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Friday, 25 July 2014

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When a Silloth weapons range welcomed Afghanistan royalty

SHAHZADA. Not a word that means much to us nowadays, but in early 1895 most people would have known it.

They’d seen it in the newspapers, local and national, which reported on the state visit to Britain of The Shahzada Nazrullah Khan, the second son of the Amir of Afghanistan.

Silloth folk most certainly knew his name, because he was due to pay them a visit on Saturday, June 15, of that year. He’d been to Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and London – to name but a few places he’d visited. But why would a remote and relatively unknown spot like Silloth have been included in his busy schedule? For one reason only. To view a demonstration of guns and armaments which had been organised by the Newcastle firm, Armstrong, Mitchell and Company, one of the major arms manufacturers in the world.

It has to be remembered that the Shahzada, who reportedly didn’t speak English too well, was undertaking a long and arduous state visit, was only 20 years of age. He’d travelled all over the country, albeit in his personal train, having to endure innumerable long and boring addresses from assorted “very important people.” Little wonder that some of the more unkind papers had depicted him as being more than a little uninterested in some of the civic celebrations laid on for him. The Cumberland Pacquet reporter described him as “a stolid, impassive, and greatly bored youth.”

What did interest him were examples of technological development, he was much taken with Liverpool’s Overhead Railway. Back in Afghanistan he’d been interested in how modern technology could change his country. He was also, as that reporter observed, extremely interested in guns, gun making and gun firing. He also enjoyed his visit to Ascot.

After leaving Glasgow, the royal train arrived at Carlisle Citadel Station, where he was received by an assortment of local dignitaries. He was introduced to the Mayor, George Coulthard. A Colonel Talbot acted as interpreter. After a few brief formalities, the royal train left for Silloth as the local military band played “God Save the Queen.”

It took only an hour to reach the Elswick Company’s gun range at Blitterlees Banks. One report has it that the adjoining area was packed full of visitors, all eager to view the proceedings. The “Workington Star” reporter saw it differently, writing: “I wanted to see what Silloth looked like when there were more than a dozen people in it. There was no change in its appearance.”

He added, rather unsympathetically: “Silloth is a sea-side resort with three wide streets gaping for visitors that never come, and even the Shazahda didn’t fetch them to any great extent.”

The reporter was most unimpressed by the proceedings, especially the performance of the National Anthem by a local military band.

The Shazahda was shown round the guns to be used, all of which had been brought over from the Elswick factory. The party then adjourned to a tent on the nearby hillside to view the test firings of the naval guns.

He wasn’t too interested in the naval guns, but he was more than keenly interested in the guns which could have been used in the field and, more importantly, in mountain terrains – Howitzers, Nordenfelts and Maxims – especially the Maxim gun. After the test firing, he insisted on going down to examine the damage wrought by the firings on the two steel plate targets. One had been easily penetrated. The other, having been specially “prepared” at Elswick, only buckled. Ideal protection for gunners using these smaller guns.

He was most impressed by the way in which these mountain guns could be rapidly taken to pieces and loaded on to two pack mules for easy transport; useful when fighting in the mountains. In passing, when these guns were in general use in India and Afghanistan, the asking price for mules and donkeys shot through the roof.

He was so impressed by the Maxim gun that he wanted to see another display but it was not to be. The demonstrators hadn’t brought enough ammunition with them. He did however insist on further examining the guns and the equipment used for measuring velocity. This made his departure at least half an hour overdue.

But this erratic timekeeping wasn’t unusual. At least he did turn up at Silloth. The eager citizens of Paisley had turned out the day before to welcome their royal visitor – but he didn’t turn up, but then I don’t think Paisley ever had a reputation for making guns.

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