Knightsbridge Barracks: The Victorian Barracks, 1878-1965

Pages 68-71

Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.

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The Victorian Barracks, 1878–1965

With 'commendable justice', (fn. 2) the War Office gave the commission for designing the new barracks to T.H. Wyatt, the winner (with his brother M. D. Wyatt) of the cavalry barracks competition of 1855. (fn. 1) In doing so the War Office was following the precedent set at the infantry barracks at Chelsea, rebuilt in the early 1860s to the designs of the aged George Morgan, winner of the first premium in the infantry section of the 1855 competition. But any thought that the Wyatts' competition scheme, for an imaginary site of some twenty-two acres, could be adapted to fit the comparatively tiny space available at Knightsbridge was obviously vain. No sooner had proposals for demolishing the old buildings been announced than the site was further restricted by the paring away of a strip of ground for roadwidening (a necessary public improvement which had been in prospect for some years). (fn. 3)

In the event, the planning of the new complex bore no resemblance to the competition scheme: on the contrary, the arrangement of the Victorian barracks was to follow quite closely that of its derided Georgian predecessor. The competition scheme had the men's quarters and stables along three sides of a large quadrangle, in the centre of which, approached by covered ways from each side, were a riding-school, kitchens, dining-rooms, a library and reading-room. In front of the quadrangle was the paradeground, flanked by the officers' quarters on one side, and the sergeants' quarters, hospital, canteen and chapel on the other. At the back, another covered way led to the horse infirmary. The buildings at Knightsbridge could not have been arranged on such a spacious plan without considerable enlargement of the site. Stabling, living accommodation and ancillary rooms were to a large extent stacked one over another in large blocks rather than disposed horizontally about the site.

Wyatt's appointment may have been just, but it appears that his role from the start was essentially limited to that of providing attractive façades for a project which enjoyed little if any public favour. As one of the contractors employed on the rebuilding explained:
'it is no secret that the War Department, in virtue of a long-standing arrangement with Mr Wyatt, selected his drawings for the elevations, and reserved to themselves the right of providing their own specifications and quantities and furnishing also their preparatory plans for all the internal arrangements.' (fn. 4)
Preliminary designs for the barracks may have been in hand before Wyatt was officially appointed, probably in late 1875. (fn. 5) The Royal Engineers' architect, Lieut. H. H. Cole, was certainly engaged in 1875 in 'making new plans for Knightsbridge Barracks'. (fn. 6) Three other Royal Engineers officers are known to have been involved in the project. Colonel E. C. Gordon, later commandant of the School of Engineering at Chatham, was named in 1880 as the officer superintending the rebuilding, and a Colonel Scott, probably Henry Y. D. Scott, architect of the Royal Albert Hall, as having supervision of the work. Gordon's name appeared on plans dated January 1877, which were in existence when the barracks was again rebuilt in the late 1960s. (fn. 7) The third man was Captain Elliott Wood, the executive officer appointed to the Royal Engineers' London district in 1876. 'Eighty great sheets of plans for Knightsbridge were given me', recalled Wood in his memoirs, 'and I found important structural alterations to be necessary'. (fn. 8) Just whose plans they were is not known.

Figure 19:

Knightsbridge Barracks of 1878–80, site plan. T. H. Wyatt, architect. Demolished

Although the rebuilding was total, it was not at first intended that it should be, and it was for this reason, as much as because of the shape of the site, that the layout was so similar to the old. The original proposal was that the officers' quarters should be retained (with a new mess wing), together with the existing riding-school. When it was decided to rebuild these as well, the lack of space made it necessary to align the new and much larger riding-school north-south instead of east-west as before. (fn. 9)

The arrangement (fig. 19) may have recalled the old barracks, but the scale of building was considerably greater and the architectural treatment contrastingly lavish. This, at least, was some compensation for local residents. As Wyatt wrote to the prospective purchaser of South Lodge on the south side of Knightsbridge in 1877:
'instead of the Barn-like looking Riding School which used to face the road nearby to the house in question we shall now have the most important front of the Barracks (being the Officers' Quarters) immediately facing the road. I cannot doubt but that the rebuilding of the Barracks on an improved and more ornamental scale, and the widening of the roadway immediately adjoining will have the effect of improving the value of all this neighbourhood.' (fn. 10)
The new barracks provided accommodation for 23 officers, 352 NCOs and single men, 40 married men and their families, 386 troop horses and 76 officers' chargers. Construction began in 1878 and was completed in May 1880, when the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) moved in to their new quarters from Albany Street Barracks. (fn. 11) The general contractor was George Shaw of Earl Street, Westminster, late of the firm Jackson and Shaw, whose estimate for the work was £150,000. (fn. 12).

