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45th YEAR OF THE ERMINE STREET GUARD

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE ERMINE STREET GUARD

(By Chris Haines MBE)

ORIGINS

Over the years various versions of the history of The Guard have appeared in several publications. However, it was felt that, in our 35th year, it was time for an updated version – which follows.
In the autumn of 1971 I was laying in Cheltenham Hospital having been slashed in the back by a boar which had decided it did not need my help to serve a sow. One of my visitors was the Reverend Thornton, rector of our parish, who outlined his idea to hold a historical pageant in the combined parishes of Witcombe and Bentham, Gloucestershire. The Pageant was to reflect the history of the village, which lies alongside the Roman road known as Ermin Street. Any monies raised were to go towards the building of the present village hall.
At a meeting in the following January, attended by Founder Members Bill Mayes and Geoff Matthews it was decided that we would be part of a contubernium of eight Roman soldiers, representing the Roman period of the village. From the start it was decided that the armour and equipment would be above “theatrical” levels. Work was started on eight sets of lorica segmentata based on the drawings by H. Russell Robinson published in Graham Webster’s “The Roman Imperial Army”.These,incidently, appeared in the second edition of this book long after they were known to be wrong.
On the 2nd/3rd July 1972 the contubernium duly marched out three times each day in their galvanised steel armour, with fibreglass helmets and carrying hardboard shields. The two day event was called “The Ermine Street Ghosts” and attracted some 2,500 members of the public. A month later a sponsored march in full armour from Cirencester to Witcombe (12 miles) raised further funds for the village hall. It was during this march, at our lunchtime break, that the Landlady of the Five Mile House Pub locked us out.
Very soon we started to get requests to appear at local venues and one evening, on the spur of the moment, we were asked what our title would be. Without much thought we chose to be called “The Ermine Street Guard”.
Early in 1973 some of our kit had been taken to the Limes Conference in Cardiff attended by H. Russell Robinson (Keeper of Armouries at The Tower of London). He was to remark that it was a pity so much effort had gone into something that was so wrong. Our helmets he likened to those of coal miners and he said our crests were like Hitler’s moustache! “What did he know”, we said, “it’s only one man’s opinion”.

DEVELOPMENT


It gradually dawned on us, however, that there were major inaccuracies with all the equipment and it would have to be changed. A programme was therefore started to research and replace the kit as funds and evidence became available. From the onset a lack of funds meant that most equipment was made by the Society – a policy still followed to this day. It is with a sense of pride that we are able to say that 90% of our equipment is made within the Group.
The replacement of loricae segmentatae became a priority and work progressed slowly on this until Len Morgan joined us in 1978. His enthusiasm and access to an engineering workshop greatly accelerated production of Corbridge-type loricae, most of which are still in use today, although their internal leathers have been replaced several times.
Belts, swords, scabbards, shields, sandals and tunics were upgraded. Our original tunics were blue cotton but these were soon replaced by red wool. The original “coal miners” helmets were replaced in 1973 with another fibreglass version which unfortunately turned out to be a hybrid of different types. It was not until a chance meeting in Winchester with armourer Nigel Clough in 1982 that we began to acquire our first metal helmet bowls. Nigel, who at various times was a member of the Society, produced metal helmet bowls to which other Guard members manufactured and added cheek pieces, ear and brow guards and other fittings. Founder Member Mike Garlick made our first mail shirt (lorica hamata) in 1979. In the early eighties he also produced an authentic horn ( cornu ) based on the finds from Pompeii. Our earlier version had been very inaccurate. I clearly remember holding the straight cornu pieces while Mike stood on top of a wardrobe to pour molten lead inside prior to bending them to shape – something that would give modern “health and safety officers” a nightmare!
The loss of Len Morgan in early 1983 gave Martin White the impetus to start producing more accurate and intricate swords, scabbards, phalerae and buckles. These gradually replaced items that had replaced original kit, but which, even after a few years, were no longer considered to be accurate enough. David Hare (see later Exercitus article) has now come to the forefront in the research and production of these items.
In 1993 at the request of Howard Giles, then Head of English Heritage Events Unit, and much advice from Dr Mike Bishop, we made the equipment for two Roman Cavalrymen .Using saddles provided by Peter Connolly the cavalrymen were, and still are, a very popular addition to our displays.

ARTILLERY


The original contubernium of legionaries was equipped with an onager made of railway sleepers and a waterways winch. This was quickly replaced by a more authentic version from drawings produced by Bill Mayes, based on the work of Eric Marsden. This second onager was made from old oak beams which rotted away over five years. A third version was made in the late seventies which continues in use to this day.
In 1977 a three-span catapulta was made based on the Amphorius remains from Spain. This also continues in use, although it, together with a second copy, has recently been refurbished and upgraded. A ballista was produced in 1984.
1984 saw the production of as small Ballista (palintone ).

