When Carlton had its own soldiers

When Carlton had its own soldiers
Jeff Atkinson

In the 19th century, Carlton had its own troop of soldiers, the Carlton Rifle Company.

It was one of many such companies of unpaid part-time soldiers in the various inner suburbs around Melbourne who together formed what was known as the Victorian Volunteer Force. These part-time soldiers were the basis of the gold-rich colony’s defences in those days.

For the first 35 years of its existence, the Port Phillip District, later the Colony of Victoria, was defended by regiments of the British Army. But these were gradually withdrawn and in August 1870 the last of the British regiments left. The defence of the vulnerable gold-rich colony was then the sole responsibility of the Victorian Government.

From the 1850s there had been local volunteer military forces supplementing the British troops, organised into companies or troops in various suburbs of Melbourne and in regional centres. The volunteers were not paid but were supplied with uniforms and armaments and were expected to turn up to parades or training two or three times a week.

A drill instructor was attached to each company, often men who had formerly been sergeants in the British Army. Parades were held in the early morning before work, or in the evening after work, and involved training in military drills and, at times, classes in gymnastics, boxing and fencing.

The Carlton Rifle Company was formed in 1860 and operated for a quarter of a century, until it was disbanded in February 1884. During that time, it had a membership of between 100 and 175 men, plus up to six officers. The members of the company were typically a mixture of ordinary working men, the sons of well-to-do families, former soldiers who had settled in the colony, and men who just enjoyed the companionship that the company offered.

Parades were held at their drill hall or “orderly room”, which was in Grattan St, on the south side between Lygon and Drummond streets (a site that is still owned and used by the military, being the headquarters of the University of Melbourne Regiment). Once a year, usually at Easter, the company would attend the annual encampment at Sunbury or elsewhere outside the city, at which all of the troops and companies of the Victorian Volunteer Force would assemble for reviews, parades and mock battles.

One of the activities of the Carlton Rifle Company was training in rifle shooting and marksmanship. There was regular practice on a rifle range, and marksmanship competitions between the members of the company, as well as competitions between different volunteer companies. In October 1865 for example there was a match at the Sandridge Butts (a rifle range in Port Melbourne) between what were described in the newspaper report as “two crack rifle companies”, those of Bendigo and Carlton. Bendigo won with a total of 634 points to Carlton’s 610.

In the early 1880s there was a major review of the defences of the colony and as a result it was decided to replace the Volunteer Force with a militia of part-time soldiers who were partly paid. At the end of December 1883, the Volunteer Force was disbanded, replaced by the new militia. The records show however that many of the volunteer companies effectively remained intact and simply changed their title and continued on as paid militia •

Caption: While they may look like Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War, these are in fact local soldiers, members of the Carlton Rifle Company photographed in Melbourne in the 1860s. (Photo: State Library of Victoria) 

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