By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
The article on “The Origins of Aldershot Camp” in the Aldershot Garrison Herald issue 10, October/November 2016, explained why the Government decided to build a training camp at Aldershot and how, owing to the urgent need for Army accommodation caused by the Crimean War, the first buildings in the Camp were wooden hutted barracks. However, the article also described how the initial intention in 1854 was for the barracks to be of more substantial construction, with the Prince Consort urging Lord Hardinge, the Commander-in-Chief, to “Put permanent buildings on the land”. A committee set up by Hardinge to advise on the nature of the buildings for Aldershot had also recommended that these “should be of a substantial and durable character, having brick walls and slated roofs.” However, such buildings would take a long time to build, so the Board of Ordnance gave orders in January 1855 that the first barracks would be wooden huts, which could be put up quickly and alleviate the pressing accommodation problems.
Although the main building effort from 1854 to 1856 was the rapid erection of the much needed huts, the original intention to have ‘permanent’ barracks at Aldershot had not been forgotten. Hardinge’s Committee had recommended in 1854 that the barracks should be of three floors and that the upper floors should have galleries, following the design of recently constructed barracks at Portland. Major-General Sir Frederic Smith, Commanding Royal Engineer for the construction of Aldershot Camp, prepared a series of drawings of barracks to this design, which he submitted to the Commander-in-Chief. Hardinge approved, and told Smith of his “hope that the Contracts for all the Buildings of Aldershot may be so framed as to insure their completion, under heavy penalties, within the year 1855”, a hope which was to prove highly over-optimistic.
The plans reached the desk of the Deputy Inspector-General of Fortifications, at that time Captain Robert M Laffan, who would later have a significant impact on Aldershot as Commanding Royal Engineer in the 1860s. Laffan suggested numerous changes. The soldiers’ rooms were increased in width from 19 to 22 feet and to 12 feet in height. The width of the verandahs was raised from 6½ to 11 feet, as they were the only means of access to the rooms “and as the soldiers will generally use them as places where they clean their accoutrements, brush their clothes, etc.” The staircases were moved from inside the building to outside at the ends of the verandahs, and in the inside space thus created Laffan added ablution rooms on each floor. As there were two large barrack blocks per barracks, Laffan proposed replacing the gables on the inner faces with a parapet and corbels on which a roof could be fixed, so meeting Hardinge’s requirement for an all-weather exercise space. “These suggestions … in no way interfere with the general design”, wrote Laffan, “and they will add greatly to the comfort of the Troops”.
Elsewhere within the barracks Laffan proposed further improvements, notably the addition of a school room for soldiers’ children; canteens in the barracks; and the addition of a soldiers’ reading room to the planned library. Laffan noticed that the plans did not include any provision for wives and families, so his most significant addition was to include “a range of married men’s quarters affording one room to each family for such a number as are allowed by Her Majesty’s Regulations”. Hardinge sent the plans for the barracks to the Prince Consort in February 1855 for his approval, which was duly given.
To pay for the permanent barracks, the sum of £250,000 (about £28 Million in today’s value) was included in the Ordnance Estimates for 1855, which were placed before Parliament in March of that year. After some debate and argument from MPs who thought the expense too great, the estimates were finally agreed. By the end of the building project in 1860, the total cost of the Permanent Barracks was £574,300 (around £63 Million today).
With the finance in place, work on building could begin. The contract was let to George Myers, a well-known and respected builder who had successfully completed a number of prestigious projects. Sir Frederic Smith received orders from the Inspector General of Fortifications on 3 August to begin construction. As the cavalry barracks had not yet been designed, Smith was instructed to start with the infantry barracks, begin the artillery barracks by the 15th of the month, and then the cavalry barracks in September, a timescale which was again to prove over-optimistic. The three infantry barracks were to be built on the north side of the road leading from Aldershot village to the Winchester turnpike (this road would subsequently become Wellington Avenue). Two artillery barracks would be in line to the east of these, and the three cavalry barracks would be to the south of the infantry barracks.
During 1856 over 7,500 tons of bricks for the permanent barracks were brought up the Basingstoke Canal to Aldershot Wharf. Myers initially had great difficulty with transport, as roads in the Camp were still only earth and in wet weather turned to mud, into which Myers’ carts sank up to their axles. To overcome this problem, in 1855 Myers began construction of a single-track light railway branching off the main line at Tongham, passing by Ash and then going through the Aldershot construction sites under the ridge, and finishing near the turnpike. The transportation of building materials on the canal continued unabated until June 1857 when this traffic largely ceased, suggesting that Myers had his railway in full function by this time and was now able to use it to deliver material directly to the building sites. Myers also opened his own brick works at Ash, using the local London Clay to manufacture many of the bricks needed.
