At first sight, Ashford’s County Hotel on the lower High Street is a conventional 18th century building. It is three storeys tall, originally red brick but the top floor and the parapet are now hung with Kentish peg tiles. It has its original sash windows above street level and the entrance doorcase has classical Tuscan columns. A standard, aesthetically-pleasing Georgian building.
But one of its female guests was anything other than classical or conventional. Annie Oakley, born in 1860, was an American sharpshooter and exhibition shooter. When she was 15, she won a shooting competition with travelling show marksman, Frank E Butler, whom she later married. The couple joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show a few years later, and Annie became a renowned international star.
People clamoured to see her and she inevitably “brought the house down”. Irving Berlin immortalised her in his enormously popular musical, Annie Get Your Gun, made into a Metro Goldwin Mayer movie in 1950.
During a tour of Britain in 1890, she stayed at the Royal Hotel (as County Hotel was once called) on Ashford’s lower High Street. We know she attended a starling shoot in Ashford, but it was her brand new ‘visiting card shooting trick’, performed at the Royal hotel, which excited the Kentish Express and Ashford News.
“The feats she performed on the ground seemed scarcely credible. Thus, if Mr Butler held out in [his] hand a visiting card edgeways to her, at a distance of from ten to twenty paces, she invariably hit the edge of the card with a bullet from a pistol.”
In an English newspaper article found in the Oakley-Butler scrapbooks, the following account was given:
“At the Royal Hotel, Ashford, the other day Miss Anne Oakley … once more exhibited her skill with the shotgun, the rifle and the pistol. … Miss Oakley then hit, with a 320-bore double rifle, two marbles thrown into the air, and afterwards with a repeating rifle, she broke a piece of brick thrown up, and shattered a portion of it as it fell. Coins the size of sixpenny bits were struck with marvellous accuracy. Any man who “fancies” his shooting should see Miss Oakley perform; afterwards he will feel insignificant.”
Photo © Ashford and District Rifle Club
She clearly made the men feel competitive. Not long afterwards, the Ashford Miniature Rifle Club held its first meeting on Swaffer’s Meadow, off East Hill (almost opposite the Pledge Flour Mill but now occupied by council offices). Various other rifle clubs started up as well but now they are all combined in the Ashford and District Rifle Club, continuing the Ashford shooting heritage sparked by sharpshooting Annie.