Hampshire Cultural Trust

The Aldershot Command Searchlight Tattoos

The origins of the Tattoo
The 1920’s and 1930’s Tattoo originated from a special display arranged for Queen Victoria. In 1894, the then GOC of Aldershot, HRH the Duke of Connaught, arranged a Torchlight Tattoo for the Queen’s entertainment during one of her visits to the Royal Pavilion. The Tattoo, held in the evenings, included a selection of military performances that were illuminated by flame torches. The torchlight tattoos later became a feature of the Military Fete which were held at Government House in Farnborough. These fetes included military displays, fairground rides and the last feature of the fete was a musical display, with the bandsman accompanied by torch bearers. On the last note of the ‘last post’ the flames were extinguished, plunging the whole area into darkness.

After the Great War
After the Great War, the Searchlight Tattoos became an event in themselves, and took place on a number of evenings during a week in June. The Tattoos consisted of massed bands, drills, fireworks, lantern displays and modern warfare displays all illuminated by searchlights. In 1925 the first historical display took place, with a recreation of the burning of Moscow in 1812, accompanied by the ‘1812’ overture, and a re-creation of the Battle of Waterloo.

The tattoos were nationally renowned, with crowds of up to 500,000 people attending annually from all over the country. Special transport was chartered, His Master’s Voice (HMV) produced recordings of the event and the performances were broadcast on the wireless to Britain and other European countries.

Behind the Scenes
With around 5,000 soldiers taking part and over 1,000 soldiers involved in administration, organising the Tattoos was no easy task. Soon after each Tattoo finished an executive committee of HQ Aldershot Command and the Officer in charge of the Tattoos met to discuss the following years programme. Each display and pageant was allotted to a division, brigade or unit to prepare, with historical direction in the hands of a military historian on the Reserve of Officers.

Historical accuracy during the re-enactments was so important that, in 1925 when they were re-enacting the Battle of Waterloo, two French Officers were bought over to ensure that the French uniforms and weapons were re-created properly.

Attention to detail did not stop with historical accuracy, each set or prop was built to look realistic. Chariots and carriages were made up on GS wagons in the Field Stores workshops; and they also made spears, ballista’s, dummy guns an a host or other props. Sometimes items were even purchased from film companies. Bayonets were made with rubber ends, in order to prevent injuries during charges, which they wanted to look as real as possible. Elaborate sets were built including mock Tudor castles, forts and French villages.

The Searchlights were the responsibility of the Corps of the Royal Engineers. In the 1939 Tattoo 33 searchlights were used, producing 3 billion candle power. The searchlights were not cheap items, at the time they cost around £5,000 each.

The local firm Harwoods were also heavily involved in the set building. The pictures show some of the firms work.

In 1930, it was revealed in the press how they got the thousands of troops and thousand bandsmen to march in time. There were actually lights which flashed in time with the music to keep the soldiers in step.

There were also traffic lights behind the scenes which told the soldiers when they were to go on ‘stage’. Red lights told them to stop, green to go, and amber to pause. In the 1930’s during rehearsals photographs were taken in rapid succession (at 1 second intervals) to allow the commander in charge to see if any soldiers were out of time, and to reprimand the culprits!

Scout support
Local boy scout organisations were used to show ticket holders to their seats. In the back of the programmes there was information that stated that the boy scouts did their work voluntarily and were not allowed to be tipped. Local television personality Arthur English was one such boy scout, although he did keep his gratuities. Arthur would hide the tip money in his shoe, then later buy a bun with the money when the show started. Local man, Arthur Lunn, was a scout during the Tattoos and recalls that after the final nights performance the scouts would have a big camp and jamboree at camp 49 at Ewshot. He remembers that “boys visited from all over the country, one troop from as far away as Gibraltar, it ended up with a big sing-song round a blazing campfire”.

Getting to the Tattoo
As the years progressed the numbers of motor cars brought to the Tattoo increased, ranging from 1,233 vehicles in 1921 to 58,113 vehicles in 1938. Special parking arrangements were made by the RAC. Routes were colour coded on maps and leaflets about the event, advising people how to enter Aldershot. These coloured routes then corresponded to the coloured car parks to make it easier for orientation of the visitor. Car drivers were asked to place a sign saying Tattoo in their windscreen (which were sent out with advanced ticket sales). These window stickers were to help police direct other traffic away from the main routes to ease congestion. When the Tattoo’s were sold out, signs were put up in a 20 mile radius of Rushmoor arena on the main routes into Aldershot. Traffic was also directed by Searchlights and by announcements via loud speakers.

After a Saturday performance of the 1930 Tattoo, traffic jams were so bad there was a queue from the arena to Staines and Guildford until 6am the next morning. The Royal family who had attended had to have a special motorcycle escort to bypass the traffic in on their way back to Windsor Castle.

Specially chartered coaches and charabancs bought visitors to Rushmoor Arena. And additional train services to Aldershot were laid on. As many as 200 extra train routes were created, allowing visitors to come from all over the country, including: Sunderland, Liverpool, and Bristol. Upon arrival at Aldershot train station, Aldershot and District Traction Company (the local bus company) would shuttle the spectators to Rushmoor. Many people who were catching trains took a leisurely walk back to Aldershot station, stopping to get food on the way, as the trains to some destinations did not leave until the early hours of the morning.

