Horses’ heads to the east, and other rules of RSGS membership

The archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society are a never-ending source of delight.   I discovered these two newspaper cuttings recently, giving last-minute instructions about a glittering event to be held in the centre of Edinburgh the following evening.  The date was 24th November 1886, and it seems that the upper echelons of society were preparing to turn out en masse to celebrate the second anniversary of the RSGS.   The venue was the Museum of Science and Art (now the National Museum of Scotland) in Chambers Street, and delivering the address was a man called Sir Charles Warren.  Later, the guests could look forward to an elegantly named ‘Conversazione’…

1886 Conversazione Crop 2Scotsman, Wednesday, 24th November 1886


“MEMBERS and their GUESTS who are provided with Tickets (Yellow) admitting to the Lecture Hall (to be produced at the door) are requested to take their Seats as soon as they have been received by the President and Council.

Sir CHARLES WARREN’S ADDRESS will Commence punctually at 8.30 pm.  Those guests who have Tickets (Pink) admitting to the CONVERSAZIONE ONLY (from 9.30 to 10.30) will be admitted any time after 8 pm.

Gentlemen will greatly facilitate the duties of the Cloak-Room Attendants by providing themselves with soft hats, that do not require an extra label.  Owing to the increased number of Invitations, the Refreshment-Room, the accommodation in which is limited, will be closed during the evening.”

A. SILVA WHITE, Secretary

The last paragraph holds particular joy, for two different reasons.   Firstly, the advice to gentlemen on their choice of headgear:  what sort of alternative did they have in mind?   Assuming that the formal evening dress of the time would have included a top hat of Titanic proportions, as tall as it was rigid, I’m horribly tempted by the vision of some sort of tweed cap, capable of being squashed into the pocket of a greatcoat so that they could be put on the same hanger.   I can’t imagine Mr Silva White allowing that, however, so I am still slightly baffled.

And the closure of the refreshment room!  I wonder how that went down?   With the whole of Edinburgh descending in its finery!   I can almost detect a military presence in the background, like a commander who has just seen uncontrolled hordes advancing over a ridge.  And talking of well-ordered exits, let’s look at the second news cutting…

1886 Conversazione Crop 3Evening News, 24th November 1886



I.  The Drivers of all Carriages, whether Private or Hackney Carriages, taking parties to the Museum, must approach in a single line by way of George IV Bridge and Chambers Street, and set down at the entrance to the Museum, and after setting down shall drive off by the East.
II.   The Drivers of Disengaged Carriages in waiting shall draw up in single line, with the horses’ heads to the East, on the South side of Chambers Street, and with the horses’ heads to the North, on the East side of Lindsay and Bristo Places, Bristo Street, Chapel Street, and Buccleuch Street, and after taking up shall drive off by the East.
III.   Private Carriages in waiting shall be stationed on North side of Chambers Street, George IV Bridge, and High Street, and on taking up drive off by the East.
IV.    Parties who have not Private Carriages must, when leaving, take the first Hackney Carriage in waiting.
V.   No Driver of a Hackney Carriage shall take up a party leaving the Museum except at the Entrance to the Museum and all parties wanting Hackney Carriages are required to wait at the Museum till the Carriages come up in their Regular Order.
N.B.  Every person guilty of any wilful breach of this Order will be liable to a Penalty not exceeding 40s.

City Chambers, Edinburgh, 22nd Nov, 1886

What a wonderful picture that conjures up!  I had always imagined the days of horse-drawn carriages to be more easy-going and sedate, but of course, in the centre of a city, traffic had to be regulated to avoid a free-for-all.  I would just love to have seen the rows of carriages, with the horses’ heads all pointing to the East (or North) – and woe betide anyone who tried to hail a cab out of line.  The men in their white tie and (debatable) top hats, and the ladies in their jewels and furs… you can imagine the horses stamping impatiently, their breath condensing in the cold night air.

This was going to be a short post.   But then, I made the fatal mistake of looking up Sir Charles Warren.   Was it he who was attracting all the attention?  And if so, what was all the fuss about?

Who was Sir Charles Warren?

Sir Charles Warren by Elliott & Fry, c.1886
Sir Charles Warren by Elliott & Fry, c.1886

It’s not a name that I immediately recognised, but having found some records about Sir Charles, it seems that, in 1886, both his reputation and his moustache would certainly have preceded him.

