THE 8th SURREY RIFLES AT WAR

(Epsom versus Carshalton, and the Commanding Officer versus just about everyone)

1859 saw a frenzy of volunteering for part-time soldiering, consequent upon a plea from the Secretary of State for War for counties to raise defence forces. The reason was that the regular Army was very stretched; with conflicts in many parts of the globe regular units were constantly being dispatched overseas, often at short notice, and there was concern that Britain was vulnerable to attack. I am certainly not suggesting that this was a 'Dad's Army' scenario but, if the shenanigans at the 8th Surrey Rifles were anything to go by, there were times when the Volunteer Force could be a shambles.

The Surrey Rifle Volunteers
The Surrey Rifle Volunteers outside Chuter Brothers
(corner of High Street and Church Street, Epsom).
The animal on the far left is not thought to be the regimental mascot.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Initially the volunteer units were under the general control/supervision of the Lord-Lieutenant of the relevant county. In the case of Surrey at the time in question this was William King-Noel, 1st Earl of Lovelace, who held the post from 1840 until his death in 1893. The 8th Surrey Rifle Volunteers was formed at Epsom in December 1859 (see our page on George Brooker Stone) under the command of Captain James Hastie of Sutton, late of the 2nd European Light Infantry. Hastie was only in his mid-twenties and probably didn't appreciate what he was getting into, given subsequent events. His second-in command was John Holman Hay of Carshalton, who was something big at the Admiralty, and the Ensign was 45 year old solicitor Edward James Rickards, then of Cheam. Note that none of them were Epsom men, although Rickards soon became one and took up the cudgels on behalf of Epsom.

Edward Richard Northey, who knew something about soldiering, having been in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, was an enthusiastic supporter of the 'Epsom Rifles' (no mention of Carshalton there!). And, according to an account of their annual dinner at The King's Head Hotel in February 1861, which appeared in The Surrey Gazette of 12 February, his presence was enthusiastically received. This account is useful because it mentions many of the local personalities who belonged to the unit and helps us to understand in part why a schism developed between the Epsom contingent and the others (Rickards was in Epsom by then).

So, the main cast was as follows.
  • Captain James Hastie (Sutton), commanding officer
  • Lieutenant John Holman Hay (Carshalton), second in command
  • Ensign, afterwards Lieutenant, Edward James Rickards (Cheam and Epsom), third in command
  • Ensign Nathaniel Combermere Alexander (Epsom)
  • Sergeant Charles Bischoff (Epsom)
  • Former Sergeant William Edward Jenkins (Epsom)
Among those Corps members present at the dinner were Rickards himself, Private Henry Bockett (son of the Reverend Benjamin Bradney Bockett), Corporal George Stone, Ensign Nathaniel C Alexander of Hylands House, Sergeant Charles Bischoff Junior , George Ratcliffe Keeling the dentist … well, the list goes on, but there was a large turnout of Epsom dignitaries. What was noticeable about gatherings connected with the Corps was that any Epsom 'gentleman' threw his eggs into the basket, whether he was actually a member or not. For the gentry it was more about strutting/riding around in uniforms and shooting than anything else. How much use they would have been had an invasion force ever reached Epsom is highly debatable, especially as some of them didn't seem to take orders very happily. Fortunately, the issue was never tested.

Epsom volunteers in the High Street.
Epsom volunteers in the High Street c.1910.
Image courtesy of Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre

And so we move on to the events described in The Volunteer Service Gazette and Military Despatch of 30 November 1861 and other publications of that period, which resulted in a court of enquiry at the Bridge House Hotel, London Bridge, convened to investigate charges made by Captain Hastie against Rickards (now a Lieutenant) and Ensign Alexander. It might not have been wholly advisable for young Hastie to take on an experienced solicitor, but he did, thinking I suppose in the mindset of a former regular officer who had previously received discipline and obedience from his subordinates. And he must have been very inexperienced in handling something like this, with what amounted to a large proportion of the Epsom gentry on his case.

The background to the court of enquiry was a suggestion that the two sub-divisions (Carshalton and Epsom) of the 8th Surrey Rifle Corps should be separated. It was alleged by Rickards' account that the two divisions were entirely separate, apart from the fact that they drilled together, and he added that the Carshalton contingent had a poor attendance record even in that respect; the Epsom lot were much more enthusiastic and disciplined. Basically, Rickards had gone over the heads of Hastie and Hay and had written to Colonel Campbell, who was someone big at HQ, about the separation. To compound matters, Sergeant William Edward Jenkins (an Admiralty clerk who lived at The Parade, Epsom in civvy street) had been arrested over the matter and 'dealt with by the War Office'.