During Tattoo week, it was a pastime of local people to watch the traffic. Local people would go to Aldershot, and surrounding stations (Ash, Fleet and Farnborough), just to see the vast amounts of people arriving. Some people also sat by the side of the main roads to watch the cars pass, as it was a rare sight to see thousands of cars at that time. Some people believed that watching the traffic was as much a show as watching the Tattoo.

From Princes to Maharajahs; poets to prime ministers, the Aldershot Tattoos were the place for society to entertain. The Tattoos were held in the evenings during Ascot week. Members of society would watch the races during the day and drive down to the Tattoos in the evening. Wealthy members of society hired out the royal boxes or bought reserved seats in the grandstands for their guests. Visitors such as Lord and Lady Sir Phillip Chetwode and Prince George (later to become King George V) were regular attendees at the Tattoos.

Daylight Rehearsals
The full dress rehearsal of the Tattoos took place during the day. In order to provide an audience, the daylight rehearsal was free to school children nationwide. Headmasters/headmistresses had to apply for passes in writing and specially chartered buses and trains bought pupils from as far a field as Tamworth and South end on Sea.  After the Tattoos finished, the goods yards at Aldershot railway station were used as a holding area for the children, in order to get them organised to insure they got on the right train. Each train was given a number, and the children had their train number on cards tied round their necks. They then had to line up in their groups of numbers, and they were led onto the platform when their trains arrived.

It was not only school children who went to see the daylight rehearsals, the royal princesses Elizabeth and Margaret also attended. When the princesses attended in 1935 they were treated to an impromptu fireworks display. A truck laden with fireworks and explosives caught fire, and wowed the children arriving for the rehearsal who all thought it was part of the show.

The Tattoo and it’s charitable links
The Aldershot Tattoos and Army Shows have never been organised for profit, with any money made going to military charities. When Sir Horrace Smith Dorrien was Commander-in-Chief at Aldershot (1907 –1912) he wanted to improve matters related to Army welfare. He suggested that the money raised from the Tattoo should go to help the Army’s ill and sick soldiers and their dependents. The Tattoo during Smith Dorrien’s time was part of the Military Fete, and at that time it raised around £500 for military charities. In contrast, by the end of the 1930’s the Tattoos were raising around £40, 000 for military charities.

The funds originally went to charities such as the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association. There was also an emphasis on keeping the money for local charities, and many of the local charitable institutions such as Louise Margaret hospital for military families, Queen Mary’s nursery, benefited from the Tattoos.

In order to show the success of the Tattoos in raising money for charities, in 1936 the figures were given out of how much the Aldershot Tattoo raised for charity in comparison to other military events.


Net Profit

Money given to charity

Royal Tournament

£13, 409

£13, 000

Aldershot Tattoo

£41, 030

£40, 633

Tidworth Tattoo

£13, 511

£9, 439

Gale and Polden
There was a large commercial side to the Aldershot Tattoo, in the shape of programmes, postcards and other memorabilia. His Master’s Voice (HMV) produced gramophone records of the massed bands of the Tattoo. In the 1920’s local photographers  William May & Co. produced souvenir postcards of the Tattoo. In 1927, the Army gave the publishing rights of the Tattoo to Gale and Polden, a local military printing company.

Gale and Polden produced both the official and souvenir programmes for the event. Both programmes were heavily illustrated with original art work, often produced by one of Gale and Polden’s resident artists H Oakes Jones. Gale and Polden were also the official photographers of the event, and selections of these photographs were featured in the more expensive souvenir programme. The photographic department also had its own mobile darkroom at Rushmoor Arena during the Tattoos. Postcards of the performances were also produced, each year a series of 6 were sold in a pack.

The Aldershot News at the time of the Tattoo, was owned and printed by Gale and Polden. Each year the Aldershot News would produce a Tattoo supplement, containing many of the official programmes and artwork found in the programmes.

The selling of the Tattoo memorabilia was quite a worthwhile business venture for the printers. In 1938 more than 180, 000 programmes were sold and nearly 110, 000 postcards. In 1939, Gale and Polden made a profit of £2053 12s. 9d., which can be broken down as £1851 4s. 10d. from programmes, £118 16s. 1d. from souvenirs, and £83 11s. 10d. from postcards.

Anti-war feeling
After the Great War there was an international feeling of isolationism, and a need for co-operation, which was the founding hope of the League of Nations. Not everyone agreed with military tattoos and shows. Letters were written to editors of newspapers complaining about such shows as it was suggested by some that they were created to “incite military feeling” or that they were “lying propaganda, glamorising war”. In 1935, labour MP Mr D. Grenfell, suggested that it was not right to hold Tattoos at a time of international apprehension. Mr Douglas Hacking of the War Office replied to the MP’s suggestion at a press conference by stating that: “The Aldershot Tattoo is widely known to be an annual event held in the interests of charity. I do not agree that it would excite any such feeling”.

There was also debate over the attendance of school children at the daytime rehearsals. School children from all over the country were invited to attend the daytime rehearsals. Many people believed that it would poison their minds by glorifying war. Several schools did not allow their pupils to attend. In 1935 the National Union of Women’s Teachers passed a resolution banning the attendance of school children at Tattoos. Presumably the resolution did little, as the daylight rehearsal was well attended by school children every year until the last Tattoo in 1939.

Tattoo poster 1931 Ticket 1935 Tatoo performers 1932 Handing out costumes to the solider performers, Aldershot Tattoo 1932 Building wagons for Tattoo Building wagons for the Tattoo 1929 Passengers arriving Passengers arriving at Government sidings, Aldershot, 1925