Topic December 2017 / January 2018. To perform a major event in one of London’s Royal parks would be an achievement for any organisation; for an organisation that was less than two years old to find the numbers to produce a whole evening’s show in aid of Legion funds and to find this reported in newspapers all round Britain has to be absolutely extraordinary. The size and variety of the display put on by volunteers of the infant Legion of Frontiersmen on Empire Day 1907 at what was then the Royal Botanic Gardens in Regent’s Park was an achievement that, other than an occasional photograph, has never been properly celebrated. Here we are able to tell the story and to reproduce pictures from the occasion that have not been seen for many years. This was not the first fète the Legion hosted at Regent’s Park in aid of funds. In July 1906 a smaller show was produced with a small bivouac display and a concert organised by Lena Ashwell. This featured scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plus a conjurer, Charles Bertram, also well-known stars such as Constance Collier and Albert Chevalier. Constance Collier’s claim to modern fame is that she was the Hollywood drama coach to Marilyn Monroe. The success of this fète encouraged the Frontiersmen to produce something more ambitious for 1907.
Fortunately the weather was also kind for the Empire Day 1907 event. After a wet morning the weather improved dramatically to produce a perfect May afternoon and evening. The gardens were illuminated by electric lights and Chinese lanterns. The band of the Coldstream Guards played on one of the lawns. There were many of the old style “fun of the fair” side-shows such as coconut shies, a “sorceress” telling fortunes, shooting galleries plus a display of the skills of jiu-jitsu by the London School of that art. Roger Pocock’s sister, the well-known actress Lena Ashwell, had organised a concert and dramatic entertainment in the conservatory pavilion featuring many well-known names from the London Stage. No wonder the event was a complete sell-out. The one side-show which brought favourable comments from every newspaper and was a sensation with the audience was a series of staged fights showing duelling from all ages from Roman times onwards. This was organised by two Legion officers, Captain Alfred Hutton and Captain Graham Hope. Hutton’s books on the sword and swordsmanship are still in print today. As can be seen from the illustrations, the duellists all wore the costume of the particular age. They began with Roman gladiators and continued with fights at quarterstaff “the favourite weapon of the English peasantry from early times”.¹ Captain Graham Hope and Legion founder-member Robert A. Smith fought a duel with two-handed swords dressed in suits of armour reputed to weight over 70 lb. each. A bout with 15th century sword and buckler and a fight with the smallsword of the seventeenth century followed. In addition a splendidly-costumed Smith together with three others re-enacted the fight between the Musketeers and Richelieu’s Cardinal’s Guard as described in Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”.
The stage was a lawn partly surrounded by trees and bushes, through which the duellists made artistically natural entrances. The stage management was excellent, and the whole effect was most ably and skilfully carried out. The difficulty of disposing of the dead men was overcome by the employment of carriers garbed as Brethren of the Misericordia, who bore away the corpses. ²
The final battle was between a modern Edwardian infantryman with bayonet on his rifle fighting an accurately-costumed Pathan with his weapon and shield.
The entertainment was opened by the then Commandant-General, Sir Henry Seton-Karr, C.M.G.. Frontiersmen travelled to take part from Liverpool, Cambridge, York, Portsmouth and Bristol. It is often thought that all Frontiersmen from the early days were horse-mounted, but in fact almost every Frontiersmen Squadron had a Troop of cyclists as they believed that sometimes the bicycle held advantages over the horse. Two Troopers from Portsmouth, Reynolds and Gibson, cycled from Portsmouth to London carrying a despatch for Lord Lonsdale, returning after the conclusion of the event: a ride of 180 miles in twenty-four hours. This was some achievement considering the roads, bicycles and tyres of the time.
At ten o’clock the climax of the evening was a uniformed display by one hundred and fifty members of the London Command under Lt.Col. D.P. Driscoll. The arena showed the Frontiersmen in bivouac cooking supper round a camp fire with their horses picketed behind the trees. During the meal a number of songs were called for and performed for the visitors and guests who formed a large semi-circle. At the sound of distant firing, the Frontiersmen sprang to their horses and rode off to return again shortly, apparently victorious. The whole evening was agreed to have been a tremendous success and magnificent publicity for the Legion.
It has seldom been discussed how many men in Edwardian Britain, and particularly living in the London area, had spent time working, or had maybe fought, on the frontiers of what was considered the civilised world. Not only had their adventures in distant places made a deep impression on them, but they had obviously enjoyed them. The Legion of Frontiersmen gave them an opportunity to join up with other men who had experienced life and action in the wilder parts of what was then an exciting and often unknown world, so they flocked to enlist in the Legion. These men were also very patriotic and agreed with the principles of the Legion that they should be willing to give of their many and varied skills to their country and, if necessary, fight for it.
H.W. Koekkoek was a highly talented artist and the expressions he captured on the faces of the men who took part in the “Bivouac” at Regent’s Park show that this young and growing organisation had filled a gap in their lives, which it also did to the social and military history of the English-speaking world.
¹ “Daily Telegraph” May 21 1907.
² “Army and Navy Gazette” June 1 1907.
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