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Volunteer Rifle Corps

The following selective history of the Volunteer Defence movement in WA comes from Susan Birch's family history, A Birch Tree. The 'Richard' named in it is her ancestor Richard Birch. I am very grateful to Susan for her permission to republish it here.


In 1861, the need for Western Australia to have its own defence force became obvious with the imminent departure of the last British soldiers from the colony. In Perth, a corps was raised in record time. A meeting of interested citizens was held on 11th September, it was sanctioned on the 13th and the first parade was held at 0600 hours on September 14th at Barrack Square. By the end of the month, one hundred men were reported on the roll.

Richard joined brothers Edmund, Henry and Somers and enlisted in this company, the Metropolitan Volunteer Rifle Corps, at its inception and remained a Private with the unit until 1872 when the corps was disbanded for insubordination.

On October 9, 1861 after only a month's training, the company took part in a field day with the Fremantle Volunteer Rifle Corps (who had also been training for only a month) and the Enrolled Pensioner Force. Watched by a large number of spectators, the Volunteers attacked a position on Mt. Eliza held by the Pensioners and were doing well until the Pensioners unveiled two cannons!

After starting with a flurry, it became obvious that too many parades were being held and the enthusiasm of the volunteers was waning. So in January 1862 it was decided to reduce the number of parades to one per week, to be held on a Wednesday night, subject to availability of facilities. The Company secured Government assistance at the rate of ten shillings per annum for each efficient volunteer and later took possession of one hundred new rifles from England. By 1863 a uniform was chosen consisting of long scarlet tunics, white trousers and shakoes (peaked caps). It was a similar uniform to that worn by the Infantry of the British Army.

Training during this period would have been restricted to the handling of weapons, rifle shooting and parade ground movements, with little attempt being made to teach tactics or field exercises. Progress was good however, and the corps organised and participated in many different military occasions. In February 1862, the company was present at the Presentation of Colours for the Fremantle Corps, held at the Pensioner Barracks. On 24 May 1862 the company attended it's first Queens Birthday parade which went on to become the major annual review of the volunteers. In December 1862, the company travelled to Fremantle on the Lady Stirling to be part of a bugle presentation ceremony. The Fremantle parade ground was decorated with flags and bunting and a large awning was erected for the protection of the numerous spectators from both towns. After presentation of the bugle, there was an exhibition of military skills and then refreshments were served. This was a typical, volunteer force social event of the period.

On 11 February 1863, the company again sailed to Fremantle and together with the Fremantle Corps, marched through the town before partaking of supper. The unit did not return to Perth until 1am! Less than a month later, the Fremantle Corps travelled to Perth for a combined march to government house followed by the usual refreshments.

The second anniversary of the company was celebrated in September 1863, not with the usual firing of blanks but with real ball ammunition for the first time. Numbers at parade increased considerably when further shooting practices were held in October. Later, in December of that year, 270 men took part in a large ceremony in the grounds of the Governor's house for the Presentation of Officers Commissions.

In 1864, the first annual rifle meeting for the Colony was held at Mount Eliza. These became hotly contested matches with the companies of Perth and Fremantle vying for the title of best marksmen. In 1865, after a competition extending over 5 months (from June to November) Richard's brother, Somers, was declared the winner. Rules for the match included using only government issue rifles, firing from an approved position and the wearing of full uniform. Bad weather and a shortage of ammunition delayed the match. By 1870, regulations were introduced that tied in the right to participate in these shooting matches with attendance at the more mundane activities of the Units.

The annual Queen's Birthday Parade of 1865 was celebrated with the usual firing of a salute, and then the rest of the day was spent playing cricket!