CONTUBERNIUM TENTS


In 1980 The Guard commissioned the making of a canvas contubernium tent based on the findings of Sir Ian Richmond. Later findings of Roman tent leather at Vindolanda and Carlisle proved that this interpretation was incorrect.
In 1993, with information from Carol Van Driel-Murray, Bill Mayes produced working drawings for the construction of an accurate goat-skin tent. He and Tim Haines then completed the mammoth task of hand sewing some 70 goat skins together. It is calculated that this work took 800 finger-sore hours to complete. A second goat-skin tent was made some four years later using a larger team of workers. As far as we know these remain the only hand stitched contubernium tents in the world. Others have been produced in leather but these have been machine stitched. Very sadly no other Roman Groups have followed the Guard’s example. Indeed there has, in recent years, been a proliferation of small Roman groups equipping themselves with white canvas tents more suitable to the American Civil War period.

OFFICERS


As membership increased so various officers were added to the group. Very soon a Centurion was elected together with a standard bearer (Signifer). When the first cornu was made Mike Garlick took the role of horn blower (Cornicen) which he still holds today. After about five years a flag bearer (Vexillarius) was added together with a Centurion’s deputy ( Optio) in 1980. 1989 saw the election of a carrier of the Emperor’s image (Imagnifer).This is the extent of our officer corps even today apart from contubernium leaders and their deputies. It has always been our policy to make sure that the Society did not have too many chiefs and no Indians. In other words, plenty of ordinary ranks to each officer.

DISPLAYS


In the early days of The Guard, when re-enactment was in its infancy, displays were performed at local fêtes, local shows and school galas. Very often these were a “fête” worse than death. However as we became better known and people began to take our aims more seriously, venues became more appropriate to the period we depicted. By 1978 the programme consisted almost entirely of venues with a strong Roman connection. At one time or another we have displayed at all the major Roman sites in Britain including all those on Hadrian’s Wall, Richborough, Portchester, Fishbourne, Wroxeter and, of course, Caerleon. The Group was first asked to go to the Lunt in 1974 at the opening of the Granary building and attended the opening of the Gyrus in 1976 .The site remained on our programmes for many years but it became a Guard joke that we usually outnumbered the public.
The first museum visit was to Corinium, once again in 1974, when David Viner realised the value of historical interpretation. Important museums visited include York, Chester, Exeter, Colchester, National Army Museum and the British Museum.
With the founding of the English Heritage Events Unit we were immediately asked to appear at three or four of their Roman sites each year – a practice which continues. We are also the only group, of any period, to appear at all Kirby Hall “History in Action” weekends and all five “Festival of History” weekends; two at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire and three at Kelmarsh Hall, Northants.
In 1983 we took our first trip abroad, on that occasion paying for ourselves on a very precarious trip where we were not always sure of our next billet or where our next meal was to come from. We have been abroad at least once every year since, visiting such countries as France, Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Spain and Sweden. For some unknown reason we have never displayed in Italy. Gloucester City took the Centurion to New York in 1997 to promote their Roman heritage.
Guards of Honour have been provided on several occasions for Royalty. Twice for the Duke of Gloucester, once for HRH the Princess Royal and on two occasions for Her Majesty the Queen who at Carlisle was accompanied by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.
We have also marched down the hallowed steps of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to give a display on their famous parade ground to assembled top brass and their guests.

TELEVISION AND FILMING


The Guard has appeared in many television documentaries during its history. Indeed one member, whilst visiting New York, saw the Society on three separate programmes during the course of one day. We have taken part in five “Time Team” television programmes. Mick Ashton (of Time Team) had always been a fan of the Society and brought us into their second programme filmed at Ribchester. However, our most memorable “Time Team” programme was at Cirencester where our Roman crane (Trispastos) lifted a 10cwt piece of stone column.
One of the best programmes we were part of was called “The Roman Way of War” about Trajan’s Dacian campaigns. This was part of TV’s “Timewatch” series.
On many occasions we have been in programmes about the Boudiccan revolt, the most memorable being at Butser where three Celts were injured, two with puncture wounds and one with concussion. I shall never forget the sight of our legionaries dragging Celtic women by the hair. At the time of writing six members will soon be travelling to Swansea for another Boudiccan film session with the director Ken Russell.
With filming we soon realised that, far from being glamorous, it involved much repetition, great discomfort, being too hot or very wet and cold and many long hours trying to get that elusive shot. On some shoots The Guard was treated with respect, on others like the hired help.
Filming has however become less frequent of late as production companies expect turnouts at very short notice for very little money. Some of the fees offered are an insult.

