Sign our guestbook >

01869 874 352




By Stanley C.Jenkins MA

The Rifle Volunteers formed an important aspect of local life during the long years of peace that characterised Queen Victoria's reign. Many men were encouraged to join the volunteer forces, and surviving photographs often show local worthies in the obscure and picturesque uniforms of long-forgotten regiments and corps. The Witney artist and local historian William Seely Junior, for example, was photographed in the uniform of a Rifle Volunteer, although he was otherwise unconnected with the army.


The traditional English military system obliged each district to provide a set quota of armed men in times of national crisis. In 1580, for example, Oxfordshire was able to furnish 5,000 trained men to repel an expected Spanish invasion. This militia system had fallen into decay by the Civil War of 1642-46, when the so-called "Trained Bands" had become more of a national joke than a national defence force. Only in London did men take their military duties seriously, though as the great political and religious conflict developed, effective forces were raised by both sides.
   On a footnote, it may be worth mentioning that at least three regiments were raised in Oxfordshire during the Civil War, one of these being Royalist while the other two were Parliamentarian. Historically, the most significant of these regiments was perhaps Colonel Richard Ingoldsby's Regiment of Foot, which had originally been formed by John Hampden in 1642 to serve under Lord Essex. This regiment subsequently became part of the New Model Army and, as it had been raised in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, it was normally quartered in those two counties - thereby becoming a tenuous ancestor of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
   The New Model Army differed from previous British armies in that, under Cromwell's rule, it became a national standing army - many former Royalist soldiers being enlisted in its ranks. The New Model thus became the progenitor of the regular army - although the modern British Army traces its ancestry back to the Restoration. The Commonwealth army was stood down following the return of monarchical rule, though in practice a much smaller professional army was immediately reformed from existing personnel. Other regiments were raised in connection with Monmouth's Rebellion, the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, and other national emergencies while, at the same time, each county was expected to raise regiments of local militia for home defence.


British ideas of individual liberty ensured that this country has never had a large, standing army; the British Army has, in consequence, always been a small, professional force. The infantry regiments which formed its backbone were numbered, rather than named, and there were first no territorial designations. Nevertheless, certain regiments became associated with particular counties, and in this way the 52nd Regiment of Foot became Oxfordshire's "county" regiment. The 52nd Regiment served with distinction throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1815 it played an important part in the Battle of Waterloo.
   Meanwhile, the need for extra forces during the protracted French Wars meant that the Oxfordshire Militia had been called up to fulfil its traditional role as a home defence force for service within the United Kingdom. Fear of French tyranny was so great that various other home defence forces were also raised during the Napoleonic period, Oxfordshire's main contribution being in the form of volunteer Yeoman cavalry units - although a corresponding infantry unit known as The Oxford Loyal Volunteers was also formed at this critical time.
   There were several distinct volunteer forces in 19th Century England. The main elements were known as the Yeomanry and the Militia, the former being cavalry while the latter were infantrymen or artillerymen. In times of extreme crisis such as the Napoleonic Wars, additional forces known as "The Fencibles" were formed to bring older or perhaps infirm men into uniform. There were even "Sea Fencibles" for service in coastal areas, while countless volunteer units were raised throughout the country for home defence purposes - bona fide members of these local forces being exempted from the annual Militia ballot.
   The Volunteer Movement was an immense success and, by the closing months of 1803, around 347,000 volunteers were available to repel the expected French invasion, together with 120,000 regular soldiers and 78,000 militiamen. To put these figures into their correct perspective, it should be remembered that the population of the United Kingdom was about 15,000,000 during the early years of the 20th Century, and that the Navy (England's first line of defence) was also making huge demands in terms of manpower.
   The Oxfordshire Militia were first raised during Monmouth's Rebellion in 1687. They were reformed in 1778 as a home defence force during the wars fought against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In 1794 the regiment mutinied while guarding French prisoners at Newhaven, the mutiny being caused because the men did not want to waste their precious flour rations by using it to whiten their pigtails. The mutiny was quelled by the Horse Artillery and men of the Lancashire Fencibles. After order had been restored, Edward Cooke of Witney and Henry Parish of Chipping Norton were shot by firing squad, while other leading mutineers were flogged.