Financial trouble struck the Metropolitan Volunteer Rifle Corps in 1872 when the Government decided it could no longer afford to pay the Corps its annual grant The Commanding Officer, Captain Leake, resigned in protest at the decision and the second in command, Lieut. Rose declined the promotion. A new. Government appointed commander, Captain B.H Burke, was installed as leader. The Secretary of the Corps elected committee then called a mass meeting of members for the night of 21st February 1872. The meeting was extremely heated and unremitting of its criticism of the government. This was reported back to the Governor the next morning and a Proclamation was issued disbanding the Corps for insubordination.

However, increasing international tension and threats of invasion during 1872, meant a revival in the interest and need for a Volunteer Movement in WA. A new corps known as the Perth Company of WA Rifle Volunteers (commonly known as the Metropolitan Rifle Volunteers) was formed consisting mostly of the personnel from the defunct Metropolitan Volunteer Rifle Corps. The Commander of the Unit was Captain Edmund Birch, Richard's brother and the first parade was held on 2 July 1872. Richard is listed as a Private in this Corps in 1872 and 1873.

Events with the Fremantle company continued much as before. On 14 April 1873, the re-formed Fremantle Rifle Volunteers travelled to Perth and were met at the William Street jetty by the Metropolitan Rifle Volunteers. Together the companies marched to the Pensioners Barracks. The marching was described as "unsteady" due to a lack of attention to commands.

The annual shooting matches continued and 112 men took part in September 1874. So many spectators turned up that the police were later criticised for not keeping them a safe distance from the firing line! On 1st June 1875 Richard competed in the Governors Cup held at Mount Eliza against fifty-six other competitors. The competitors were the best shots of the Pensioner Guards, the Police and the Volunteer Forces. Richard finished a credible seventh with a score of 58, behind the leader Corporal Dean from the Metropolitan Rifle Volunteers who scored 64. Richard narrowly beat his brother, Color-sergeant Henry Birch, also of the Metropolitan Rifle Volunteers who scored 56.

In May 1875, after Richard had moved to Fremantle, he enlisted in the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers as a Private. He was promoted to Sergeant in October of that year and the following year was made Hospital Sergeant. A leather cross belt and pouch worn by Richard while Hospital Sergeant, are displayed in the Colonial Room of the WA Army Museum in Fremantle.

Training methods had improved by this time with the grouping together of the Perth, Fremantle and Guildford corps for training purposes. This allowed training to be carried out at a much higher level including valuable field days. Not everything went according to plan however when new rifles were issued to the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers in September 1874. The wrong ammunition had been ordered with them and so the rifles could not be fired for almost two years until the correct ammunition was received!

On Monday 18th October 1875, a prize firing competition was held to celebrate the formation of the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers. All the businesses in Fremantle were closed for the day plus they donated prizes and other goods to the day's events. The day began with parade at 9am including "some first class music" from the band. The volunteers marched through the streets of Fremantle, headed by the band, before "wearily plodding" along the sandy track leading to the 'Butts'. The weather was not helpful with blustery wind and heavy showers of rain. Nevertheless, Richard managed to finish second in his squad, the 1st squad, with a score of 59. His prize was a large Globe lamp donated by W.Holman. The day concluded late in the evening with speeches thanking all those involved.

Following this match, eight Fremantle Rifle Volunteers, including Richard, were selected to challenge the Perth Rifle Volunteers on Tuesday the 26th of October, again at the 'Butts'. The weather was more favourable this time, fine with a moderate sea breeze. The Fremantle team was narrowly defeated by the visitors, with Richard finishing fourth in his team with a score of 45. Captain Hillman from the Perth Volunteers congratulated Fremantle for "the manner in which we have been treated, the generous supply of refreshments provided for us and the very pleasant day we have spent".

On 18 September 1881, companies from Fremantle, Guildford and Perth took part in a mock attack on Cemetery Hill in East Perth. In October 1881, a new rifle range was opened at the foot of Monument Hill in Fremantle. Richard won the inaugural shooting match held at the range. The companies from Perth, Guildford and Fremantle again came together in January 1884 for a sham fight in Fremantle Park. The event was more notable for "the number of small boys getting in the way of proceedings"!

