By Paul H. Vickers, Army Library and Information Service
Starting in June this year, the demolition has begun of one of Aldershot Garrison’s most famous sites, the barracks, offices and buildings of Montgomery Lines. This brings to an end a period of fifty years during which Montgomery Lines have been central to the garrison, but the history of this site goes back much further, to the beginnings of the Camp at Aldershot.
Before the arrival of the Army, all the area that we know as Aldershot Garrison was open heathland, empty of buildings, roads, or even trees. The wide open spaces of Aldershot Heath attracted the Army planners, who were looking for a site to build Britain’s first permanent training camp and with sufficient open land to carry out large, divisional-sized exercises.
As with all the Camp, the area later to become Montgomery Lines was first covered with lines of wooden huts. The hut lines were not named but were just identified by letters, and between the Farnborough Road and the main north-south road through the Camp were the hut lines A to M. (The main north-south road at this time was just called Centre Road. It would later be named Cranbrook Road, and only in 1898 would it acquire its modern name of Queen’s Avenue.) The huts held 22 men or 8 officers, and when built between 1854 and 1859 were expected to have a life of 13 years. However, they remained standing well beyond their planned limits, and were still occupied up to 1890.
After so many years, the wooden huts were in terrible condition and something had to be done. Thanks to the efforts of the GOC, General Sir Evelyn Wood VC, funds were received from the government to sweep away the huts and build proper brick barracks. Hut lines A to M were replaced by three new infantry barracks, all built to a standard pattern. The soldiers were accommodated in lines of two-storey barracks blocks, while there were larger buildings for the sergeants’ and officers’ messes, plus other buildings for the regimental institute, orderly rooms, schools, stores, and all that was needed to support an infantry battalion.
General Evelyn Wood, after repeated applications to the War Office, also managed to get their agreement that the new barracks could have names. He grouped the new barracks of Aldershot into three Lines, Marlborough Lines in North Camp, Wellington Lines across the south of the garrison, and in the central area were Stanhope Lines, named after the Secretary of State for War, Edward Stanhope, who had obtained the money for Aldershot’s rebuilding. Within the three main Lines the individual barracks were named after great British victories. The Stanhope Lines barracks were named after victories of the Napoleonic Wars where someone other than Wellington had been in command, as the great Duke’s triumphs were remembered in Wellington Lines. So the three new barracks between Farnborough Road and Queen’s Avenue became Albuhera, Barrosa and Corunna Barracks.
These remained in use for over 50 years, until the complete rebuilding of the garrison in the 1960s. This aimed to get rid of the old Victorian camp and replace it with a modern garrison which, it was thought, would be more appropriate for the Army in the post-Second World War era. It was also intended that the new barracks would be built to a different plan from what had gone before, with a more open garrison, a separation of living and working areas, and a deliberate effort to integrate better the military with the civilian town.
Albuhera, Barrosa and Corunna barracks were demolished in the early 1960s and new barracks built to replace them. Originally known in the plans as Stanhope Lines West, by the time the new barracks were built the decision had been made that not only would the Victorian barracks be removed but so would their names. As the new barracks were designed to house the Airborne Forces, the individual barracks were named after airborne battle honours from World War Two, becoming Arnhem, Bruneval, Normandy and Rhine barracks. The whole site became Montgomery Lines after Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, one of Britain’s great generals of the Second World War. The Field Marshal himself opened the new Montgomery Lines on 7 April 1965, an event commemorated by a plaque set on a large stone by the main gate.
Montgomery Lines became synonymous with the Airborne Forces for many years, and were attacked by the IRA in 1972 as alleged revenge for Bloody Sunday. The terrorists exploded a 50-pound car bomb outside the officers’ mess of 16 Parachute Brigade, killing 7 people and injuring 19. The dead were the Roman Catholic Padre, the gardener, and five women civilian mess staff. They are remembered on a memorial on the site of the Mess where they died.
The Airborne Forces left Aldershot in 1993 for their new home in Colchester, but Montgomery Lines remained in use for a few more years for infantry and other units. However, the buildings were deteriorating badly and, as new barracks were built in North Camp, Montgomery Lines gradually emptied until by 2006 the whole site had been vacated.
Along with all the sites which had previously made up Stanhope Lines, Montgomery Lines was handed over to Grainger plc, the lead developer for the huge civilian housing development called project Wellesley. After much planning and debate, the building of the first new housing for Wellesley has begun across Queen’s Avenue from Montgomery Lines on the site of the old Maida Barracks. Concurrently with this new building, in June 2015 the machines moved in to Montgomery Lines and began demolishing the 1960s concrete barracks to clear the site ready for its next overhaul. For the first time in its history the site will now contain civilian housing. We wait with interest to see what this new phase brings to this most historic site.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 003, August/September 2015
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.