Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.
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The First Barracks, 1792–1877
The circumstances in which the first Knightsbridge cavalry barracks came to be built are not known. (fn. 1)
The timing is suggestive, though perhaps misleadingly so. Plans by the architect James Johnson were submitted to George III for approval on 28 March 1792. (fn. 4) This was only weeks before government panic at civil unrest led to the hasty construction of cavalry barracks in several English towns, the beginning of a countrywide barrack-building campaign which continued into the early nineteenth century.
Until this time, soldiers were mostly accommodated in temporary camps or in billets, often at public houses. The continuance of this system was a legacy of the civil strife and constitutional upheavals of the seventeenth century. Permanent barracks smacked of France and absolutism; they did exist in England, but were mostly confined to coastal garrison towns. Billeting, on the other hand, was felt to act as a check on the army. Troops were less likely to become estranged from the people if they were in daily close contact with them. This closeness, and the dispersal of the soldiers at various addresses, made it doubly difficult, it was reasoned, for a commander to indoctrinate troops for his own political purposes.
Following the French Revolution and the growth of popular radicalism, concern was felt that soldiers might side with an increasingly disaffected populace against the established order. In 1792 urban riots brought things to a head. On 21 May George III issued a proclamation against seditious writings and meetings, and the government sent Colonel Oliver De Lancey, deputy adjutant-general at the Horse Guards, to assess the reliability, in the event of civil insurrection, of troops quartered in manufacturing towns. In De Lancey's view, the building of barracks offered the best way of keeping troops isolated from revolutionary influences. During that summer, De Lancey organized the building of cavalry barracks in towns in the Midlands and North, at Norwich, and west of London at Hounslow. The plans for these barracks were all provided by Johnson. (fn. 5) War with France in 1793, and the danger of a French invasion, prompted further barrack-building, under De Lancey's control as head of a new Barracks Department, with Johnson as his principal architect and surveyor. By 1797 dozens of new barracks had been erected in England and Scotland. (fn. 6)
The volatile atmosphere of 1792 may have forced the government's hand, but the building of barracks was long overdue in the interest of efficiency, and it was probably for this reason, rather than counter-rebellion, that the cavalry barracks at Knightsbridge was built. There are two reasons for thinking so.
Firstly, the haste seen in De Lancey's initial building programme seems to have been lacking at Knightsbridge. The barracks, presumably begun soon after the plans had been passed, was still in progress in January 1793 and it was not occupied until December that year, when the 1st Regiment of Life Guards moved in. (fn. 7) Moreover, the buildings at this stage consisted only of a quadrangle of stables and troop rooms. The officers' quarters, and probably the main ancillary buildings, appear not to have been begun until 1795. Had it seemed that serious civil disorder in London was imminent, the barracks would presumably have been completed as quickly as possible.
Secondly, there was another fairly large barracks in Knightsbridge (see page 23), which had been extensively improved in 1789–90 and which was reportedly to have been used as a model in a general barrack-building programme. (fn. 8) Intended for the use of the Foot Guards – that is, the Coldstream and Grenadier Guards – this 'Knights bridge Barracks' was built on an essentially quadrangular plan, reminiscent of the later cavalry barracks (fig. 3). Such a layout was comparatively rare in English barracks at that time, but 'typical of the military quarters built in the unstable political climate of the 1790s'. (fn. 2) It was, however, a common one for stabling, and was the arrangement found in various West End mews used by Guards regiments in the eighteenth century. The Knightsbridge foot-guards barracks had itself originated, around 1760, as horse-guards stables.
The site of the new barracks was on a narrow, tapering strip belonging to Hyde Park, between Park Place and the Halfway House tavern (see Plates 2b, 5c). No formal grant appears to have been made of the land, which was apparently occupied simply with the King's permission, as were other military buildings in the park. (fn. 10) The Life Guards had earlier occupied a barracks or stables in the park on a much smaller but otherwise comparable site. This building, called Life Guard House, was in Kensington Gardens facing the Kensington road, at the south end of the Broad Walk (which did not then reach as far as the road). (fn. 12)
The arrangement of the barracks buildings — strung out in a line — was quite different from earlier cavalry barracks designs, such as William Gibson's model plans of 1784, produced for the Barrack Board in Ireland (fig. 18, Plate 2b). (fn. 13) This was more or less unavoidable for such a large complex given the shape of the site, but in any case the barracks was the product of three phases of construction, and not necessarily conceived as a whole in 1792.
