Before the construction of drill halls in the town, the local newspapers, such as the Beccles Weekly News, carried reports of the activities of the volunteer soldiers as they practised their drill. The Rifle Corps’ first drill was in February, 1860, involving between forty and fifty men, and in June, 14th Suffolk Volunteers had their first appearance in uniform. It was grey with red facings and was “decidedly becoming”. They assembled at 6 o’clock opposite the Corn Hall in front of a large crowd, marched to the parade ground at St Mary’s, did an hour’s drill and returned to the Corn Hall.
One of the Instructors advertised his services thus:
“J.P.Rampling, late Coldstream Guards, Drill Instructor to Beccles and Wrentham Rifle Volunteers. Gives Instruction in every description of Drill, now so universally recommended and taught both to young Ladies and Gents in all the Principal Scholastic Institutions throughout Europe. Children from eight and upwards instructed.”
(Beccles Weekly News, 1862 and also in 1863)
Occasionally, the Volunteers in the area had united drills on Beccles Common, involving men from Beccles, Leiston, Lowestoft, Halesworth and Bungay. One such event in 1864 included a band from Lowestoft. The newspaper reported that, “Norwich Market draws away great numbers who would probably otherwise be present on Saturday.” Apparently the numbers then included 73 Beccles men, 87 from Bungay and 100 from Lowestoft. Another occasion in 1879, involving 250 men, terminated in the Britannia Shades, after which the Lowestoft men caught the 8.35 train home, the Bungay men an hour later.
By now, indoor premises in Beccles were in use. In August, 1875, liquidation forced the sale of a “block of brick and slated buildings in Newgate St and Manor House Lane, consisting of dwelling house ... and two spacious rooms, formerly used as a National School, each room being 44 ft. in length by 17 ft. in width. The Dwelling House and one Room are now occupied by the 4th Suffolk Artillery Volunteers as a Drill and Orderly Room ...”
The Census of 1881 confirms that there were military activities in Newgate street. It records a Dwelling at 25 Newgate St. inhabited by Charles Barkham, Military Sgt. Major RA, Drill Instructor 4th Suffolk AG. (He was 39 years old and shared his home with his wife Florence, 37, 3 sons and 2 daughters.)
On 26th November, 1895, the East Suffolk Gazette reports that Drill Instructor Sgt Rufford is retiring after 21 years in Beccles. Apparently, he had to retire, despite having some extensions of his time, having previously served 21 years in army. In his first year there were 66 men on the list, which had risen to 179 one year,then fallen to “a more sensible” 125. We do not know which unit employed Sgt Rufford.
The site which eventually housed the Drill Hall at 16, Peddars Lane was offered for sale in 1875. It included workshops and residences and became the Vulcan Ironworks. It was sold again in 1892.
By 1901, the Beccles Almanack reported that, “A handsome and commodious drill hall, for the use of the Artillery Volunteers, is nearing completion in Peddars lane.”
Evidence that the Drill Hall in Peddars Lane was modified included a report of the Sanitary committee in 1925. The council accepted the proposed alterations to the Drill Hall, including doors which would open up the front of the premises, to be paid for by the War Office. (East Suffolk Gazette, February 9th.)
The Drill Hall was occasionally used by the community. The East Suffolk Gazette describes a Workhouse Treat, which included free admission to the circus and tea afterwards in the Drill Hall.
Much of this information was distilled from documents on the excellent Foxearth and District Local History website.