This rather wonderful watercolour (click all images to enlarge) turned up on eBay a while ago, offered as a scene of unidentified military training. (The seller’s “watermark” still disfigures the cropped details further below, but I’ve cleaned up the full image digitally, if a bit amateurishly. Enough to give us some idea of the original, anyway.)
The cap insignia and the pantaloons, or “gaiter-trousers”, of white duck are the give-aways. These solemn farmers in rifle outfits are the riflemen of the Percy Tenantry, that outsized and distinctly feudal legion of volunteers first commanded by Hugh Percy, Second Duke of Northumberland. (Their regimental roll, sealed in a glass tube, still sits within the foundation stone of the equally outsized and distinctly feudal memorial column erected in his Lordship’s honour in Alnwick in 1816.) Massively out-legioning the rival Cheviot Legion of Northumberland, the Tenantry by 1805 had ballooned to six troops of cavalry, a company of flying artillery and a full seventeen companies of rifles. A surprisingly large quantity of their bits and pieces still survives, providing a highlight for visitors to Alnwick Castle.
The painting is captioned at lower right in one hand “Military Exercise”, and in another “By T Rogers”. On page 435 of the first volume of Mackenzie’s Historical, Topographical and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland … of 1825, appears a brief input on the neglect of local harbour facilities by “an obliging correspondent, Mr Thomas Rogers”. As an keen observer of the local scene, Thomas Rogers of Long Houghton, then a “straggling village” just four miles from Alnwick, may have been our mystery watercolourist.
Keen sighted readers will already have noticed the outsized firearms – each carried by two men – being walked out with their tripods. These are the famed rifled “wall pieces” – one for each of the seventeen companies – issued from the Tower in 1806. Three men from each company were detailed to “learn the Great Guns Exercise”, training for at least a week per year under Captain John Toppin of the artillery company. In his excellent “Percy’s Tenants Volunteered” (BCMH conference paper, 2009), Guy Wilson tells the story:
To be frank, Toppin didn’t think much of the guns at first. They started practising on Alnmouth sands on 19 January 1807. The first day was not a success. ‘The weather and sea being rough we could not find a single ball’. However, as they gradually got used to the guns accuracy improved, though the weather did not. Firing 135 rounds a day on one occasion they put 56 balls into the six foot … square target at 300 yards … On another day they only managed 39 but there was some excuse. According to Toppin the weather had been ‘extremely tempestuous. The snow drifted so much that often we could not see the Target’. Toppin himself was eventually convinced of their effectiveness and wrote that at 300 or 400 yards ‘the Wall Pieces would do dreadful execution’.
No opportunity came to fire them in anger, but the full seventeen wall pieces served some purpose by making a fine noise at the celebration of the King’s Jubilee at Alnwick Castle in 1809:
Immediately after divine service, the salute commenced with 7 guns from the artillery, which was followed by all the wall pieces, and a feu de joie from the cavalry drawn up under the castle, and afterwards from the riflemen on the walls and top of the castle, which was succeeded by three cheers, and then a flourish from the bugles in the flag tower. This was twice repeated, completing the royal salute of 21 guns; after which the troops and companies returned immediately to their several places of muster, where dinners were provided for them.
Pleasing to see that, as on all proper volunteer occasions, the proceedings were rounded off by a good meal.