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(continued)

 

In selecting the men who appeared with him at that first meeting of the Torquay Rifle Volunteers, Henry Rodway chose well. He seems to have selected men younger than himself and some may have been friends of his two eldest sons, William and Charles, who also became involved.

 

The status of these up and coming men can be judged by William H. Kitson. On the death of his uncle in 1833, William Kitson, a solicitor,  had taken sole charge of Torquay's Palk Estates - a huge responsibility he held until 1874 and a post which ensured that he was a central figure in all the happenings of Torquay for some forty years. He and his wife had a large family of whom William H. Kitson was the eldest son and as such young William was to inherit, not only his father's wealth, but his importance in the town. Another example is John Fisher; he was a young Cambridge graduate who became Torquay's leading chemist and druggist. By 1854, both William H. Kitson and William Rodway (Henry's eldest son) had received commissions, the first as Lieutenant and the second as Ensign, both having joined the Volunteers as Privates.

 

The first general muster of the battalion took place at Torquay on the 19th of August 1853 when 80 men marched to Daddy Hole Plain and were drilled. A sham fight had been arranged with the local coastguards who were supposed to descend on Torquay to be vanquished by the Volunteers but it rained so persistently and heavily that this part of the exercise had to  be abandoned. But Henry Rodway kept them enthused and on 28 January 1854, Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported:

 

"The Company of the South Devon Rifles which has been progressing and forming in Torquay, is now nearly completed. With a few more additions, the required complement of men will  have been obtained. Arms and accoutrements have now been delivered to nearly the whole company, which is already in such a state of discipline as to command the approbation of military gentlemen and the warm admiration of their soldier-like appearance elicited from all parties on their recent appearance at the Town Hall to aid the civil power in the preservation of order, must have been highly gratifying to the gallant Captain Rodway."

 

 

"Helping the civil powers", "preservation of law and order" - surely this was not meant to be the purpose of the Torquay Rifle Volunteers? Their intervention on this occasion was brought about by memories of what had happened  in Torquay on a previous occasion when its poorest citizens rioted. Local magistrates needed to act quickly when it happened again in the January of 1854 and it would have been useless to wait for the arrival of the military - they were too busy quelling riots in Exeter itself and in neighbouring Barnstaple and Tiverton. Among Torquay's men of property there was considerable panic and not without cause - five years later, an angry mob were to attempt to burn down the Town Hall. In fear of the outcome of the 1854 unrest, Captain Rodway and his Volunteers were sent for and proved to be  intimidating enough to make the would-be rioters turn around and go home quietly once they saw their serried ranks outside the Town Hall.

 

The high price of basic foodstuffs such as bread was to blame for all this unrest in Devon and the riots of the mid 19th century are referred to as the Bread Riots. 1846 and 1847 were terrible years in Devon; there were wide-spread crop failures which caused great want and distress among the poor. In May 1846, there was a serious bread riot at Exeter, followed by others at Exmouth, Dawlish, Okehampton, Cullompton, Crediton and Tiverton. By May 17th 1846, the unrest had spread to Torquay: What happened that night had left those responsible for law and order in the town with a very healthy respect for the possible consequences if it should happen again,

 

From "The History of Torquay" by J. T. White

(published 1878):

"May 1846: Rumours were current several days previously that a riot was meditated, but so little was danger apprehended that no preparation was made to guard against it. At half past seven in the evening, a mob collected in Lower Union Street, and at once made an attack on the bakers' shops, the contents of which were carried off by the women in their aprons.



The mob hurried down Fleet Street and attacked the shop of Mr. Wills at the corner of George Street; but one of the defenders, armed with a crowbar, dealt the leader a terrific blow on the head which felled him to the ground and he was carried off senseless.



The next places attacked were Mr. Cove's shop in Swan Street and Mr. Bowden's, the second shop on the Strand, but as the bread at the latter place was thrown out to them, the mob refrained from inflicting any damage."

 

On this occasion in 1846, as full-scale rioting got underway in Torquay's streets, enthusiastically assisted by a gang of navvies who were working on the new railway line just up the road, two magistrates sent for all available constables and coastguards and swore-in dozens of special constables. The Riot Act was read and eventually, the ring-leaders were rounded-up and taken to Exeter where they were given prison sentences. But in 1854, the magistrates  managed to pre-empt major trouble by calling on Rodway's group of trained and disciplined men to hold off the angry crowds - surely, none of the Volunteers themselves could have envisaged that one day they might have to face people of their own town in this way but at least, on that night, just seeing them there had been enough to turn the crowd around and change its mood.

 

This event proved to be a turning point too for the Torquay Rifle Volunteers. There was no more derision at their drill efforts, no more suggestion that they were just hobby soldiers - they had saved the day and they  won widespread respect for their efforts; from that time on their public appearances were closely followed by the townspeople and highly praised in the local press.

 

 

 
 
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