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A romantic double rifle

Each month we choose an object from our collection and shine a light on its history. The object of the month for October has been selected by Curator of Firearms, Mark Murray-Flutter.

The Royal Armouries holds one of the largest production game rifles made in Britain, in this case a 4-bore double rifle by the great London gun makers Holland & Holland. The rifle is extraordinary in its own way, especially for its size and weight, but the owner was as interesting. It is also rare to find a rifle, or indeed any firearm, that has a romantic story attached to it, as this does.

Large double barelled rifle

Centrefire breech-loading double-barrelled rifle – By Holland & Holland (1887) Formerly belonging to Ewart Scott Grogan.

This story concerns a young man much in love, Ewart Scott Grogan (1874-1967), and his pursuit of a young woman, Gertrude Watt (c.1877-1943). Ewart Grogan was one of the most swashbuckling and colourful figures of African colonial history. A gentleman adventurer in the Elizabethan tradition, Grogan was born in 1874, the 14th of 21 children of William Grogan, the Irish Surveyor-General of the Duchy of Lancaster a private royal estate since 1265. He was a restless man and had by the age of 21 already been elected the youngest ever member of the Alpine Club, been sent down from Cambridge for his predilection for practical jokes and walked out of the Slade School of Art.

ewart scott grogan dressed in a floppy hat and carrying a rifle with a pipe in his mouth

Ewart Scott Grogan.

Then in 1896, having read Rider Haggard, the writer of exotic adventure novels mostly set in Africa, such as King Solomon’s Mines (1882), turmed his back on home comforts and travelled to Cape Town, where he enlisted in the British South Africa Company’s war in the Matabeleland, during which he would serve in the personal escort of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes would later become a friend and supporter of Grogan.

In order to recover from his harrowing war experiences he embarked on a long sea voyage to New Zealand where he quickly met and fell in love with a New Zealand beauty and heiress Gertrude Watt. But Gertrude’s aristocratic and sceptical stepfather was not impressed by Grogan’s credentials dismissing him as a ‘useless fortune hunter’ and told him that if he wanted her hand in marriage he had better prove himself. Grogan responded to this challenge with characteristic flamboyance, declaring that he intended to be the first man to trek across the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo.

A map of Africa showing Grogan's route

Map showing E.S. Grogan’s route. The first crossing of Africa from South to North.

Now aged 23 and determined to fulfil this quest he set about equipping himself, and his fiancé’s uncle, Arthur ‘Harry’ Sharp, who was to accompany him, with appropriate rifles, guns and equipment suitable for their joint passion of safaris and exploration. He visited the great London gun makers Holland & Holland where he found a large double-barrelled rifle chambered for the enormous 4-bore cartridge. He purchased it as a second-hand rifle, it had originally been made in 1887 for a Mr H.C.W. Hunter. The actual rifle is hammerless with back-action locks and weighs a staggering 23 pounds. Though large and heavy it was to accompany Grogan on his long trek, along with his trusty double .303 rifle.

Open rifle showing both barrels and cartridge

Rifle broken open to reveal both barrels. Shown with the enormous 4-bore cartridge.

In 1898 he set out on the great trek, after many adventures, close shaves and near-death experiences, including on one occasion where he had to use his 4-bore double rifle to dispatch a charging rhino, describing it as one of most frightening incidents he had to face. Half-starved and fever-ridden after two years in the bush and jungle, Grogan recorded that he finally emerged alone (his companion ‘Harry’ Sharp having returned home, after refusing to continue the journey into the deadly Dinka swamps south of Fashoda) to meet an astonished Captain Dunn, R.A.M.C. of a British exploratory expedition. Dunn could not believe his eyes at finding himself shaking hands with a white man anywhere near the Upper Nile. Their surreal conversation was quintessentially British:

Captain Dunn: “How do you do?”

Grogan: “Oh, very fit, thanks; how are you? Had any sport?”

Dunn: “Oh, pretty fair, but there is nothing much here. Have a drink? You must be hungry; I’ll hurry on lunch. Had any shooting? See any elephant?”

Grogan gropes for his rifle in the undergrowth whilst facing a rhino

Grogan is “…compelled to stoop down and grope” for his 4-bore rifle.

They then washed, lunched, discussed the current South African War and it was only then that Dunn asked him “where the devil he had come from”. So in this rather off-hand way Grogan’s epic adventure came to an end, as the rest of the journey to Cairo was completed by river steamer. He returned to London in early 1900, a hero and famous throughout the Empire. On his return he presented the three English flags he had taken with him to Africa: one to Queen Victoria, another to Cecil Rhodes and the third he presented to his future wife Gertrude.

Grogan became the youngest man ever to address the Royal Geographical Society, and would later publish his experiences as From the Cape to Cairo (1900). More importantly, he had proved himself to Gertrude’s stepfather: the couple were married shortly before Grogan left for a lecture tour of America. In 1904 they moved to Kenya where he would acquire a reputation as a ‘bad’ boy. They spent the rest of their lives together before Grogan died in 1967 aged 92.

Discover more about this object and others in our online collection catalogue.

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