By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
In 1892 Aldershot Camp was a vast construction site, as across the garrison old wooden huts from the 1850s were being replaced by new permanent brick barracks, funded through the Barracks Act of 1890. On 27 June 1892, into the centre of these building works came the distinctive figure of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, to perform the ceremony of laying the memorial foundation stone for the new garrison Church of Saint George.
Dressed her usual plain black, the Queen arrived by special train at Farnborough and rode down Cranbrook Road (as Queen’s Avenue was then known) in an open carriage drawn by four grey horses, with some 6,000 soldiers lining the route. At the site of the new church the foundations had been completed and the first courses of the walls had been laid. At the east end the memorial stone was suspended over a niche in the wall. The Queen and royal party walked up a ramp to a red-carpeted platform decorated with flowers, and after the singing of the hymn “Christ is our corner-stone” Her Majesty formally laid the foundation stone using a silver trowel and gavel, which are still preserved at the church.
At this time there were four other churches in the Camp but only the Garrison Church of All Saints, built in 1863, was a permanent structure. The North Camp church, at the end of what is now Evelyn Wood’s Road, was one of the original wooden churches from the 1850s and was shared by Anglican and Catholic congregations. The second wooden church stood on the ridge of Stannon Hill, opposite the Louise Margaret Hospital. Originally also shared by Anglicans and Catholics, since the opening of All Saints it had been the Roman Catholic church for South Camp and named the Church of Saint Michael and Saint Sebastian. The “Iron Church”, originally erected near Thorn Hill but moved in 1866 to a central site near the Basingstoke Canal, was shared between the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Owing to the expansion of the garrison with the 1890s rebuilding, a second permanent Anglican church was included in the plans, which allowed the Iron Church to be handed over entirely to the Church of Scotland.
The new church was to be dedicated to Saint George as the patron saint of all soldiers, and a fine relief of Saint George and the dragon would be set over the main entrance. The church was designed by two officers of the Royal Engineers, Major Pitt and Lieutenant Michie, and the building contractor was Joseph Dorey of Brentford. Dorey’s company specialised in church building, and at the time of his death in 1918 it was said to have erected some two hundred places of worship, as well as numerous public buildings. Work continued on building the church over the autumn and winter, until on 13 April 1893 the completion of the spire was marked by fixing a weathercock to the top, at a height of 160 feet. This “interesting little ceremony”, as it was described by Sheldrake’s Aldershot Military Gazette, was performed by Lieutenant-Colonel Waller of the Royal Engineers, the executive officer in charge of building the new Stanhope Lines. Sheldrake’s reporter thought the work had been carried out “so skilfully that there is not a line or angle of the building, including the tower and spire, which is in the slightest degree out of plumb”.
Although by July 1893 it was reported that the church “may be said to be complete” except for the organ, peal of bells and the seating (which was “now in hand”), the service of consecration did not take place until 7 October 1893. Performing the ceremony was the Bishop of Winchester, while in attendance were many dignitaries including the Reverend Dr. Edghill, Chaplain-General of the Forces; Lieutenant-General Sir Evelyn Wood, General Officer Commanding in Aldershot; and a large number of senior Army officers and clergy.
The exterior of the church was well proportioned, with walls in red brick faced with Portland stone. It was dominated by the tall needle pointed spire, which, being in the centre of the Camp, quickly became a local landmark. The tiles of the spire were not slate but were wooden cedar shingles. Inside, the church was designed in the Gothic style, with a long, narrow nave between tall arches leading up to an ornate chancel of mosaics and gold, the whole giving a most impressive appearance. The cost of the church in 1893 was £10,200 (worth around £1.2 million in present day values).
Saint George’s church served the units in Stanhope Lines, and the church parades were very colourful events. In 1984 Miss May Brind, then 99 years old, was interviewed for the archives of the Aldershot Military Museum. Miss Brind was the daughter of Major John Brind, Camp Quartermaster at Aldershot from 1891 to 1901, so as a young girl she attended Saint George’s church shortly after its opening. She still remembered the church parades when the soldiers were accompanied by their bands, which were “very thrilling … [the soldiers] were all shining and red coated, and I can hear them now, coming into the church. We were always there before the troops got in, for some reason or other, seemed the thing to do. The soldiers would come in and you’d hear them tramping into the church. [Often] we went to the very early service, and you’d be surprised how many soldiers came to that.”
