By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
By the middle of the nineteenth century there was an urgent need for major reforms in the British Army, in updating its weapons, improving its organisation, and importantly introducing new training methods. For some time a group of Army reformers had been aware that action was needed, but no progress could be made until after the death of the Duke of Wellington, who refused any change to the army which had won Waterloo in spite of all the evidence that times were now very different.
One area of concern was the inability to train troops in large formations. The Army was scattered in small pockets around the country, with some in the coastal defences, some in the large towns and cities where they acted more as a police force, and some were simply billeted on local populations. As a first attempt to remedy this problem, in 1853 it was proposed to organise a "camp of exercise" at which entire divisions could be exercised and manoeuvred together.
In early 1853 two Grenadier Guards officers, Major Higginson and Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton, were ordered to inspect various heaths and waste lands to assess their suitability for the camp. Higginson was sent to survey the area around Chobham, while Hamilton was ordered to look at "the country south of Farnborough and extending across the canal to a village called Aldershot." Higginson was not impressed with his area and found it too boggy and without any fit drinking water. In contrast, Hamilton thought the area around Aldershot "in every way advantageous".
It was therefore surprising that Chobham was chosen for the 1853 camp of exercise. From 14 June three brigades of infantry and four regiments of cavalry, a total of around 10,000 men, mustered on Chobham Common for drill, field operations and parades. After four weeks the entire force was changed for another division of the same size, which trained until 25 August. The experience of the Chobham Camp showed clearly how this sort of training was vital and needed to be repeated regularly.
The favourable reports on the Aldershot area had not been forgotten. Hardinge visited in March and April 1853, and between 1 May and 14 June a party of Royal Sappers and Miners carried out a survey of the area between Chertsey, Wokingham, Farnham and Guildford. Even while the Chobham exercises were still underway, Hardinge had decided that a permanent site was needed to bring together large numbers of soldiers, with sufficient land for exercises, and he thought that Aldershot was the best option. Hardinge enjoyed the support of the Prince Consort, who gave his backing for the acquisition of the land.
Unknown to Hardinge, on 20 August 1853 an Enclosure Act had been passed for a number of tracts of common land, including that around Aldershot. When alerted to the potential loss of Aldershot by enclosure, Hardinge wrote to Palmerston, the Home Secretary, asking for his intervention, and on 26 September Hardinge wrote a Memorandum setting out the military reasons why a permanent camp was needed. He explained the advantages of being able "to concentrate a large body of troops in the best possible position", the economic benefits of having a dedicated training camp over hiring land each time an exercise was ordered, and finally that "a still stronger reason … is the fact that the possession of such a tract of ground would be of the greatest value in case the country should be threatened by a war of invasion". Hardinge said that Reigate had been considered as a site, as it was well positioned and had excellent rail connections, "but there are no waste lands at Reigate, and the water is scanty". The land at Aldershot was "For all purposes of strategy … one of the most important points that could be selected. It has an ample supply of water at all seasons. This tract of land is therefore suited for a permanent camp of instruction in peace, and of concentration in war."
The Prince Consort again supported Hardinge's plans, writing to Palmerston urging him to intervene on the proposed enclosure of Aldershot so it would not be lost before the Army could acquire it. The final political piece fell into place on 11 December when Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, committed the Government to an initial purchase of 3,000 acres and the Treasury approved £100,000 being included in the Army Estimates for 1854-55 for buying the lands at Aldershot.
At the start of 1854 Hardinge sent Mr John Clutton of the Enclosure Board to mark out the site for the Camp. The main landowner at Aldershot, Mr Samuel Eggar, agreed in January 1854 to sell the Manor of Aldershot Halimote and 2,000 acres of waste land for £12 an acre. For the smaller landowners and commoners, meetings were held at the Red Lion Inn in February and April for anyone claiming common or other rights in Aldershot Common to make their case.
