By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Following the completion of the first of the permanent barracks at Aldershot in 1860, Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, decided that a new garrison church should be built, suitable for the new centre of the Army. Herbert was known for his support for Army reform, but he also took an interest in church affairs and had personally funded the rebuilding of the parish church in his home town of Wilton. Unfortunately Herbert would not see the church in Aldershot completed, for he died in 1861, two years before the new garrison church opened.
There were already churches in Aldershot Camp but these, like most of the Camp, were made of wood. In 1855 the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Hardinge, had instructed the Inspector General of Fortifications to plan “two large buildings for Divine Worship at Aldershot … These buildings are to be erected on the plan of covered in Railway Stations, and are to have no galleries, and nothing in them except forms”. The Treasury approved the cost of £4,416 and the Inspector General of Fortifications reported in May 1855 that the churches were “ready for erection. Each church is 100 feet long by 62 feet wide in addition to the space occupied by the Altar and Vestry”. One church was built in North Camp, on the slight hill at the end of what is now Evelyn Woods Road, and the second in South Camp on Stannon Hill, opposite the site of the later Louise Margaret Hospital. These were inadequate for the large numbers of soldiers in Aldershot Camp so the following year a third church was built near Thorn Hill. This was the “Iron Church”, so called as it had an iron frame with tin walls and roof, so although large it was still not a permanent building. (The Iron Church was moved in 1866 to a more central site near the bridge over the Basingstoke Canal.)
The new Garrison Church of All Saints did not replace any of these early churches, which all remained in use, but it was the first to be built in brick and so became the main church for the Camp. The site chosen was on Dolly’s Hill, and the church was designed to be a focal point at the end of Avenue Road (now Wellington Avenue and Willems Avenue), the main road through the new permanent barracks. The architect was Philip Charles Hardwick of London, who planned a taller building than that which we see today, but government cost-cutting meant that the height was reduced by 10 feet from Hardwick’s original design and the proposed clerestory windows in the side walls were lost. The builder was George Myers, who had been the contractor for the permanent barracks, and the cost was £16,000 (approximately £1.5 million in current value). The church was 143 feet long and 68 feet wide, with a seating capacity for 1,250 persons. The tower was 121 feet high and became a landmark for Aldershot. As the church was built in red brick it stood out in contrast to the barracks which were all in local yellow brick, and it quickly acquired its familiar name of the “Red Church”.
The formal opening took place on 29 July 1863, when the ceremony of consecration was performed by the Bishop of Winchester. Also present were the Chaplain General (Reverend G R Gleig), the Secretary of State for War (Earl de Grey and Ripon), the GOC (Lieutenant-General Pennefather), and the local MP (Mr Sclater-Booth). For his sermon the Bishop preached on an appropriate text from the book of Psalms, chapter 127 verse 1: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”
After the service a large company of VIPs and guests adjourned to a marquee which was erected on the cricket-ground adjoining the Royal Pavilion. After “an elegant lunch” General Pennefather proposed a toast to “the Queen”, followed by “the Bishop and Clergy”. The Bishop replied with a long speech concluding with a toast to “the health of Earl de Grey and Ripon”, who in turn gave another lengthy speech, after which were still more speeches and toasts to “the Chaplain General and the Military Chaplains”, “the Army and Navy”, “the Ladies”, “the health of Mr Sclater-Booth and the visitors”; and finally Earl de Grey and Ripon proposed “the health of the architect, Mr Hardwick”. With this the convivial, and prolonged, event concluded.
Almost 20 years later the church was very nearly lost. At around 5.30 pm on Sunday 18 February 1883, the orderly in charge was preparing the church for the Sunday evening service when he found that the wooden floor on which he was standing was getting hot, then the boards began to crack and smoke appeared through the gaps. Immediately he ran out and raised the fire alarm, which brought two engines from the Army’s South Camp fire brigade along with some 200 soldiers who set up a chain of buckets to help get water into the cellar where the fire was burning. Shortly after six o’clock the North Camp fire engine also arrived to join in the work, and soon the fire was extinguished. The blaze had been in some dry wood stored in the cellar, but it was not known how it had caught alight. Fortunately the quick action taken meant that no significant damage was done to the church, but it could easily have been a disaster if the fire had occurred at a time when no-one had been present.
