By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Saint Andrew’s Garrison Church in Queen’s Avenue, Aldershot, is the largest Church of Scotland in any of the three Armed Services, and is described in the National Heritage List for England as “an early twentieth-century church of exceptional design quality”. However, the building which we see today was not the first church on this site, as it replaced an earlier church of Saint Andrew in what was known as the “Iron Church”.
When the first wooden hutted Camp was built in 1855, two wooden churches were included, one each for the North and South Camps. However, these were inadequate for the numbers of soldiers stationed at Aldershot so a third, larger church was added the following year. Originally standing on open ground north of Thorn Hill, this church had a cast iron frame with walls and roof of corrugated iron, lined inside with wood. Owing to the materials used, the building was known as the Iron Church, although the soldiers unofficially called it the “Tin Tabernacle”. The wooden churches were very plain, but in contrast the Iron Church was constructed in a more ecclesiastical style, with a gallery and painted glass windows, and was described at the time as being “particularly light and elegant”. In 1866 the Iron Church was dismantled and moved to a more central position, close to where Queen’s Avenue crosses the Basingstoke Canal.
All the early churches were shared by different denominations. The two wooden churches were used for Church of England and Roman Catholic congregations, with altars on wheels so that they could be quickly changed between services. The Iron Church was also shared, in this case between the Anglican and Presbyterian churches. The first Church of Scotland Chaplain was the Reverend Francis Cannon, who came from Forfar and began his service at the Iron Church in 1856, the first of an unbroken line of Church of Scotland ministers in Aldershot.
When Aldershot Camp was rebuilt in the 1890s, a new, large Anglican church was constructed next to the Iron Church. This was the church of Saint George, which opened in 1893 (now the Cathedral Church of Saint Michael and Saint George, for details see Aldershot Garrison Herald issue 21). As a result the Iron Church was left for the sole use of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and in 1908 the Chaplain at that time, Reverend J T Bird, successfully applied to the War Office for permission to name it after Saint Andrew, the Patron Saint of Scotland.
Numerous improvements were made in 1911, including new seating, electric lights, a new communion table, pulpit, prayer desk and organ. The following year the Cameron Highlanders donated a fine stained glass window featuring a large central figure of Saint Andrew. The church was in use throughout the First World War, but by the start of the 1920s the fabric of the building, now over 60 years old, was in a poor condition and the iron was rusting.
After the First World War members of the Church of Scotland wanted to erect a memorial church dedicated to the men and women of the Church of Scotland and related Presbyterian churches who had died in the war. Money was collected nationally and it was decided that the memorial church should be built in Aldershot, this being “the Home of the British Army”. The old Iron Church was demolished in 1926 and work began on building a new church of Saint Andrew.
The architect for the new church was Sir Robert Lorimer, the leading Scottish architect of his time, and the builders were the firm of Musselwhite and Son of Basingstoke. Lorimer designed the building in a modern interpretation of the Romanesque style, with a wide and lofty interior below a wood-panelled roof. The Cameron Highlanders’ window from the Iron Church had unfortunately been broken when the building was dismantled, but part of it was incorporated in the west window of the new building. The Aldershot Gazette and Military News “regretted, however, that the stained glass of Cameron tartan which surrounded the figure of St. Andrew has not been used” as this had previously given “a distinctive and pleasing effect”.
The dedication service for the new Church of Saint Andrew was held on Saturday 10 December 1927, attended by Princess Mary, the Princess Royal. During the service Princess Mary unveiled a memorial plaque “in thankful remembrance of the soldiers of the Church of Scotland and kindred churches throughout the Empire who laid down their lives in the Great War 1914-1918”. For this solemn ceremony buglers sounded the “Last Post”, then “The Flowers of the Forest” was played by the Pipe-Majors of 1st Scots Guards, 1st Highland Light Infantry, and 1st Seaforth Highlanders, before the bugles sounded “Reveille”.
