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A Brief History of the Royal Tournament

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On 11th June 1880, The Times published the following notice:

A Military Tournament and Assault-at-Arms is to be held from 21st to 26th inst. At the Agricultural Hall, Islington. The Competitions, which are 53 in number, are to be open to all the regiments within range, and the profits are to be given in aid of the Funds of the Royal Cambridge Asylum for Soldiers’ Widows. They include tilting at the ring, sword v. bayonet, lemon cutting etc. This is the first time that a general tournament of this kind has been organized. Among the Patrons are the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar. Major-General E. S. Burnaby, M.P. is the hon. sec.’

The precise origins of the Tournament are not exactly clear however tradition suggests that the idea originated at the National Rifle Association meetings on Wimbledon Common in the 1870’s. The meets attracted volunteers from across the Victorian Army. Although stories of a Military Tournament held to entertain the competitors at Wimbledon have been muted for years, contemporary newspapers do not record such an event.

However, it is known that sports meetings were held at Wimbledon to amuse the troops during the period between the end of the shooting and the prize giving. The events included tug-o-war, tent pegging, tilting at the ring, slicing the lemon and bayonet exercise. All of which appeared in the first Tournament of 1880.

The initial Tournament was not financially successful, however a donation was made to the charity and subsequent Tournaments began to draw the public in large numbers. In addition to the competitions, bands played during the performance to entertain the crowds. In 1882, the first Musical Ride was performed at the Tournament - Video 1shows the Musical Ride of the Household Cavalry at the 1988 Royal Tournament.

The first Musical Drive by the Royal Artillery was performed at the 1896 Tournament at the Agricultural Hall, Islington. The Musical Drive was a popular part of the Tournament until 1999. The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery was formed in 1947 on the instruction of King George VI, the troop performed at each Royal Tournament until 1999. Video 2 shows the King’s Troop at the 1985 Royal Tournament.

The Tournament remained at the Agricultural Hall until 1905 when the Tournament which by now included participants from the Royal Navy marked the Centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. In the following year, the Tournament relocated to Olympia in West London. The larger venue could accommodate more spectators and allowed for even bigger arena displays.

In 1896 the first “all-naval” display appeared in the programme of the Tournament, which comprised of cutlass drill and field gun drill by forty ratings from HMS Excellent. In 1907, the Royal Navy staged the first Inter Command Field Gun Competition at the Tournament. Video 3 below shows a run between Devonport and the Fleet Air Arm from the 1988 Royal Tournament.

The Tournament continued at Olympia until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. It returned in 1919 following the armistice, with the addition of the newly formed Royal Air Force. The RAF provided a variety of displays over the years, Video 4 shows the RAF Regiment in 1998.

The Tournament was staged annually at Olympia between the Wars and became a highlight in the London scene. Various acts made their debut at the Tournament including the Royal Signals Motorcycle Display Team, now known as the White Helmets.

The Tournament once again closed its doors for the duration of the Second World War. Audiences returned to Olympia in 1947 for the first post war Tournament. In 1948 another display made its debut at the Tournament, the Royal Air Force Police Dog Display Team performed at the Tournament on a number of occasions between 1948 and their disbandment in 1994.

On 14th September 1998 the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson announced that the 1999 Royal Tournament would be the last.

The last Royal Tournament opened on 20th July 1999 and played to full housed at every performance until 2nd August. Following the 1999 run, the Royal Tournament entered the history books after 120 years.

From 2010 to 2013, ABF The Soldiers' Charity staged the British Military Tournament at Earls Court.  The project was led by the last Chairman of the Royal Tournament, Major-General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter.

Video 1 - 1988 Royal Tournament - Musical Ride

Video 2 - 1985 Royal Tournament - Kings Troop RHA

Video 3 - Royal Navy Field Gun Competition 1988

Video 4 -Royal Tournament 1998, RAF Regiment

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