Aldershot, Before the Army Came

Local historians Picken Vickers Deason

I was sat on the top deck of a school bus when I first started wondering what life was like before the Camp at Aldershot was opened in 1855. The bus route for boys from Aldershot to attend Farnborough Grammar School ran along Queen’s Avenue through North and South Camp, across what had once been the open heath of Aldershot Common.

The name of the town has become known worldwide as The Home of The British Army. However, like many places, Aldershot has had several different histories. Although not numbered amongst its grandees, my family history connects with those histories.

My interest was encouraged at various times by my mother’s sister who had worked at Gale & Polden Ltd, printer and publisher to the military. As Miss Gretta Dalziel, she was acknowledged for her assistance by Lt Colonel Howard Cole in his Story of Aldershot: a history and guide to town and camp.[1] She, like me, was born locally our family’s connection to Aldershot extending back as far as 1858, shortly after the Camp at Aldershot was established.

A butcher and a baker separately arrived from London into the emerging garrison town. The baker later married the butcher’s daughter at a newly built Wesleyan chapel. Just over thirty years on, their daughter wed a Seaforth Highlander up at the parish church. Those two were my grandparents; my grandfather had been made an Instructor based at the Gym on Queen’’s Avenue, the route along which I travelled on my school bus. Of their children, a product of townsfolk and the military, one would also marry a soldier based at the Cambridge Military Hospital. And then there was me.

Years later, with upcoming retirement from a leadership post at a university in Scotland, I knew I would need a project, one that would let me be a researcher once again. Those questions about my hometown which I had pondered on the school bus came to mind. Having acquired some analytical skills, and soon to be gifted with time, I began to map out a plan.

Sadly, the Aldershot Historical Society is no more, but I had opportunity to meet at the Military Museum and consult with local historians. Their main interests were the beginnings and development of Aldershot as a garrison town, and they seemed keen that someone should investigate the earlier history.

Left to right at Aldershot Military Museum: Gill Picken, Peter Burnhill, Paul Vickers & Roger Deason

My initial plan had been to carry out a modest ‘Before/After’ study. The data source was to be the enumeration books for the two censuses which straddle the opening of the Camp in 1855, namely the 1851 and 1861 Censuses of Population. The village population had increased in that period from around 800 to more than 7,000. My objective was to summarise the changes in the demographic and occupational structure and then try to assess how the original villagers had fared. However, I was dismayed to discover that a critical number of the pages of the enumeration books for the 1861 Census were missing.

Then, by way of diversion, I stumbled across a very varied and rich set of alternative source materials which had been discovered as manuscripts in a strongbox in Aldershot’s parish church belfry in 1857, later transcribed and published as The Crondall Records. That opened a window onto a history which spanned centuries, back to a time when the Hundred of Crondall, of which Aldershot was a tithing, was owned by the royal house of Wessex.

Confronted by the daunting prospect of attempting a history of a thousand years, beginning in circa AD 850, I needed to find a way drastically to reduce that ambition. With a change of plan, I decided to write a history which had its focus located firmly upon the more limited period of a single year. The result is a chronicle of the village for each month of 1853, the year during which decisions were taken to establish the Camp on Aldershot Common. I tried to show the lived experience of the villagers as decisions were made by the upper strata of the village and quite separately at a national and international level. When I started to make my study available online to read at I did so as part of the Society of One Place Studies.[2]

Distance and the onset of Covid Lockdown meant that I initially had to rely upon what I could find online, such as parish registers and entries in census enumeration books. That was supplemented by contemporary newspaper reports and secondary sources that had been digitised and made available by Google and the Internet Archive.

I was blessed with ready access to the National Library of Scotland, one of the deposit libraries for anything published in the UK, but, of course, I knew I had to travel from Edinburgh to make personal visits to archives and the special collection sections of other libraries. My first foray was to Aldershot Public Library when renewing contact with the friends I had made amongst those local historians, who also had an interesting stash of stuff. The Library had several shelves with copies of ‘unpublished’ material written by previous attempts at early histories as well as a chest with an important collection of maps made in the mid-1850s. I busily used my mobile phone to harvest the information for later study, taking care to note references.

The essential visit to Hampshire Record Office in Winchester required more planning, especially with the expense of travel and accommodation to think about. Fortunately, one of my local contacts had worked in the Surrey History Centre and helped me locate some key documents using the online catalogue. Those included Land Tax returns and Poor Law Rate Books as well as the giant maps created for the 1841 Tithe Survey and the later outcome of the Enclosure Act. This information about property ownership had been a valuable complement to the demographic information I had established from online sources.

For records associated with the process of enclosure, which came late to Aldershot, and the interest and claim the Army would make on Aldershot Common, I had to visit The National Archives at Kew. I went looking for one particular item – which unfortunately was ‘Not found on shelf’! – but then I discovered a very rich seam of silver. This included a list of the villagers who had voted to sell the Common to the Government and those who were amongst ‘Those Dissenting’. There was also correspondence between Government Minsters. I can still recall the thrill of holding the handwritten letter from (Chancellor of the Exchequer) William Gladstone to the then Home Secretary Palmerston indicating his support for the purchase of Aldershot Common. The contents of those documents confirm beyond doubt that the man who should be accorded recognition as the founder of the Camp was Viscount Sir Henry Hardinge, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. He had succeeded the Duke of Wellington who had died the year before and had probably not heard of the village of Aldershot, even though it is his statute which is given pride of place. Hardinge, who only occasionally gets a mention, is yet to have even a road named after him.


[1] The Story of Aldershot: a history and guide to town and camp (1951) Howard N. Cole, Gale & Polden, Aldershot. Updated & enlarged in The Story of Aldershot a History of the Civil and Military Towns (1980) Howard N. Cole, Southern, Aldershot.



Author: Peter Burnhill

Bio: Born in Hampshire, Peter moved to Scotland for a long career at the University of Edinburgh, playing various roles as researcher, senior lecturer and in leadership for the development & delivery of online services to universities and colleges in the UK and beyond. The latter included founding director of EDINA and of the Digital Curation Centre. Before retiring in 2017, he was focussed on digital preservation activity. Peter is a past president of IASSIST (the association for data librarians & archivists) and an honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society.

You can follow Peter on Twitter on @Aldershot1853 and learn more about his project on his website

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