The first sport to originate on Wimbledon Common was shooting, when in 1859 The
National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded by Earl Spencer and the Duke of Cambridge. As people began to fear a French invasion, the NRA was seen as an opportunity to encourage competition amongs new soldiers helping them become good marksmen.
Because of this, support was given for the formation of a Home Defence Volunteer Corps in spite of some local opposition; Earl Spencer offered to allow the Volunteers and the NRA access to Wimbledon Common as their training ground for several hours during weekdays.
“Wimbledon was the centre of the NRA. This was set up after the Napoleonic Wars because people were still very nervous that the French would come and invade… The idea was to make certain that the people were able to defend themselves; could they shoot, could they shoot straight, could they shoot the right guys, not our own guys.”
Rhys Torrington, Curator, Museum of Wimbledon
On 2 July 1860, Queen Victoria, accompanied by her husband Prince Albert, drove through Wimbledon Village before arriving at an arena near the windmill on Wimbledon Common. Met by the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Earl Spencer, Queen Victoria was then called upon to fire the first shot, miraculously scoring a bull’seye in the NRA’s opening meeting.
These meetings continued for the next 25 years between the months of June and July. Hundreds of riflemen would arrive to compete for prizes put in place by the NRA and Earl Spencer himself. The shooting arena surrounding the windmill was fenced in and a cluster of tents and large marquees was set up to house the many competitors. Lasting for two weeks, the aim of the competition was to encourage individual shooting excellence.
The NRA’s standards of excellence meant there was a steady increase in spectators. A horse-drawn tramway linked the two main entrances to the shooting arena, taking passengers behind the firing points to the grandstand.
“The shooting itself, except the experts and the friends of competitors, is not particularly interesting. But the camp itself is well worthy of a long visit. The remarkably successful sanitary arrangements should by no means be overlooked and ‘the refreshment department’ will supply everything a visitor can reasonably require.”
Charles Dickens, Dictionary of London, 1879
The End of Shooting
As the popularity rose and technological advances led to improved fire power with more powerful rifles, shooting began to be perceived as a dangerous sport in Wimbledon. In 1889, the last NRA meeting was held on Wimbledon Common before the organisation moved to Bisley, Surrey, in 1890 where it is still located today. In the same year the end of shooting on Wimbledon Common came when a stray bullet killed gravedigger John Ingram in the adjoining cemetery.
The NRA’s summer meetings between 1860 and 1894 contributed towards Wimbledon becoming one of the best known places in Britain during this time with some meetings reportedly hosting up to 50,000 people on Wimbledon Common. The increased population of Wimbledon meant that shooting became a dangerous sport as evidenced by John Ingram’s death from a stray bullet, forcing an end to shooting in Wimbledon.