Guildford is a fascinating place, with hundreds of years worth of history clear to see if you know where to look. One of the most interesting aspects of Surrey’s history is that of its military. Home to one of the oldest regiments in the British Army, the Tangier Regiment was mustered on Putney Heath in 1661 and after 353 years it still exists today as part of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. In the 1880’s it was known as The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment.
There are a number of buildings in Guildford which formed part of the regiment’s history, including Cardwell’s Keep in Stoughton, which was the regimental depot, and Henley Fort on The Mount, which was built in the 1890’s as part of a protective chain of forts south of London to defend against an expected French invasion. We feel that it is vitally important to keep such history alive and so back in 2003 our society was set up to give a small display at Henley Fort for the Surrey Heritage weekend held each September. The display was a great success and over the following 10 years the society has developed and evolved into its current form, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment Re-enactment Society.
We represent the regiment in the late Victorian era and are unique in portraying both the regular and volunteer battalions of one of the British Army’s oldest line regiments. Based in Guildford, our aim is to ‘bring Victorian Surrey to life’, so we train our soldiers regularly at Clandon Park (home of the regimental museum) using authentic uniforms and equipment, based on drill and training manuals from the period. Alongside our military portrayals, we also have several accompanying ladies, resplendent in their colourful bustle dresses.
Both of the battalions we represent have interesting histories, though for very different reasons. The 2nd Volunteer Battalion was one of four rifle battalions of the Queen’s, formed in 1883 by amalgamating a number of the Surrey & London Rifle Volunteer companies. They wore a dark blue uniform, keeping in fashion with the dark green uniform made popular by famous regiments such as the 95th Rifles– as portrayed in the ‘Sharpe’ books & TV series. Predecessors of the Territorial Army, the rifle volunteer movement began in 1859, as the threat of a possible French invasion grew. Local townspeople all across the country began to form rifle clubs, with the aim of defending themselves. By 1859 the government decided to keep an eye on this by authorising these clubs officially, and making them follow military regulations, and by the mid 1880’s there were over 250,000 rifle volunteers in the UK. Most regiments had only one or two volunteer battalions, but both the West Surrey and the East Surrey regiments had four– clearly we are a very patriotic county!
By 1908 the British and the French had made their peace and signed the Entente Cordiale and so the rifle volunteer’s were then reorganised and formed into what we now recognise as the Territorial Army. The regular battalions of the Queen’s that we represent are easily recognisable as the classic Victorian soldier; scarlet tunic, white pith helmet and Martini Henry rifle – made famous by that popular 1964 film Zulu. By the late Victorian era the British Empire stretched across a quarter of the globe, and to defend it, the British soldier found himself in all sorts of strange and unfamiliar lands. Whether in Canada, New Zealand, India or South Africa, the only thing in common was the ‘thin red line’ – the British ‘Tommy’ soldier.
Whichever of the above battalions we are portraying; The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment Re-enactment Society can be found at events across the South East. Whether we are displaying a military camp in India, providing a military escort for a VIP or even an honour guard for Queen Victoria herself, when you meet us or walk into one of our living history camps it is like stepping back in time to the 1880’s, right down to the food we eat. Typically the public will be able to see our Victorian style tents, with the soldiers on sentry duty guarding key areas, whilst those off duty can usually be found cleaning their rifles, helping the cook prepare lunch, or even having a crafty game of cards whilst the sergeant isn’t looking! We attend a mix of both small and larger events, from local summer fetes to Detling’s huge Military Odyssey or Portsmouth’s Victorian Festival of Christmas, which had over 30,000 visitors this year.
Everyone is welcome, so if you have a passion for history, wish to try your hand at something different and make some new friends, why not get in touch? You can email us at [email protected] with your queries or visit our website HERE or the Facebook group HERE.