By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
The first permanent barracks in Aldershot were built between 1856 and 1859, as described in the Aldershot Garrison Herald No. 012, February/March 2017. However, these were only a line of barracks across the southern edge of the Camp, most of South Camp and all of North Camp remained as the wooden huts erected between 1854 and 1856. These were known as the “Temporary Barracks” and were not expected to be last beyond 10-15 years.
As is often the case with “temporary” solutions, the wooden huts remained in use well past their planned life and soldiers were living in them in the 1880s, over 30 years after they were built. Sheldrake’s Aldershot Military Gazette described them as “dingy old shanties”, and believed that “only those who have dwelt or are now dwelling in the old Crimean huts … can appreciate their discomfort”. The General Officer Commanding, Sir Evelyn Wood, was equally critical. He wrote that he “knew the wretched accommodation provided for the troops, neither wind nor rain proof”. The press also added to the pressure for something to be done, with articles such as “The bitter cry of the British barracks - how Tommy Atkins lives at Aldershot” illustrating the terrible state of the soldiers’ accommodation.
Some attempts had been made to improve conditions, for example the Army Estimates of 1878-79 voted £11,000 for new barracks for the Royal Horse Artillery, and it was hoped that this would be the start of a general re-building programme. However, as the barracks estimate was constantly cut down as a cost-saving measure by Parliament, very little progress could be made. By 1890 only two barracks in North Camp had been rebuilt, one in 1884 (which would later become Blenheim Barracks) and one in 1886 (later Ramilles Barracks). Sheldrake’s commented that “slow and steady progress has been made - awfully slow and steady”.
Although Aldershot, being the country’s largest camp, had the biggest problems, the Army’s other main camps were also suffering from poor accommodation, notably at Shorncliffe and the Curragh. Edward Stanhope, Secretary of State, asked his department to draw up a comprehensive estimate of the work needed to bring all barracks, at home and abroad, up to a good state of repair and fit for modern requirements. This exercise concluded that £8,913,000 would be required (around £927 million in present day value). Stanhope did not think Parliament would agree to such a large sum, so instead a new estimate was drawn up for only the most urgent work. This came to £4,100,000, a figure Stanhope felt more confident about requesting.
On 27 February 1890 Stanhope moved a bill in Parliament to grant the funding for a single, huge re-building and restoration programme for the Army’s barracks. Referring to reports he had received from the GOC Aldershot, Stanhope said that in the Camp:
“The roofs of the huts, which are 35 years old, are flattening down, and the lower frames are rotten. More than 500 have had to be propped up. In addition to the state of the actual huts, the ground on which they stand is becoming so foul as to render them unfit for habitation; £7,000 a year are now being spent on repairs, the sum is annually increasing, and is quite insufficient to keep them in a sanitary condition”.
He also stated that the planned building work was not just to replace decaying huts, but would also allow the Army to concentrate larger numbers of troops in a few main locations:
“After careful consideration I have come to the conclusion, with the unanimous support of all my military advisers, that the great concentration ought to be at Aldershot … There are at Aldershot at the present time three regiments of cavalry, eight batteries of the Royal Artillery, six companies of Royal Engineers, and nine battalions of infantry. The Government propose to add to these a battery of Royal Artillery and six battalions of infantry. To accomplish that object we shall have to re-construct a large portion of the existing camps ... and, of course, if we are going to add a large number of troops, very considerable additions to the camp will be required.”
The Bill was passed, and the Barracks Act received the Royal Assent on 29 July 1890. Of the £4.1 million authorised by the Act, by far the largest portion, £1.4 million, was allocated to Aldershot (the next largest was the Curragh, at £420,000, Shorncliffe received £165,000). Sheldrake’s reflected the general pleasure at the news: “Soldiers are not allowed to dabble much in politics, but when they read Mr. Stanhope’s remarks … there were a few exclamations of joy and gladness. In Aldershot especially was the news hailed with satisfaction.”
The work began quickly, the main contractor being Martin, Wells and Company, a well-known local company who had already done building work around the Camp. Other contractors included Brass and Sons, who worked on the soldiers’ barracks along with Nolan and Company, while Martin Wells and Co. built the officers’ accommodation. Overseeing the work were Royal Engineers officers Major W Pitt, Major W F Noel, and Major H L Jessep, and Stanhope specifically requested that they should remain in post until the project was completed to ensure continuity.
The work was not without its problems. The winter of 1890-91 was exceptionally severe, work came to a halt and the workmen, and their families, suffered as a consequence. To alleviate their misery, soup kitchens were set up on Christmas Eve, while Martin, Wells and Co. gave the men a 25% advance on their next week’s pay and made presents of food to the workers’ families.
Construction stopped again in May 1891 when the workers went on strike. This was led by the bricklayers, who demanded an increase in pay from 7 pence an hour to 8 pence. They were joined by the labourers, who were earning 3.5 pence per hour and wanted another half-penny. When the plasterers and carpenters also struck, almost all work stopped. Martin, Wells and Co. refused the men’s demands, claiming that they were paying a fair wage and that labourers’ pay had been increased by a half-penny per hour the previous year. After three and a half weeks the strike collapsed without the men’s wages being increased, as they could not continue any longer without pay.
The new barracks in North Camp followed the style of those built in the 1880s, being single-storey barrack blocks each designed to hold a company. In South Camp the design was different, the accommodation blocks being two storeys high and in a ‘T’ shape. Although today they may appear rather grim, when built they were a huge improvement on what had gone before.
Conditions for soldiers were also much improved by building large canteens and regimental institutes in each barracks, where the men could go after duties for recreation. New married quarters replaced the old married soldiers’ huts, and new schools were built. From the Barracks Act money new hospitals were erected, including the Connaught Hospital in North Camp, the Louise Margaret Hospital for soldiers’ wives and children, and the Isolation Hospital at Thornhill. There were new headquarters, gymnasia, post offices, fire stations, and a new church, St George’s church (now St Michael and St George).
Expenditure under the Barracks Act was closed in 1902. A final report showed that in Aldershot 357 new buildings had been constructed and 28 buildings refurbished. There was new accommodation for 368 officers, 12,092 NCOs and rank and file, 18 nursing sisters, 559 hospital beds, and stabling for 558 horses. The total expenditure on Aldershot was £1,295,629.
Writer Edmund Phipps said in 1896 that Aldershot had undergone a “transformation … from a camp of wooden huts into a town of brick barracks. The picturesque maze of huts and the little gardens between then have disappeared; so have their draughts, their dirt, and their vermin; and now from the hill in the centre one looks out over a city of long red-brick barracks and blue slate roofs, two miles or more, by half a mile”. This was the “classic” Aldershot Camp, and the buildings created under the Barracks Act would continue in use until after the Second World War.
Today little is left. Of the North Camp style of single-storey barracks only two blocks survive, which now house the Aldershot Military Museum. In South Camp, of the two-storey blocks only three remain, in the old McGrigor Barracks opposite the Cambridge hospital. Also from the 1890s we have the old Command Headquarters and its associated buildings, the divisional headquarters in North Camp (now Wavell House), Lille and Mandora Officers’ Messes, Maida and Fox gymnasia, the Louise Margaret Hospital, entrance block of the Connaught Hospital (in Normandy Barracks), and the church of St Michael and St George.
Most of the great Victorian Camp was lost in the 1960s - the story of which will be a future article in the Garrison Herald.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 014, June 2017/July 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.