Henry Wells, who would become one of Aldershot’s leading businessmen, first came to Aldershot in 1855 on Myers’ staff. Interviewed in 1898, Wells, referring to the notebooks he had kept at the time, said that the building of the infantry barracks started on 22 August 1856, and the cavalry barracks in the following July. His notes recorded that the first regiment to be stationed in the new barracks was the Lancaster Militia, who arrived on 14 December 1857.
By the end of 1859 all the barracks were complete, and Myers dismantled his railway. The cavalry barracks, named simply East, West and South Cavalry Barracks, each contained four main troop stables of two floors, with stabling for the horses on the ground floor and rooms for the men above. Between these was the Officers’ Mess, Sergeants’ Mess, and Riding School. There was a small range of married soldiers’ quarters, and around the periphery were the other necessary buildings such as forges, saddlers, etc. The three infantry barracks were likewise just called East, Centre and West Infantry barracks, and at the centre of each were the two large, three-storey men’s barrack blocks. On each upper floor were ten rooms, each accommodating one sergeant and 24 men. On the ground floor were eight accommodation rooms and two kitchens. The two blocks were 80 feet apart, with a glass roof over the space to create a covered drill-ground. Behind the main blocks was a small square of married soldiers’ quarters, and the Officers’ Mess was set alongside, but a little apart from, the men’s barracks. The artillery barracks, one for Horse Artillery and one for Field Artillery, were each arranged around a large square. There were two troop stables to the same style as for the cavalry, with an Officers’ Mess between them. The opposite side of the square consisted of two large gun sheds, between which were the married soldiers’ quarters, and other buildings included the magazine, armourer’s shop, forges, workshops, cook house, etc.
For the next 30 years these ‘Permanent’ barracks were the only brick-built soldiers’ accommodation in Aldershot. The remainder of the Camp kept the wooden huts of the ‘Temporary’ barracks well past their planned life, until they were at last replaced in the 1890s. As part of this redevelopment, Aldershot barracks were given names, so the East, Centre and West Infantry Barracks became Talavera, Salamanca and Badajos Barracks respectively, and the artillery barracks were named Waterloo Barracks East and West, the whole becoming collectively Wellington Lines. The cavalry barracks were not named until 1909, when the East, West and South Cavalry Barracks became respectively Warburg, Willems and Beaumont Barracks.
The original Permanent Barracks remained in use into the 1950s but, as for all the Victorian Camp, the masterplan for the 1960s rebuilding of Aldershot called for them to be demolished. Waterloo Barracks East was the first to be knocked down, in 1958, with Waterloo West the following year. Talavera was also demolished in 1959, Salamanca and Badajos in 1961, Warburg and Willems in 1964. By the end of the 1960s only Beaumont was left, and even accommodated the Garrison Headquarters from 1968 to 1971. In the early 1970s attempts were made to save this last example of the original barracks, including submissions by the Victorian Society and other conservation groups. These were of no avail and by the end of 1976 all of Beaumont was demolished, except for the Riding School (which was accorded Listed Building status in 1973), the gates and guardrooms. On the site arose the new civilian development of Beaumont Park, officially opened on 3 October 1979.
Infantry Barracks - A view of the newly completed infantry barracks, c.1860. This clearly shows the three sets of barracks in a line, in each barracks the two three-storey men’s accommodation blocks with the glass roof between them, and the other buildings for the barracks, including (centre right) one of the ranges of married soldiers’ quarters. In the foreground are the East Infantry Barracks (later named Talavera Barracks) and just visible at the far right is Union Buildings.
12th Lancers Warburg Barracks - A troop of the 12th Lancers in the East Cavalry Barracks (later named Warburg Barracks), c.1898. This picture shows one of the main troop blocks, with stables for the horses on the ground floor and men’s rooms on the first floor.
Waterloo Barracks West - Part of Waterloo Barracks West, c.1910. Behind the Artillery Mounted Band are the married soldiers’ quarters (right) and one of the gun sheds (left). On the ridge behind these barracks can be seen the back of the Cambridge Military Hospital.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 012, February 2017/March 2017
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.