In 1858 following an assassination attempt on the Emperor Napoleon III the French Army was strengthened; and once again there seemed to be a risk that Britain might be invaded by its old European adversary. Then, as now, its regular Army was stretched by overseas deployments, so there was a national movement for the formation of Volunteer Corps which it was hoped would stave off the threat.
The Volunteers (as they came to be known) gave up their time free of charge. In fact they had to pay not only to join but also for their uniform and equipment. They could be called up by the Government when there was a serious threat of invasion, but could not be sent overseas without their consent. The units were often raised by individual members of the local gentry or business community, who then became their commanding officers. In fact few had any military experience, but they had what perhaps was more important - money to support the units.
Old-fashioned patriotism was running high, so when steps were taken to form a unit there was usually an enthusiastic response. So it was in Faversham, when on 15 June 1859 the Mayor called a public meeting to gather support for a local unit. 50 local men joined at once, and by 1863 the strength had risen to 189. Towards the cost of equipment £800 (about £40,000 in today’s money) was raised in a few months, and there was also a ‘force’ of honorary members, who undertook to subscribe a guinea (about £45) a year to the funds.
Most famous probably of the units raised at this time was the Artists’ Rifles, who attracted their predictable share of satire in “Punch” magazine. The Faversham unit, however, consisted not of infantry but of gunners. It constituted the 2nd Corps of the 1st Brigade, Kent Artillery Volunteers. It came to consist of two Batteries of 50 men each. By 1868 it was equipped with two 32-pounder guns and two 24-pounders, as well as an 8-inch mortar; by then each gunner had been issued with Government carbine and bayonet. The parade ground was on land at Davington Court.
Inaugural CO of the unit was William Hall, first assigned the rank of Captain, but soon promoted to Major. Born in 1802, he was past the age of conventional active service, but had the considerable advantage that, with his brother Peter Brames Hall, he was joint owner of the three Faversham gunpowder factories, which manufactured the product used in the unit’s ordnance. These had prospered during the Crimean War and he was not short of cash.
In 1848 he had provided a school for daughters of his employees in a building (now Stonebridge Lodge) overlooking Stonebridge Pond. In 1862, when this had got too small, he replaced it with a brand-new building (now the Catholic Church) in Tanners Street. The room below the schoolroom he fitted out as an armoury for the Volunteers, while he converted the old school into their drill room.
He also contributed to the cost of the unit’s 2-gun battery at Harty Ferry, and provided room for a carbine practice firing range at his home at Syndale.
Almost from the outset the unit had its own drum and fife band. On the evidence of this week’s photograph, taken in about 1895 where Ospringe Road joins South Road, this eventually became a full military band. Within a few years the civilian administration of the Volunteers had become anachronistic (as well as debt-laden!) and in 1908 the units became the core of a new ‘Territorial Army.’
Early in 1864, less than five years after it had been raised in 1859 (see last week’s Faversham News) the Faversham unit of the Kent Artillery Volunteers announced that it was to hold an exercise in tbe area round its Harty Ferry battery. They were to be ‘attacked’ by a counterpart infantry unit, the Sheerness Dockyard Battalion. The story got into the national press; and, as sometimes happens when journalists are short of a big story, got magnified out of proportion when it appeared in print.
This prompted Charles Dickes, Editor of the popular magazine All the Year Round, to send a hack from London to report on the big event. ‘Hack’ is perhaps an unfair description, as the reporter concerned could write in full Dickensian style - perhaps was the great man himself, fancying an outing to his beloved Kent?
On arrival at Faversham Station he asked the booking-clerk whether any special return trains had been laid on. You must be joking, was the sense of his response. “It’s a hoax,” he said, laughing. Wrote the reporter, “I was beginning to feel anything but pleasantly disposed towards Faversham, its volunteers, local population, railway and belongings in general, when I was accosted by the station-master” who told him that indeed an exercise was to take place and recommended a “capital hotel” (The Ship in the Market Place) where he would be well looked after.
“I found the hotel, forming one side of the queer little market square, and immediately confronting the lop--sided little town hall, with its big-faced clock and its supporting pillars forming a little arcade, in which, probably, the merchants of Faversham most do congregate. I ordered my dinner and I set out to do the town.” The view he would have seen when he stepped out of The Ship would have been very like the one seen in this week’s photograph, albeit this was taken about 30 years later.
He was favourably impressed with what he saw. “Such quaint, old-fashioned, gable-ended houses, with all their woodwork newly grained, with plate-glass substituted for the old diamond panes, with the date of erection, in many cases, neatly picked out as something to be proud of; and with a perpetual current of business pouring into them, bespeaking trade and prosperity; such clean broad trimly-kept streets, stretching here away into a pleasant country, there away to new red-brick buildings suggestive of benevolent townsfolk and heavy legacies; such a charming old church, with a singular spire springing from a curious arch; such a picturesque schoolhouse close by, with such a ringing, fresh, girlish voice within, heard through the open window singing - oh, so sweetly! - the Evening Hymn; such a capital range of red-brick houses [he meant the then new Almshouses], with stone mullions and copings judiciously introduced, with bay-windows thrown out here, and twisted chimneys put on there, and with, in the middle, a large handsome evidently public building [the Chapel], with big doors and those fine old medieval hinges, which make such a show, but are not particularly useful.”
All this in a single orotund Dickensian sentence! But the remarkable thing is that had he arrived this week, he could written virtually the same account. Other towns may have obliterated their links with the past, and discarded some of their best amenities along with them, but thanks to the vigilance of Faversham folk, and their pride in their town, the best of its heritage remains as it was in 1864.
These pieces by Arthur
Percival were published in the Faversham News, January 2007. We are very grateful
to Arthur Percival for permission to reproduce these articles.