STATIC DISPLAY


From the beginning the Society recognised the importance of having a static display or camp where we could talk to the public and show information about the Roman Army. By our second year we had commissioned a large tent where display boards gave this information and artefacts could be put on show. A “touch table” also gave the public the chance to handle armour and equipment.
Our first display tent was made in light orange canvas which unfortunately let in the rain as a fine mist. When funds became available this was replaced with the large white marquee still in use today. The display boards were updated in 1997 by Clive Constable using artwork supplied by Peter Connolly, Graham Sumner and himself.
The contubernium tents are, of course, a very important part of the static display and form the centrepiece of our camp scene. The public can see food being cooked over an open fire and learn about the diet of the Roman soldier. Many tools and artefacts help to explain the soldier’s daily life. A set of medical instruments is of particular interest to the public and the “Time Team” crane mentioned above is also displayed. The size of our static display is rather restricted by our pursuit of authenticity which means we cannot add any more tents without the mind numbing task of sewing goat skins together.

ADMINISTRATION AND IMPLEMENTATION


Since its inception The Guard has had a democratic constitution. Indeed, when the Society received charitable status in September 1998 very few changes had to be made to this. Each year an annual general meeting elects a Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer together with six other committee members to run the group. One of its duties is to approve Guard equipment. A clause in the constitution states:
“The design and materials of all general equipment must be approved by the Officium” (committee).
By adhering to this we have been able to make sure that nothing inappropriate or non-authentic is used. Only recently a heated discussion took place, in committee, about the finer details of shield covers.
For the smooth running of The Guard it is now essential that someone is available almost full time. It has been my job to fill this role. Indeed, looking back, I cannot understand how I was able to run both the Group and the farm, until pig keeping ceased at Oakland Farm in 1993.
The Guard has always been fortunate to have the facilities at Oakland Farm, which is its headquarters. A small workshop and store were built there in the early years to be replaced by one twice the size some years later. When farming ceased in 1993 further buildings were taken over for workshops and storage. There is also space for members to stay over when making kit or attending events.
At this point it is important to mention the considerable contribution made by my ex-wife, Liz, from 1972 until we parted in 1994. Not many women would have put up with the considerable disruptions caused by the Group. This included providing accommodation, impromptu meals (who can forget Dan Peterson eating all the cake?) and putting up with the continued inconvenience of people in and out of what was a family home. Without her help the Society would not be where it is today.
We have always had good Secretaries but none could surpass the present occupant of this post, Mike Knowles, who gets things done immediately.

MEMBERSHIP


Recruitment has always been a lot slower than we would have liked, rising to 35 in 1981 and 41 in 1995. Today membership is higher than it has ever been with 60 on the books. The members are mainly male with a small female contingent. In the interests of accuracy we do not allow females to take male roles.
In 1972 and for a few years after, recruits all came from the local area. However, as we grew, additions to the ranks came from farther afield. Our membership is now scattered all over Britain, as far north as Aberdeen and as far south as Exeter. Most counties of England have at least one member and a sixth of the Society lives in Wales. Scotland provides a contingent of three.
Today members come from all walks of life and include bankers, prison officers, police officers, a toy maker, a bricklayer, an archaeologist, an electrician, a landscape gardener, a sewage engineer, schoolteachers and social workers to name but a few. All are brought together with a common interest in the Roman period and in the Society itself.

SUMMARY


In its 35th year it is worth considering what has made The Ermine Street Guard so successful and so unique.
From the start it has always aimed high and pursued a policy of “getting things right”. However we have never been complacent and are always questioning ourselves and are willing to consider new research and finds from the academic and archaeological world. The Guard has always had a good two way relationship with the academic world.
We have greatly benefited from the unique blend of people who at one time or another have been members of the Society. When one has left or when another’s energy or enthusiasm has waned, sometimes only temporarily, there have been others to take their place.
Our “all for one and one for all” policy has always stood us in good stead, particularly when it comes to armour and equipment. Most kit is made by the members and belongs to the Society. This is the wealth of the Society and means that no one can leave and take Guard kit with them. In 1983 we survived a breakaway when, out of a membership of 40 just five members formed another group, but could not take any equipment with them.
The re-enactment world in general, but the Roman one in particular, is very prone to breakaways. I have heard recently of a group of only six breaking in half as egos clash.
Overall I think our success is because we aimed high but never became complacent and never thought we had reached the top.
Forgive the pun, but we have always aimed for “high standards”. In this very important year for us there are no signs of their diminishment.