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Meet the Elusive Charles Portlock

 

By Kenny Ray Estes

 

     For more than 130 years sporting journals and authors have continued to credit the introduction of glass ball targets in the United States to a gentleman from Boston, Massachusetts by the name of Charles Portlock.

 

     The Champion Wing Shot of the World, Captain Adam H. Bogardus was the first known to credit the Bostonian, Charles Portlock with introducing America to the glass ball target.  The earliest mention this writer has seen was in the 1878 edition of Field, Cover and Trap Shooting, in the appendix on page 380, under the title “Glass-Ball Practice-Shooting.”  Bogardus writes:

     “The shooting of glass balls from traps has become somewhat popular,

and I think it is certain to increase in favor.  It is convenient, inexpensive,

and excellent as a means for acquiring such skill as may enable a man to

kill birds on the wing readily.  This method was introduced into this country

some twelve years ago by Charles Portlock, of Boston.  The traps, however,

were nothing like as good as they might have been.  The traps threw the balls

nearly straight up in the air, and as a matter of course it was very easy to hit

them.  When arranged for throwing back, the balls were not sent more than

eight or ten yards, and the practice was so easy that it was of no use for the

 purpose of teaching people to become good shots, and next to nobody

followed it.

     “In 1876 Ira Paine got up a trap after Portlock’s pattern, with the addition

of an elastic spring, and this threw the balls farther and better than Portlock’s

trap did.  Paine and his agent endeavored to make this sort of shooting popular,

but their efforts were in vain.  There were grave objections against the trap. 

First it was expensive; second, it was difficult to set and much time was wasted;

third, it was heavy and cumbersome to take around when wanted at various

places.

 

Captain Bogardus goes on to say:

                 “In the winter of 1876-77, I studied and experimented for the purpose of

inventing and making a trap for glass-ball shooting which should be simple

in construction, effective in use, and not expensive or troublesome to carry

 about.

 

     I surmise that 1866, the year reported as when glass-ball shooting was introduced, was very possibly derived by subsequent writers by merely subtracting Bogardus’ account of 12-years earlier from the publication date of his 1878 updated edition of Field, Cover and Trap Shooting.  Therefore, the 1866 date may very well be an assumption.

 

      It is truly ironic that most articles regarding the start glass-ball shooting begin with the bold statement that every historian credits Charles Portlock of Boston as the originator of the sport in 1866.  In 1909 and 1910, David H. Eaton wrote a series of articles for Field and Stream magazine, under the title, “The Sport of Trapshooting.” His explanation of “Traps and Targets,” which appeared in the January 1910 issue, begins:

     “GLASS-BALL shooting, the first substitute for live birds, was introduced

into the United States about 1866, by Charles Portlock of Boston, Mass.  The sport met with a fair measure of approval, but did not acquire great popularity, owing to the mechanical imperfections of the trap.”

 

Charles F. Peters wrote a story for Outing Magazine which appeared in the October 1910 issue, repeating Bogardus’ claim. Peters states:

     “The first man to introduce a workable device for tossing targets was

Charles Portlock, of Boston, Mass.  His machine would throw a ball a short

distance at an unvarying angle.  Its action was so slow and so far from

imitating a bird in flight that the expert shots of that time scoffed at its use. 

One man, Ira Paine, then champion wing shot of the State of New York, saw

possibilities in its development and essayed to remedy its defects.  The

result was a new contraption not much better than the old, which had the

advantage, however, of being promoted by a man with a reputation.  Though

a Company was formed for its exploitation and Mr. Paine and others gave

exhibitions with it, its use never became general, or even common.”

     Portlocks association with trap shooting was again echoed in the article “Trapshooting’s Ancestry – More Than a Century of Development Marks the Growth of Sport Alluring”  edited by Samuel Wesley Long in the October 1916 Outing magazine. The following was reported:

                 “Trapshooting’s “ancestry” runs back for more than a century.  In the

Sporting Magazine, London, 1793, reference is made to matches held at

the “Old Hat,” a famous roadhouse at Earling.  Later, the Red House at

Battersea, near London, became the rendezvous of trapshooters.  The

Targets in those days were live pigeons, and muzzle-loaders and black

Powder were used.

Just when the sport of pigeon shooting was introduced in the United

States is a question, but records of the Sportsmen’s Club of Cincinnati

make mention of the game as early as 1831.

     In the early eighties, certain shooting enthusiasts apparently were as

anxious to get rid of trapshooting “ancestors” as was Mose to part company

 with his, for the popularity of live-bird shooting began to wane and efforts

were made to find a substitute for flesh-and-blood targets.

     Along about 1866, Charles Portlock, of Boston, suggested the use of

glass balls, and, while many were glad to change to the more humane sport,

yet the character of the targets was such that their popularity was short-lived.”

 

     A story in the March 3, 1917 issue of Sporting Life reports in the most general terms: 

     “Back in the early 80’s when American sportsmen began to demand

a between-season outlet for their gunning enthusiasm, some bright

Yankee genius conceived the idea of the glass ball as a fitting target to

try the prowess of the marksmen, when the object was projected at

unknown angles from a mechanical contrivance known as a trap.”

 

     Surprisingly, D. H. Eaton, the well-known compiler of all matters related to trap shooting, failed to reaffirm his previous acknowledgement of Portlock in his book “Trapshooting – The Patriotic Sport,” published in 1918. Likewise, his second and third editions never mentioned Portlock.