The largest of the buildings was the Barrack Block at the eastern end of the site (Plates 2b, 39b). Over 400ft in length and rising to three storeys, it was built around a rectangular parade-ground and was arranged in the traditional cavalry barracks manner, with the animals on the ground floor and the men above. There was stabling for 385 horses, and living quarters for 368 non-commissioned officers and privates. The monotony of the building's long elevations to Knightsbridge and Hyde Park was broken by shallow pediments over the three central bays, beneath which double-height archways gave access to the courtyard. The only embellishments were pairs of decorative panels of military trophies on either side of the archways and, in the pediments above, oval plaques bearing the royal arms. (fn. 3)
The first-floor plan of the Barrack Block in figure 18 shows the later partitioning of the original large but lowceilinged troop rooms to provide married quarters, consisting of a common living-room with a fireplace, and separate bedrooms, large but poorly lit and unheated. This was carried out some time after 1838, and replaced a far more unsatisfactory scheme in which a number of small rooms, one for each family, had been partitioned off along one side of the troop rooms. These cubicle-like spaces had been ill-lit and inadequately ventilated. The improved arrangement itself seems to have been fairly inconvenient, for cooking and washing facilities were situated far away in the eastern wing of the building. The second-floor troop rooms, too, were probably partitioned from large, openplan dormitories. (fn. 14)
The wash-houses, on the first floor at the western corners of the barrack block, each contained an open fireplace, a row of coppers and a drying closet. There were two ablution rooms, fitted with slate benches. Baths were situated in a separate building, next to the guard room, to the south of the barrack block.
West of the barrack block, and separated from it by a narrow passage, were the Hospital and three blocks grouped around a courtyard facing the park: the Officers' Quarters (or Governor's House), the Forage Barn and the Horse Infirmary (Plates 4a, 7, 39a, 39c). The hospital was a two-storey building with rooms including a surgery and consulting-room on the ground floor, and three wards above for up to 36 patients.
The officers' quarters comprised a pedimented house of three storeys over a raised basement. Of eleven bays, it had a central doorway at the top of a short flight of steps. The two flanking buildings were both lower, the ensemble closely resembling a gentleman's seat laid out on Palladian lines with service wings. The upper floor of the horse infirmary was used (at least by the middle of the nineteenth century) as staff officers' quarters, providing accommodation for the riding-masters, adjutants and quartermasters, and a servants' kitchen.
Westwards of this group was the Riding-school, a single-storey building under a hipped roof enclosing a large rectangular arena for riding instruction and drill, lit by a clerestory of Diocletian windows (Plates 4a, 7). The riding-school was probably built at the same time as the officers' quarters, barn and infirmary, in 1795 or soon afterwards: all these buildings had been completed by July 1797 when views were published in the Gentleman's Magazine.
Beyond the riding-school, alongside the Knightsbridge boundary wall, were the Officers' Stables. This range was built c. 1803 as part of alterations made to the barracks so that it could accommodate some of the 1st Life Guards then stationed at Uxbridge. The other changes made at this time included the conversion of the barn to stables, with a first-floor forage loft. (fn. 15)
Several small ancillary buildings were fitted in against the southern boundary wall or at the west end of the site, including punishment cells and various sheds and workshops.
In 1851 a small block of model dwellings was erected in the yard in front of the officers' stables by the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, as part of the Great Exhibition (see Plate 7). The building was paid for by the society's president. Prince Albert, who, mindful of public opposition to any raising of bricks and mortar in the park itself, had negotiated the site – just across the road from the Crystal Palace – from the Duke of Wellington, as Commander-in-Chief of the army. The designer was Henry Roberts, the Society's architect. (fn. 16)
Known as the Prince Consort's Model Lodge, this modest but influential building had been seen by 250,000 visitors by the time the Great Exhibition closed. Wellington declined the Prince's offer to leave the lodge at the barracks for the use of soldiers' families, on the grounds that its superior accommodation might provoke unfavourable comparisons with the rest of the quarters. After being dismantled, the block was re-erected in Kennington Park, Lambeth, where it remains. (fn. 17)
The duke's reasoning was doubtless well founded, for living conditions at Knightsbridge Barracks, in common with those at many British barracks, were becoming a scandal. In 1854 a War Office committee was appointed to look into the matter of soldiers' accommodation. This led in 1855 to the holding of an open architectural competition for designs – embodying the committee's recommendations – for both infantry and cavalry barracks. (fn. 18) First prize for the cavalry barracks design was won by the brothers Thomas Henry and Matthew Digby Wyatt. No building programme followed at this time, but public outrage over the conditions at military hospitals in the Crimea indirectly focused attention on the state of army establishments at home.