Hastie had laid three separate charges against Rickards, which were as follows.
  1. On 23 June 1861 he had surreptitiously sent 'certain official documents' to Colonel Campbell, requesting that they be forwarded to the War Office.
  2. On 2 July 1861, whilst attending a meeting of the Corps, he had 'behaved in a most ungentlemanly and unbecoming manner, and abruptly quitted the room and attempted to excite a spirit of insubordination in the Corps'.
  3. He had neglected his duty and been absent from the Corps from 2 July until 1 November 1861.
An additional allegation of using improper language had been withdrawn. The substance of Charge 1 was that the separation of the sub-divisions of the Corps was under consideration, but the Carshalton contingent had not yet been consulted; a general meeting of all parties concerned was scheduled for July. Captain Hastie had not been amused, partly because Rickards was merely third in command, but mainly because William Jenkins shouldn't have written a letter about the matter in the first place and Rickards shouldn't have forwarded it to the Colonel over Hastie's head. There was a suggestion that Hastie perceived Jenkins as forthright and troublesome and had deliberately framed the assembly on 2 July as a muster (i.e. a formal assembly in uniform) so that Jenkins could not attend, having been arrested and presumably dismissed. Rickards contended that, if it was a meeting and not a muster, then Jenkins could have been there. Hastie didn't seem very clear about the precise nature of the assembly, but it became something of a free-for-all, with Alexander refusing to drill in Carshalton and walking out, then Rickards walked out and throughout the proceedings there was a great deal of shouting and hooting.

Frankly, the verbatim newspaper report is about as clear as mud as to who said what to whom and what the proper procedure should have been, if there was one. The rather inept explanations by Hastie and the knot-tying legalistic ramblings of Rickards combined to make the whole thing unintelligible to the average reader.

As for Count 3, nobody seemed very sure if a member of the Corps needed permission to be absent from duty if he had already undertaken the requisite amount of appearances during the year, which was apparently 35. However, what was abundantly clear was that the Epsom lot felt superior to the Carshalton lot and wanted to be separate.

I am not going to tell you any more about these proceedings, since they are totally confusing, but several conclusions fall out of it all, irrespective of the charges laid.
  • Captain Hastie didn't have control of his unit and displayed a lack of clarity and decisiveness in his dealings with the volunteers.
  • Some of the volunteers, Rickards in particular, would not have been under control whoever the commanding officer was.
  • Nothing about the unit was professional at volunteer officer level. For example, Alexander had been one of the people designated as a 'judge' on the Jenkins court of enquiry. He was a last-minute substitute because Hastie had been casting around for candidates. According to him, appointments should have been by order of seniority, but Rickards said he couldn't attend because he was going to Manchester, Sergeant Trayton Pagden Senior was lying dangerously ill, one of the Carshalton Sergeants found even attendance at drill inconvenient and another man had gone absent. The next in line was Jenkins, who was actually the accused, and so it went on.
The following announcement appeared in newspapers shortly afterwards.

EPSOM. - THE 8TH SURREY RIFLE VOLUNTEERS. - The following is a copy of the official notice posted at headquarters, Epsom:-
ORDERS OF THE 8TH SURREY RIFLE CORPS, DEC. 11, 1861.

The Secretary of State for War directs that Lieut. Rickards and Ensign Alexander, 8th Surrey Rifle Corps, be called upon to resign their commissions forthwith on account of the finding of the late court of enquiry held upon their conduct.

JAMES HASTIE
Capt. Commanding 8th Surrey Rifles.
Head-Quarters, Epsom.
Between twenty-five and thirty members have already sent in their resignation to Capt. Hastie, for the next few days we are informed, the already long list will receive many additional names.


Rickards and Alexander duly resigned as instructed and Captain Hastie decided to call it a day in September 1862. John Holman Hay then took over and stuck it out until December 1863, when Norbury Pott, who was fairly local but, most importantly, didn't live in Carshalton, took over and things seem to have settled down after that.

Postscript: By 1871 the main 'villains' of the piece had gone from Epsom. Jenkins moved to Wimbledon, Rickards decamped to Leatherhead and Alexander died in July 1864.

Linda Jackson 2019