Secret Aldershot by Paul H. Vickers
What is ‘secret’ about the history of Aldershot? The story of Aldershot’s growth from a small, rural village to the famous ‘home of the British Army’ and a thriving town has been told in various publications, including my previous Amberley titles Aldershot’s Military Heritage, Aldershot Through Time, and Aldershot History Tour. However, within the overall narrative there are many lesser-known stories of people and events which add to the richness of Aldershot’s history and give added insights into the making of the town’s unique character.
The impression is sometimes given that Aldershot’s story only begins with the arrival of the Army in the mid-nineteenth century, but the area has been inhabited since ancient times. Secret Aldershot begins by delving back into early history and looking at some of the mysteries of archaeological sites such as Bat’s Hog Stye and Caesar’s Camp, the medieval village and the great landowning families, and how even tiny Aldershot was not immune from the violence of the English Civil War.
Some of the stories revealed in the book were genuinely ‘secret’ as the files were highly classified when they were created and have only recently come into the public domain. The plans for defending the garrison against German invasion in World War Two were, of course, a wartime secret. Study of these reveals not only disagreements among generals about what were the priority area for protection but also that work on the defences progressed so slowly that they were unlikely to have been any real obstacle to an advancing invader. Equally classified were details of an underground headquarters into which the command staff would have moved in the event of attack from land or air, and how a Tunnelling Company of Royal Engineers struggled to build this in extremely difficult conditions and against a tight timetable. Moving to the Cold War era, the previously Top Secret 1960s mobilisation plans for Aldershot in the event of a nuclear world war have only recently been declassified and made available at the National Archives, and details are published for the first time in this book.
There are numerous events which were notorious at the time but have since been forgotten, such as the problems with maintaining law and order for both the civilian and military authorities. Owing to sensational stories in the national press of trouble and vice in Aldershot’s many pubs, beer-halls and cheap music halls, Aldershot gained a reputation for crime, drunkenness and immorality. Notoriously, in 1861 Captain Pilkington Jackson, who was ordered by the Secretary of State for War to report on conditions in Aldershot, said the town was “inhabited principally by Publicans, Brothel Keepers, Prostitutes, Thieves and Receivers of stolen property”, which predictably caused outrage among the local citizens when this was published in the national press. Such was the reputation of Aldershot that into the story came Victorian and Edwardian moralists and campaigners who were determined to reform the town and turn soldiers away from temptation to the paths of virtue.
Despite these early scandals, Aldershot has a great deal to be proud of. It was the site of many pioneering developments. Here the first steps were taken towards military aviation, with the establishment of the Royal Engineers’ Balloon School and experiments not only with balloons but also with man-lifting kites. With the huge numbers of animals used by the nineteenth century Army, important advances were made in early veterinary science and animal welfare, and the veterinary hospital established for the care of Army horses was a “state of the art” facility. There were also some novel innovations which failed, such as John Fell’s experimental military railway of 1872, of which there is now no trace left but for a short time looked as if it could have transformed military transportation.
To Aldershot’s various entertainment venues came many performers who went on to become household names, and it is amazing that in a town like Aldershot you could have seen the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Even in the 1980s, up and coming bands played Aldershot’s West End Centre, including the Stone Roses, Pulp, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, and many others. In the world of sport, Aldershot has seen many more famous names and sporting events than most towns of its size, with international footballers playing for Aldershot FC in the war years, the great cricketer Don Bradman and the Australian test team playing against the Army in the 1930s, and in 1948 some of the Olympic Games events were held here.
It was very satisfying and enjoyable to write Secret Aldershot and to tell these forgotten stories, which I hope readers will find interesting, revealing or amusing.
Paul H. Vickers' new book Secret Aldershot is available for purchase now.