The first 'Camp of Continuous Training' was held during Easter 1884 at Bullen's Grounds, Albion, midway between Perth and Fremantle. The Fremantle volunteers, under the command of Major Sutherland, marched into camp on the Thursday evening. The Perth Company arrived on Good Friday and in the afternoon there was a church parade. The very Rev. Dean Gegg preached "a most impressive sermon" while the Perth band "rendered the sacred music".34 On the Saturday evening, the officers entertained various dignitaries, including the Governor and the Mayors of Perth and Fremantle, at a mess dinner. On Easter Sunday, a large number of people visited the camp and on Monday, thousands of people travelled by train to watch the military operations and sham fight. The Inspecting Field Officer, Lieut. Col. Angelo complimented the troops on the success of the camp and the "admirable conduct of the men."

However, due to a shortage of equipment, it was four years before another camp was held, this time in Greenmount in 1888. Camps were then held more frequently but not annually, depending on finances. In a year that no camp was held, a Field Day was usually held on Easter Monday. Over the years, the shooting matches held each Easter Monday became a much anticipated event in the Fremantle calendar. Local businesses were canvassed for prizes by the organising committee well before the event and were very generous in their response. The prizes were then put on display in the window of Richard's pharmacy and crowds would gather each night to have a look.

His medical skills were regularly used at Volunteer events. At the Easter camp of 1888, a young bandsman received a couple of deep wounds in his hand when a bottle of lemonade he was opening, burst. Richard had not been issued with a first aid kit at that stage and made do with bandages and sticking plaster that he had brought himself. Ten years later, a policeman was thrown from his horse and kicked in the face during a rehearsal for the Queen's Birthday parade. Richard and Major Hope treated the man's painful injuries at the scene.

In June of 1887, the Fremantle Company recorded its first telegraphic shooting match. Telegraphic shooting matches were developed to counteract the difficulties of travelling long distances, and allowed teams to compete against each other, without leaving their own rifle range. Someone at each range was nominated to record the scores and telegraph the results to the other team. Due to the honesty of the men involved, the system seems to have worked well and there were very few disputes about the results.

Teams from all parts of the colony competed in a Military Tournament at Guildford on 16 April 1890. The Fremantle team withdrew from the bayonet exercise because they thought one of the judges was unfair. The team denied they had disobeyed a direct order from an officer. Back in Fremantle that evening, the Commandant addressed the men and lectured them on their "scandalous behaviour and miserable spirit".

The following evening, the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers met and over fifty of them resigned. Not all agreed with this action. "Hospital Sergeant Birch, another old member, also tried to dissuade the men from the course they were pursuing, but they ignored his advice". Initially, Captain Clifton accepted the resignations. However, later lists of the volunteers' shows that most of those involved in the incident were still members of the unit in subsequent years.

Later that year, the unit held a concert and an exhibition of military relics called 'Military Entertainment'. It was such a success that the event was held again in August 1891 and November 1892.

In November 1893, the Perth, Fremantle and Guilford infantry companies were amalgamated to form the 1st Infantry Volunteer regiment. The Fremantle group formed 'C' and 'D' companies. Then, with the addition of Permanent Companies, the Western Australian Volunteer Force officially became the Western Australian Defence Force (W.A.D.F.). On 22nd June 1897, Richard was promoted to 2nd Class Staff Sergeant. In September 1900, the Fremantle infantry became the 2nd Battalion Infantry Brigade as part of the Western Australian Infantry Brigade. Richard was still serving in February 1901 when control of the Western Australian Defence Force was handed over to the Commonwealth following Federation.

We hear there is some talk at Fremantle of forming a Volunteer Rifle Corps. 'Domestic Sayings and Doings', The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, Friday 22 July 1859, p. 2.

SLWA (posted to Facebook): The first presentation of commissions of officers of the Volunteer Force, Government House gardens, 11 December 1863. Alfred Hawes Stone.

