tie, both in hits and score, won by Mr. Nesham with four hits to three. The competition for the captaincy of numbers, which is decided by hits only, is not limited to a certain number of arrows, but by the time available; consequently, the winner's score varies from year to year with the weather and other disturbing causes, but the average number of arrows shot in the thirty years from 1855 to 1884 has been 272, while the winner's hits for the same period have averaged ninety-four. This, with due allowance for the smaller target, is a trifle better than the 100 yards average of the second five at the National Meeting during the same period. In 1861 Mr. F. Townsend in 268 arrows made 130 hits, and the next year 114 hits in 232, besides winning at the clouts both arrow and bugle, the arrow by four ends out of nine, two of which were hits in the clout, the latter by five ends out of nine, one being a clout. The late Mr. Coker Beck, who in 1891 completed a half-century of prize-taking at the hundred yards, claimed as his best score sixty-nine hits with a score of 313 out of 152 arrows; while Mr. Townsend in 150 arrows made seventy-nine hits with a score of 319 in National reckoning. Since the institution of the captain's medal in 1818 it has been held by twenty Woodmen. Mr. Coker Adams obtained it seventeen times; Mr. Coker Beck sixteen; Messrs. F. Townsend, H. Skipwith, H. Howman, and C. H. Inge five times each; Mr. Charles Finch four times; the fifth Earl of Aylesford, Mr. Robert Garnett, Colonel Granville, and Mr. E. J. Howman each held it twice; and nine other Woodmen once viz. Messrs. C. Palmer, R. Gresley, W. Lillingston, W. H. Burroughs, W. Staunton, Bernard Granville, W. K. R. Bedford, E. A. Walter, and W. S. Miller. The warden's medal for most golds has not produced anything very brilliant, Mr. Beck's nine golds and a clout in 1869 being the best.
The contests for the arrow and bugle only differ in respect of distance; the former being always 180 yards, the latter occasionally 240. The order of shooting is as at the target, the archers pairing off and delivering their arrows alternately, and the marker, as at the 100 yards, standing close to the left of the clout, a black-centred white target of two feet six inches in diameter, placed at an angle of about sixty degrees. Watching the arrow as it leaves the bow, he will stand his ground with marvellous firmness, and he then exercises his judgment in the mark which he accords; having first signalled short, over, or wide, each flap of his flag means a bow's length from the clout, four bows being the extreme distance marked. For half a bow he lays his napkin over his left arm, a 'foot' is indicated by striking his foot, 'thumbs' by the hands united over the head, and a clout sends him on his back as if shot. He indicates the first or nearest arrow by a flourish above the head, and the second by one knee high.
Marking at the clouts is a work of some danger, and the difficulty of obtaining men competent to undertake it forms one of the drawbacks to clout-shooting, as, without a marker, much of the value of practice is lost. In 1841 a marker was hit on the Meriden ground, and again in 1889 a similar casualty occurred; since which time shelters, like those in use in Edinburgh, have been provided for the markers. In a book which gives an excellent picture of the social amenities of Meriden --Colonel Ewart's 'Soldier's Life'-- he speaks of a gentleman, who had pulled up in his gig in the high road to watch the shooting, receiving a stray arrow in his arm. A little inquiry, however, brought the true state of the case to light. A right of road to a farm crosses the lower portion of the ground, and more than fifty years ago the tenant sometimes drew up his gig immediately behind the clout, rather to the annoyance of the shooters, one of whom let fly at him, and, though full three hundred yards away, actually grazed his arm. But a marker must have perfect sight and a clear horizon, as well as experience, to mark to a shooter with a low trajectory.