- 1.On guard – Part one
- 2.On guard – Part two
In the second part of our story, Matt covers his early years background in the dramatic arts, the Portsmouth Dockyard Festival of the Sea, and how he became a member of the Fort Cumberland Guard.
From walking the beat, to treading the boards
How did the Cumberland Guard attract you?
[Laughs] First we should rewind quickly back to my school days at Springfield, where they had a drama studio. Drama was something that had always appealed to me, but, because of the options that I took and the groups that I was in, I never got to make full use of the facilities. The only time that I could, had been when we had a free lesson period, where we got the opportunity to try out different things for six-week blocks. Everything from needlework to car motor mechanics. Drama was one of those blocks. Then I got the chance to be involved, as stage crew, with the school production of Oliver the Musical. That was great, but it was in my last year, so nothing more came of it at that point.
The limelight was turned off pretty quickly then?
When I left school, I stayed in touch with some of the crew and we got involved with a local theatre group, Bedhampton Arts Centre. I went there for maybe four or five years. We put on loads of plays. Then the members’ home lives changed and the group started to fragment as we grew up. In the end, it couldn’t support itself any longer.
Were you always stage crew?
No, I was on stage as well. I had a few leading roles, and I loved every minute of it. Anyway, just as the group was breaking up, one of the girls was contacted by the organisation that was setting up the ‘International Festival of the Sea’ [IFOS] in Portsmouth Dockyard.
That was the first time it had been held in Portsmouth?
Yes; this was in 1998, the first IFOS for Portsmouth. They wanted volunteers from local drama groups to act as live action players, milling around in the dockyard, to give it some colour. A load of us said, “yeah, yeah we’ll do that.”
Is that the same idea as the Victorian Christmas events?
Exactly the same principle. In fact, The Victorian Christmas came about as a result of the success of IFOS. So I became one of the cast for the first IFOS. I had an absolute blast [laughs]
What role did you play?
1998 was the 200th anniversary of Nelson’s Battle of the Nile so, to be in keeping, everything was Georgian style. We could choose what we wanted to be from either nobility, a worker, or a rough character. For the first one, I decided that I wanted to be a rough character, so I dressed as a highwayman.
It’s funny how a lot of actors like to play the bad guy.
I think you can have more fun being a baddie [laughs]. It was fantastic; just amazing. It wasn’t scripted or anything. All that was required was that we stay as much within the period, in speech and deed, as possible. You’re a poxy this, or a lice ridden that, kind of thing.
Just an everyday role for you then.
[Laughs] We would set up little scenes between ourselves. As a highwayman, I would rob some of the other characters and cause a bit of a scene. Then, out of sight from the public, I would return their valuables, so we could do it again later. All good fun.
And this is where you first encountered the Cumberland Guard?
Yes, they were there doing their marching drills. At some point, they decide that the highwayman, yours truly, will be caught and dragged off to the gallows. The other group from HMS Trincomalee, AKA the training ship HMS Foudroyant, had ex-miners dressed up as sailors. When they found out that I was a copper, I got a few extra ‘digs’ on the way [laughs].
When they found out that I was a copper, I
got a few extra ‘digs’ along the way
Did you take part in the other IFOS events?
I took part in the next two. I think it was after the second one that the dockyard, having seen how popular IFOS had been, decided to have a Victorian Christmas festival. All the characters and the acting had really caught the public’s imagination, so they wanted to capitalise on that. A few of the people that I knew from the IFOS events formed a local group called The Festival Players, specifically to take part in the Christmas festivals. I had a bit of a break from taking part in the Christmas ones when my kids were born.
As is often the way, life gets in the way of our plans.
Very true. It wasn’t until I met someone from the old crew in the street one day, and they said I’d been missed, that I thought about going back to it again. The Victorian festivals were good fun as well. In the first one I played Bill Sykes (from Oliver). With him being a Dickens character, he has an extra connection with Portsmouth. I had a whale of a time hiding behind pillars and jumping out on members of the public. Being a big guy, I can play a menacing character and loom over most people to scare the bejeezus out of them when they’re not expecting it [Laughs]. So I went back to it a couple of times and, every time I went, the Cumberland Guard were there as well.
[Laughs[ It would always be a couple of the younger guys that would keep needling me to join up with them. It became a bit of a standing joke. Every time they spotted me they would shout something like “there’s one to take the King’s shilling”, or whatever. We would always be winding each other up. They would march along doing their drills and I would join on the end, deliberately going out of step, or whisper something in their ear to try and break their concentration [laughs].
