A village that became the Home of the British Army

This history cannot escape the fact that the name of Aldershot is known globally as the Home of the British Army. However, prior to 1853, the date chosen for this history, the place was still a small rural village. It had not yet become the military centre for a vast commercial empire as increasingly Britain took an imperial turn. 

Just when to date the beginning of British Imperialism is open to debate. The period known as Pax Britannia had notionally begun in 1815 with the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, even before that, the Royal Navy was in control of the seas, assisting British commerce establish its global reach. The huge extent of that worldwide reach is illustrated well in a map published in 1850 by John Bartholomew. 

British Empire Throughout the World, Exhibited in One View
John Bartholomew, Edinburgh, 1850
(Source: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

Britain had been busy building garrisons in far flung places in order to support the advance of those commercial interests. This is therefore but one of the many stories that could be told of villages prior to the impact of large-scale military presence by British troops. What is particular to this village’s story is three-fold. The first is that this was not decision making by a foreign-led  army. Second, this concerns a place close to the heart of empire. Lastly, there exists a relative abundance of documentary evidence which can support the telling of this history. 

The village of Aldershot, as shown in the map below, was located within the shire counties of south east England, about 40 miles from London. It was about the same distance from the harbour at Portsmouth, one of the determining factors for the Army’s selection of Aldershot Heath. The London to Southampton Railway had a convenient station at nearby Farnborough. 

Map of south east England with location of Aldershot highlighted by a starVol. 1. of Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Chapman and Hall, London, 1844.

Rapid Impact

Once the decision was taken to establish an army training camp on the nearby heath, the name of the place was catapulted from near obscurity to feature in the national consciousness. Mention, sometimes as Aldershott (sic), rocketed in the country’s newspapers, increasing two thousand-fold during the first five years after 1854. The trigger was government announcement of a budget of £100,000, about £11 million in today’s money. The continued attention was in part due to the outbreak of the war in the Crimea in that year, and event which added a sense of urgency.

By February 1855, with land purchased, some of it by compulsory order, the Ordnance Office was issuing orders for the construction of temporary wooden buildings. In March, the Hampshire Chronicle was reporting that handbills were being hastily distributed in Winchester. This was a call for five hundred labourers to come to Aldershot bringing their own picks and shovels.

In May 1855, the camp commander arrived to take up his post. Newspapers reported that 20,000 troops, including several militia regiments, had orders to march towards what was then a settlement of less than 800 villagers.

Newspaper editors sent reporters to bring back stories of visits by grand dignitaries and foreign heads of state to the encampment. The Queen herself came to inspect her troops, later able to use an especially constructed pavilion in which she would stay. Railway companies promoted excursions for London’s society,  day-trippers of all classes alighting at the nearest stations at Farnham and Farnborough.

Meanwhile, the calamities of a war in far off Crimea were making headlines. By 1856, regular troops were returning in large numbers to the new Camp at Aldershot. That included many casualties from wounds and disease. The parish churches at  Aldershot and Farnborough began to hold funerals to bury the dead.

The Camp continued to be an attraction for visitors. The 1858 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Surrey and Hampshire provided “the tourist … [with] the best views of the camp”. Farnborough was one of the “gates of the camp at Aldershott,” although the approach from Farnham was more convenient, except on Sundays “when conveyances are few, and charges extortionate”.

It was about this time that the first of thousands of incoming townsfolk arrived, not to visit but to stay. They were intent on making a living by meeting the various needs of the troops in the Camp and one another. The village grew rapidly in size, as many as forty new beer houses opening in the first five years.

The 1851 Census acts as a de facto baseline by which to assess the change in population brought about by the Camp. In 1851, before the Camp was created, the village population was 767, plus 108 recorded in the recently established District School for pauper children. By 1861, that school closed and moved elsewhere, the count in the parish after the Camp was established, had dramatically risen to 7,755. There were a further 7,200 in the military buildings of South Camp and 3,930 in North Camp.

That growth in population meant many new buildings. In addition to the imposition of the regular lines of the Camp, the map which accompanied the 1876 edition of the Handbook displays the semblance of a town sketched alongside the military buildings. Aldershot also then had its own railway branch and station.

map of Aldershot with Camp, drawn in 1878
Map from A Handbook for Travellers in Hampshire, Published by John Murray, 1876

A settlement had also appeared at the top of North Lane, labelled the New Town. The area of the village to the south and around the parish church, however, is shown to be relatively untouched. Some sense of the older village continued to persist, at least in those early years.

During the next century, the Camp at Aldershot would be the command centre to which volunteers came from across the globe, from places the geographers marked in a pinkish red, to be trained and then despatched as troops to fight for Britain and its empire in two world wars.

