The Alston Mountain Rifles
By February 1860 Cumberland had eleven corps of which the men of Alston Moor made up the 6th Corps (Alston) Rifle Volunteers, also known as the Alston Mountain Rifles, or the Alston Mountaineers. The first drill was held in Alston Town Hall on February 22nd with instructor Colour-Sergeant Carruthers of the Cumberland and Westmorland Militia, but it was not until the early summer that the volunteers had been drilled sufficiently to appear in public.
The “Carlisle Patriot” of 9th June, 1860 reported the event, abbreviated as follows:
ALSTON – The highest market town has not been the lowest in its own estimation during the last week – and justly. It has the heart to conceive great things and the nerve to carry them out.
On Friday, the 1st June a scene of considerable interest presented itself to the inhabitants of this comparatively secluded district. The Alston Mountaineer Rifle Volunteers, forming the 6th. Cumberland Corps, made their debut and appeared for the first time in full regimental costume. The uniform is an exceedingly neat one, being of a light grey colour, the cloth of which it is made being composed of the natural wool of the sheep – black and white. Shortly after noon the members assembled on the parade ground at the Tyne Willows near the town where the corps, after being put through several military evolutions by their drill instructor, formed “fours-right” and marched to the Town Hall, attended by the Garrigill band, where they were enrolled. At four o’clock p.m. the members of the corps dined together at the Golden Lion Inn, after which a second drill took place, and then the corps marched through the town accompanied by the band, and afterwards dismissed.
That the Corps was popular with the people was demonstrated by the results of a fund-raising bazaar “for the benefit of the Riflemen” held at the Town Hall on Thursday September 26th 1862 that raised £263.3s.2d. on the day. By October 1st the amount had risen to £300!
The Volunteers soon established a routine of regular events. The first drill of season was held in February or March, probably according to the weather. Then twice-weekly drills were held on Wednesdays and Fridays. A New Year’s Day Prize Shoot was held at Lovelady Shield, the home of solicitor Joseph Dickinson. The month of June saw the Cumberland and Westmorland Rifle Association Annual Competition held at different venues around the county, as was the Cumberland Challenge Cup held each August. There was the Annual Review at Carlisle, and back at Alston in October the Annual Prize Shoot was held at the home shooting range, which was first at Skellgill then after April 1876 at Rotherhope, or Rodderup as it was known until quite recent times. There were also occasional ‘friendly’ shooting matches.
A typical home inspection was reported in the “Alston Herald” of 9th May 1874.
“6TH CUMBERLAND (ALSTON MOUNTAINEER) RIFLE VOLUNTEERS
The above corps underwent inspection by Major Fairclough, Adjutant of the 1st Administrative Battalion of the Cumberland Rifle Volunteers on Friday last. The Major arrived at midday, and shortly afterwards proceeded to the Skelgill Range where a squad of 12 men were inspected in ball practice. The atmosphere was not favourable to the marksmen and the scores were below average. In the evening the members of the corps in full uniform mustered in the field, the officers present being Capt. Dickinson, Lieut. Dickinson, Drill Instructor Sergt. Kensington, Colour Sergt. E. Kirsop, Sergts. T. Walton, Jos. Madgin, and James Walton – total number of all ranks 46. In the field were a number of spectators, amongst whom we noticed ex-Capts. Dickinson and Crawhall, Rev. J. Milner (Chaplain to the corps &c &c). The arms and accoutrements were subjected to a rigid inspection, after which a variety of movements were gone through in a manner which gave great satisfaction to the inspecting officer, who at the close expressed himself as well satisfied with what he had seen.
“The Volunteers Gazette contains a variety of changes which are to be gradually brought about in the volunteer service. The notices as to uniform, &c, will but slightly effect the 6th Cumberland Volunteers, but as only one captain and one subaltern officer is to be allowed in the establishment of a company of volunteers, it will (make) the resignation of Lieut. Dickinson a matter of necessity, Lieut. Walton being the senior officer will have the preference. We have no doubt but that the corps, as a whole, will regret the necessity, for the resignation of such an efficient officer as Lieut. Dickinson has proved himself to be, and doubtless many corps will be placed in a similar position by the new regulations.”
The change in uniform mentioned seems to have been mainly a change in colour when another report of 29th August that year noted that at a “church event of Wednesday last” the “band of corps played in scarlet uniforms”.