In 1857 the Barracks and Hospitals Commission was set up to investigate more fully the conditions of British barracks and barrack hospitals. The Commission's report of 1861, and lengthy appendix published in 1863, added up to a damning critique of the buildings occupied by soldiers throughout the country. (fn. 19) At Knightsbridge there was a catalogue of defects, with dampness, darkness and poor aircirculation among the most widespread problems. The stench of the stables pervaded the whole site.
One of the worst buildings was the hospital, which had long been a cause for concern, the mortality rate there being significantly higher than at the Regent's Park and Windsor cavalry barracks. In the barrack block, most rooms were overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Fumes from the stables, rising through a lath-and-plaster ceiling to the troop rooms, led to chronic chest complaints and conjunctivitis. The staff-officers' quarters, over the horse infirmary, were 'much complained of', presumably for similar reasons.
Latrines and ablution rooms were thoroughly insanitary. (fn. 20) The kitchens had no ovens or any means of cooking other than boiling. This must have made the diet even poorer than usual for the rank and file and their families, putting many 'Simple Recipes for Cooking in Barracks', such as toad-in-the-hole (made without eggs), and 'Nabob's Pie' – spiced meat with a suet-based stuffing, baked under a pastry crust – beyond their reach.
Then there were the detention cells, damp and with only a small grating each for light and air. 'Even in punishing men, their health should be considered', commented the Builder, when some years earlier it published an illustration of one of these cells above the caption 'Black-hole for the Cavalry'. (fn. 22) The Commission evidently agreed.
Such were the official findings. Local householders too had cause to voice complaint, and during the 1860s and '70s pressure mounted from the residents of the smart west end of Knightsbridge to close the barracks down. Their concern, of course, was not with the living conditions of the troops, but with property values and the blight cast locally by their shabby neighbour across the road. Its influence was held responsible for the prevailing bad character of the area further east, where public houses and musichalls flourished, and drunkenness, brawling, and prostitution were rife. (fn. 23) Following publication of the official report, angry residents formed the Knightsbridge Barrack Memorial Committee to press for the removal of the barracks altogether. Their spokesman, John Elsworth of Trevor Terrace, described the sordid character of the area near the barracks in a pamphlet issued by the committee in 1867. (fn. 24) The Rt Hon. Robert Lowe MP, of Lowndes Square, a member of a deputation to Sir John Pakington, the War Secretary, condemned the barracks as 'an isthmus of barbarism': Sir John's bland response was that 'the residents had come to the barracks, and not the barracks to the residents'. (fn. 25) Serious consideration, however, was given to a proposal for moving the barracks to the site of Millbank Penitentiary. This scheme was still in contemplation when Lowe became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1868, and he was in hopes that the sale of the Knightsbridge site would help pay for new buildings at Millbank. Nothing came of it, nor of Lowe's earlier suggestion that the cavalry at Knightsbridge should take over Chelsea Hospital (whose inmates would have been re-housed in the country). (fn. 26)
Meanwhile, the buildings continued to deteriorate as their future remained undecided. In May 1869 many of the officers were driven from their quarters by a disgusting smell. Almost incredibly, it was not until floors had been lifted, drains examined and ventilators installed that the cause was traced to the rotting paste, fungi and maggots between some fourteen layers of wallpaper. (fn. 27)
Local residents did not give up the fight and in the summer of 1875 the Knightsbridge Improvement Committee attempted to gain the support of Lord Henry Lennox, First Commissioner of Works. (fn. 28) The matter was vigorously debated in Parliament – in the Lords, the Earl of Lucan denounced the campaigners as 'no more than a cabal of builders, house-agents, and shopkeepers'. Elsworth produced a second pamphlet repeating the arguments for removing the barracks, but all to no avail. The War Office determined to rebuild on the same site. (fn. 29) By this time the barracks were in a perilous condition. In places the foundations had given way, and parts of the buildings threatened 'to fall and remove themselves if left untended much longer'. (fn. 30)
Demolition began towards the end of 1876. The old materials, owing particularly to a shortage of bricks, fetched good prices, the proceeds from the barrack block alone amounting to some £4,300. (fn. 31) By the end of March 1877, all but the officers' quarters had been cleared and the troops dispersed to St John's Wood and other barracks. (fn. 32)