Saint George’s was particularly associated with the two largest corps in Stanhope Lines, the Royal Engineers in Gibraltar Barracks and the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in Buller Barracks, and for both corps it became their spiritual home. The special importance of the church to the RASC is reflected in the many memorials to the men of the corps who died in wars since the 1890s. The central panel of the reredos and plaques in the north wall are in memory of Army Service Corps personnel who fell in the Second Boer War, while tablets in the floor of the sanctuary commemorate RASC soldiers who fell in the First World War. On the sanctuary walls are memorial plaques for 106 individual RASC officers, and the communion rails are dedicated to men of the RASC who died in the Second World War. Among many other memorials in the church are those for members of the Army Nursing Service and Army Chaplains who died in the Second Boer War; to members of the Army Catering Corps who fell in World War Two; and to members of the Royal Engineers, Royal Army Physical Training Corps, and many individual officers and soldiers.
The RASC association with the church continued after the Second World War, as the RASC became part of the Royal Corps of Transport and then the Royal Logistic Corps. In 2013 the memorial arch from the old Buller Barracks, honouring members of the RASC who died in the two World Wars, was moved by the RLC to the grounds of the church, where it has been placed in an appropriate setting with new paving, railings and planting.
Following the rebuilding of Aldershot Garrison in the 1960s there was no longer a need for so many churches, so in 1973 Saint George’s was transferred into the care of the Roman Catholic Church. Up to this time, Catholic soldiers in South Camp had continued to worship in the wooden church of Saint Michael and Saint Sebastian, while in North Camp the church of Saint Patrick had been opened in 1913. Both these churches were now closed as their congregations moved into the church of Saint George. In memory of the old churches, the church was re-named the Garrison Church of Saint Michael and Saint George, taking part of the name of the old wooden church, and a statue of Saint Patrick was taken from the church in North Camp and placed in Saint Michael and Saint George.
The role of the church was extended in 1987, when a new Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope John Paul II came into effect. Called “Spirituali Militum Curae”, this provided new canonical regulations for the spiritual care of the military, established the Roman Catholic Bishopric of the Forces, and the Church of St Michael and St George became the Cathedral Church of the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Forces.
Although much of the interior of the modern church inevitably reflects its long Army history, it also contains items reflecting its current tri-Service role. In the sanctuary is the bell from HMS Invincible, the Royal Navy aircraft carrier which found fame for her role in the Falklands War of 1982 and served in many other operations, including the First Gulf War, before being de-commissioned in 2011. Another reminder of the Falklands is a small statue of Our Lady of Lujan, which was left on the islands when the Argentines surrendered and was brought back to Aldershot by Father Alfred Hayes, who served with the British forces throughout the campaign.
One of the most striking features of the modern church is the contemporary crucifix sculpture suspended high over the Sanctuary. This is a memorial to members of the Royal Air Force, and was created by sculptor Chris Raw using parts from twenty-three different military aircraft, among them a Spitfire, Lancaster, Meteor, Phantom, Hercules, Puma, Tornado and Typhoon. The cross-piece is a wooden propeller. The sculpture was installed in 2015, with the blessing ceremony on 1 February conducted by Bishop Richard Moth.
Being over a century old, the Church of Saint Michael and Saint George has inevitably needed maintenance work to keep the building in good condition. In 2009 the spire was refurbished, and in the summer of 2017 work began on a major project to replace the main roof, as there was danger of damage to the building from rainwater coming in through worn tiles. To respect the church’s historic fabric and original design, appropriate slate tiles were brought from a quarry in Cumbria. The work was done by Aspire Defence Services Limited, and used 48 tonnes of slate, 3.5 miles of roofing battens, and some 60,000 nails. The completion of the work was marked on 4 January 2018 when a new stone cross was blessed and installed on the highest point of the roof, replacing an original cross which was cracked and water damaged.
The Cathedral Church of Saint Michael and Saint George remains one of the best known buildings in Aldershot and its Grade II listing reflects its historical and architectural importance. The interior, with its fine lines and gilded mosaics, is one of the most beautiful in the town, and the church continues to be at the centre of the spiritual welfare of all Roman Catholic personnel in the Armed Forces.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 021, August 2018/September 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.