The Fremantle Volunteer Rifles was formed in 1861. A public meeting recommended an Infantry Corps of 100, however, with such a small population and employment uncertain that number was never attained. In 1864 there were still only 69 members. The corps was armed with obsolete muzzle-loading muskets. By 1869 there were only 51 members and the group was disbanded on 8.02.1870. It is stated in the Inquirer & Commercial News 30/11/1864, p.2 that photographer Stephen Stout was invited to record the occasion of C.A. Manning's appointment as Captain commanding the Fremantle Volunteer Corps, in a ceremony held at the Parade Ground. It is likely that this is that photograph. Fremantle Library photo #LH001756, 1864.

The building in the background is not the Pensioners Barracks in South Terrace (1853-1950s). It seems likely, or at least possible, that it is the Married Quarters section of the Sappers Barracks, which were on the corner of Henderson and Queen (formerly Doonan) Streets. See the Convict Establishment page for a map showing where this was.


This Fremantle Library photo #E000896 is captioned 'Rifle Volunteers', but it is clearly just the band.

This photo has been expertly enlarged, and placed on a wall of the Army Drill building which used to house the community organisation, the Fly by Night Club, and has now fashionably acquired an 'internet' dot, as Freo.Social.


The Mayor's blog entry supplies the context. The people in the photo rejoice in very impressive titles. On the left is "Triple 1 Three Brand and Communications Manager" Sally Tucker. In the middle is "City of Fremantle Local History Engagement Officer", Stewart Alger. On the right is the donor of the photograph, Andrew Simmonds.


Metropolitan Rifle Volunteers at Mt Eliza, 1872.

A Mechanics' Institute and Library have been established, a Rifle Corps is in course of formation, and an Agricultural Society has been, or is, shortly to be organized. ...
Rifle Corps will consist of about 40 members, and if this little force is organized, Sussex will have set the first example in this colony (the only one which does not possess a volunteer company) of establishing such a corps. At present the Volunteers labour under the slight impediment of having but one rifle between them, but this will soon be remedied, and we believe the active Resident Magistrate has already addressed the Government on the subject. The Inquirer and Commercial News, Wednesday 28 August 1861.

Local and Domestic Intelligence
A meeting of about sixty of the townspeople of Fremantle took place on the evening of Friday last, (the Government Resident in the Chair), for the purpose of raising a Volunteer Rifle Corps in that town. A list was drawn, and in the course of a few minutes sixty names were enrolled; and on the following day it increased to 76. It is thought that the Company will have no difficulty in raising their number to 100, which for the present will be quite sufficient. A deputation of those interested waited on Captain Finnerty the following morning, who received them with much cordiality of feeling, and said nothing would give him more pleasure than to devote his spare time to so praiseworthy an object. He said much good would result from the formation of such a corps : it would after a time, become a source of amusement; at first the drilling might appear tedious to many of them, but that would soon wear off. After the interview, the Government Resident addressed a letter to His Excellency the Governor with a view of obtaining His Excellency's approval to the formation of the corps. The excitement prevailing in Fremantle is unaccountable; nothing spoken of but the volunteer movement. Already a suit of uniform has been made as a sample to be produced at the next meeting; it consists of a blue flannel tunic with white lacings, and blue cloth cap with a white band. The volunteers are not alone confined to the younger branches of the community, but are extended to fathers as well as their sons; besides to several of our influential merchants — Messrs. Samson, R. King, and C. A. Manning, who display as much patriotism, indeed more than many of their younger volunteers. As soon as His Excellency's reply has been received, another meeting will be held, when a set of regulations will be framed, and drilling commenced.The Inquirer and Commercial News, Wednesday 4 September 1861, p. 2.

Proceedings of a Meeting of the inhabitants of Fremantle held at the Freemasons' Hotel on Friday, the 30th August, 1861, at 8 o'clock, p.m.; Thomas Brown, Esquire J.P., Resident Magistrate, in the chair:
Lionel Samson, Esquire, M.L.C. moved, and Mr Rosser seconded, that, it is highly desirable that a Volunteer Rifle Corps should be embodied in the town of Fremantle. Carried unanimously. Mr Rosser moved, and Mr Fauntleroy seconded, that Mr McBryde Broun be requested to act as Honorary Secretary. Carried unanimously. L. Samson, Esq., moved, and D.A.C.G. Price seconded, that a committee, consisting of Messrs. C. A. Manning, W. R. Fauntleroy, A. Rosser, and McB. Broun, accompanied by the Resident Magistrate, wait upon Captain Finnerty, explaining to him the objects in view, and requesting his aid in carrying out the wishes of the meeting. Carried unanimously. Mr Fauntleroy moved, and Mr Worsley Clifton seconded, that after the interview with Captain Finnerty, the Chairman be requested to place the services of those parties who have this evening given in their names at the disposal of the Government, and to solicit the approval of His Excellency the Governor to their enrolment, under the title of the "Fremantle Volunteer Rifle Corps."
The usual vote of thanks to the Chairman having been unanimously passed, the meeting adjourned. The Inquirer and Commercial News, Wednesday 4 September 1861.

Proceedings of an adjourned meeting of tbe above Corps held at the the Freemason's Hotel on Monday, the 9th instant, at 8 o'clock p.m.; Captain Finnerty, commanding Officer, in the chair.
The minutes of the last meeting having been read, it was
Proposed by Mr Rosser, and seconded by Mr Fauntleroy: — That the minutes of the last meeting be confirmed. Carried unanimously.
Proposed by Mr McBryde Broun, and seconded by Mr Samson: — That D.A.C.G. Price be elected Honorary Secretary and Paymaster to the Corps. Carried unanimously.
Upon the roll being called, upwards of 80 members answered to their names and paid their entrance fee of 2s 6d each.
A vote of thanks was unanimously recorded to Mr C. A. Manning and various other members for their handsome donations in aid of the funds of the Corps.
After some conversation on the subject of uniform, Mr Samson offered to import from England, the material required for the dress uniform free of any other expenses than the cost at home and freight to the colony.
Proposed by Mr G. Clifton, seconded by Mr Padbury:— That the kind offer of Mr Samson be accepted, and that a distinct and separate account be kept by the Treasurer of all monies he may from time to time receive on account of this clothing. Carried.
Proposed by Mr Rosser, and seconded by Mr C. A. Manning:— That an instalment of 5s each member be paid monthly to the Treasurer, from the 1st November next, to the uniform fund, to be continued until the sum of £2 bas been subscribed by each member. Carried.
The following gentlemen, with the President and Secretary, were elected members of tbe Committee appointed to decide on the dress and undress uniform; Major Henderson, R.E., Messrs. G. Clifton, Loan, Rosser, Price, A. Francisco, and E. Newman.
Proposed by Mr G. Clifton, and seconded by Mr Samson:— That the thanks of this meeting are due to Mr Rummer for the use of his room, not only on the present occasion, but on all other public occasions, hymuswhen he has so kindly, without any charge whatever, placed the room at our disposal. Carried. Meeting adjourned. The Inquirer and Commercial News, Wednesday 18 September 1861, p. 2.

The plans afoot for the removal of the British Army from the Colony spawned a rush of volunteer forces. These early units on the list did not become part of the ‘Commonwealth Forces’. But later units which are too numerous to mention here did become part of the A.I.F. which, of course, stands for Australian Imperial Force - not yet Commonwealth Forces. And we must not forget the six Western Australian Contingents that were despatched to the South African War from 1899 to 1901.

The photograph of William Hymus shows the rather spectacular uniform worn by the Pinjarrah Volunteers headed up by Theodore Fawcett who paid for the uniforms out of his own pocket. Thanks to the invaluable Diane Oldman for the image and caption, and the paragraph above and table below, data from a talk she gave called 'WA's Wild West'.