By 1921, the enumerated population in the garrison town was 28,764. Aldershot was given municipal status in the following year. The crossed swords represented the Army. Other elements included symbolism harking back to aspects of an earlier history of the place. The part played by the Church at Winchester, for example, is represented by the mitre although, as will be discovered, the actions of its bishop were often problematic. The blue in the shield was taken directly from that of the aristocratic Tichborne family who held dominance during the 17th Century; so too was the motto, regarded as particularly apt.

Aldershot Coat of Arms granted in 1923

The history of the town that grew out of the village and the became the Home of the British Army was chronicled by ‘The Town Remembrancer’, Lt. Col. Howard Cole, in 1951 and again in 1980, to which work has been added that of various local historians.
=> Acknowledgements & Sources

History Before The Army Came

The intention now is to add to the literature on Aldershot with a history of the village as it existed before the Camp changed its destiny.   

This is an ‘inside out’ account of village life during each of the twelve months of 1853. The reader is invited to join in the pretence of looking through the eyes of the participants as events occur within the village whilst others take decisions to establish a military camp upon the nearby heath.

Knowledge of the circumstances of real individuals is grounded in research, principally by online reference to census enumeration books and registers associated with births, deaths and marriages. There is sometimes recourse to imagined memories. They too were conscious of the past, combined with shared and disparate understanding of the history of a place. 

Each month of the year 1853 has its own chapter. In January, no one in the village suspects anything of the changes which are about to occur. The subsequent chapters chronicle various events in the village against the backdrop of developments taking place nationally, including tensions abroad.

The year starts with an incoming Government whose reforming intentions included the military; their proposals became plans during the months of 1853. The year ends with the decision taken to gain parliamentary approval for funds for  a Camp at Aldershot. Life for the village would then start to be transformed radically.

The well-being of a place is dependent upon the health of its local economy. For this rural village, that meant agriculture. There is therefore attention to the factors of supply and demand for what is produced. The state of the weather provides further backdrop for the action in the village, noting the challenge that it represents for farming across the seasonal rhythm to the year.

Newspaper reportage, at regional, national and international levels, is used to add to the context. The underlying thread to the narrative across the twelve months of 1853 is the role played by the Commander-in-chief of the Army.

The baptisms, weddings and funerals conducted at the parish church feature in the foreground of the twelve chapters which chronicle each month of 1853. These are treated as shared communal events and used to explore socio-economic circumstance and demographic change through the reconstructed histories of the families principally involved. Such vital events occur more often for the larger families of the more numerous agricultural labourers. This acts as a counter-balance to the attention which is necessarily also given to the families of the individuals having power and influence in the parish.  Not all the 160 households in the village are featured in equal detail.

This portrayal of village life in 1853 could also be regarded as Part 1 of the Before/After study which was initially embarked upon. This close study of the lives of individuals and families in the village has led to a better understanding of the dynamics of endogenous change in addition to the effect of the exogenous arrival of the Camp and incoming townsfolk. Not all change between the two time points of 1851 and 1861 ought to be attributed only to intervening events.

Comparative examination of the enumeration books for the 1841 and 1851 Censuses makes plain that change was already taking place within the village. Some of this related to the death and the comings and goings of significant individuals. Inspection of four sets of sources relating to the occupation and ownership of property also provided insight. That has included the Report of the 1841 Tithe Apportionment Survey (as published in 1843), Poor Rate Books from 1839 to 1853, earlier Land Tax returns and the Crondall Court Records, the latter inspected, transcribed and shared by the local historian Sally Jenkinson.

What has become clear is that the form and pattern of ownership of land parcels extant in 1853 had explanation reaching back to much earlier times. This focus on life in the village during a single year, intended to have value in itself, will later be used as a stepping stone to explore aspects of an earlier history, reaching back a thousand years to Anglo-Saxon times. The Kingdom of Wessex was then divided into areas called Hundreds and Aldershot, having a variety of spellings, was one of the tithings, a further sub-division, of the Hundred of Crondall.

Crondall Hundred had once been part of a royal estate of the House of Wessex, mentioned in the will of Alfred when he became king. However, at Alfred’s death it was not inherited, as promised, by his nephews, one of whom had rebelled. It would later pass into the hands of a man appointed as Bishop of Winchester and subsequently to support the monks of the Church at Winchester.

Ownership by the Priory of St Swithun, as the monastery was renamed, then survived both the allocation of land at the Norman Conquest and the Dissolution of the monasteries, avoiding the latter by way of the elevation of the Prior to be the Dean of the reformed Cathedral. In consequence, Aldershot was never one of those places totally controlled by a single family, not even that of the Tichbornes.

