By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Queen Victoria took a personal interest in Aldershot from the founding of the Camp until the end of her reign. Her husband Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, had been an influential figure in the decision to establish the Army’s great training camp at Aldershot, and it was also his initiative to build the Royal Pavilion, just off the Farnborough Road, as a residence for the Queen and members of the royal family when they visited the garrison. To justify the expense and effort involved in such a building, clearly the Prince Consort expected the Queen to be making frequent visits to the Camp.
On 10 June 1855 Queen Victoria made her first visit to Aldershot, accompanied by the Prince Consort. She inspected the Camp and watched a review of the troops, who at that time were mostly Militia battalions. The Royal Pavilion was not yet finished, but the royal party had a meal in a large circular tent erected alongside the building, the food having been prepared at Windsor and sent down to Aldershot. The Queen first stayed overnight at the Royal Pavilion in April 1856. She travelled by train to Farnborough Station, accompanied by her husband and members of the royal family, and from there travelled by carriage to the Camp. For Her Majesty’s inspection, the 14,000 troops stationed in the Camp were drawn up along a front stretching for a mile and a half.
A few months later, on 7 July 1856, the Queen was back in Aldershot, this time accompanied by the Prince Consort, the Prince of Wales, the King of the Belgians, Prince Oscar of Sweden, the Comte de Flanders, the Duke of Cambridge, and Lord Panmure, the Secretary of State for War. The purpose of this visit was to inspect the Brigade of Guards and to honour the soldiers who had recently returned from the Crimean War. On 8 July a grand field day was organised in the valley below Hungry Hill, during which the Crimean regiments formed three sides of a square around the royal carriage to hear the address from the Queen. Her Majesty declared that she had “mourned with deep sorrow for the brave men who have fallen in their country’s cause, and that I have felt proud of their valour which, with their gallant allies, they have displayed on every field.” The day was a great success, only spoilt by the heavy rain which fell for most of the time, although, as a contemporary account noted, “it was a small matter to [the soldiers] after the hardships of the Crimea”. In a letter to the Duke of Cambridge, the Queen wrote that “we had a charming field day ... which I enjoyed more than any I ever saw, and was on horseback for four hours amongst the troops ... Altogether we spent a most agreeable time at Aldershot.”
Further formal parades followed the following week, but sometimes the Queen showed a more personal approach. The history of the Royal Sapper and Miners records that on 18 July the Queen was driving through the Camp and stopped by the quarters occupied by the sappers, where she asked the officer to bring before her some of the men who had distinguished themselves during the war in the Crimea. Surprised by this unexpected order, some veterans were quickly paraded and their services explained to Her Majesty. The Queen expressed her admiration for the men’s services and spoke individually to each man, before instructing that a list of the names of the men she had seen was to be sent to her. Most of the NCOs and privates on the list had been decorated with medals or orders for bravery in the trenches outside Sebastopol.
Royal visits continued at least annually. Typical was the visit in 1859, which began on 14 May with an inspection of the newly built Cavalry Barracks, and in the evening the Queen hosted a dinner party at the Royal Pavilion. As the next day was a Sunday, the royal party attended morning service at the “iron church” by Thorn Hill, which at that time was the largest of the military churches. On the next day the entire garrison was paraded in Long Valley, consisting of three infantry brigades, one cavalry brigade, eighteen guns, and units of Royal Engineers and Military Train. The Illustrated London News described how “A series of brilliant manoeuvres was then carried into execution, after which the troops marched past the Queen in brigades ... the united bands of each brigade playing as the different regiments passed by.” After lunch in the Royal Pavilion, the Queen returned by open carriage to Farnborough Station where a special train was waiting to take her back to London.
In August of the same year, Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort were back in Aldershot to see the summer manoeuvres, which included a simulated attack on Aldershot by ‘enemy’ units advancing northwards from Farnham, as if coming from the south coast. On the first day, artillery and forward units held off the invader’s advance guard, allowing time for a long line of men to work with pickaxes and spades on creating a mile-long entrenchment along the brow of Hungry Hill. When they saw the Queen, the men “in shirt sleeves and bared arms [had] no time to give any further salute than the ‘eyes left’”. Next morning the ‘invaders’ began their attack shortly after 11 o’clock and there was a tremendous “sham fight” as 9,000 infantry, accompanied by field and horse artillery, repulsed the attacker by early afternoon.