As the church approached its 60th Anniversary in 1923, a Diamond Jubilee fund was instituted among the soldiers of Wellington Lines who used the church, along with other regular worshippers, with the aim of raising money for a number of improvements. Among the enhancements provided by the fund were the oak screen surrounding St Michael’s chapel, oak panelling in the Sanctuary and on the front of the organ, and the replacement of the old gas lighting with new electric lights throughout the church. The latter was described by Frederick Anderson in his 1924 history of the church as the “Happy scrapping of the inartistic and odoriferous gas brackets of many years’ standing” with new electric light “which has contributed in no small measure to enhance the beauty of the interior”.
The Diamond Jubilee Fund also provided a set of twelve tubular bells which were installed in the church tower in 1924, and they were rung for the first time on Remembrance Day that year. Unfortunately in 1971 the bells and their mountings were declared unsafe and they had to be removed, and it was not possible to replace them owing the high cost.
The Diamond Jubilee itself was celebrated on Sunday 29 July 1923 with a special service attended by King George V. In recognition of the service the church had given the garrison for its first 60 years the King granted it the title “Royal”, and henceforth it was the Royal Garrison Church of All Saints.
The church was honoured by a visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1963, when she attended a service to mark the centenary of its founding. The Queen returned on 4 August 1974 to attend the National Service for the Diamond Jubilee of the Old Contemptibles. These veterans from the first units which had gone to war in 1914 had always held their annual services in the Royal Garrison Church, but owing to age and dwindling numbers, this Diamond Anniversary service was also their last.
In July 1967 the Church became the Spiritual Home of the Parachute Regiment. Oak panels were fixed to end of the pews, on which were carved the Regimental badges of airborne units, and a fine carved font cover was donated. In 1975 the Church also became the Spiritual Home of the Army Catering Corps (now part of the Royal Logistic Corps) and the Army Physical Training Corps (now Royal).
The interior of the church is lit by many fine stained glass windows, the largest of which is the great East Window with its central figure of the risen Christ, which is dedicated to the men of the 37th North Hampshire Regiment who were killed during the Indian Mutiny (1857-58). The main west window is in memory of General Pennefather, GOC of Aldershot when the church was opened.
The altar is in carved oak and was presented by the All Saints Branch of the Guild of Saint Helena. In the three altar panels are modern paintings by contemporary artist Scott Norwood Witts, which combine religious figures with Aldershot references in the style of traditional church art. In the central panel the Virgin Mary holds the Royal Garrison Church, St George holds the church of St Michael and St George, and St Andrew holds St Andrew’s Church of Scotland. In the side panels, St Barbara holds the tower of the Cambridge Hospital, flanked by St Christopher and St Luke; and in the other panel are St David of Wales, St Helena, and St Patrick, who holds the Wellington Statue.
The church is filled with memorials to regiments and individuals, too many to list here, but the most notable is the Royal Army Chaplains Department memorial under the east window, which lists the names of 172 Army Chaplains of all denominations who lost their lives in the First World War. Either side of the east window are two Union flags dating from the First World War, that on the north side was used to cover the coffin of Field Marshal Lord Roberts in November 1914, when his body was moved back to the UK from St Omer in France. The flag on the south side flew over the British army hospital at Ypres. The Union Flag in St. Michael’s Chapel came from the Cenotaph in London. Below the west window is a large marble memorial to General James Yorke Scarlett, the third GOC in Aldershot (1865-1870) who was famous for leading the highly successful charge of the Heavy Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, which unfortunately has been eclipsed by the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade. Elsewhere there are memorials to the Second Division for both World Wars, nurses from Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (later Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps), and a plaque for the Aldershot Branch of the Old Contemptibles.
The Royal Garrison Church of All Saints has served Aldershot Garrison for 155 years, and it remains one of the most important and beautiful buildings in the Military Town.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 020, June 2018/July 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.