     Lest we forget Alex Kerr, who assembled the largest collection of target balls and considered by most to be the greatest aficionado on the subject, who repeated previous endorsements of Portlock, adding that the first competitive shoots began in 1867 in the Boston area. If this is true where balls thrown by hand?  Or were these competitive shooting matches dependent upon the presence of Portlock who had the only glass balls and thrower in the United States? Surely the reports crediting glass ball shooting to Charles Portlock must be valid or somebody would have challenged Bogardus’ claim. Especially, in my view, a somebody like Ira A. Paine.

     Over the years, many have attempted to verify Bogardus’ notion, only to realize their inability even uncover the existence of a person from New England named Charles Portlock.  I was one of them and all my investigations came up empty, that is, until recently, when I was finally able to verify the person who I believe to be the mystical Charles Portlock.  However, I am astutely aware that further research is most certainly warranted to see if we can prove Portlock’s acclaim.

 

Yes:  Charles Portlock Was Real!

Yes: Charles Portlock Was a Bostonian!

Yes: Charles Portlock Was a Trap Shooter!

Perhaps: Charles Portlock Introduced Glass-Ball Shooting!

 

     I finally located a Charles Portlock in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census for Massachusetts.  I searched for him in the Federal Census many times in past years, but was never able to find him.  In that census, for Boston, Suffolk County, Enumeration District #732, Charles was a 60 years of age, keeper of a dining saloon and living with his wife Mary, 48, who was keeping their home located at 101 Kendall Street. Another important detail was that they, like their parents, were born in England.

     Learning that England was their native home led me to search the Index to New England Naturalization Petitions in hopes that the Portlock’s decided to gain citizenship in the U.S.  There, on page 634, was Charles Portlock, of East Boston, born March 22, 1821 in England, who was granted citizenship November 17, 1856 by official certificate No. 9-309, issued by the Court of USCC, Boston, Mass.

     The Boston Business Directories gave me the next piece of information about Mr. Portlock.  I found Charles Portlock listed in these documents for 30 years, from 1855 through 1885. The first couple of years he worked as a puddler and resided at 372 Saratoga St., East Boston. The ‘Directories’ show him operating a variety store at 28 Cambridge St. (1857) and a saloon at 2 Norfolk Avenue (1858-60).  In 1861 Portlock is listed with wife Mary (an artist in hair), working out of her husband’s saloon/hotel, located at 3 Sewall Place, where they also lived.  It appears Portlock gave up the hotel business about 1870 as his next venture is a billiard room on Washington Street in 1871. His residence was now at 101 Kendall St. but it is not known if he owned or rented the property. Court House deeds would solve this riddle. In 1871, his billiard room is listed at 557 Washington St. and sometime around 1878 the location was changed to 580 ½ Washington St.  The Boston Business Directory lists his billiard parlor for the last time in 1883. Residential directories continued to record his residence at 101 Kendall St. until 1885. I was unable to locate records for 1886-88 but the name Mary Portlock, widow appears in 1889 now residing at 99 Kendall St.  Charles Portlock must have died sometime between 1885 and 1889.

     Now we have confirmed the existence of a Charles Portlock and that a person by that name did reside in Boston, Massachusetts.  Two down two to go!  Next was the task of linking a Bostonian named Charles Portlock to the sport of trap shooting.  I knew at the start this would be extremely hard if nearly impossible.  Like others I too have gleaned the old shooting periodicals from the 1870’s through the  1890’s and to my knowledge, none of us have ever seen the name Portlock among named participants at glass-ball, live-bird or inanimate target matches. This is precisely the reason that led many to wonder why Captain Bogardus would acknowledge the unknown and completely obscure Charles Portlock.  Did Bogardus actually know Portlock?  Why was he so certain that Portlock introduced glass ball shooting?  Did any notable trap shooter of the era know Charles Portlock?

     The one and only reference I have found of Charles Portlock using a firearm is the below article which appeared on page four of THE SPRINGFIELD REPUBLICAN, of Tuesday, July 2, 1867.

 

    A pigeon shooting match took place at Winthrop, on Friday, between Charles Portlock of Boston and Ira Paine, of Philadelphia. They fired at 25 single birds at 21 yards rise, bounds 80 yards, and each succeeded in bringing down 21.  Three extra birds were then sprung to decide the match, when Portlock killed his three and won.

 

      So, now we have confirmed that Mr. Portlock was indeed a shooter as claimed by my friend, the late Dick Baldwin in his book, “The Road to Yesterday.”  Who would have really guessed that he would be in a match with Ira Paine?  Well, perhaps it’s not so far-fetched as it appears when you use what is known to enhance a bit of speculation.  Ira Paine grew up in New England, (Providence, Rhode Island) and had family there.  In the late 1860’s he was shooting live-bird matches in New England.

 

Continuing the Investigation of Portlock

 

     There is much more to learn about Charles Portlock, especially about his involvement in shooting and how and when he came in possession of glass target balls.  The next step requires a trapshooting and/or target ball enthusiast residing in close proximity to Boston, with the time and curiosity needed to visit research locations in that city. The Courthouse could yield property deeds and Portlock's last will and testament.  At the Boston Historical Society, microfilmed newspapers could be gleaned for articles about Portlock’s businesses, general living circumstances, participation in shooting events, staging a glass ball shoot and hopefully his obituary.  Having some knowledge about searching old obits, I am painfully aware that death notices bore little resemblance to those of today.  Often they only provided the name and date of death for the deceased.  It is entirely possible that Portlock ancestors have filed family tree, photographs and other historical documents with the Historical Society.  Locating his resting place may provide additional information from burial records or headstone inscriptions. A photograph of Mr. Portlock would be an amazing find.  Any volunteers out there?

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 May 2011 14:42