When did you finally crack then?
Despite my mocking of them, I’ve always been impressed by how they looked in full rig, doing the drills and putting on the firing displays. They were at the Christmas 2012. festival, and, following the usual banter between us, I finally gave in and said that I would come along to see what it was all about. Of course, I was hooked as soon as I turned up [laughs].
When did you officially join them?
I’ve been there roughly two years now, since 2013.
Have you always been interested in history?
Funnily enough, as I get older, I’ve found that I’ve got more into it. The other thing that sparked my interest was that I started reading the ‘Sharpe’ novels, which are historically very accurate.
Sharpe is a series of historical fiction stories by Bernard Cornwell centred on the character of Richard Sharpe. The stories formed the basis for an ITV television series wherein the eponymous character was played by Sean Bean. Cornwell’s series (composed of several novels and short stories) charts Sharpe’s progress in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars.
It was a really brutal way of making a living; to be a soldier back in those days. People tend to look at the Victorian times as the birth of industry and a time when medicine was coming to the fore etc. But we were still, basically, lining up on battlefields, chucking big lumps of metal all over the place, getting closer and closer and closer, before jabbing each other with bayonets. Really quite dreadful, but it piqued my interest in that era. My other area of fascination has been the local Napoleonic forts. Most of them were built during the 1860s, which is the latter period that we cover in the Cumberland Guard. I’ve been on HMS Warrior a few times. I actually prefer it to The Victory; I feel more of a connection. It seems more lived in on that ship somehow. Whereas the Victory, I dunno, to me it’s like some sort of Hollywood film set.
More space height-wise, which would suit you.
No, I still bang my head on the Warrior as well [laughs]. When I found out that the Guard covered the period of the 1830s to 1860s, it all fell into place. I like the fact that we link in to local landmarks and its history and such like.
Do you call yourselves a group, a club, or …?
Originally, they were called The Fort Cumberland Preservation Society. The group was formed by a group of people trying to protect Fort Cumberland as a heritage site. Then someone decided that, to try to attract some interest to the cause, it would be a good idea to portray soldiers of the era. They chose the Marines because of the links to Portsmouth; the Marines Artillery Barracks were just down the road. So then they became The Fort Cumberland and Portsmouth Militaria Society.
How would you describe what the Guard do?
The Guard portrays the marching drills, with musket and cannon firing of that period. We don’t re-enact or get involved in battles or skirmishes. There are no ‘campfire followers’ [Some societies have women and children reenacting everyday living with artifacts for the time], we focus on the drills and the firing.
Presumably, because of the period in time, it would have been male only?
There was purportedly one female marine back in that period called Lucy Brewer, although there is some controversy as to how authentic the story actually is. But yes, it was a male preserve.
Lucy Brewer (or Eliza Bowen, or Louisa Baker) is the pen name of a writer who purported to be the first woman in the United States Marines, serving aboard the USS Constitution. Brewer’s adventures were probably written by Nathaniel Hill Wright (1787–1824) or Wright’s publisher, Nathaniel Coverly.
Does today’s Guard have any women members?
No, it’s still all men. Mainly for the sake of authenticity, because they just didn’t exist in the military during the period in which we represent.
The Guard has a musical element to it as well?
We’re split into Infantry and The Corps of Drums; most people join the infantry section.
The Corps of Drums traditionally provided martial music for the foot soldier during the long weary marches and conveyed orders to the troops in battle and in barrack by Drum, Fife and later by Bugle. Both Infantry and Corps of Drums sections drill and display together normally but will act as separate units when required.
Do all members that join have to be able to play an instrument?
I don’t think that it’s a requirement, although to do so would obviously be an advantage. I’ve not seen any of the guys refer to written music when practicing or performing, but it must be written down somewhere. During the period that the Guard covers, 1830 to 1860, the fife, drums and bugle were the tannoy system of the day. Everything from waking up (reveille) through to the setting of the sun (retreat call).
“Reveille” (pronounced rev-uh-lee in America; ri-val-ee in the UK) is a bugle call, trumpet call or pipes call, most often associated with the military; it is chiefly used to wake military personnel at sunrise. The name comes from “réveillé” (or “réveil”), the French word for “wake up”.
Sounds like you’re in the infantry then?
Yes, and we double up and become the artillery guys as well. We have a three-pounder gun that’s fired on special occasions and displays.
Our not so secret weapon – a three-pounder cannon
So that’s the three sections of The Guard
Infantry, Artillery and Corps of drums. In reality, from a members point of view, it’s two sections because of how many there are of us .