A sign of the Queen’s interest in the welfare of the soldiers in Aldershot was her gift of 720 books to form the “Victoria Soldiers’ Library”, which opened on 1 July 1859, initially in a hut in North Camp but soon moved into a room in the Centre Block of the permanent infantry barracks. In 1881 General Lysons, then Aldershot GOC, reported to the Queen that the books and room were both in need of improvement. As a result the library was expanded to 1,000 volumes, housed in a new polished oak bookcase on which was set a declaration, in letters of gold, that the library was the gift of Her Majesty the Queen.
After the death of the Prince Consort at the end of 1861 the Queen, in deep mourning, did not visit Aldershot for some years, but her regular visits resumed in March 1866 when she noted that the “place has increased wonderfully ... all the same and yet all changed”.
While most of Queen Victoria’s visits usually included some form of review and march-past, far grander events were organised for special anniversaries. The largest and most impressive parade was the Field State Review on 9 July 1887, to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Two Army Corps were assembled in Long Valley, the first having four divisions of regulars, and second with five divisions of volunteers, along with seven regular cavalry regiments in two brigades, and eighteen batteries of artillery, giving a total of some 60,000 troops. Special trains brought the men to Aldershot, and the review attracted many thousands of spectators. While the event was heralded as a great success, the day was hot and dry which resulted in Aldershot’s familiar summer problem of dust. A report in The Globe commented that “the dust was never in such force ... it could hardly have been more than equalled on the Great Sahara itself”.
Ten years later, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Review was held at Aldershot on 1 July 1897. This was somewhat smaller than the 1887 event, with 27,000 troops on parade, but it was remarkable for the assembly of members of the extended royal family. Accompanying the Queen were the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, Princess Victoria of Wales, Prince and Princess Charles of Demark, the Empress Frederick of Prussia, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, Prince Henry of Battenberg, the Duchess of Albany, Princess Aribert of Hainault, Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, and the Duke of Cambridge. Also present were representatives from all over the British Empire and from nearly every state in Europe.
After Government House was built in 1883 as the official residence for the General Officer Commanding, the Queen was often entertained there by the General and his wife. This happened most frequently between 1893 and 1898 when the Duke of Connaught was GOC. The Queen would come by train to Farnborough, and take tea at Government House with the Duke and Duchess before travelling to the Royal Pavilion. When the Queen left Government House a soldier with a heliograph signalled to the Royal Pavilion, where the staff knew that it took exactly eleven minutes for her carriage to reach the Pavilion, so they could be ready and waiting for Her Majesty when she arrived.
Queen Victoria’s last visit to Aldershot was on 28 June 1899. This was a brief visit lasting only three hours, as the Queen was becoming infirm with age, and she could only move slowly and with assistance from her attendants.
One of the lasting reminders of Queen Victoria’s interest in Aldershot is the great central road which links North and South Camps. Originally named simply Centre Road, for many years it was called Cranbrook Road, after Lord Cranbrook, the Secretary of State for War from 1874 to 1878. During her visit in July 1898, Queen Victoria had presented colours to the newly formed 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards on Queen’s Parade, inspected the 15th Hussars at Tweseldown, and watched a grand review on Laffan’s Plain. The day after she had returned to London, Her Majesty sent a message to the GOC expressing her “high approval of the parade at Aldershot” and said she was “much pleased with the appearance of the troops of all arms, and with the arrangements made for the ceremony generally”. As a result it was ordered that “The road passing between and connecting the two camps, formerly known as the Cranbrook-road, will be called ‘The Queen’s Avenue’”. The planting of the trees along the roads and parade grounds was also said to be at the instigation of Queen Victoria who had commented on the lack of shade for troops undergoing training in the Camp. Most of the trees were planted at the direction of the Duke of Connaught, who chose chestnuts owing to their quick growth. So when looking along the elegant Queen’s Avenue and enjoying the beautiful spring blossoms on the trees, or their glorious autumn colours, one can remember that this is an enduring memorial to Queen Victoria’s interest in the Camp at Aldershot.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 019, April 2018/May 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.