Why Aldershot? Before the establishment of the "Camp at Aldershott" no garrison or camp existed in the whole United Kingdom for the concentration or training of troops on a large scale. The British Army was stationed in long established garrisons most of which had been military centres from the earliest times and the soldiers occupied castles, forts or similar old defensive installations. Troops not stationed in such recognised garrisons were quartered in the main cities and county towns, for the most part in small detachments billeted on the civil population.
The Duke of Wellington died in 1852, having been Commander-in-Chief for most of the previous twenty five years. There had been little development or progress in the army since Waterloo, a situation which had been watched with increasing concern by the Prince Consort. So it was not long before Prince Albert was writing to the new Commander-in-Chief, Lord Hardinge, urging upon him the need to do something about the training of the Army.
In 1853 a summer camp was established on Chobham Common in Surrey and exercises were conducted for two "divisions" in succession. These proved an immense success and during the course of them Lord Hardinge rode over all the commons and heaths around Ash, Aldershot and Farnham to select a site suitable for a permanent training area. Strategically the need was to be within reach of the South Coast where the threat of French invasion intermittently loomed.
Lord Hardinge recommended that Aldershot Heath should be selected for the new permanent training area, the proprietors agreed to sell for £12 an acre and a tract of nearly ten thousand acres was purchased early in 1854.
Only a summer tented camp was first envisaged, but the need to accommodate the militia called out during the Crimean War led to the erection of two hutted camps, each for a division, north and south of the Basingstoke Canal. Construction began in February 1855 and the first troops moved into their huts in North Camp in May that year.
Subsequently plans were approved for the building of permanent brick barracks for another two brigades of cavalry, infantry and artillery close up against the village of Aldershot, which then had a population of about 850.
View the earliest photographs showing the barracks under construction c1856 from our collections.
Aldershot was thus beginning to take shape as a major military station and although the two hutted camps were constructed only as temporary accommodation they soon became the permanent home of the troops returning from the Crimea.
In the 1880s and 1890s the huts were gradually replaced by permanent brick barracks with schools, hospitals, a reservoir, sewage works, gas works, power station, indeed everything, even its own bye-laws, needed to make Aldershot Camp the only complete military town built in the Kingdom since the Roman occupation.
Aldershot became the home of the 1st and 2nd Divisions comprising the bulk of the 1st British Army Corps, and it was from Aldershot that the British Expeditionary Forces set out for France in 1914 and again in 1939. Reviews, manoeuvres, sporting events, the famous Searchlight Tattoos and a military population of 25,000 had made Aldershot synonymous with "The Home of the British Army".
In the first forty years of this century Aldershot was to witness the complete transformation of the Army, from one which fought shoulder to shoulder in open fields to the mobile and armoured force of the type that we know today. The first military motor car came to Aldershot for trials in 1904, and the first aeroplane flew in this country in 1908, developed by S F Cody, an instructor at the Royal Engineers Balloon School at Farnborough.
In 1939 when the main body of the regular Army departed for France, Aldershot became the base for the Canadian Army in the United Kingdom for the duration of the war, while many British units and formations continued to use Aldershot as a transit area before embarking for North Africa, Europe and almost every theatre of war.
When the Canadians left in 1945 a complete change was to take place in the character of the camp for it became a great training centre for the National Service army, including the famous Mons Officer Cadet School. It embraced, too, the depots and training centres of eight Corps of the British Army and the home for the newly formed Parachute Regiment.
For nearly 50 years Aldershot became synonymous with 'The Paras'. However 1999 saw the disbandment of the 5th Airborne Brigade, of which they had formed a major part. Aldershot is now home to 12 (Mechanised) Brigade.
A hundred years can see a lot of changes and the Army of today is vastly different from that for which "The Camp at Aldershott" was built. Above all, the soldier of today is a totally different to their Victorian counterpart. This was recognised when, in the early 1960s, National Service was ended and the Army became once more a dedicated professional, all-regular force.
The decision was made to build for this Army a new home on the site of its old one, and to build it on radically different principles from those which had governed the buildings of the old camp.
The tradition of the past was that each military unit would be self contained with everyone living "on the premises". The core was the parade-ground, around which were the barrack blocks, dining halls (after dining halls replaced the barrack-room as the venue for meals), workshops, stores, armouries and married quarters.
The new plan envisaged something totally different, the basic principle of which was to make a distinct division between the soldiers' living and working areas. In particular married quarters were henceforth to be built quite apart from the barracks, in the form of estates on the periphery of the garrison. Also, the living quarters of single men were to afford them the opportunity to get away from their places of work at the end of the day.
It was recognised that, to rebuild the new town in this radically different mode, it would be necessary literally to demolish the old and start all over again. Over two decades that is what was done.
The rebuilding programme started in 1960 and under Government pressure to speed up and modernise building practices. The concept dictated that pre-fabricated materials must be used. Other innovations included a modern electricity generating station, the waste heat which is used to warm buildings, and a totally new sewage disposal system.
The finished result was very much a product of its period and opinions about it vary. The buildings have proved vastly expensive to maintain and have suffered fearful condensation and ventilation problems in England's cold damp, winter atmosphere. But the landscaping of the new camp has given a feeling of space that was lacking in the serried ranks of Victorian barrack blocks of Stanhope and Marlborough Lines.
The 1960s barracks stand as a monument to the now discredited form of flat roofed factory built module construction that persisted for twenty years, particularly in local authority and other public buildings. Since 1976 however new barracks have been built in brick with pitched roofs.
More recently Aldershot has also seen significant investment in its sporting facilities - a new swimming pool, rugby stadium, tennis centre and hockey pitches have made it the Army's centre for sporting excellence.
The earliest photographs in the Aldershot Military Museum collections which show the development of 'The Camp at Aldershott'.