GBRT 1937 Tour Account

Nearly three quarters of a century ago, a 14 man Great Britain Rifle Team visited Australia thirty years after the first Empire Match was shot there. The Australian leg of the tour was the central one of an extended voyage that took in first South Africa, then Australia for the Empire Games and finally New Zealand.

Touring was a markedly different proposition in those days. As Lord Cottesloe wrote at the time with great foresight, “journeys between the Mother Country and the distant parts of the Empire will by degrees become more rapid, and it may well be that in a perhaps rather distant future the undertaking of sending rifle teams overseas will become less formidable than it now is.” The first Great Britain tour to visit Australia, under the captaincy of Commander Swanston, “was absent from home for six months and circumnavigated the globe.” Key dates were:

16th October – 4th November 1937 Sail from Liverpool to Cape Town
12th November 1937
13th November 1937
17th November 1937
18th November 1937
20th November 1937
22nd November 1937
25th November 1937
27th November 1937
2nd December 1937
Match at Pretoria
Match at Johannesburg
Match at Durban
Match at Chase Valley
Match at Bloemfontein
Test Match at Bloemfontein
Match at East London
Prize Meeting, Grahamstown
Match at Cape Town
5th – 22nd December 1937 Sail from Cape Town to Fremantle
24th December 1937
30th December 1937
7th January 1938
12th January 1938
23rd January 1938
29th January 1938
7th February 1938
14th – 15th February 1938
Match at Perth
Match at Port Adelaide
Match at Melbourne
Match at Hobart
Match at Brisbane
Match at Newcastle
NSWRA Prize Meeting, Sydney
Empire Trophy Match, Sydney
17th – 21st February 1938 Sail from Sydney to Wellington
24th February 1938 Test Match at Wellington, New Zealand
1st March – 5th April 1938 Sail from Wellington to Southampton

The Great Britain team travelled to Cape Town on T.S.S. ‘Ulysses’, the first of several voyages with no sea sickness experienced by any team member. In private letters home to new bride Patricia, the late Lt Col R.E.W. “Johnny” Johnson OBE TD wrote of deck games, fancy dress, scavenger hunts, reels and swimming and confided “I and my partner (an elderly married lady) got knocked out of the Deck Quoits doubles. Another dance this evening - there are always too many girls... As a perfect little gentleman I get practically no rest the whole evening.” Clearly “what goes on tour stays on tour” was not adhered to in those days.

On arrival in South Africa, the team enjoyed some sightseeing (including a gold mine tour), wine tasting, the Lord Mayor’s Ball and a long train journey through the Karoo, before beating Witwatersrand (narrowly), Pretoria United Services, Eastern Transvaal and Western Transvaal at Quaggapoort Range, Pretoria. The very next day they lost by 2 points to a Transvaal team at Booysens Range, Johannesburg, with the local wind coaches helping overturn a 17 point lunchtime deficit at the longer ranges. They watched a war dance, travelled by rail to Durban, dropping “1,100 feet in about fifteen minutes” and then lost to Natal in poor light at the Athlone Range, Durban, and again on countback the next day at the Natal Carbineers’ Range at Chase Valley.

After travelling to Bloemfontein, the Great Britain team beat the Orange Free State at the South African National Range at Hamilton by 1564 to 1538 in tricky wind with “a good mirage which could be well read up to 12 minutes(!), but with such quick variations that equally quick shooting was required to cope with them”, falling only one point short of the South African score against Rhodesia alongside. The team then took to the range for the Test Match without the (hospital) bed-ridden “Johnny”, who was diagnosed with enteric, for the first international match ever held on South African soil. The British scored least well at each of the short ranges (200, 500 and 600 yards), with loose screws (Hoddle) and a half closed aperture (Fulton!) contributing to a deficit of 19 points to South Africa and 30 points to Southern Rhodesia. Better performances at the longer ranges saw the gap to the latter narrow somewhat, but the South Africans shot strongly to win by 1601 points to Southern Rhodesia’s 1587 and Great Britain’s 1571.

The South African leg of the tour concluded with a 5 point defeat (hampered by a cross-shot) by Eastern Province at East London, a prize meeting at Grahamstown and a 2 point win over Western Province at Woltemade Range, with a ‘Country’ team  also shooting in that match.

Australia

After travelling on the delayed S.S. ‘Ascanius’ from Cape Town to Durban for coaling, the British team continued on 8th December towards Fremantle in the good company of the South African athletics and bowls teams, and were met there two weeks later by Victoria Rifle Association Chairman, Sir Charles Merrett, who had travelled 2600 miles to act as a facilitator all the way until Melbourne.

Christmas Eve saw a 14-man match between Western Australia and the entire British team at the Swanbourne Range, Perth, with the visitors finding the 24 inch aiming mark at 500 yards uncomfortably large and finishing 24 points adrift.