The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were quick to replace their broken window, and generously donated a new window which was unveiled on 23 December 1930 by the Colonel of the Regiment, Major-General N J G Cameron. Set in the south transept of the new church, it again featured a central image of Saint Andrew, along with various Regimental badges and symbols. In 1934 another stained glass window, commissioned from the designer Walter J R Cook of Edinburgh, was placed in the apse as Scotland’s tribute to Field Marshal Earl Haig. In the following year Lady Haig made a gift to the church of a stained glass window in the west wall, dedicated to the memory of all troops of First Corps who died in the Great War, and also designed by Walter Cook. This was unveiled on 29 September 1935 by Captain Ian Fraser, a veteran who had been blinded in the war.
Unfortunately, lack of money meant that the church had not been fully finished. Decorations were sparse, and the walls had not even been plastered but simply whitewashed. Even more serious was that the building was smaller than Lorimer had intended, with the nave shorter than in his design. Owing to the large numbers of Scottish units in Aldershot, this caused problems with overcrowding. Matters came to a head in 1933, when the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders marched to Saint Andrew’s for the Farewell Parade for their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel R L MacColl, but when they arrived they found the church already full with men from other regiments. The Camerons turned about and marched back to their barracks in silence.
It was resolved that something had to be done and again appeals for funds were made to Church of Scotland members, but the difficult economic climate of the 1930s meant that it was hard to raise any money. In 1938 the Trustees of Saint Andrew’s Scottish Soldiers’ Club made a generous offer of £4,000 towards an estimated cost of £6,000 for completing Lorimer’s design, which encouraged contributions from the Church of Scotland and the Treasury to make up the remainder. As Lorimer had died in 1929, the design work was undertaken by his partner, John F Matthew, with Musselwhite and Son once again being the building contractors. The west end of the nave was extended by 30 feet, the walls were plastered inside, a new lighting system was installed, and numerous other improvements made. On the side of the church had been a distinctive tall, round bell tower, but this was now reduced in height to roof level as it was thought the original tall tower would not be in proportion to the enlarged church. The bell was to be polished and installed on a wooden stand in the new building, but it mysteriously disappeared. As the bell weighed over two hundredweight it could not have been removed by accident, but despite searches of scrap yards as far afield as Portsmouth no trace of it was ever found.
Accounts in the Saint Andrew’s archives show how savings were made to complete the project within the available money. For example, £63 12s was saved by merging distempering of the walls with the plastering work, £70 10s was cut from the drainage works, and £20 was saved by not providing an office for the Clerk of Works. With savings totalling £410 14s 11d, the final cost was £5,444 2s 1d (around £321,000 in present day value). The new church was given a royal re-opening on Sunday 5 February 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The King wore the uniform of Colonel-in-Chief of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and after the service of re-dedication their Majesties took the salute at a march-past of the 1st Gordon Highlanders, 1st Cameron Highlanders, and 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Later that same year the Second World War broke out, and in the 1950s a new church hall was built and dedicated to the memory of all members of the Church and Scotland and kindred Presbyterian churches who died in the fighting between 1939 and 1945.
The present day Saint Andrew’s church has a light and elegant interior, decorated with numerous flags and regimental plaques, most of which were collected by the Reverend David Reid when he was chaplain in the early 1980s. The striking large brass eagle lectern was a gift of the Army Physical Training Corps, originally donated to Saint George’s Church but transferred to Saint Andrew’s in 1983. The remarkable organ is older than the church, dating from 1897. Initially, Saint Andrew’s had used a succession of electric organs, but in 1984 they received this large, traditional organ from Saint Ninian’s Church of Scotland in Leith, when Saint Ninian’s was merged with the North Leith and Bonnington Church. The organ console was restored and upgraded in 2018.
In this series of articles we have looked at the three garrison churches of Aldershot - the Royal Garrison Church of All Saints (Aldershot Garrison Herald issue 20), the Cathedral Church of Saint Michael and Saint George (Aldershot Garrison Herald issue 21), and Saint Andrew’s Garrison Church of Scotland. These are all buildings of major architectural and historic importance, each with a distinctive character and beauty. But of greater importance is that they are not just historic monuments but are all working churches, making a vital contribution the spiritual welfare of Aldershot Garrison as they have done since the early years of the Camp.
I am very grateful to Alan Shoesmith, Archivist for Saint Andrew’s Church, for his generous assistance in in compiling this article, and allowing me access to the church archives.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 023, December 2018/January 2019
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.