The buildings, of 'palatial appearance and magnitude', were in a mixed classical style, chiefly Renaissance Italian but with a strong French influence evident, particularly in the roofs of the main barrack blocks – most appropriate to the boulevard-like location (Plates 40, 41, 42, 43). They were faced in red brick with Portland-stone dressings and sculptured decoration. (Plain stock brick sufficed for the comparatively dour 'internal' elevations.) Two sorts of red brick were used, both pointed with black mortar: red Suffolks for the elevations to Knightsbridge, and 'deep crimson' Hampshires for the park fronts.' (fn. 13) Sculptural ornament, though nowhere used in great profusion, was heaviest on the Hyde Park side. It was all carried out by Thomas Earp.

The two principal ranges, the Barrack Blocks, were designed as grand palazzi with prominent pavilions beneath tall mansarded roofs (Plate 40). The basements and ground-floor fronts were areaded and heavily rusticated, and the façades were divided into bays by giant-order pilasters of similarly rusticated brickwork. Although in the same general style, the two blocks were not identical, partly on account of the site, and partly because of the different accommodation within.

The Knightsbridge block, with 'a façade of dignified simplicity', was the taller building by a full upper storey, and, taking advantage of the fall of the ground from north to south, also had a basement for storage. Stabling occupied the ground floor, above which were the married soldiers' quarters, together with orderly-rooms and recreation rooms. The stables in this block were lighted from the parade-ground side, and were screened from the street by a blind wall, pierced only with small ventilation gratings. The basement underneath was arcaded, but this aspect of the design was all but invisible from the street behind the barracks wall. The entrance to the paradeground was in the centre of the block, a tall archway between close-set pavilions, framed by a pedimented surround with engaged columns ornamented with squared vermiculated bands (Plate 42b). At either end of the range were large gateways to the barrack-yard, the copings to the gate-piers bristling with sculpted trophies.

A particular feature of the Knightsbridge range was the large number of chimney stacks, rising above the rusticated pilasters (Plate 40c). These reflected the many individual apartments within, each with their own fireplaces. Married privates were allocated a self-contained flat with balcony access from the parade-ground side of the building. Each consisted of a sitting-room about 15ft square (and a lofty 14ft high), with a cooking-stove, a 'large' bedroom and a scullery. In the west pavilion at first-floor level was the sick bay, comprising a dispensary, two wards (one a detention ward), and the orderly's quarters. A communal laundry was provided at attic level, with hot-air closets and space outside on the roof for drying. There was also a children's playground on the roof. The flats were said to be based on those in model dwellings, and the internal elevations of both barrack blocks resembled such utilitarian apartment buildings (Plate 43a). (fn. 14)

The lower park-side range was similarly composed, with terminal and central pavilions, the latter topped by domes and tall finials, rather than mansards. An open terrace and loggias under the domes were designed to give the men somewhere to relax and smoke. There were few chimneys, the rooms being mostly on a large scale for communal use. The entrance here, with carvings of the royal arms in the tympanum of the archway and military accoutrements in the arch spandrels, was flanked by niches containing two life-sized sculptures of guardsmen, one in the uniform of 1879, the other in that of 1779 (Plate 42c). These statues are preserved in the NCOs' mess of the present barracks and the royal arms now decorate the wall of the staircase leading to the mess. This block contained stables on the ground floor, and accommodation for unmarried troopers above. On the third floor were ancillary rooms, including a kitchen and dining-room, cleaning-rooms, lavatories and baths, a tailor's shop, a fencing-room and a schoolroom. (fn. 15)

Of course, with stabling immediately beneath the soldiers' living quarters, the barrack blocks perpetuated the very arrangement that had been found so objectionable in the old barracks. However, the floors between the stables and the quarters above were now thickly constructed of iron and concrete on the fireproof, and hopefully fumeproof, Fox & Barrett system.

Next to the barrack blocks, occupying the full depth of the site and dividing them from the officers' quarters further west, was the Riding-school (Plates 42a, 43b). Considerably larger than its predecessor, it was stylistically rather similar, on the conventional riding-school pattern with Diocletian windows at high level. There were entrances on either side, for troopers and officers respectively; inside, the walls, lined with timber to a high dado rail, were battered so as to protect the riders' legs when their horses were close to the edge of the concourse. The roof was iron-trussed, with a louvred skylight along the ridge. A viewing gallery was provided at the south end, in a short projecting annexe with an ogee-domed staircase tower.

The riding-school's front to Hyde Park was one of the most appealing features of the whole barracks (Plate 43b). Because of the sloping site, the exposed wall at this end was greatly reduced, giving the impression of an unusually low building and greatly emphasising the weight of Earp's carved stone pediment filling the gable end. Here the function of the building was vividly expressed in stone by the heads and forequarters of rearing horses emerging from scrolling acanthus leaves. When the barracks was demolished the pediment was saved and incorporated into the new main gateway (Plate 115b).

On the west side of the riding-school was the third of the principal blocks, the Officers' Quarters (Plate 41). While its predecessor had resembled a gentleman's country house, the new building, on a considerably larger scale, with a prominent clock-turret, had more the architectural character of a town hall or hospital. But on the park front its militaristic nature was made obvious by its ornamentation. The building was of E-shaped plan, with the wings extending towards the park.

The front to Knightsbridge, from which it was partly screened by the high boundary wall topped by big ball finials (which carried on to the west end of the barracks), was much the plainest of the two chief elevations. Lacking the exaggerated pavilion towers of the barrack blocks, the great width of the facade was kept from monotony by shallow breaks in the frontage, a pediment over the middle three windows, and by variation in the fenestration pattern – close-set at the centre, widely spaced at the ends. Sculptured ornament was restricted to the royal arms in the central pediment (a relic of the old barracks) and a crown in an arched panel a couple of floors below.

The park façade was the most ornate of all the elevations of the three main blocks, with the greatest concentration of sculptured decoration. As on the Knightsbridge front, the centrepiece was tightly proportioned. A bow window on the ground floor, with a balcony over, was flanked by an attractive garden terrace (Plate 41b). Carved portrait heads of former army commanders – Wellington, Marlborough, Combermere, Anglesey and Oxford – gazed from laurelwreathed niches over the bow window. Busts of four more military worthies – Somerset, Raglan, Londonderry and Hill – perched on brackets on the wall to either side. These last have been preserved in the officers' mess of the present barracks (Plate 45a, 45c).

Living quarters were on the upper floors, the senior officers having apartments overlooking the park. The mess, a narrowly proportioned room, ran the full depth of the building on the ground floor, terminating with the bow window looking out to Hyde Park. It was ornamented in a ponderous classical manner, its chief features being a screen of Corinthian columns at the Knightsbridge end and a deeply coved moulded plaster ceiling. There was a massive carved marble fireplace, above which latterly hung Sir Alfred Munnings' painting of a drum horse (Plate 41c). Today this picture hangs in the new officers' mess.

Beyond the officers' quarters, at the narrow western end of the site, were two long rows comprising the Officers' Stables, and beyond these, at the far end of the site, the Infirmary Stables, which could accommodate fifteen horses. On the Knightsbridge side, only the roof of the stables was visible over the barracks wall. The park-side range, with squat mansarded end-pavilions and a pedimented centrepiece, was set back slightly behind a dwarf wall and railings.

The barracks façades were among T. H. Wyatt's most accomplished public-building designs, and the new barracks itself was acknowledged by the army to be 'the finest in the kingdom' in its standards of accommodation and sanitation. (fn. 16) The Building News was sufficiently impressed to feel that 'even the well-founded objections raised at first against the appropriation of such a site to barrack accommodation, now appear to lose somewhat of their force'. (fn. 17) But some reactions were so coloured by the long-standing campaign to have the barracks moved to a less important site as to be unjust. One critic, far from convinced of the wisdom of replacing the old buildings on the same spot, found the barracks, not yet finished, 'more presentable (though still sufficiently ugly)'. It was probably the same writer who, after their completion, did not feel that the buildings were 'quite equal to what might have been wished for in so very conspicuous a site'. (fn. 18) A more extreme view was expressed by the London correspondent of the Leeds Mercury, who, while glad to see the back of the 'wretched collection of dirty sheds' comprising the old barracks, dismissed the new as no more than 'a tasteless muddle of red brick and stone, which do not even suggest its use and purpose'. (fn. 19)

