A taster of my book soon to be published The Nothe and Beyond…
Weymouth was about to be invaded. For the first time, in September 1867, it had been chosen as the training venue for the Dorset Battalion of Rifle Volunteers (DRV). This was the ‘citizen’s army’ hastily set up in response to the perceived threat of a French invasion a few years prior. Yet another prestigious event for the town. It would far exceed anything organised for Yeoman’s week. Mayor John Tizard was going to make sure of that. Weymouth was going to welcome the county’s volunteer soldiers with open arms and a whole load of foliage.
The week before the DRV’s arrival was one of frantic activity. Seen as a major scoop, they had to pull out all the stops to make it a memorable one. ‘Around and about and everywhere were emblems of festivity and rejoicing, triumphal arches being in great profusion, and flags and banners “thick as autumn leaves in Vallambrosa”’.
Flagpoles were erected along the esplanade, festooned with green garlands and the obligatory flags. The station alone was draped with an estimated 3 tons of foliage, ‘being gaily adorned with garlands of evergreens and floral festoons looped up between the pillars of the extensive station’. The main streets were bedecked in greenery. Esplanade buildings were bejewelled with colourful flowers and flamboyant illuminations. The highly detailed description of the day’s festivities covered three whole pages of the Dorset County Chronicle. (Great reading for anyone reasearching their Weymouth ancestors, the reporter must have knocked on virtually every door in the town!)
Weymouth station on that warm sunny autumn day spewed forth trainload after trainload of excited visitors, ‘an immense concourse of persons continued to emerge from this thoroughfare’. In amongst the throng, arriving by train came groups of soldiers from their respective towns. As each town’s corps arrived and clambered out of their carriages they were greeted by a heaving mass. Once officers had gathered men and kit together, they were formed into ranks and marched up King Street towards the esplanade, then paraded past the cheering mob towards the King’s Statue. Here a massive raised dining platform had been constructed for them.
Having been stood down, the soldiers jostled to find space on already crowded tables. Being seated ‘the gallant riflemen were regaled with bread-and-cheese and beer’. Once all soldiers had been duly paraded, cheered, fed and watered, they and their officers, followed by a heaving throng of civilians, proceeded en masse to Lodmoor, the venue for their grand review. A reporter remarked ‘the attendance to-day exceeded anything we have previously seen’.
Seven hundred and fifty Dorset Rifle Volunteers (eighty-four from Weymouth) were here to take on the might of the local blue jackets, aided and abetted by the Boscowen boys. The objective of this sham fight was to capture Bowleaze Cove coastguard station. An exhilarated crowd watched agog as this mock battle demonstrated those skills of the volunteer regiments, from formations in fighting through to combat techniques. The deep rumbling of the ‘ten-gun brig’ out in the bay only added to the already highly charged atmosphere, while thick, smothering smoke drifted across the tranquil waters. Regulars were drafted in from the Nothe to launch a surprise attack on the volunteers.
The action-packed day was rounded off with the customary grand feast. A large marquee had been set up in the Rings (Alexandra Gardens) where over 1,100 local and visiting soldiers were wined and dined that evening. Drinks flowed freely, ‘The brewers of the town came out most handsomely to meet the requirements of the men’. Flagons of beer had been donated by Devenish, Eldridge, Groves and Mason. Such festivities wouldn’t have been complete without the obligatory fireworks later in the evening. Still chock-a-block with soldiers and civilians, people had to stand wherever they could find space. As September light faded into darkness, so the night sky filled with a cacophony of sound and colour. Weymouth had done their band of brave volunteers proud and put on a spectacular welcome that would be the talk of years to come.