The Napoleonic scare encouraged successive governments to maintain at least token volunteer forces. Such part-time soldiers were cheaper that a large standing army, and it was assumed that, by ensuring sufficient men were trained in the use of arms, there would be at least some defence against aggressive European nations such as France or Russia. In the case of Oxfordshire, the Yeomanry survived into the modern era, though the disgraced Militia were stood down until 1852, when they were revived as a voluntary, enlisted part-time force.
   In the mid-19th Century the need was seen for additional volunteer forces and, as in the Napoleonic period, this need was filled by the creation of a Volunteer force. A War Office circular dated 12th May 1859 authorised all Lord Lieutenants of Counties to form volunteer corps, the men concerned being expected to furnish their own arms and equipment, while uniforms were to be chosen by the Volunteers themselves. Lord Derby's short-lived Conservative government was keen to support this revived Volunteer Movement and, in the next few months, 170,000 Volunteers had been enrolled.
   By the early months of 1860, four companies of rifle volunteers had been formed within the University of Oxford, and these were soon merged into one unit, which was known as "The 1st University of Oxford Rifle Volunteer Corps". Meanwhile, other units were being set up elsewhere in the county, one of these groups of volunteers being known as "The 5th Oxfordshire Rifle Volunteer Corps". The 5th Corps were formed at Woodstock on 26th May 1860 - presumably through the efforts of the Duke of Marlborough.
   As the Duke was lord of the manor of Witney, it is assumed that the 5th Corps was intended to recruit from both Witney and Woodstock. In the interim, however, neighbouring towns such as Banbury, Thame, Bicester and Henley had acquired their own volunteer rifle corps, and perhaps for this reason it was decided that the 5th Corps would be divided into two units, which would be known as the 5th and 9th corps. The 9th Corps remained at Woodstock, but the 5th Oxfordshire Rifle Volunteer Corps was re-established at Witney. Thus, by 1861, Witney acquired its very own volunteer rifle unit, and recruiting was soon under way.


Having formed themselves into an official military unit, the Volunteers needed somewhere to discharge their weapons. It was agreed that a rifle range would be constructed on a suitable site to the north-east of the town, the chosen site being about a quarter of a mile to the north of Clementsfield Farm, on the west side of Cogges Wood. A contract for "making butts" for use by "The Fifth Oxfordshire Volunteer Rifle Corps" was awarded to local builder Malachi Bartlett (1802-1875) on 1st February 1861 at a price of £130 10s, and by the end of the Summer Cogges Range was under construction.
   Malachi Bartlett's ledger for the period 1858-66, now in the Witney & District Museum, contains several interesting details of the work of construction. In August 1861, the builders were busy clearing the ground and erecting the targets, while subsidiary work involved "cutting down trees", and "pulling opening in wall and fixing movable posts and rails". Minor details included the erection of a flag pole, and the provision of galvanised iron buckets "with 5th O.R.V. painted on each". On 7th September 1861, Bartlett's ledger records "Jones half day fixing flag staff". The latter feature was 24 ft high, with a 3 inch pulley for the lanyard.
   The work evidently continued into the Autumn and Winter while, as late as January 1863, the ledger records workmens' time spent "making and fixing" a rifle rack. The completed rifle range was orientated from south-west to north-east, with the targets and stop butts on the west side of Cogges Wood. The range was 800 yards long, and 25-inch Ordnance Survey maps suggest that it was equipped with visual markers at 100 yard intervals; this would explain the relatively large amount of woodwork that was apparently carried out by Malachi Bartlett's workmen in 1861-3.
   Witney's association with the 5th Corps was relatively short-lived, and by 1875, the local riflemen had been absorbed into The 2nd Oxfordshire Rifle Corps, with a headquarters at Oxford. The University corps retained their separate identity, and as such they subsequently became the 1st (Oxford University) Volunteer Battalion, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The 2nd Oxfordshire Rifle Corps, meanwhile, had been organised in six companies, one of which was based at Witney. In practice, the individuals concerned were still referred-to locally as "The Volunteers", and reading 19th Century newspaper reports, one senses that organisational changes had little impact at local level.


