The Water Rats

The story of Captain John Hope and the Water Rats, as told by local historian, George Robinson…

John Hope was born in Dalry House, Edinburgh in 1807. He was educated at the Royal High School before deciding to studying law and enter the legal profession. Using his legal skills and connections he dedicated his life to improving the living conditions of the city’s working class, especially children.

Due to the threat of French invasion, Volunteer regiments were raised in towns and cities all over the U.K. Raised by John Hope in 1859, No. 16 Company, Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers were required to sign the pledge, promising to abstain from taking drugs, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol. The company’s cap badge consisted of a lion’s head with a jet of water streaming from its mouth.

To provide future recruits, Captain Hope also decided to form the British League Cadets (predecessors of the Boys’ Brigade). Nicknamed the ‘Water Rats’, as the cadets were also required to sign the pledge, the headquarters of the British League was situated at 53 Rose Street, behind the Assembly Rooms. Issued with carbines, the cadets practiced drill in the Grassmarket Corn Exchange and at schools in various parts of the city. The corps also had a fife and drum band.

In 1862 the cadets made their first public appearance in uniform. Wearing red forage caps and Garibaldi shirts, dark blue trousers and brown leather gaiters, the cadets were inspected by the Lord Provost, Charles Lawson, in the High School Yards. The following year the corps was inspected by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, when he arrived in Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City.

When John Hope raised the 3rd Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers in 1867, the members of No. 16 Company transferred to the new regiment. In addition to the fifes and drums, the British League Cadets now had a brass band.

In July 1868 two hundred and fifty cadets took part in a mock battle on the parade ground in the Queen’s Park. From the Salisbury Crags to St Anthony’s Chapel overlooking St Margaret’s Loch, the slopes were covered with thousands of men, women and children who had turned out to see the Volunteers in action. Following the manoeuvres, the troops were to be reviewed by the Lord Provost, William Chambers.

Receiving the order to advance at two o’clock, the First Division consisting of the 8th Royal Hussars, Fife Mounted, Rifles, 18th Royal Irish, engineer corps and five Volunteer rifle regiments including the cadets, supported by three field guns, headed along the Queen’s Drive towards Meadowbank. The Second Division, consisting of eight Volunteer rifle regiments supported by three field guns, set off along the Queen’s Drive in the opposite direction, towards St Leonards.

Reaching the spot where the battle was to take place, the hussars and mounted riflemen followed by the horse-drawn field guns continued to advance, while the 18th Royal Irish, Volunteer riflemen and cadets halted and formed up into squares.

Drawing their swords as the bugler sounded the charge, the hussars galloped towards the squares followed by the mounted riflemen. Raising their rifles and carbines to their shoulders on receiving the order, the infantry and the ‘wee warriors’ commenced volley firing before charging forward to capture the field guns.

John Hope died in 1893. Although the lawyer who had dedicated his life to improving the lives of the city’s underprivileged left instructions that only family members and close associates should be invited to his funeral, his burial in Greyfriars Kirkyard was attended by hundreds of men, women and children from all sections of the community.


A note from George, for those interested in local history:

One o’Clock Gun Association is giving weekly talks at the Nelson Monument.

‘Astronomy on Calton Hill during the 19th century’, by Dr Bruce Vickery

2.30 pm every Saturday

Tickets £5.00

(includes admission to the gallery exhibition and observation platform)



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