Vanishing Men

The rifle range on Berkhamsted Common: A journey with maps.

rifle butt
Berkhamsted Rifle Range, May 2017, author for scale.

For a couple of years now I have helped my father, Brian Shepherd, lead a walk for the Graham Greene Festival. The walk tracks the Berkhamsted author over the common of his childhood and teases out references from Greene’s autobiographical writing and his fiction especially his later novel, The Human Factor (1978), which is partly set in Berkhamsted.

At one point in the walk we climb on to an earth mound and, after reading the appropriate GG reference, tell the walkers they are standing on an old rifle butt which dates back to the Napoleonic wars and was reused by the Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps during the first world war.

GG fans, like the author himself, aren’t easily pigeon-holed but always include one or two scholarly types who take notes. The first year someone actually recorded some of the talk on a dictaphone. It began to worry me that I knew about as much about the rifle range as the Greenes knew of Liberia when they set off to explore the country without a map in 1935. I began to wonder whether we were guilty of leading a generation of Greene scholars up the garden path.

When I looked at the first edition OS the penny dropped. We had indeed been standing on the rifle range but not, as we thought, on the targets.

When the historian of the Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps had referred to the range as ‘small’ I now realised that he had meant small compared to say, Salisbury Plain. The Berkhamsted range, much larger than I had imagined, occupied 900 yards on a south east – north west axis, from a point just to the north of where the IOCOTC War Memorial now stands to targets just to the south west of Frithesden Beeches. Firing points were marked every fifty or a hundred yards and a large structure at the north western end marked on the map as ‘Butts Targets’. The range was labelled ‘Volunteer Rifle Range.’

Looking at the map opened up two avenues of research: an internet search and a return on foot. The first of these showed that, my own ignorance notwithstanding, there was a wealth of information about the Victorian rifle volunteers but that at the same time it has been and still is a rather neglected area of archaeological studies. I wondered if some of the enthusiasm for mapping the first world war trenches might be harnessed in the recording of the traces left by the cadets’ Victorian precursors.

I was so busy counting 150 steps along the footpath that it was my partner who saw it first. A huge earth mound loomed through the dense scrub. The other earthwork had felt intriguing if unspectacular, like a largish barrow built into the slope. But this was on a monumental scale: a huge earth bank with a ditch at the north side and quarry to the east. The southern side, built into the slope felt as vertiginous as the top of a motte and bailey castle.

Walking back along the firing line I quickly found two more (what we now knew to be) firing platforms. I marked them on my gps and projected a line which I could explore later. When I returned I walked up and down the line. I had to detour around the golf course, but a scan along the projected line didn’t show any obvious archaeological features. Near the WW1 trenches I found another firing platform of a rather different style which may indicate later reuse or that a mound wasn’t necessary higher up the slope.

Articles on the rifle volunteers are readily accessible on the web including an article on the Ashridge volunteers. The volunteers were a nationwide phenomenon in the second half of the nineteenth century which arose out of renewed fears of a war with France and and recent shocks to the imperial system like the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

I hoped that I might be able to date the building of the range. An afternoon’s search in the British Newspaper Archive proved successful – but only after I realised that I had to search for Berkhampstead rather than its modern spelling.

In fact the formation of the Berkhamsted rifle volunteers sprang from the same meeting that led to the formation of the Ashridge volunteers. It took place at Ashridge on 4th January 1860 with the Lord Lieutenant of the county, the Earl of Verulam, in the chair. At the meeting, which was reported in the Bucks Herald on the 14th January it was ‘… moved that a corps be formed in this and the surrounding neighbourhoods, and that companies of the said corps be formed at Tring, Berkhampstead, Hemel Hempstead, Ashridge, and such other places as may be agreed upon.’

‘Mr. T. Curtis then moved that a sub-division or a company of volunteer rifle corps be raised at Berkhampstead united with Northchurch.’

The following year on the 31 Aug 1861 the same newspaper had a report of a ‘Great Berkhampstead Volunteer Dinner’ at the King’s Arms. The Berkhamsted company of the 7th Herts Volunteers attended a ‘sumptuous dinner’ of venison supplied by Lady Marian Alford. Among those attending were two guests from the Ashridge corps, rivals ‘only on the rifle field’.

Among numerous toasts is one to Captain Earl Brownlow (the 2nd Earl, whose next attempt to unilaterally change the use of the common wouldn’t receive universal acclaim).

‘… I have this week, through Mr. Paxton, sent a letter, couched in the most grateful terms I know, to Earl Brownlow, thanking him for his liberal contribution in making the rifle range for the corps. I am convinced a sum considerably over £100 has been expended by his lordship in the erection of the butt, &c. I am sure the whole corps will join me in thanking his lordship for his kind remembrance of the Rifle Corps at Berkhampstead. (Loud cheers.) …’

A report in the Hertford Mercury and Reformer shows that by 1887 the company, now titled E Company (Berkhamsted), 2nd Herts. R.V., has 80 members. A year before the Hemel Hempstead Gazette and West Herts Advertiser had reported on a successful annual prize shooting at the range won by a Corporal Holloway. The finale of the event was a ‘Vanishing Man Competition’ in which a target shaped like a man appears for five seconds and disappears for the same, repeated five times.

First World War

I haven’t researched the use of the rifle range through time or found out when it went out of use. There is much more to be found in the newspaper archive. We do know that the range had gone out of use by the start of the Great War. Lt. Colonel Errington’s history of the IOCOTC reveals that rifle firing featured very little in the training of the officer cadets in the first half of the war – ammunition was too scarce. In 1916 a small rifle range was built in Chapel Street and later, in 1917 when ammunition was more plentiful, the range on the common was brought back into use.

Something of a mystery clings to the reason why the Berkhamsted trenches were not backfilled at the end of the war like their counterparts at the Northchurch end of the common. But surely one plausible explanation is that they weren’t used after the rifle range was reinstated in 1917? By the end of the war they had already disappeared under bracken and bramble, their whereabouts known only to old green keepers and truanting schoolboys.

One thing that topography and literature have in common, in opposition to history, is that stories from widely different dates are often jumbled up in one landscape. In The Human Factor the cold war comes to the Berkhamsted trenches. The book code hidden in the tree is taken from War and Peace. On the ground the legacy of projected war with Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis-Napoléon, is reused to rehearse war with Germany.

No one who has visited the Dacorum archive can be in any doubt that Berkhamsted needs a museum. But in a sense it already has one. It is twenty minutes walk from the station, is free at the point of entry and open to all. Huge world events are reflected through a local prism. Several generations of sometimes conflicting loyalties are traceable through the bracken and hawthorn. It is important to record the stories now before, like vanishing men, they flicker to attention and disappear for ever.


Ordnance Survey of Hertfordshire. Surveyed in 1864-1881. Scale, six inches to one statute mile. Sheet XXXIII.

The Inns of Court Officers Training Corps during the Great War. Lt.Col. F. H. L. Errington (Ed), 1922.

‘Volunteers who rallied to defend our shores’ [], retrieved 24/5/17.

‘Great Berkhampstead Volunteer Rifle Corps Meeting’ Bucks Herald, Saturday 14 January 1860.

Volunteer Service Gazette and Military Dispatch – Saturday 21 January 1860.

‘Great Berkhampstead Volunteer Dinner’ Bucks Herald, Saturday 31 August 1861.

‘Volunteer Prize Shooting’ Hemel Hempstead Gazette and West Herts Advertiser, Saturday 18 September 1886.

‘Great Berkhamsted – The Volunteers’ Hertford Mercury and Reformer – Saturday 16 July 1887


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *