By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
“With the view of instructing cavalry men to swim their horses across rivers, a large lake is to be constructed at Aldershot, and the expenses will be included in this year’s estimates.” This short announcement in the Hampshire Advertiser for 14 February 1894 was the first public notice of the creation of one of Aldershot’s more unusual training facilities.
There had been much debate about the best way for cavalry to cross river obstacles. In India the 9th Bengal Lancers had taught their horses to swim, claiming they could cross a river 100 yards wide, make an advance on the other side and fire a volley in twenty minutes. The German and French armies had also been experimenting with similar tactics, the French swimming horses in the River Seine. Lieutenant-General Sir Evelyn Wood VC, GOC Aldershot from 1889 to 1893, had issued orders for horses to be trained in swimming in 1890, when this “novel practice” had been tried on the River Thames at Moulsford. Afterwards it was widely expected that this would become normal practice at Aldershot, probably using the Basingstoke Canal. It is uncertain how much of this was done before the creation of the horses swimming pond in 1894, but the decision to construct this dedicated facility shows the importance which was attached to this capability.
The site chosen was in Long Bottom, between Caesar’s Camp and Hungry Hill. A low dam was built across the valley to create the pond, using water which drained down Long Bottom from Bricksbury Hill and Hungry Hill. The result was an irregular-shaped pond some 100 yards (92 metres) at its longest point and around 87 yards (80 metres) at its widest. The edges sloped gently into the pond to give the horses easy entrance and exit, but toward the centre it was up to 13 feet (4.2 metres) deep.
Cavalry horses would be slowly introduced to the water until they gained sufficient confidence to be taken in deeper, when they would naturally start to swim. The horses were attached to long ropes which stretched over the pond, and they would be slowly drawn into the water accompanied by the men holding on to the halter ropes, provided that they were sufficiently experienced and able to swim alongside. As the horses became more used to swimming, they would be taken through the water using just the ropes, while the men crossed in a boat.
Almost as soon as it was completed, local people began using the horse pond as a bathing pool. The pond’s first casualty was George Upton, a labourer from Hale, who told his wife on the morning of Sunday 1 July 1894 that he going to bathe and would be back for breakfast. He did not return, and his body was eventually found late in the afternoon by Private Samuel Elliott, one of a group from the 4th Dragoon Guards who made numerous diving attempts to find the man. At the inquest the coroner complimented Private Elliott and his comrades and, regretting that he could officially only give a reward of two shillings and six pence for recovering the body, he gave Elliott ten shillings out of his own pocket. As a result of this tragedy, bathing in the pond was forbidden by the military authorities.
A couple of years later came the first military fatality, when a group of soldiers from the Seaforth Highlanders went swimming in the horse pond on 4 June 1896. Private John McCulloch, aged 24, got into difficulties in the deep water and, despite the best efforts of his comrades to save him, was drowned. The men insisted that they did not know about the prohibition on bathing, and their officer testified that he had found the “Bathing prohibited” sign broken and lying in a ditch. The coroner ruled that it was unclear whether the men could have known about the prohibition, and the verdict was accidental death.
Both of these tragedies occurred when men were bathing in the pond, but the routine training of horses, the purpose for which the pool had been constructed, became a regular part of cavalry training for many years without serious incident. It was a duty which many men enjoyed, especially in summer.
Unfortunately there would be further deaths connected with the pond. On 16 July 1902, Captain George Fitzgerald was overseeing his battery of Royal Horse Artillery undertaking routine horse swimming when he saw one of his soldiers suddenly leave his horse and vanish beneath the water. Without hesitating, Fitzgerald jumped into the pond, fully dressed even to his boots and gloves. He dived three times, but could not find the man in the muddy water. Stopping only to remove his tunic, Fitzgerald dived in again, until exhaustion ended his efforts. The deceased soldier was Driver William Lomas, aged 19, who had swum his horse across the pond on previous occasions, and as the horse had continued safely to the other side this time it was uncertain what had caused the tragedy. The most likely explanation was that the animal had kicked out during the crossing and caught Lomas an accidental blow which sent him under the water.
Captain Fitzgerald, who had been awarded the DSO for bravery in the South African War, was awarded an honorary certificate by the Royal Humane Society in recognition of his gallantry in trying to save Lomas without any regard for his own safety. Asked by a local reporter for a comment, Fitzgerald replied with typical modesty, “Oh, it’s only a small matter, you know”.
The unusual spectacle of swimming horses across the pond made it a regular stop for VIP visitors. In May 1904 the Prince and Princess of Wales watched a demonstration by the 1st Dragoon Guards, when the men did not swim with their horses but were in collapsible boats, from which four horses at a time were led across. Perhaps the authorities were anxious for no repetition of the Lomas tragedy in front of the royal party? If so their caution was well founded, for in July Private Ritchie of the 14th Hussars was drowned during routine training. There were no marks on the body to suggest he had been kicked by his horse, so cramp was suspected.
When King Edward VII visited Aldershot in May 1909 he was driven to the pond in his motor car, from which he watched the soldiers at work. This time it was the 16th Lancers who were exercising, and once again they did not swim with their horses but drew their animals across using long ropes. King George V saw a similar display in June 1911, this time from horse-back, and he was evidently much interested as he stayed for an hour and rode around to view proceedings from all sides of the pond. An innovation used in this exercise was a raft of inflatable canvas bags, on which the saddles and equipment were carried while the horses swam across.
The worst tragedy in the history of the horses swimming pond occurred in 1912, when three men of the 19th Hussars died. On the morning of Tuesday 4 June around twenty of the regiment’s scouts were undertaking a routine swimming exercise. The men and horses had all been across once, and were going over a second time when Private William Barnes’ horse became agitated and struck out with its forelegs at the soldier. Private Mark Healey, who was next in the line, went to his assistance but could not stop Barnes from struggling and they sank together. Seeing this, Lieutenant William Edgar Lyon and Lance-Sergeant William Clark entered the water from one side, and Privates Barker and Maylin from the other. Barker caught Barnes by the hair and tried to pull him to the bank, but lost his grip and Barnes sank. Lyon went to Healey’s assistance and caught hold of him, but they became separated. Private Maylin now caught Healey and tried to pull him to the bank, but Healey was struggling and pulled Maylin down with him. Maylin broke free and made for the shore, now exhausted, as was Lyon. Major William Percy, the Riding Master who was on the bank, entered the water and pulled Lyon ashore. Meanwhile, Lance-Sergeant Clark had tried to reach Private Barnes but failed, and called for help as he too began to suffer from exhaustion. Private Farrow swam out him, but Clark gripped hold of Farrow and dragged them both underwater. Farrow broke free, and made further attempts to reach Clark, who had now sunk and could not be found. Exhausted, Farrow had no choice but to return to the shore. The alarm having been raised, many more men had arrived at the pond to help, until such time that all hope was lost and the Commanding Officer ordered all further attempts to be discontinued.
The three men who had lost their lives, Lance-Sergeant Clark, Private Barnes and Private Healy, were buried in the Aldershot Military Cemetery with full military honours. In August a memorial to the three men was dedicated at the Garrison Church of All Saints. Following the recommendation of the inquest jury, Lieutenant Lyon, Major Percy, Private Farrow, Private Maylin and Private Barker were all awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society in recognition of their bravery in trying to save their comrades.
In its heyday, it was estimated that the horses swimming pond was crossed over a thousand times a year by some 800 different soldiers, but it fell into decline after the First World War and the advent of mechanisation. Regrettably it was still the scene of tragedies, including a 12 year old boy, Patrick Mullen, who died when swimming with a party from St Anthony’s orphanage, and two other children, 11 year old Katherine Fry and Mary Smith in 1925. The pond was drained in 1932 after the drowning of another soldier, Trooper Holyoak of the 8th Royal Irish Hussars. When two women, Catherine Ellacott and Florence Wooderson, were drowned in November and December 1937, the Army decided it should be drained permanently.
Despite this, the dam remained in place so the pond naturally filled up again and it can still be seen today, although smaller in size than when it was in regular use. It is now a peaceful spot popular with walkers and for seeing wildlife.
I am grateful to local historian Roger Deason for permission to use some of his research in the compilation of this article.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 018, February 2018/March 2018
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.