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  • 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 promontory of Caesar's Camp, seen from Long Bottom. (Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    Print of 1872 showing Fell's Aldershot railway viaduct. (Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    The Infirmary Stables, c. 1993. (c. AMM, Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    Aldershot Town FC, Southern League champions, 1929-30. (c. AMM, Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

  • Aldershot's Military Heritage by Paul H. Vickers

    Aldershot's Military Heritage 1 Grenadier Guards drilling in Blenheim Barracks, North Camp, Aldershot, c.1906. (Aldershot's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Aldershot has, for over a hundred and sixty years, been famous as an “Army town”; indeed its name has become synonymous across the country with the Army. Yet now it is a town undergoing considerable change. Not only has the garrison recently been completely rebuilt, but 148 hectares of old Army land has been given over to civilian redevelopment, on which the new Wellesley housing estate is beginning to rise. This massive development will take around 10-12 years to complete, and will transform the character of the old South Camp. So the time is right to evaluate the impact of the Army on Aldershot, the relationship between the military and civilian communities, and whether Aldershot can still claim its proud title of “Home of the British Army”.

    Any modern-day changes are dwarfed by the impact of the Army’s first arrival in Aldershot. Before 1854 Aldershot was a small rural village, with a population of 875 who earned their living from agriculture or essential local trades such as baker, blacksmith and carpenter. To the north west of the village was the huge empty land of Aldershot Heath, ideal for the Army to set up its first permanent training camp. Given added urgency by the Crimean War, soon two camps were built either side of the Basingstoke Canal, and by 1859 some 15,000 soldiers were here. The character of the area changed very quickly, as entrepreneurs were quick to see the potential for businesses serving not only the thousands of troops but also the huge numbers of workers employed on building the Camp. As it became clear that the military were here to stay, the wooden shanties in which these businesses initially operated were replaced by smart new buildings, and a new Aldershot town centre grew up immediately south of the Army Camp and about a mile west of the old Aldershot village.

    Aldershot's Military Heritage 2 The Band of the Welsh Guards leads the Regiment’s welcome home parade through Aldershot town for their return from the war in Afghanistan, December 2009. (Aldershot's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Since that time the fortunes of the Camp and town have gone hand-in-hand. The Camp reached its peak in the first half of the twentieth century, and the burgeoning prosperity of the civilian town was shown by its achieving its Charter in 1922. In the 1960s the Victorian Barracks were swept away as a new Military Town was built for the late twentieth-century Army and Aldershot became the home of the Airborne Forces. However, with the many defence cuts and re-organisations, the overall numbers in the Army have fallen back and so, in turn, has the size of the Aldershot garrison. The 1960s barracks were designed for 10,000 troops, in the twenty-first century numbers are around half that. As a result the garrison has consolidated onto land in the northern part of the old Camp, leaving the southern area to the Wellesley development.

    For the first hundred years of its existence, Aldershot was the country’s largest and most important Army camp, and it sent men to fight in all the major conflicts from the Zulu War to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both the First and Second World Wars, the Aldershot Divisions were the first to be mobilised and in both wars they became the First Corps of the British Expeditionary Force. The pivotal role of Aldershot makes its story of not just local interest but of national importance. Today the numbers may not be what they once were, but Aldershot is the headquarters for the Army’s national Home Command, along with 101 Logistic Brigade and 11 Infantry Brigade. It remains the centre of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, and it is the Army’s “Centre of Sporting Excellence”.

    Aldershot's Military Heritage 3 Memorial to the men of Aldershot’s resident 2nd Division who died in the First World War. (Aldershot's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Against this background, I was very pleased to be able to write Aldershot’s Military Heritage for Amberley. In this book I have been able to look at the development of the Camp, its role in the nation’s wars, and some of the many colourful characters who have passed through in the last 165 years. Military heritage is visible across Aldershot, in the buildings, monuments and memorials, and in the continuing role that the military plays in the life of the town. This was wonderfully demonstrated recently when the population turned out in huge numbers to line the streets as the veterans of the Parachute Regiment who fought in the Falklands War marched through the town to mark the 35th anniversary of this conflict. In the Wellesley development, the old barracks, battles and notable soldiers are honoured in the names of the roads and buildings, and work is underway to establish a series of Heritage Trails across both the Camp and Town. Truly this is the right time to celebrate Aldershot’s military heritage.

    9781445665900

    Paul H. Vickers new book Aldershot's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

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