How many members do you have at the moment?
Currently, I think it’s fifteen. We need an injection of new blood to keep us going. Monday night is our practice night. We get together at the Royal Marines Museum in Eastney, from 19:00 to 21:00. Apart from practicing drills, there’s occasionally a spot of maintenance to be carried out on the big gun. A lot of our guys are ex-tradesmen from the dockyard so, so between them, there are enough skills to cater for most of the work that needs doing. Virtually everything has been made by the carpenters and metalworkers among us. Even the uniforms have been put together by members where possible.
You’ve been there nearly a year, how much of the uniform do you have?
I have all the 1860’s kit. The 1830’s, which is more ornate, I haven’t got yet. Historically, the 1860’s chocolate box style uniform was phased out over time for a more practical outfit. From a military point of view anyway.
The original Bell Topped Shako, or hat, was made of leather and used to carry water or feed for the horses.
What sort of events do you go to?
Pretty much where anyone asks us [laughs]. It could be the displays for the Royal Marines Museum; we do Remembrance services in various places, Trafalgar night dinners, a lot of Portsmouth historical celebrations, that kind of thing.
I guess that, personally, you can only do the 1860’s displays because you don’t have the full uniform yet?
All the ones that I’ve been involved in so far have been 1860’s style. But there has been the occasion to display in 1830’s rig and I’ve been tagged on the end of the line up. Derek Gleed, our Captain of the Guard and narrator for the events, will make a statement at the end, something like, ‘and here on the end of the line you can see how the uniform changed during the period’. We try, where possible, to give a little bit of education regarding the history of it all, as well as putting on a display. Everything we do is as historically accurate as we can make it. I think the guys tend to prefer the 1830s, but I personally prefer the 1860’s cleaner, less ornate look. There’s also a summer and winter uniform variation.
Was it a challenge to get up to speed when you first joined?
Well, I was never in the military. The only marching that I’ve ever done was for the passing out parade in the police, which is pretty basic, and you never do it again after that. The 1824 Kings Regulations Drill manual, which is what we work from for guidance, is a lot different to modern drills, of course. They often marched to attention and, instead of lifting the leg up and driving the foot down, we keep the foot parallel to the ground and pointing forward. With four-foot of gun waving around, it takes some getting used to [laughs]. When we first join, we’re introduced to the basics and build upon it week by week. All of this, incidentally, is due to Prince Albert, the husband and consort of Queen Victoria, who, for want of a better phrase, wanted the Guard to look and behave like Prussian soldiers.
Do you know how many drills there are?
There are over 300 movements in the drill book. They’re broken down into basics such as turning (wheeling) left and right, and forming ranks. Then there’s the more complicated manoeuvres like ‘Forming square’, ‘Enemy to the rear the company’ or ‘Regiment will centre wheel by the right about face’. We only use about 40 of them on the displays that we give.
So the drills were for the practicalities of moving from point A to point B in some shape or form?
Yes, but obviously, on top of the marching, there are all the musket drills, whilst marching, and when engaging in the act of firing.
I wasn’t sure if you did any drills purely for display purposes?
It depends on the time available and what the people, who have invited us to display, actually want to see. The Royal Marines, when we put on a display for their 350th anniversary celebration, wanted to have a demonstration of the cannon firing. So for that, we put away the muskets, and all the drills revolved around the firing of the three-pounder cannon.
Do you fire a rifle?
I’ve had a couple of goes under supervision. I don’t have a firearms license yet, so I’m restricted in what I can do. We have reproduction muskets, which we load with black powder, giving us a muzzle flash with smoke and a bang, without actually firing anything.
Apart from improving your own drill techniques etc; do you have any longer term plans?
Not really, I’d like to get involved in encouraging more people to join the Guard. We could do with some more volunteers. There’s fantastic camaraderie among the guys; we always have good laugh, but still take it seriously at the same time. There’s a lot of local history that’s tied into what we do, so there’s plenty to get your teeth into if you have a passion for history. Particularly military history from this period. The Guard provides everything the members need. The firearms license fees, all the kit and the uniforms, are covered by appearance fees at the various displays. As members, we only pay a nominal sum of £5 a year. Where else can you have that much fun for so little outlay?
Where else can you have that much fun for so little outlay?
Web Links and References of interest
The Fort Cumberland Guard
The Fort Cumberland Guard
Facebook: Fort Cumberland Guard Facebook Page
The Portsmouth Festival Players
Facebook: The Festival Players