On Christmas Day, the team enjoyed a car drive to Canning’s Weir and aeroplane flights in a six-seater Dragon Rapide before being made honorary members of the Weld Club and departing by train for Adelaide at 9pm – a journey that was punctuated by stops at places like Kalgoorlie and Port Pirie, where local rifle club members would greet the team at the stations.

Johnny struggled with some of the local customs: “Apparently dinner in this country runs from 6.00 or 6.30 to about 7.30 - a most queer business. The pubs in West Australia close at 9.00pm but they open at 9.00am and are open all day. Here in Adelaide they apparently close at 6.00pm having been open for 12 hours on end.”

The holidays meant no practice on arrival in Adelaide, so the team went to the races and were entertained by Senator and Mrs. Duncan Hughes, visiting the Spring Vale Wine Cellars, the Naval and Military Club and the Adelaide Club before finally shooting against South Australia at Port Adelaide on 30th December. In largely easy wind, Great Britain ran out winners by 2622 to 2579 before travelling to Mildura for the New Year’s weekend.

As well as various receptions, the team enjoyed a day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the Victoria Rifle Association, watching Don Bradman batting until he was caught in the slips off Gregory, making 35 for South Australia against Victoria.

The most useful part of this leg of the tour was the defeat on 7th January by 32 and 6 points respectively to the Victoria Metropolitan and Victoria Country teams – useful because of the team’s observation and later adoption of the anti-fouling practices of the locals. Col. Bodley would later attribute the South Africans’ weak performance at the last range of each day of the Empire Match to a failure to follow the same policy.

Another match for all 14 firers followed against Tasmania at the Sandy Bay Range on 12th January. The British team found that few of the rifles would take a .303” gauge after use and resolved to use anti-nickel preparations in future firings, after losing to Tasmania by 1932 to 1947.

A 700 mile charabanc (coach) trip from Melbourne to Sydney via Canberra followed, with most of the views hidden in mist or rain while the luggage was soaked. The team then shot against Queensland ‘A’ and ’B’, successfully employing some of the dozen reserve rifles lent to them by BSA but finishing between the two local teams in a match at 300, 600, 700 and 900 yards. Queensland’s second string won, before showing the visitors to various beach resorts the following day. There was a scare when a few team members were caught, while swimming, by the “fearful current and undertow. It was quite an exciting five minutes. Two very strong swimmers went out with lines attached to their backs and just hauled them in. Garnett, Fulton and Seward and two strange young women were all rescued.”

On 28th January, the team travelled from Brisbane to Newcastle accompanied by the New Zealand team, which had now arrived in Australia for the Empire Games, under Captain W. N. Masefield. Both teams were shown around the BHP steelworks and given a reception by the Mayor in the Town Hall, where “the Mayor was quite the worst speaker I have ever heard and that is saying a good deal after all the speeches we’ve had in this country. There was a dinner at 7.00pm at which there were 19 speeches and ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’ was sung six times. This constitutes a record for this team as we’ve never had more than 10 speeches before and we all hope we shall never have so many again” (Johnny’s words, not Swanston’s!). There followed a match for teams of ten, firing 2 sighters and 10 to count at 500 and 600 yards against New South Wales, Hunter River District and Macleay District. Great Britain won the match with 940 points and New Zealand were fourth on 902.

Both teams proceeded to the ANZAC range at Liverpool, near Sydney, to shoot in the 72nd New South Wales meeting in celebration of Australia’s 150th anniversary. In a meeting with 1600 competitors, the British individual highlight was L. E. Hoddle’s victory in the first stage of the King’s Prize.

The match for the Empire Trophy (given by Australia in 1907) was shot over two days on the 14th and 15th February, the first day at 300, 500 and 600 yards and the second at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. The whole team shot SMLEs, although Hoddle chose a P14 at the short ranges and Garnett did so at 300 and 500 yards – each team was restricted to the use of its Government issued rifles of the time, of which the GB team took 63 on tour!

In light winds from 9:30 to 10 o’clock, on a cool day with “good grey light”, Great Britain dropped 29 points (out of 400) at 300 yards, to stand last of the four competing countries, 6 points behind Australia in first. A better 500 yards left Britain still trailing, 1 behind New Zealand and 11 behind Australia; but a range-leading 378 (despite a 43) at 600 yards brought the British team up into second place on 1126, 2 behind Australia but 5 ahead of South Africa and 7 in front of New Zealand. Greig and Hoddle were joint top scorers on the range, along with Baxter of South Africa, on 146.

In similar conditions on day two, Great Britain again led the others on 389 to move into a 5 point lead over Australia after 800 yards. The following range saw, with the exception of South Africa, some very close scoring with New Zealand and Great Britain making 376 to Australia’s 375, leaving the Aussies 6 and Kiwis 13 points behind the British team with only 1000 yards to come.