Despite these glowing reports the Mountain Rifles were not perfect. In June 1876 the Corps, numbering a total of all ranks of fifty-five, mustered on the drill ground behind the Golden Lion Inn. They were inspected by Colonel Gambless who urged the Corps to pay attention to their uniform drill. Incidentally, at the Volunteer Review at Carlisle in August the previous year, Alston with fifty-seven men had been the second smallest in the county, next to Keswick with fifty-five.
In January 1876 new physical qualifications for volunteers were announced. No one under 5ft 3in. or with a chest measuring less than 32 inches would be accepted. Also, “When a corps of rifle volunteers is permitted to adopt a scarlet tunic or patrol jacket, the facings must be similar to those of the County militia.” At the AGM in March 1877, “Capt. Dickinson intimated that it was intended during the spring to have the men re-clothed as many of the uniforms were worn out”, and by July, “The corps has lately been partially re-clothed and the men now wear the new battalion tunic. They have also obtained a new band, their own having been recently broken up; they have been joined by members of the Garrigill band.”
Mention of Garrigill leads on to the fact that there were sufficient volunteers in the village to have their own Garrigill Squad with their own Rifle Competition. In October 1875 eleven competitors shot for a silvered cup.
Even though they were the second smallest corps, the Alston Mountaineers had some riflemen of note. On 19th July 1879 ‘The Herald’ reported on “THE WIMBLEDON MEETING - SUCCESS OF ALSTON MARKSMEN”, where Lieutenants Dickinson and Akerigg received £12 and a badge from the National Rifle Association. This was an improvement from the Cumberland Rifle Battalion Challenge Cup held at Whitehaven in August 1875, when Whitehaven won with 226 points and the Alston squad of six men came fourth out of five with 196 points.
All the shooting competitions were reported in detail in the ‘Herald’, including the prize lists. In 1876 at the Prize Shooting at the Skelgill range on New Year’s Day sixty-four volunteers shot for prizes donated by the local community, and every participant was awarded a prize, ranging from a teapot to an armchair, from a shirt to ½ ton of coal, or 2 rabbits. There was also a special gift for Private John Edgar who was seriously ill. Sadly, Private Edgar did not recover. His funeral was held on the 29th January when he was buried with military honours. He was 21 years old.
Reports of the Alston Mountain Rifles in newspapers continued in the later years of the 1870s.
In June 1876, at the 4th Annual Allcomers Rifle Competition held by 21st Durham Rifle Volunteers at Barnard Castle, there were 117 entries. At the 200 yard range Lieutenant Dickinson came equal first and he and Private Hymers did well at the pool target. Then in September, at the local Annual Prize Competition held at Rodderup Fell Range, the main attraction was the challenge cup presented by Mr. Thomas Wilson of Shotley Hall, proprietor of Rodderup Mine. The shooting distances were 300, 500 and 700 yards.
In August the next year, eight corps competed in the third competition for the Cumberland Rifle Battalion Challenge Cup held at Alston. For the first two years the event had been held first at Whitehaven and then at Brampton, and Whitehaven had won both times. However, on its home ground, the Alston corps won on this occasion. The scores, close as they were, were Alston (6th Corps) 298 points, Whitehaven (2nd) 296, Wigton (11th) 290, Penrith (5th) 285, Egremont (10th) 282, Cockermouth (8th) 279, Brampton (4th) 246, Workington (7th) 202.
In June 1878, a headline in the Alston Herald ran, “Cumberland and Westmorland Rifle Association – Success of an Alston Volunteer”. The competition had been held at Cummersdale Range near Carlisle, and amongst other participants from Alston, Private Akerigg had tied with Private D. Mason of Carlisle on 840 points. They agreed to divide the prize money and shoot off for the shield. The shield was won by Private Akerigg.
Then after twenty years of its distinctive identity, the 6th Corps (Alston) Rifle Volunteers, the Alston Mountain Rifles, or the Alston Mountaineers, came to an end on 16th March 1880 when the eight sub-units of the Cumberland volunteers were consolidated in 1st Cumberland Rifle Volunteers and, officially at least, “The Alston Mountaineers” became known simply and less romantically as “J Company”. The next year, on 1st July 1881 the corps became a Volunteer Battalion of the Border Regiment.
Thankfully, relics of the Alston Mountain Rifles have survived. The Banner, which was discovered in the belfry of St. Augustine’s Church in 1971 and first displayed in the Church on Remembrance Sunday 9th November 1975, is now in the care of the Border Regiment Museum at the Castle in Carlisle, which also holds a belt buckle of the Corps. A photo of shako badge and a photo of two volunteers in uniform and bullets found by a local resident at Rodderup Fell Range, are in the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives.