By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Speaking in May 1957, Major-General Bramwell-Davis, General Officer Commanding in Aldershot, was optimistic about the garrison's future. "Although Aldershot will have to take a big share in the cuts in the armed forces decided by the government, it will still be the home of the British Army", he declared. There was a need to modernise and rebuild barracks and married quarters in Aldershot, and plans were being drawn up which would cost several millions. This was the beginning of a huge project to sweep away the Victorian barracks and replace them with a new military town.
In Wellington Lines, the barracks had been erected in the 1850s (see Aldershot Garrison Herald No. 12, February/March 2017) and General Bramwell-Davis thought they were "completely useless" and in an "appalling state". Stanhope Lines and Marlborough Lines dated from the 1890s (see Aldershot Garrison Herald no. 14, June/July 2017), and the authorities believed that the only solution was to demolish them all and build completely new accommodation across the whole of the Camp. The cost was estimated at £17.5 million (around £350 million in present day value). Owing to the reduction in Army numbers after the Second World War, some of the old barracks would no longer be needed. Warburg Cavalry Barracks was the first area given up, which was bought by Aldershot Borough Council in 1959 for £39,000. Later Beaumont Barracks was also handed over to the local authority for civilian housing.
Work was soon underway on rebuilding the garrison. The first barracks to be demolished was Waterloo Barracks East in 1958, followed the next year by Waterloo Barracks West and Talavera Barracks. The first new building to be formally handed over to the Army was a new Sergeants' Mess in Lille Barracks, officially opened on 27 November 1959 and said to be "the best-equipped sergeants' mess anywhere in Britain". By January 1960 the Colonel AQMG was reporting that plans were in hand for rebuilding Lille Barracks, Hammersley Barracks, and four barracks in Stanhope Lines.
One of the most pressing needs was to replace the old married quarters, which were described as "deplorable, as bad and a good deal worse than barrack accommodation". In August 1959 work began on building 222 new married quarters on the old Waterloo Barracks East site, and two more parks of 300 quarters each were soon under construction. The new quarters in Waterloo Park were completed in 1962, and those in Talavera Park in 1963-64.
As there was so much work underway, it is surprising that it was not until January 1961 that the Quarter Master General decided that "We have now reached the stage in planning for the redevelopment of Aldershot where the Director General of Works can put in hand the preparation of a comprehensive plan for the accommodation required". He wanted a plan that "that takes account of the latest thought and ideas on town planning, the grouping of buildings and facilities, and so on. Moreover, Aldershot is the home of the Army and it is important that our re-planning should be first-class."
A consultant architect suggested that the new barracks should overturn the "traditional" layout and have clear distinctions between working and living areas, with much greater centralisation and sharing of common facilities. However, many Commanding Officers feared these proposals would erode the "family atmosphere" and "unit identities" which were essential for regimental spirit and morale. Eventually compromise principles were agreed, which stated that the planning must foster the family spirit of each major unit but there could be sharing of facilities such as kitchens, education rooms and instruction sheds. There should be a clear distinction between working and living areas, but they should not be separated by any great distance (not more than a quarter of a mile or five minutes' walk). Married quarters would be adjacent to, but not integrated with, the living areas of major units, and there should be community buildings for use of soldiers, wives, and families.
Meanwhile, in Aldershot the building work continued. In March 1961 it was announced that Hammersley Barracks would be rebuilt at a cost of £300,000, and Lille Barracks at £550,000. "Envy today's soldier", opined the Aldershot News, "now work is about to start on palatial new barracks". Demolition of Hammersley was completed in 1962, along with Stanhope Lines West and the Badajos/Salamanca Barracks site. In 1963 two historic buildings were lost. The Royal Pavilion was demolished to make way for a new training centre for Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, and the Royal Engineers' Balloon Shed in Gibraltar Barracks was cleared to make way for the new Browning Barracks for the Airborne Forces.
For speed and economy, the new barracks were built using pre-fabricated standard-sized panels, promoted at the time as a fine example of the use of modern methods. However, there were some significant problems. On the Stanhope Lines West site (which would become Montgomery Lines), four new Officers' Messes were built along Pennefather's Road. These were nearing completion when, on 21 July 1963, one of them collapsed. Fearing for the remaining three buildings, orders were given for them to be demolished, but before this could be done a second one also collapsed. An enquiry identified a failure in some vital beam joints which had not been of sufficient strength. With some embarrassment, and extra cost, the contractor had to begin construction of these messes again.
Although work on the ground in Aldershot was well underway, the overall master plan was not finally approved by the Quarter Master General until November 1964, and some months later, in June 1965, the Minister of Public Buildings and Works announced "a plan for rebuilding Aldershot Military Camp". This was greeted with a mixture of incredulity and derision in Aldershot, where the extensive new barracks of Montgomery Lines had been opened a few months earlier on 7 April. An editorial in the Aldershot News was scathing:
"The Ministry perpetrated one of the biggest bluffs it was possible to imagine. On Wednesday morning all the national dailies published accounts of the big new plans for the town. None appeared to know that the rebuilding had been in operation since 1959, that the Parachute Regiment has been safely housed in new headquarters; in fact, at least a third of the work has been completed … One salient fact did emerge, however, and that was the cost of the whole scheme. When it was first introduced the total figure was said to be £17M. This has been increased to £20M and then £27M, but on Tuesday it had leapt to £30M."
The main principle of the master plan was the development of a "crescent town", using the crescent-shaped ridge which starts at the west end of Knollys Road and continues east along the line of Hospital Road before turning north up the eastern side of the garrison. The master plan proposed that the new military town would be formed of distinctive bands radiating out from the open spaces of Queen's Parade in the centre, to the working areas of major units, beyond these to the soldiers' living accommodation, and then to the married quarters adjacent to the civilian towns of Aldershot in the south and Farnborough to the north. The living and working areas would be further differentiated by landscaping, while the parts of the crescent town would be linked by making Allison's Road into a dual carriageway which turned north at St Omer Barracks, and would continue in a long arc across the canal to re-join Queen's Avenue in the north of the garrison.
The publication of the master plan gave renewed impetus to the overall project, and in 1966 work began on the rebuilding of Buller Barracks, St Omer Barracks, and married quarters in Ramilles Park, Salamanca Park, and Willems Park. Such was the volume of work that the contractors, Gilbert-Ash Limited, opened an on-site factory between Ordnance Road and Government Road to manufacture the building panels.
Although the factory building methods allowed new barracks to be constructed quickly, the results were not wholly satisfactory. In August 1968, the Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works (MPBW) wrote of the "melancholy story" of Montgomery Lines, starting with the collapse of the mess buildings in 1963, and then issues with defective ceiling panels in the messes, leaking roofs and the failure of plasterwork in 24 barrack blocks, leaking roofs in four technical stores, and other failures elsewhere. Immediate remedial work had to be undertaken at a cost of £203,000 (around £3 million in present day value). More problems were experienced in the new married quarters which suffered from damp, draughts, and inadequate heating. The Regional Officer of the MPBW reported that "the Army is very cross indeed …".
Central to the crescent town concept had been the demolition of the Cambridge and Louise Margaret hospitals and the construction of a new hospital in North Camp. After many delays and arguments this plan was abandoned (see Aldershot Garrison Herald no. 15, August/September 2017), and the dual-carriageway of the extended Allison's Road was not built beyond St Omer Barracks. Even so, the project resulted in the demolition of nearly all the Victorian Camp, with the new Browning and Duchess of Kent Barracks opened in 1968, Buller Barracks in 1970, and St Omer Barracks in 1971.
Despite the many issues with the 1960s barracks, they remained in use for some 40 years. The fundamental problems with both their design and construction meant that maintenance costs were high, and living conditions deteriorated rapidly. Before the end of the twentieth century the sub-standard married quarters were demolished and new houses built in a more traditional style, but it was not until the beginning of the twenty-first century and Project Allenby Connaught that the single soldiers could leave the 1960s barracks for modern accommodation suitable for the Army of today. With the Wellesley housing development the last remaining parts of the concrete camp are being removed, as this chapter of the story of Aldershot Garrison passes into history.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 016, October 2017/November 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.