In 1922, as part of the post-war restructuring of the army, the 2nd Life Guards (then at Knightsbridge) and the 1st Life Guards (at Albany Street) were amalgamated. Knightsbridge Barracks had inadequate space and facilities either to drill the augmented regiment, or for training and riding instruction, and so Albany Street became the Life Guards' new home. (fn. 20) The future of Knightsbridge Barracks remained uncertain for some years, but the War Office had nothing to gain from its disposal as the site would have reverted to the Crown. In 1925 half a battalion of Foot Guards were moved there: this left the stabling still largely unused (except to a limited extent as storage), a situation which aroused some criticism. (fn. 21) Scenting opportunity, developers began making enquiries about the site. In 1931 the Frank Committee, appointed to consider the disposal of surplus government property, recommended that the barracks should be relinquished by the Army and the site let commercially on a building lease. The barracks were valued tentatively at £500,000, but after discussions between the Commissioners of Crown Lands, the Office of Works and the Treasury no mutually satisfactory scheme could be found. (fn. 22) The disruption to traffic caused by the Life Guards' journeys between Albany Street and Whitehall led the Metropolitan Police to press for the Household Cavalry to re-occupy Knightsbridge Barracks, which it did in autumn 1932. (fn. 23)

The barracks escaped serious damage during the Second World War, but behind the seemingly well-preserved façades living conditions were becoming intolerable. The cookhouse, for instance, was on the third floor of the parkside barrack block, and the stores on the third floor of the Knightsbridge block. Whenever the decrepit lift up to the cookhouse broke down a fatigue party had to carry the food up the stairs. Access to the married quarters was equally poor, and small children, prams and shopping had to be carried up two flights of stairs. The children used the barrack yard as a playground, and the balconies were a favourite vantage point from which to drop milk bottles on to the officers below. The familiar complaint of the stench of horse urine pervading the living quarters was voiced once again, in addition to which there was an infestation of rats. By the early 1960s the barracks was considered to be a military slum. (fn. 24) But by that time plans for rebuilding the entire complex were well in hand.


  • 1. M. D. Wyatt had become seriously ill and consequently was unable to share the commission.
  • 2. B, 11 March 1876, p.230.
  • 3. 42 & 43 Vic, c.219: P.J.Edwards, History of London Street Improvements, 1855–1897, 1898, Plan XLIX, p.119: B, 1 July 1871, p.513.
  • 4. BN, 28 Nov 1879, p.663.
  • 5. B, 2 Feb 1878, p.110.
  • 6. Survey of London, vol. XLVIII, 1975, P. 217n.
  • 7. Edmund Happold, Reconstruction of the Household Cavalry Barracks, 1970 (Paper no.31, given at Public Works and Municipal Services Congress and Exhibition, 1970): ILN, 15 May 1880, p.486: BN, 26 March 1880, p.383.
  • 8. Wood, op.cit., p.82.
  • 9. B, 2 Feb 1878, p.110.
  • 10. WCA, Acc.262.
  • 11. ILN, 15 May 1880, p.486.
  • 12. The Architect, 31 May 1879, p.325.
  • 13. Description based largely on – BN, 26 Nov 1880, p.383: The Architect, 21 Nov 1879, p.602.
  • 14. ILN, 15 May 1880, p.486.
  • 15. Household Cavalry Museum, volume of plans dated 3 May 1911.
  • 16. Journal of the Household Brigade, 1879, p.227.
  • 17. BN, 26 March 1880, p.383.
  • 18. Companion to the Almanae … for 1879, pp. 159–60; … for 1881, p.153.
  • 19. BN, 21 Nov 1879, p.602.
  • 20. Hansard, Commons 1929–30, vol.231, cols 655–6, 4. Nov 1929.
  • 21. Hansard, Commons 1924–5, vol.181, col.947, 9 March 1925.
  • 22. PRO, CRES 35/3118; WORK 16/1834.
  • 23. Happold, op.cit., pp.788–9: The Times, 21 Sept 1932, p.5d.
  • 24. Guards Magazine, Winter 1970–1, pp.203–4.