By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Louisa Daniell had no doubt that she had been called by God to go to Aldershot, there to bring the soldiers away from the path of sin and the many evil temptations of the town, back to the moral ways of temperance and Christianity. To achieve these goals, Mrs Daniell created the first “soldiers’ home and institute” in the town which set the template for the numerous later soldiers’ homes which did so much for soldiers’ welfare in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Louisa was the widow of Captain Frederick Daniell of the 8th Madras Infantry, by whom she had two children, Frederick and Georgiana. Captain Daniell died in India in 1837 and, having returned to Britain with her children, Louisa found solace in her religion. Moved by the poverty she saw in rural villages, Mrs Daniell set up a series of village missions which combined religious teaching with welfare work. This brought her into contact with the County Towns Mission Society, and it was the Secretary of that organisation who urged Mrs Daniell in 1862 to “adopt Aldershot” and “work it in the same way as her existing mission stations”.
At this time Aldershot had a terrible reputation in the country founded on various lurid press reports. Mrs Daniell wrote that “So much has been written of Aldershot that it is unnecessary for me to enter into the loathsome details of the unblushing vice which tracks the everyday path of the poor soldier”. She contrasted the small number of religious workers (4 Anglican chaplains, 1 Presbyterian minister, 2 Roman Catholic priests, and 4 scripture readers) with “above a hundred public houses, some with dancing-saloons and other arrangements, by which these wretched panderers to vice entrap the unwary”. Although many of the more sensational reports may have been exaggerated there is no doubt that at night Aldershot, with its many pubs, dance-halls and prevalent prostitution, was a rough town.
Louisa Daniell and her daughter Georgiana, then aged 26, arrived in Aldershot in April 1862. Initially they rented a house and fitted it up as a mission hall and reading room, but the Daniells had a bigger project in mind and set about raising funds for the first purpose-built soldiers’ home and institute. Although the Daniells saw their work as primarily spiritual, they also saw that there needed to be a social dimension to their home. Georgiana stated their aim was for “a public-house without the drink ... some place [for the soldiers] to go where they can spend their evenings away from the barrack-room ... a house where he can be ‘at home’”. Mrs Daniell received the support of a number of evangelical philanthropists and local businessman Mr Eggar gave a plot of land on which to build her hall.
The “Aldershot Mission Hall and Soldiers’ Home and Institute” opened on Sunday 11 October 1863. The opening was celebrated by a week of special services, with soldiers forming the majority of the audiences.
The Home was on the corner of Barrack Road and Edward Street, constructed in grey stone in the old English style. The rooms included a main hall, 30 feet by 70 feet, used for the main Sunday evening services and for large social functions, a coffee bar, smoking and games room, dining room, a small library, and a spacious reading room. Upstairs was the drawing room, used by groups of officers and their families. Other rooms included a kitchen and living accommodation.
The reading and smoking rooms were open to members from 7 am to 11 pm daily. The refreshment bar was open to members and to the public, every day except Sunday from 7 am to 10 pm. A large cup of coffee was one penny, a small cup for a half penny. Tea was two pence for a large cup, and cocoa one penny. Slices of cake or puddings, or jam tarts, were all one penny. In the dining room hot soup and meals were served daily from 12 noon until 2 pm, a hot meal costing six pence.
As well as the soldiers themselves, the Daniells tried to help the soldiers’ wives. Mission staff were horrified at the terrible poverty they found around the West End, where many of the “off the strength” families lived. At this time only a very small number of soldiers’ wives were permitted “on the strength” to receive basic accommodation and rations. The wives and families “off the strength” received nothing from the Army, so the individual soldier had to fund accommodation, food, fuel and clothing for his family from his already meagre pay. To give some practical help, Mrs Daniell organised Mothers’ Meetings and sewing classes for soldiers’ wives. With these skills, the wives would sew clothes which were sold through the Mission Hall, and the women could earn from three to four shillings per week. Mrs Daniell also established a weekly savings club for the wives, to help with paying for clothes, shoes, and other necessities.
For the children a “Band of Hope” meeting was established, which included children’s activities and some basic education. In 1868 Mrs Daniell took over a vacant pub, the Wellington Arms in the West End, as it had a large dance hall attached which the mission converted into a schoolroom. The school opened on 5 October 1868 and attendances rapidly grew to some 50 to 60 children between the ages of 6 and 12 years of age. They were given essential basic education in reading and writing, taught by women from the Mission Hall.
In 1870 illness forced Mrs Daniell to hand over of the running of the Home to her daughter and she returned to the family home in Great Malvern, where she died of breast cancer on 16 September 1871, aged 62. Her body was brought back to Aldershot, where the Army authorities gave permission for Mrs Daniell to be buried in the Aldershot Military Cemetery in recognition of her work for soldiers’ welfare.
Georgiana Daniell continued her mother’s work, assisted by Miss Kate Hanson, one of the volunteer workers. Such was the success of the Aldershot Soldiers’ Home that Georgiana set up similar homes for the garrisons at Weedon (1873), Colchester (1873), Manchester (1874), Plymouth (1874), Chatham (1876) and London (1890). But the original institute in Aldershot was always regarded as the mother house, and was universally known by the simple title of “Miss Daniell’s Soldiers’ Home”.
Although some soldiers were put off by the religious proselytizing and the strictures against alcohol, many highly valued Miss Daniell’s institution and regarded it as their “home” while stationed in Aldershot. Georgiana was completely devoted to her work, and it was reported that she rarely went to bed before midnight, working on the accounts, correspondence and other tasks associated with running her homes.
Georgiana died at the Soldiers’ Home on 24 June 1894, aged 59, after a long illness brought on by complications after she had contracted influenza. Georgiana was buried with her mother in the Aldershot Military Cemetery.
Kate Hanson now succeeded as Honorary Superintendent of all Miss Daniell’s Soldiers’ Homes and worked tirelessly in this role for a further 19 years until she died peacefully from heart failure in the early hours of Tuesday 22 April 1913, aged 79. In recognition of her lifetime of devotion to the soldiers, Miss Hanson was also buried in the Aldershot Military Cemetery, next to the grave of Louisa and Georgiana Daniell.
The work of Miss Daniell’s Soldiers’ Homes demonstrated the pressing need for some provision for soldiers’ welfare in the large garrison towns, and set the example for the homes and institutes which would be established by various church denominations at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They also influenced the military authorities, so that barracks built from the late nineteenth century onwards had much better recreational facilities for the soldiers incorporated into their design.
Most of the original Soldiers’ Home was demolished in 1958, leaving only three walls and a roof from the main hall where the religious services had been held. In 1962 the Aldershot Freemasons took over this derelict building for use as a Masonic Hall. The main part of the site was used for building a new soldiers’ home which opened in 1963. This building, Havelock House, is now the headquarters of the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Reading Association. The SASRA are the trustees of Miss Daniell’s Soldiers Homes, which today is a registered charity with the aim of “Spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to personnel in the British Army through provision of physical and spiritual sustenance.”
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 004, October/November 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.