The Boyce Building and the Militia Barracks

By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum

One of the buildings which houses the Aldershot Military Museum, at the corner of Queen’s Avenue and Evelyn Wood’s Road, is the wooden Boyce Building. This is a tangible link to the Militia Camps of the 1930s, built when the country was preparing for war.

Hitler’s aggressive expansionist policies during the 1930s meant that war with Germany seemed inevitable. After the 1938 Munich crisis the British government introduced various measures to strengthen the armed forces, including a significant enlargement of the Territorial Army to increase the numbers of trained reserves available. In May 1939 a more radical measure was the passing of the Military Training Act, which required all males aged between 20 and 22 to register for military training.

For the first time in British history this Act introduced a form of conscription in peacetime, which was a sensitive issue. To alleviate some concerns, the men would not be drafted into the regular Army but would undergo six months’ military training and then pass into the reserves. As a further distinction, these men would be called Militia, reviving an old term which had largely fallen into disuse during the nineteenth century. The first tranche of Militia would be called up in July 1939.

With such a short timeframe, finding accommodation for the Militia men was a top priority. New camps were built all over the country and Aldershot Command, the largest and most important of the home commands, would take its share. There was no space for large numbers of Militia within Aldershot garrison itself, so three new camps were to be constructed nearby, one at Church Crookham, another at Southwood, near Cove, and a third near Blackwater. Contracts for construction of the camps were placed on 1 May with Sir Lindsay Parkinson and Company, and work began the next day.

To have the barracks ready in time they had to be built very quickly. For speed the buildings were made mainly of wood and around 2,000 construction workers were employed on each camp. As the local work force could not provide such numbers, the contractor arranged special trains to bring thousands of men from London, leaving Waterloo at 06.30 in the morning and returning in the evening. The men for Church Crookham came through Aldershot, but for those working on the Southwood and Blackwater camps the trains stopped at Bramshot Halt. Tragedy struck at this small overcrowded station on 6 August. To board a train on the other side a crowd crossed the line, unfortunately into the path of an express. Three men were killed and a fourth was seriously injured.

The Church Crookham camp was the first to be completed. The Militia camp was sited to the west of Haig Lines (built 1914) and its southern end bordered Leipzig Barracks (built 1900-1901). Designed to accommodate around 900 members of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), the camp was finished on 14 July. The men's living quarters initially consisted of seven wooden barrack blocks, six for the militiamen and one for the permanent training staff. Because of their shape these were known as “spider” blocks and each had six barrack rooms, three either side of a central section which contained bathrooms and ablutions, along with rooms for cleaning equipment, storage, etc. Each barrack room accommodated 19 men, so there were 114 in each “spider”.

As a camp for the RASC, it was named Boyce Barracks after Major-General Sir Bertram Boyce CB, DSO, KCMG, who had been Director of Transport during the First World War. Boyce died in 1937 and was buried in Fleet Cemetery. The other Militia camps were named after battles of the First World War, Southwood Camp was Morval and Delville Barracks, and the camp near Blackwater became Guillemont Barracks.

Around the country on Saturday 15 July the first 30,000 Militiamen reported for duty. Some 4,000 came to Aldershot that day, of these 700 were sent to the Anti-Aircraft Militia Depot at Arborfield, 660 to the RASC at Church Crookham, 400 to the Royal Army Medical Corps, and 330 to the Royal Engineers. Other detachments were sent to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Royal Artillery, and to the three cavalry regiments in Aldershot.

Men of all types and from all backgrounds reported for duty. An anxious young man arrived with a small wicker basket in which there was a carrier pigeon. When he got into camp he released the bird, which flew home with a message telling his family that he had arrived safely. At the other end of the social scale, another Militia man arrived in a Rolls-Royce driven by a uniformed chauffeur.

The next day Lieutenant-General Sir John Dill, General Officer Commanding at Aldershot, visited Boyce Barracks, where he was given a tour of the barrack rooms and visited the Militia men at dinner. Two days later the Duke of Connaught, Colonel-in-Chief of the RASC, also visited. The recruits’ training began with drill, physical training and weapons training, to be followed by more specialist training for the unit into which they were drafted.

In September 1939 the Second World War began, and on the day war was declared the National Service Act introduced general conscription. This superseded the Military Training Act, which meant that there would be no further call-up of “Militia men” and those who were already in the camps were now liable for service in the Army on completion of their training. The Militia camps continued to be used as training camps throughout the war, and afterwards for National Service men and for regular Army units.

Boyce Barracks became a training centre for the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1948, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Corps, they were visited by Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, and in her honour the barracks were re-named Queen Elizabeth Barracks. From 1970 the barracks became the home for units from the Brigade of Gurkhas, until they moved to Shorncliffe in 2000. The barracks were subsequently demolished and a housing estate built on the site. Southwood Camp was also demolished to make way for housing, while the Guillemont Barracks site became a business estate.

Before Queen Elizabeth Barracks was demolished, the Battalion Administration building was dismantled and moved to the Aldershot Military Museum, the work supported by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. It opened to the public in November 2006, containing a reconstruction of a battalion admin office, a display on the history of the barracks, and a large open room for educational activities, meetings and conferences. Named the Boyce Building to reflect its origins, today it is the only survivor of the camps built in the turbulent period just before the Second World War.


Article originally published in the The Garrison, Winter 2020

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.