The National Context

The year 1853 was within a period of socio-economic and demographic upheaval across Great Britain. The world’s first industrial revolution was well underway. It had stimulated a huge increase in geographic and occupational mobility. By 1851, over half of the population of England was living in cities and towns, many with new forms of employment.

There were other huge changes relating to everyday life in play. Although travel by foot, horse or carriage remained the norm in rural villages, both locally and to and from the market towns, a web of the iron roads had spread widely across the country during the 1840s.  With those new machines of the railways, communication and transport were no longer wholly dependent upon the movement of horses and men. All classes of folk, segregated within differentially-priced carriages, could travel readily by railway beyond the limits of adjacent parishes.

Regular trains went to London from Farnborough as well as from nearby Farnham and at Ash. Whilst there was as yet no railway station in the village of Aldershot itself, those rail links enabled journeys to the metropolis ‘there and back’ within the same day.

railway lines existing in 1850

Uncoloured lithograph from engraving, Hampshire, with the Isle of Wight, scale about 4 miles to 1 inch,
by Henry G Collins, 1850, published by John Heywood, Manchester, 1868?

Of particular importance for what was to come, what had been renamed as the London and South West Railway provided carriage both to the Capital and to the coast for embarkation by ship.

Route and stations of London and Southampton Railway I 1840

Trains carried letters and newspapers across the country with great speed and regularity, each travelling at the cost of a stamp. Messages from more distant parts were similarly aided by machines with new deployment of cables carrying electromagnetic telegraph. Newspapers made prompt use of the information conveyed, quickly transformed into mass media alongside social commentary. There was both an information as well as an industrial revolution in progress.

This was very much a statistical age, with the emphasis on public interest in empirical knowledge building, on topics ranging from population and poverty to agricultural improvement and industrial technology. The former was combined by both the Nonconformists and the Evangelical wing of the Established Church of England with commitment to moral and social improvement. This thereby spanned political opinion, some leading the charge in the name of reform and others mindful of the threat of revolution that had been, and remained, evident on the Continent of Europe. Britain’s civil society increasingly had a desire to know itself through the state’s collection of information by survey, census and civil registration.

This was also a time when the national mood of military thinking was undergoing change, symbolised in a series of events in late 1852. The first two were the death of the Duke of Wellington and the earlier appointment of Viscount Hardinge as his successor to the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Army in September. While alive, Wellington and his formidable reputation had inhibited innovation within the army; Hardinge was keen to enact what he and others, including Prince Albert, regarded as necessary and overdue reform. The second two events were the elaborate funeral accorded the Duke in November and the self-elevation of Louis Napoleon as Emperor Napoleon III of France, declared two weeks later in December.

The immediate aftermath of the victory at Waterloo, combined with the naval superiority earlier secured at Trafalgar, had accorded Britain a sense of military supremacy; this provided a platform for diplomacy in Europe and command over a worldwide network geared to convey commercial advantage. The larger part of the standing army could be stationed and deployed overseas, at the sharp edge of colonial settlement. This influenced policy and ambition within the military.

“After 1815 the empire became the army’s raison d’etre … the argument for attracting funds … the soldier overseas became a Christian missionary and the harbinger of British civilisation” (Hew Strachan, 1984).

As far as the population at home in Britain were concerned, ‘war was a noise far away’ (Corelli Barnett, 1970). Accordingly, the size of the army in barracks at home, in Britain and Ireland, shrank to barely more than 50,000. Troops were sometimes deployed as a military police force to put down civil disturbance. However, the perceived internal threat to the State diminished after 1848, when the Chartist movement demanding reform also declined.

All that was about to change with a surprising return of the perceived threat of invasion by ‘Johnny Foreigner’. This did not mean Germany which did not yet exist as a nation state. Indeed, especially with the royal connections to the German States, there was celebration of a common Anglo-Saxon heritage. There was instead fluctuation in the level of Francophobia and Russophobia. The increase in the former was due in part to the stance taken by Louis Napoleon as the self-declared Emperor of France, that occurring all too close to the funeral of the Duke of Wellington. He was pursuing an active foreign policy.

Concern about Russian expansion had become firm in the national mindset, with a rise in tension with Russia surfacing in the territories controlled by the declining Ottoman Empire. There was also increasingly hostile dispute between Napoleon III and the Czar over the competing claims of the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church over precedence in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Nothing was fully resolved at the close of 1852, but by the close of 1853 there was war between Turkey and Russia. That would be followed in 1854 by declaration of war against Russia with Britain and France in alliance.

=> Notes

=> Acknowledgements & Sources

Read On …

=>  overview of the village

=> the story begins, January 1853