The Christmas riot of 1859

By Paul Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum

Christmas in the old Aldershot Camp was always celebrated with enthusiasm by the men who were obliged to spend the festive season in barracks. In 1859 the majority of the men were housed in wooden huts, but a few units were fortunate to be in the line of new brick barracks built between 1856 and 1859 along the southern edge of the Camp. Throughout the Camp the men enjoyed a day free from normal duties and a good Christmas dinner, usually followed by free time in the Regimental Canteen where much seasonal cheer would be drunk.

In the West Infantry Barracks, one of the new brick barracks which would later be better known as Badajos Barracks, was the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot. This was a new formation which had only been created on 3 June 1858 and arrived in Aldershot in June 1859. As with most battalions at the time it was below its full establishment, so there was spare space in the barracks which was filled by three companies of the King’s Own Light Infantry Militia (Tower Hamlets Militia). The remainder of the Militia battalion was in the huts of D Lines, South Camp.

The main soldiers’ accommodation were two large three-storey buildings. The upper floors were reached by outside stairs and galleries on the inward-facing elevations of the two blocks, there were no internal staircases. The two main buildings were 80 feet apart, and over the gap was fixed a large glass roof which allowed drill to continue whatever the weather. The men of the 24th Foot occupied all the south block and the lower floors of the north, while the rooms of the Militia were on the upper storey of the north block.

On Christmas Day 1859 the men of both regiments enjoyed their dinner, which as was customary was provided by the officers. Around half past one, the officers left and went to their own quarters, leaving the soldiers to go to their canteen where they were able to buy more refreshment. Many men remained in the canteen all day, at first drinking amicably together. However, as the drink took hold inter-unit rivalries surfaced and trouble began around half-past six, when a soldier of the Tower Hamlets Militia asked a man of the 24th to have a drink with him. He did, but refused to stand a beer in return. A scuffle broke out, which became more general and lasted until around a quarter to eight, when the canteen was cleared. The men were not satisfied that the matter had been decided and they resolved to finish it in the barracks. When the soldiers got back to their quarters the fighting continued and soon all was mayhem inside. Men of the 24th were on their galleries shouting at the other side, who answered with a shower of pieces of coal, stones and other items. Then the 24th rushed over to the gallery occupied by the Militia where soldiers fought each other with sticks and brooms as well as hurling more missiles.

Major Charles Adams was in temporary command of the Tower Hamlets Militia, and was in the officers’ quarters when an NCO came in and reported the disturbance in the men’s barracks. Owing to the stormy weather the sounds of the rioting had not reached the officers’ mess, so until hearing this message the officers had no idea what was going on in the soldiers’ barracks. While the first man was delivering his message a second NCO arrived to say that things were getting very serious, so Major Adams went with the NCOs to see what was happening. As he got close he heard a shot fired, quickly followed by several more. On entering the barracks Adams found the place in uproar, with men of the 24th crowding on to the landing of the Militia quarters and so many others on the stairs that they were completely blocked. Because it was dark he could not see if they were armed, nor could he tell for sure from which direction the shots were coming. Adams quickly sent messages for help to the commanding officers of the 24th and the nearby 21st Fusiliers. The divisional pickets and other regiments from the Second Infantry Brigade were called out, the firing stopped after about 10 minutes and gradually order was restored.

When the officers picked their way along the landings strewn with debris, in Room 52 they found Private James King, of the Tower Hamlets Militia, lying face down on his bed. Private King had been shot through his right side, the bullet had passed through his body and exited by his right abdomen. King was taken to hospital, but the unfortunate man died from his wounds the following morning. At the later inquest, one of Private King’s comrades testified that they had been singing “Auld Lang Syne” when Private King called out “I am shot”. Pulling up King’s shirt they could see the bullet wound, bleeding slowly.

The officers found that nearly every window on the Militia’s side of the barracks had been smashed, and there were the marks of between 19 and 23 bullets on the walls, including one on the door of the room in which Private King had been found. There was one bullet hole in one of the windows on the 24th Regiment’s side, but looked to have been made by a shot fired from the inside. None of the Militia rifles appeared to have been fired and all their ammunition was accounted for. Private William Lord of the 24th was found in possession of a rifle which showed evidence of having been recently fired. At this time it was the practice for each man to have 10 rounds of ammunition with him, but Lord was missing seven rounds, plus one in the rifle. The rifle of Private Williams was also found to have been fired and his 10 rounds of ammunition were missing, and Private Hatton was found with 10 rounds loose in his pocket. However, no witnesses could be found to say who had fired the fatal shot.

Major Adams assembled his Militiamen and they were immediately sent to join their comrades in D Lines, to get them away and prevent any repetition of the fighting. On Boxing Day morning the 2nd Battalion of the 24th were moved to North Camp, except for 15 of their number who had been arrested and were imprisoned, but this was only the first step in their speedy removal from Aldershot.

On Thursday 29 December the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, arrived in Aldershot and went to the West Infantry Barracks, to see the damage for himself. Next he addressed the King’s Own Light Infantry Militia and left them in no doubt of his displeasure. The Duke then went to North Camp where the 24th, who were held to be mainly responsible for the shocking events of Christmas Day, were severely censured. The C-In-C told them that “what they had done amounted to murder ... If I could have my way I’d send to all to – well, a place not mentioned in Queen’s Regulations, but as I can’t send you there you’ll go to Mauritius for a spell.”

Such was the haste to get the battalion out of Aldershot that the steam troopship Himalaya, which was detailed to take a cargo of guns from Woolwich to Alexandria, had its orders countermanded on 30 December and it was sent instead to Portsmouth to take the 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment to Cork where they could prepare for their unplanned overseas deployment. On 31 December the battalion left Aldershot and arrived in Cork on 29 February 1860. On 13 March 1860 the battalion embarked for Mauritius, where they served for six years, followed by three years in Burma and four years in southern India before returning to the UK. In December 1873 the battalion was back in Aldershot, this time to the huts of North Camp, with the events of 14 years earlier now forgotten.

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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.