Sussex Volunteer Rifle Corps
Fremantle Volunteer Rifle Corps
Swan Volunteer Rifle Corps
Metropolitan Volunteer Rifle Corps
Pinjarrah Mounted Volunteers
Wellington Mounted Volunteers
Albany Rifle Volunteers
York Rifle Volunteers
Northampton Rifle Volunteers
Albany Defence Rifles
Plantagenet Rifle Volunteers
Perth Mounted Rifle Volunteers

1861 – 1863
1861 - 1870
1861 - 1882
1861 - 1872
1861 - 1882
1877 - 1882
1878 - 1885
1878 - 1886
1884 - 1899
1885 - 1888
1888 - 1897
1894 – 1897

Prior to Federation, the only Army in WA was a part-time volunteer force consisting of eight infantry companies: two at Perth, two at Fremantle and one each at Guildford, Geraldton, Albany and Northampton, plus an artillery field battery. The total strength was between 500-600.
22.8.1872 Fremantle Rifle Volunteers [became ...]
Nov 1893 "C" and "D" Companies, 1st Infantry Regt.
3.9.1900 2nd Battalion, Infantry Bde.
1.7.1903 "D" and "E" Coys 11th Australian Infantry Regt.
1.7.1912 'T' Coy 86th Infantry
1.10.1918 "A" and "B" Coys 2nd Bn. 16th Infantry Regt. diggerhistory.

Hitchcock 1919:
Behind the barracks was the "Barracks Green" which is now included in the Oval. This was used as a parade ground for the pensioners and volunteers and it was here that Captain (afterwards Colonel), Finnerty and Sergeant-Major Latimer used to put the young recruits of the volunteer force through their facings often at daylight in the morning and at other times by moonlight. The old Colonel expected them to attain to the same proficiency at the Imperial Army veterans in the barracks, who had been drilling all their lives, and who maneuvered with the precision of clockwork. The enthusiasm of the old-time volunteers may be gauged from the fact that they had to find their own uniforms which, with their accoutrements, they had to keep immaculately clean; the slightest delinquency in this respect would result in the culprit receiving the stern order on parade to ‘Fall out, you’re dirty!’
The commanding officer in my volunteer days was Captain R.M. Sutherland, the other commissioned officers being Lieutenants G. B. Humble and Michael Samson. Among the non-commissioned officers were some old Crimea and Indian Mutiny campaigners, notably Sergeants Quinn and Lindsay, and Corporal Craig, whose strictures in the matter of discipline and efficiency tended to make the old volunteer force almost the equal of regulars.
On completing twelve years service each volunteer was entitled to the grant of a town allotment of fifty acres of country land, but I believe that a monetary equivalent was afterwards substituted. I myself did not qualify for the bonus, as I discarded the red coat in 1876, when my military ardour had cooled under the influence of another and stronger attraction. Perhaps the red coat itself contributed to this denouement by first attraction.

References and Links

Birch, Susan 2015, A Birch Tree: The Life and Times of Richard and Eliza Birch, privately published: 30-34; partly republished above by gracious permission of the author (without footnotes and images).

Grant, James Ritchie c. 1983, Muskets and Drills: An Account of the Volunteer Corps Raised in Western Australia in 1861, Grime's Dyke Publications, [Perth].

Grant, James Ritchie 1988, Officers of the Western Australian Defence Force 1861-1901, John Burridge Military Antiques, Swanbourne.

Grant, James Ritchie 1991, From Captains to Colonels: a photographic account of the development of the WA Defence Force 1861-1901, privately published, Mt Pleasant.

Stephen Montague Stout.

Digger History: Unofficial history of the ANZ Armed Services.

See also: Fly by Night Club.

Garry Gillard | New: 7 May, 2017 | Now: 24 April, 2024