As mentioned above, the May 1859 War Office circular anticipated that the newly-raised volunteer units would furnish their own arms, uniforms and equipment. Not surprisingly, this gave rise to a great variety of different uniforms during the early days, some units being clothed in elaborate uniforms, while others wore very simple garb. The 3rd Cornwall Artillery Volunteers, for instance, initially wore knitted blue fishermen's jerseys, braided in red, while the London Irish Rifles seem to have sported grey-green uniforms. The University of Oxford Rifle Volunteers, meanwhile, had opted for grey jackets and trousers.
   Some rifle corps adopted a basic green uniform with black facings, this being an obvious choice for riflemen - the regulars had, for many years, worn dark green uniforms with black buttons and adornments, whereas the line infantry had traditionally worn red coats. However, grey tunics were also very popular among the mid-19th Century volunteer riflemen, possibly through their interest in the Civil War that was then being waged in the United States (the Confederate States wore grey tunics while the Union forces wore blue jackets).
   In 1860 the Government recommended certain uniform patterns for all of the volunteer forces. Henceforth, most of the infantry and artillery units wore fairly simple tunics with silver adornments and Austrian knots on their sleeves. The artillery volunteers rapidly adopted the blue tunics of the Royal Artillery (of which they were a part), whereas the infantry units tended to wear grey tunics, the basic pattern being similar to those worn by the artillerymen. War Office regulations stipulated that no volunteers should wear gold lace, and for this reason their buttons or other distinguishing features were normally made of silver or white metal.
   The photograph of William Seely Junior, which has featured in The Witney Gazette and in other publications on numerous occasions shows the uniform of the 5th Oxfordshire Rifle Volunteer in considerable detail. William Seely, an expert marksman, is shown wearing a single breasted grey (?) tunic with what appear to be black Austrian knots on his sleeves and a dark leather belt. His headgear is a characteristic mid-Victorian shako or peaked cap with a prominent ball plume and metal badge. He appears to be wearing the badges of a colour-serjeant, this style of uniform being typical of the 1860s.
   In later years, the Witney men sported the familiar red tunics of the British Army. Photographs of circa-1885 reveal that the uniform had been changed to a single-breasted red tunic with white facings. Collar badges (and presumably buttons) depicted the familiar light infantry bugle horn badge, while headgear was either Glengarry side caps or spiked helmets (depending on the period of the photographs concerned).
   As far as arms and equipment are concerned the general picture is fairly clear in that, when first formed, the volunteers would have used Enfield rifle-muskets. These were single shot, muzzle-loading percussion rifles that fired a 0.57 inch lead bullet. The powder and projectiles were loaded separately, and then rammed home by a ram rod that, when not in use, was fitted into a slot below the barrel. Many of these rifles were subsequently adapted for breech-loading operation on the Snider system, whereby a breech block was inserted into the original muzzle-loading barrels. To facilitate this simple conversion, about two inches of the original breech was cut away to allow the insertion of a new breech block, which was hinged to receive a single round.
   Victorian rifle volunteers were, in many cases, middle class enthusiasts who regarded their military activities as both a hobby and a social activity. Membership of the local volunteer corps provided an opportunity for competitive shooting and, in this context, some of the more enthusiastic volunteers purchased custom-made rifles with improved sights and higher velocities. Weapons of this kind invariably sported additional refinements such as chequered stocks and improved locks.


The British Army had enjoyed great prestige as a result of its victories over Napoleon, but as an institution it showed little inclination to change or modernise. Following the fiasco of the Crimean War, external pressures meant that a whole range of army reforms were introduced in the regular army. These changes eventually had an impact on the part-time and volunteer forces, and in 1881 the Militia were reborn as the 4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. In December 1887, the Rifle Volunteers became the 2nd Volunteer Battalion, and a such they were brought into much closer association with the county regiment.
   The original Rifle Volunteers were socially-superior men who were rich enough to indulge in an expensive hobby. In the case of Witney, they appear to have been initially composed largely of small businessmen, farmers and professional people. These gentlemen were, essentially, both Anglican and Tory in their religious and political affiliations. In the 1890s, the local corps was commanded by Captain Henry Temple Ravennor, a solicitor, while the second-in-command was Lieutenant Charles Dorrington Batt - a member of a well-known family of medical practitioners. The serjeant-instructor was Mr J.Grant.
   In 1908, the Militia regiments were formed into the Special Reserve, while the Yeomanry and Volunteers became the Territorial Force. In theory the TF was liable for service only in the United Kingdom, but its members were allowed to volunteer for foreign service, which they all did in 1914. As a result of further reorganisation, the 2nd Volunteer Battalion became the 4th Battalion Oxfordshire Light Infantry. The 4th Battalion also absorbed members of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, and thus, by 1914, nearly all of the county's part-time and volunteer units had been absorbed into the county regiment.
   By the end of the Great War in 1918, the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry had been increased to 17 battalions. The expanded regiment fought at all of the major battles on the Western Front including Mons, Ypres, Loos, The Somme and Passchendale. Many men from Witney and the surrounding villages served in the Oxon & Bucks. Witney war memorial records the names of 56 men who died in the 1914-18 war while serving with the regiment, and another four who lost their lives in the 1939-45 conflict. The British Empire lost 1,694,855 men during the two World Wars, and of these at least 196 were from Witney.