Surveyor of the Rock of Gibraltar

Warren was born in 1840 in Bangor, North Wales, and was educated at grammar schools in Shropshire before going on to the military colleges of Sandhurst and Woolwich.  Emerging as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, he was sent to Gibraltar where, with the assistance of Major-General Edward Charles Frome, he carried out a detailed topographical survey and made two 26-foot models of the famous Rock.

It’s a delight to imagine their conversation:

“What are you about, Frome, old chap?  I thought I’d asked you to hold the rod steady until I’d got a fix on it!”

“Well, dash it, Warren, I would do so with pleasure, but one of the demmed monkeys has just made off with it.  Shall we call it a day?  The sun is well over the yardarm and I favour a gin and tonic.”

One of the earliest European archaeologists to work in the Holy Land

In 1867, appointed by the Palestine Exploration Fund, Warren found himself in the Middle East, with the task of investigating Biblical sites.  Beneath Temple Mount in Jerusalem he discovered a series of ancient tunnels and a water shaft, named ‘Warren’s Shaft’ in his honour;  these features have since been dated to at least the 18th century BC, and are believed to have been part of a secret water supply to the city.   Although the shaft itself is thought by some modern archaeologists to be natural, it doesn’t in any way detract from the bravery of one of Warren’s team members, who was lowered into the confined, dark tunnel and descended 45 feet to the pool at the bottom.

Head of Scotland Yard

If you were going to govern the London police force at any stage in the last 150 years, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to do so during the Jack the Ripper murders.  Unfortunately, this was the lot that fell to Sir Charles Warren.

Less than a year after he delivered his celebratory speech to the RSGS, Warren was appointed Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.  He clashed with cabinet ministers over the provision of better footwear for his men, which should have earned him more praise than it did;  but then things went rather pear-shaped.  In November 1887 the police used unnecessary force to dispel a demonstration of the Metropolitan Radical Association in Trafalgar Square, and sentiments immediately turned against Warren.

This wasn’t the best foundation on which to build public trust when the Whitechapel Murders began in April 1888.   The perpetrator was never identified or caught, and Warren must have felt increasingly frustrated as the horrifying events unfolded.

From Bechuanaland to the Boy Scouts

Caricature of Warren in Vanity Fair, 1886
Caricature of Warren in Vanity Fair, 1886

Early in Warren’s military career, in December 1884, he had been sent as a Special Commissioner to Bechuanaland, a short-lived British colony in southern Africa.   The Warren Expedition comprised a force of 4,000 British and local troops, and its purpose, in setting out from Cape Town, was to reinforce British sovereignty in the face of incursions by the Boer states of Stellaland and Goshen.  The expedition succeeded, without bloodshed.  It’s interesting to read that Warren was assisted by the first observation balloons ever used by the British Army in the field.

15 years later, when the Second Boer War broke out in 1899, Warren commanded the 5th Division of the South African Field Force.  The machinations of the Boer War are beyond my scope, but from first impressions it appears that Warren’s efforts were not appreciated by his contemporaries.  He came back to Britain in 1900 and applied himself to more peaceful pursuits, including assisting Robert Baden-Powell to set up the Boy Scout movement, and writing books on Biblical archaeology.

There’s more to Sir Charles’ life than this, both good and bad, and as always with these stiff-upper-lipped Victorian martinets, there is plenty of interest beneath the surface.   I might delve a bit deeper at some stage.   Meanwhile, I am sure he enjoyed his reception with the RSGS in Edinburgh, and afterwards I hope he managed to find a convenient carriage.


Images of Sir Charles Warren via Wikimedia;  photos of news cuttings by Jo Woolf, from RSGS archives.  The banner image is taken from an engraving of Edinburgh in 1886.

Writing about history and landscape at The Hazel Tree ( Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

5 thoughts on “Horses’ heads to the east, and other rules of RSGS membership

  1. “The archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society are a never-ending source of delight”…..I think I would have said amusement as it does raise a titter or two 🙂 Horses heads to the East… think on this we have a car park that states Park with exhaust pointing away from the building. May be they had a point?! .

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  2. These are most entertaining discoveries you’ve found! You had me grinning from ear to ear with your description of the carriage line-up. I hope you find out more about Sir Charles, he does sound like an interesting character. And that is a quite remarkable mustache! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really glad you think so too, Pat! 🙂 Yes, how wonderful it would have been, to see the lines of carriages! Old newspaper cuttings conjure up a whole lost world. Sir Charles surprised me (as they always do!) with his interesting and varied life, and I’m sure he won lots of admiration for that moustache. I’m going to have to find out more about him now. Thanks for your comment! 🙂


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