Sheepcote Carbine Shooting Competition

The origins of 'the Butts' of Rifle Butt Road?

By Roy Grant

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Sheepcote Carbine Shooting Competition' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Sheepcote Carbine Shooting Competition' page

Almost every Easter in the middle years of Victoria's reign, Military exercises were held on the South Downs.  Regular troops and Territorial Volunteers, all clattered into Brighton by road or rail, bringing with them anything from simple rifles, to the most up-to-date pieces of field artillery.  Whilst the officers (generally from the landed gentry) rode magnificent thoroughbreds and Regulars had horses owned by the army, visiting Volunteers often had to scavenge any horses they needed from local haulage firms, breweries, and even from town undertakers.  Highland regiments with their swirling kilts and almost foreign sounding Scottish dialects were a particular local curiosity.

Exercise locations varied, but the parade to salute civic dignitaries always passed the grandstand on the racecourse, and Sheepcote Valley was the focus for inter-regimental shooting competitions. I have yet to see any actual military photographs taken back then, but do have a small (but rather poor quality) collection of drawings copied from The Illustrated London News, two of which are reproduced above.

The first illustration shows a carbine shooting competition in Sheepcote Valley.  Spectators are standing on the Roedean side of the hill and looking up towards the racecourse grandstand. It was taken from The Illustrated London News, 23rd April, 1865, page 396.

The second illustration looks north east from the Whitehawk side of the hill (note the Bear Road Windmill on the horizon) and pictured Army Volunteers shooting for the Town Prizes.  Its reference showed it to have been published on page 325 of The Illustrated London News on 7th April 1866 and that it had substantial supporting text on page 342.

I would recommend anyone who wants to know more about Sheepcote Valley to forget about Attenborough's "Oh What a Lovely War," that was shot there relatively recently by comparison, and suggest that they go to the local archives to fully enjoy the original drawings that have been published in the 1860 - 1870 Easter editions of The Illustrated London News.  In addition they can read about shooting that really went on at Sheepcote over 140 years ago.  In all probability, it was competitions like those illustrated that helped give Rifle Butt Road its name.

References to further illustrations and texts in THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS

1st April 1861, "The Battle of Ovingdean" under Lord Ranelagh.  The First Brighton Artillery comanded by Col Estridge was backed by four rifle brigades from the Home Counties.

13th April 1861, field guns being mahandled up onto the Race Hill and on pages 343 & 350, troops being reviewed from the Racecourse grandstand.

3rd May 1862 page 439 show parades along Brighton seafront and on page 425, troops being reviewed from the Racecourse grandstand.

29th April 1865 page 397, "The Mock Battle of Balsdean." and on page 396, a picture of the Military assembly on the Level. and show parades along Brighton seafront.

13th/14th (?) April 1866 page 354 feature troops relaxing on the seafront, page 352 has troops being reviewed from the Racecourse grandstand and there is also hare chasing on the Downs for amusement.

23rd April 1870 page 429 features troops arriving at Brighton Station and relaxing on the seafront.

30th April 1870 page 345, "The Mock battle of Rottingdean" and on pages 440 & 466, "The Mock Defence of Ovingdean."  It shows troops resting on the lawns of The Royal Pavilion and later has a beautiful picture of Ovingdean church with soldiers shooting over the churchyard walls, even though they are still surrounded by civic spectators.  Page 448, also has Scottish/Irish(?) pipers in Trafalgar Street.

30th April 1870 page 441 features the Middlesex Regiment returning to London via Patcham.   Note, whilst the Artillery piece is perfect in every detail,  the artist has placed the tithe barn on the wrong side of the church, replaced the horse trough with a well, and moved the Black Lion from the original Georgian building further down the old London road and into one of the Elizabethan cottages that are still there today.

21st April 1862 edition features, "The Battle of Whitehawk Down"  under Lord Clyde.  19,000 men took part.  Troops included mounted cavalry (18th Hussars & 1st Hampshire Light Horse), four batteries of Artillery drawn from Sussex regiments, a headquarters brigade and nine brigades of infantry.  Not even Attenborough could have afforded that many extras!

Roy Grant

This page was added on 31/10/2008.
Comments about this page

Roy, I have the original of the 7.4.66 print (also the supporting text) and cannot in fact see the Bear Rd windmill (actually Race Hill mill), only 3 flagpoles evenly spaced on the line of the horizon. Thanks, Douglas.

By Douglas d'Enno
On 30/07/2010