The First York

13 July 2023

An article originally posted on October 18, 2014 by Nicola Turner

Jan Sachers – archer and historian – reveals the unique history of the York round and the development of national competition

The second half of the 18th century saw the resurrection of archery as a pastime and sport for English gentlemen. A great number of local clubs were formed, and though some were very short lived, most established their own targets, shooting distances, sets of rules, and scoring systems at will. ‘Shooting at the butts’, practiced since medieval times, was still very popular in those days. Target faces were attached to two opposing earth mounds and shot both ways, in one direction first, then – after scoring and pulling arrows – the other way, usually over distances of 120, 90, 60 or 30 yards.

Near the end of the century target faces made from linen, painted with concentric circles or rings in varying colours, became common. However, numbers, diameters, colours, and scores of these rings still varied widely from club to club. The more popular archery became as a competitive pastime, and the more clubs and archery societies came into being, hosting shoots all over the country, the more this inconsistency of the rules was considered a problem.

HRH George IV, painted in 1791 by John Russell wearing the uniform of the Royal Kentish Bowmen

HRH George IV, painted in 1791 by John Russell wearing the uniform of the Royal Kentish Bowmen

To the great benefit of English archery the prince regent, and later king, George IV (1762–1830) was a dedicated archer himself and became the royal patron of several archery societies such as the Royal Kentish Bowmen or the Royal Toxophilite Society, which was founded in 1781 and is still in existence today. The standardisation of targets and shooting distances throughout the UK can be attributed to this royal archer.

First, he established a fixed number of rings and their colours, following the pattern used by the Finsbury Archers, which had been in use since at least 1754. The central gold – still painted with real gold paint at the time, not yellow – was to score nine points. Next followed the red ring scoring seven points, the inner white (later changed to blue) was five points, then black (three points), and finally the outer white was worth one point. This set of scoring rings became known as ‘The Prince’s Colours’ and is still in use for ‘Imperial Round’ shoots in the UK and the US today.

But in order to compare results from different shoots, distances had to be standardised, too. Prince George established rounds to be shot from 100, 80, and 60 yards.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) archery – like many other aspects of public life in England – came to a near complete stop. The Royal British Bowmen, founded in 1787, and the Royal Tox count among the few societies that lasted through it and were still in existence in the 1820s and 1830s. George’s successors king William IV (reigned 1830-1837) and Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) upheld the tradition of royal patronage over selected archery societies. On the occasion of her accession to the throne in 1837 the latter even endowed a prize, the Royal Victoria Challenge Prize, and appointed a Master of Archery for the royal household.

Attempts by individual archers, the few remaining societies, and their patrons, to re-establish the sport in England once more led to the tentative idea of having national meetings or even championships. Only in 1843, however, had English archery recovered enough for those ambitions to become anything more than pie in the sky. In that year one William Gray, Hon Sec of the Thirsk Bowmen, started correspondence with a number of leading and well-known archers of other societies, discussing the idea of an annual competition for all archers within the UK.

Coloured steel engraved plate commemorating the 1823 meeting of the Royal British Bowmen

Coloured steel engraved plate commemorating the 1823 meeting of the Royal British Bowmen

A coloured steel engraving to commemorate the 1823 meeting of the Royal British Bowmen shows their survival through the upheaval of the Napoleonic wars.

Gray’s efforts eventually led to the first Grand National Archery Meeting being held in York in 1844. Rules of shooting had been the subject of prolonged and intense debate before, until it was agreed to shoot six dozen arrows at 100 yards, four dozen at 80 yards, and two dozen at 60 yards. The mark was to be a target face in the Prince’s Colours. This mode of shooting thus became known as the York round, and has remained the standard form for national competitions in target archery ever since. Some meetings, however, will shoot a Double York round over the course of two days, scores of both rounds added up to determine the winner – after shooting 288 arrows in total, over three different distances.

Three additional nationwide meetings had been institutionalised before 1861, each following the rules for shooting laid down by the first GNAM: the Leamington and Midland Counties Meeting first held in 1854, the Crystal Palace Meeting (1859), and the Grand Western Meeting (1861). 1861 was the year in which the Grand National Archery Society (GNAS) was founded, to act as the governing body of the sport of archery in Great Britain; in 2008 the name was changed to Archery GB. Upon its formation in the 1870s the National Archery Association of the United States also adopted the York round as its mode of shooting in national competitions.

1908 Olympic gold medallist Sybil Fenton ‘Queenie‘ Newall

1908 Olympic gold medallist Sybil Fenton ‘Queenie‘ Newall

1908 Olympic gold medallist Sybil Fenton ‘Queenie‘ Newall was a two-time British champion in the Double National round.

As early as in 1787, the Royal British Bowmen were the first archery society in the UK to accept women not only as accoutrements to their shoots, as dinner-guests or in their ceremonial role as ladies paramount, but welcomed them as fellow archers. Other clubs followed, some rather more hesitantly than others, and the first local shoots for ladies were held, each following their own sets of rules. The first Grand National Archery Meeting had been an exclusively male event, but the second GNAM in the following year saw the first official nationwide championship of lady archers. They shot a total of eight dozen arrows at 60 yards, while in later years it was a number of different combinations of 50 and 60 yards. The National round of four dozen arrows at 60 yards and two dozen at 50 yards was then established in 1849. The Double National round remained the official mode of competition in the ladies’ national championships in Britain until 1948.

The men‘s archery competition at the 1908 Olympic Games in London was shot ‘both ways’ in the old style.

Medals at the Olympic Games in St. Louis 1904 and London 1908 were also shot for by way of the York and National rounds for men and women respectively. However, the set of rules of the GNAS now also included variations such as the New National, Long National, Hereford, Windsor or Western Rounds, as well as shorter distances for indoor shooting.

The undisputed champion of the York Round was Horace A. Ford (1822–1880). He first took up a bow in 1845, and won his first national championship only four years later. Ten more were to follow in annual succession until 1859, and a comeback in 1867, making him the most successful archer of all times. ‘Blacks Mr. Ford abhorred, and whites he seldom made’, his friend and fellow archer Major C. Hawkins Fisher said of him. In 1854, 234 of Ford’s 288 arrows in the Double York round scored a total of 1,074 points. Three years later he trumped his own record with a score of 1,251 points – with the second best only scoring a meagre 786 points! Ford’s high score in the Single York round was only beaten in 1943, but all later record holders used modern recurve bows and aluminium arrows. For the traditional English longbow, Ford’s record still stands to this very day!

Even though considerably fewer ladies than men competed in archery contests in those days, the accomplishments of Alice B. Legh (1855–1948) are no less worthy of mention. Miss Legh won the ladies’ champion title no fewer than 23 times in her long career. She first competed in a public meeting in 1875, and won her first title in 1881. In the four years after, she had to yield only to her own mother, but became national champion again in 1886–1892, 1895, 1898–1900, 1902–1909, 1913, and 1921–1922. She did not compete in the 1908 Olympic Games in London, in order to focus on the national championships the same year, successfully defending her title against Olympic gold medallist Queenie Newall. The 1922 national championships were the last shoot in which Miss Legh ever competed, before she hung up her bow forever, undefeated, at the age of 67.

Leamington Spa hosted the Grand National Archery Meeting in 1851, as reported here by the Illustrated London News, and has hosted the Leamington and Midland Counties Meeting since 1854.