“Only” 1000 yards indeed! Seward and Widdrington both missed with their sighters, but the latter recovered so well that he scored 50. Benefiting from several months of team shooting together, Great Britain dramatically outshot the other countries at the longest range, scoring 369 to Australia’s 352, New Zealand’s 348 and South Africa’s 343 to make them the only team to score more highly over the long ranges than the short. Britain’s advantage lay not so much in the highest scores on each team, which were broadly similar, but in the smaller spread of scores, with only 10 points separating the best and worst performers (half the equivalent gap within the third and fourth placed teams) and only three points separating the top six firers. Final scores:

  Team 300x 500x 600x 800x 900x 100x Total
1 Great Britain 371 377 378 389 376 369 2260
2 Australia 377 382 369 382 375 352 2237
3 New Zealand 376 373 372 381 376 348 2226
4 South Africa 374 382 363 388 358 343 2208

Johnny was, as usual, the last of the team to fire and had on purpose gone down to shoot without knowing the state of the score. “I’d had enough of knowing when the match depended on my last shot in South Africa. On I went again by myself and when I still had two shots to fire I heard some muttering behind and said to Jimmy ‘from what I hear behind I don’t think I need to fire these two’. His reply was ‘shut up and go on - don’t take any notice’ at which we both laughed”. Johnny finished at 1000 yards with four bulls in a row; the team would still have won had he missed with all four shots. Thus the Empire Match was won with a record score.

The keen observer of team shooting in recent years will have noted that the 2007 Palma and subsequent Great Britain teams have adopted the practice of having firers get down on either side of the coach, such that each is ready the moment the previous firer has finished, with the coach remaining in position and coaching half the firers (unless left-handers) from what had previously been thought of as the “wrong” side. This practice has trickled down to some of the county and most of the National teams, and stemmed from an innovation implemented successfully by the County of London team a few years earlier… or at least London had believed it was original thinking! Swanston’s account of the 1938 Empire Match suggests that he was over 60 years ahead of his time: “In order to keep within the time limits and to facilitate coaching, the person next to fire took up his position on the other side of his coach from that occupied by the firer some four or five shots before his predecessor had finished. There was, therefore, no break in the continuity of firing – No. 2 starting immediately No. 1 had finished, and so on throughout.” While the coaches were not in the habit of winding the sights for the firers in those days and Swanston concedes of the wind readers that “we did not collaborate as a general rule”, it nonetheless goes to prove the veracity of Marie Antoinette’s words that there is nothing new except that which has been forgotten.

New Zealand was the final leg of the tour, reached aboard S.S. ‘Awatea’ alongside the New Zealand and South African teams. The Governor-General of New Zealand – Lord Galway – was returning in the ship from the Sydney celebrations and the three teams had the honour of being presented to him on board, before being welcomed at Parliament House (alongside the returning New Zealand athletes from the Empire Games) by Ministers acting on behalf of the Prime Minister.

Great Britain and South Africa both shot at the Wairapa Rifle Association meeting at Trentham, before shooting in a test match – Great Britain’s first in New Zealand. Conditions were difficult – a strong rear fishtail prevailing producing variations from 1 to 9 right - but it was the British elevations that failed to match earlier standards, particularly at 300 yards. With teams of 10 firing 2 convertible sighters (what do you mean you thought convertibility was an eighties innovation?) and 10 shots to count at 300, 600, 800 and 900 yards, Great Britain scored 1801 to South Africa’s 1831 and New Zealand’s 1803.

The team then disbanded, with most leaving for home on S.S. ‘Akaroa’ on March 1st, via the Panama Canal, and the remainder by independent arrangement across America. Commander Swanston concluded his report of the tour by stating that “it is desired to emphasize above all, the belief that it is important to send British teams to the Dominions at more frequent intervals than has been the case in the past.” I think we can safely say that greater touring frequency has latterly been achieved!

Great Britain’s top scorer in that match, Chris Hall, was one of the inspirations for this article. As President of the Oxford and Cambridge Rifle Association he was a strong supporter of student shooting and, during the planning of the Oxford & Cambridge tour to Canada in 1994, he had great tales to tell of the long, seagoing tours of his youth. This team had been away for nearly six months by the time the ‘Akaroa’ docked at Southamption on 5th April.

A final note on one of the other main changes between that tour and those of modern times: the current team expects its three week tour to cost in the region of £100,000 (c.A$160,000) in total. In 1937-38, the six month tour (funded by £100 5s. 11d. from the Overseas Teams fund, of which £24 10s. 4d. was returned, and £2791 6s.3d. in donations from third parties) spent:

£1,748 5s. on steamship fares;
£897 10s. 11d. on travel and hotels (no hotel costs at all in South Africa!);
£142 2s. on clothing;
£65. 13s. 5d. on rifle equipment, spoons etc; and
£13 10s. 6d. on sundries, for a grand total of:
£2,867 1s. 10d, or just over £200 (gross) a head for half a year’s touring!

Note: allowing for inflation, that amounts to about £10,000 a head. A lot, but not too bad for half a year’s touring!

Many thanks to Ted Molyneux and Tony de Launay for their assistance with content for this article, and to “Johnny’s” daughter for allowing Tony access to the letters from her father to her mother.