Towards the end of April it was reported that 6,000 acres had been identified as needed by the Army, of which 4,000 acres had been bought but some landowners were holding out in the expectation of a better price. Because Hardinge's Memorandum had emphasised Aldershot's strategic location "for the defence of the Southern Counties and Coasts, whenever threatened by invasion", the Board of Ordnance argued that the land was needed "for the defence of the Realm" and so could be taken using compulsory purchase powers. The Treasury Solicitors agreed that such powers could be used if necessary, so compulsory purchase warrants were served by the Lord Lieutenant of the county, along with Major General Sir Frederic Smith, the Commanding Royal Engineer South East District who was in charge of the Aldershot project, Mr Clutton, and two Deputy Lord Lieutenants.
On 27 March 1854 Britain had declared war on Russia and prepared to despatch the Army to the Crimea. As almost the whole of the regular forces were deployed, on 1 May the government was given the power to call out the Militia. Between May and September 18 regiments of Militia were embodied, with more following in 1855 until some 50,000 Militia were called out The lack of barracks for them became an acute problem, with many having to be billeted on the civilian population, so the need for the new Camp at Aldershot became ever more urgent.
In April 1854 a party of Royal Sappers and Miners arrived in Aldershot to survey the land which would be used for the Camp. They pitched their camp on a piece of spare ground to the south of a track leading to the Turnpike Road, which is now the site of Princes Gardens. A report in May said plans had been submitted to the government "for the erection of huts on the heath at Aldershot, for the purpose of forming a standing camp". However, the Prince Consort thought this was the time to build more substantial barracks, urging Hardinge to "Put permanent buildings on the land and the country will never be allowed to sell it … The state of popular feeling engendered by the war is such that you can now ask Parliament for anything you want. Strike while the iron is hot."
Hardinge was unsure what form the camp should take, and set up a committee to investigate. In their report of 24 July this committee gave their opinion "that it is in the interests of the State that the Buildings to be erected at Aldershot should be of a substantial and durable character, having brick walls and slated roofs." Plans were drawn up for barracks to accommodate a Brigade of three Regiments of Infantry, two Regiments of Cavalry, two Troops of Horse Artillery, a Company of Royal Sappers and Miners, and a Commissariat Establishment. An estimate in December put the cost at £243,000. However, the problem with this proposal was the time it would take to complete such a complex building project, meaning it would not alleviate the pressing accommodation problems for the Militia. So the Board of Ordnance gave orders on 17 January 1855 for contracts to be let for building wooden huts.
Lord Hardinge visited Aldershot on 24 February when he personally "marked out the ground for 20,000 militia, 12,000 on the south side of the canal and 8000 on the north side and what with gas lighting - reservoirs of pure water - an office for the Staff and … other arrangements - all to be ready by the end of March." The contractors appointed were Messrs Haward and Nixon for erecting huts for 8,000 men on the North side of the Basingstoke Canal and for 7,000 men south of the Canal, and Mr Hemmings for huts for another 5,000 men also south of the Canal. On 10 March the first load of building materials was brought up the Basingstoke Canal, and on 17 March the Office of Ordnance placed the first order for barrack stores for Aldershot.
In the rush to let the contracts a number of details had been missed which had to be corrected with additional contracts, for example in March the covering of the huts with felt was agreed for £6,726 . 10s . 0d, and in May forty brick privies for the soldiers were added at a cost of £5,496 . 3s . 4d.
As the first huts were finished the troops could start to move in. On 4 May 1855 Lord Hardinge wrote that "In 10 days the [Militia] begin to move into Aldershot", and by 1 June it was reported that there were four regiments of Militia stationed in the Camp. As the Crimean War drew to an end large numbers of regular troops returned to Britain, and quickly the new Camp at Aldershot was overflowing. On 18 February 1856 in Aldershot were 14,592 troops, consisting of 4,030 regulars, 10,040 militia, and 522 British German Legion. By 23 August, the number had grown to 1,263 officers and 28,181 non-commissioned officers and men, of whom a portion had to be in tents as there were insufficient huts to hold them all. Fortunately, the period when some soldiers had to live under canvas was brief, as the remainder of the huts were completed, the British German Legion was disbanded, and the Army returned to its peace-time strength.
The Camp at Aldershot had been established, and it would soon become the permanent home of the British Army.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 010, October 2016/November 2016
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.