Aldershot was once a small village, little more than heathland used for grazing sheep, which became the first permanent military garrison in the UK and soon transformed into a thriving military town. It is still the home of the British Army and of several museums connected to the military, one of which, the Aldershot Military Museum, tells the story of both the military and civilians in the town of Aldershot.
Less than 40 miles south-west of London in the county of Hampshire, Aldershot is part of a wider military area, which includes Farnborough, Camberley, Farnham and Cove. Although separate towns in name, they form a large conurbation, as the military has taken over much of these towns, with civilian life geared towards them.
The museum is located in the heart of military Aldershot, surrounded by neat, regimented roads, quarters (military housing), command buildings and barracks. Just over the polo fields is Farnborough airport and a raceway. This is very much a military place and their interests dominate the area.
The museum is housed across three buildings. The main part is held in the only surviving Victorian brick-built barrack blocks left in Aldershot, but you can also visit General Montgomery's actual barn, and the building once used as the Regimental HQ for the camp at nearby Church Crookham. In the outside area you will find an assortment of military vehicles as well as an assault course for kids, which looked really popular.
The museum is not one of those large, glossy affairs that has had lots of funding thrown at it. You can clearly see that they are doing the best they can with a limited budget and some rather eclectic artefacts. The building is shabby around the edges, some of the presentation cases have no internal lighting so you can barely see what is in them and the chronology of the layout is somewhat baffling, but there are some decent displays and it is still possible to get a good indication of how life may have been in Victorian Aldershot.
Aldershot was mentioned in the Domesday Book as part of the nearby village of Crondall, with monks from a nearby abbey using the land for grazing sheep. The first mention of a manor house was in the 16th century owned by a Lord Mayor of London. The London to Winchester Road ran through the area and in the 18th century there were many highway robberies, with Dick Turpin having his headquarters in nearby Farnborough.
The town however was barely known until 1854 during the Crimean War, when it was decided to establish a permanent training camp for the army in the area. Because of this, much of the original parts of the town are Victorian. There are some displays in the museum of how buildings would have looked during this time, such as the interior of a late Victorian town house kitchen and that of a mid-Victorian farmhouse.
Some of the more unusual displays include ornaments from the home of Empress Eugenie of the second empire of France, who lived in nearby Farnborough House, along with a death mask of her son who was killed in 1879 in the Anglo-Zulu War. There are random street signs, a well-worn late Victorian desk used by the Chairman of Aldershot Council until 1974, a variety of pots made by a 19th century local potter and a cut-through of the Basingstoke Canal.
There is a whole room dedicated to Samuel Cody, the American Wild West showman who famously developed war kites used by the British Army, and was the first man to fly a British built aeroplane. They have a lot of excellent items which once belonged to him, including his flying hat and gloves, his flying helmet, some of the trophies he won, propellers from one of his planes, a recreation of his workshop and models of his airship and war-kites.
In 1906, Samuel Cody managed to interest the British Army in his kites and he became Chief Instructor of Kiting for the Balloon School in Aldershot, joining the new Army Balloon Factory at nearby Farnborough. In 1908, Cody’s kites were adopted for the Balloon Company which evolved No. 1 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps and finally No. 1 Squadron Royal Air Force. It was Cody who built 'British Army Aeroplane No 1'.
In 1913, Cody was testing his new seaplane over Aldershot when it broke up mid-air. He was buried with full military honours in Aldershot Military Cemetery at a funeral attended by over 100,000 people. His son was buried next to him four years later, a member of the Royal Flying Corps who died in Belgium.
You can see an original Cody kite and learn more about him at the Museum of Army Flying, less than an hour's drive away near Salisbury.
The military section of the museum is the more interesting, although again the objects are quite multifarious. There are displays of how the inside of the barracks would have looked in the Victorian era and in the 20th century, flags and standards, musical instruments, regimental drums, trophies as well as maps and models of how the barracks would have looked in the past. Artefacts include training manuals, menus for dinners at the mess, a tea urn, lavatory chain, field telephones, ammunition boots, World War I tin hats and much more.
There's quite a lot of fun stuff for kids to do in the museum including a tank to play in, a place to practise marching with a drill instructor bellowing at you, tunnels to scurry through and assorted uniforms to try on, as well as the assault course outside, and there were certainly a fair number of kids enjoying the place while I was there.
When you leave the main part of the museum you head outside to Montgomery's Barn, which was moved from his house in Isington Mill. Although he had an extensive career, Montgomery is best known for his role in World War II commanding the Allied forces in El Alamein, the invasions of Sicily and Italy as well as D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.
Monty had used the barn to store his command post caravans, until his death when they transferred to the Imperial War Museum, and the barn was moved to Aldershot. It now houses some world War II vehicles and guns, including a jeep, land rover, service wagon and a Bedford ambulance.
The final building is a large wooden building called The Boyce Gallery. This was once the Regimental HQ for the camp at nearby Church Crookham, less than five miles away, which was moved to the museum. As well as a reconstruction of how it looked when it was in use in the 1940s, it also houses an exhibition on the Gurkha Regiments, which were once stationed at Aldershot.
In the grounds outside you will find a variety of rather weathered military vehicles which include tanks like the Scimitar, the Scorpion, an amphibious vehicle, other armoured vehicles and a fair few artillery pieces such as Anti-Tank Guns and general service vehicles.
This is not a museum that's going to set the world on fire, but it does provide an interesting look at the history of this military town, and for the many thousands of 'Army Brats' out there who were born in Aldershot, it provides some background to the town we forever write on official documents as 'Place of Birth', and fleetingly called home.
Visiting the Aldershot Military Museum
Postcode: GU11 2LG
Opening Hours: Weds - Sun 10am - 4pm
Prices: Adult:£6.50, Child (5-15 years): £3.25, Under 5s: Free
Facilities: It says that there is a café on site - it is actually a vending machine. If you are looking for somewhere to eat nearby, try The Cricketers at Pirbright.
In the area? Less than 6 miles away is the Brookwood Military Cemetery, the largest war cemetery in the UK. If you are interested in military history, I highly recommend a guided tour around RMA Sandhurst which is just 7 miles away and is where army officers receive their training.