Alnwick Army Camp

The North Demesne had a military tradition dating back to the Napoleonic wars, when the Percy Tenantry Volunteers used the parkland for summer training. 

Military use of the North Demesne continued after the demise of the Percy Tenantry Volunteer Riflemen at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  That part of the North Demesne known as the Havens provided the site for the annual camp for the Northumberland Light Infantry, a militia regiment of which the Duke was colonel-in-chief.  The regiment was encamped there for training during a period of 27 days each year in the summer months.  The Percy Tenantry Volunteer Artillery, another militia unit, also used the site for general parades and for firing salutes, for instance on the occasion of the Queen’s Jubilee in 1887.  A permanent military encampment known as the ‘Huts’ was established in the Havens.  An officers’ mess, a sergeants’ mess, a privates’ canteen and a hospital were built there.  The officers’ mess was extended in 1898.  In the years before the First World War, the local organisation of the Red Cross used the facilities of the hospital to carry out the instruction of volunteers in ambulance work. 

From ‘History of Alnwick Parks and Pleasure Grounds’ by Colin Shrimpton.

A tented camp at The Havens (date unknown) – from the Bailiffgate Collection

A wooden hosptal hut was built on The Havens.

The Havens hospital hut – from the Bailiffgate Collection

On the outbreak of war in 1914, across the country, men were being recruited into Kitchener’s New Army. These new units were often formed on the “pals” principle, where men who lived or worked together would be recruited into the same regiment. This was intended to ease the new recruits transition into Army life, but it had the unintended consequence of leaving whole communities devastated if a battalion suffered heavy losses during an attack.

One of these new “pals” battalions was the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers. They were called the Newcastle Commercials as they had been recruited from the city’s professional classes.

A number of these new battalions from Newcastle and South-East Northumberland wanted to be affiliated to Scottish and Irish regiments, calling themselves the Tyneside Scottish and Irish respectively. This was, however, refused by the War Office. The new battalions eventually agreed to become attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers but they were granted certain privileges such as having a pipe band. There would be eight battalions altogether, with a number of reserve battalions.

The Duke of Northumberland made land available for a training camp on the Pastures near Alnwick Castle. It was originally envisaged that this camp would be for three battalions: The Commercials, Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish. In fact, so successful was the recruitment in the North-East, the camp would be expanded and would eventually accommodate the whole of the Tyneside Scottish Brigade; a body of over 4,000 men.

As early as 19th September 1914, the A&C Gazette was announcing:

It is reported that a few thousand of men are to be quartered on ground in the Pasture north of the Havens, and the labour advertised for is required to construct huts for the accommodation of the troops. Many tons of timber have arrived at Alnwick Railway Station, presumably for the carrying out of this work. Gas for lighting and cooking is to be laid on.

By October work had started, with up to 400 men being employed. One of the first tasks was the construction of a road from Denwick Lane to the old North Road near St Leonard’s Hospital.

The Alnwick Camp – from the Bailiffgate Collection

Click here for more photographs of Alnwick Camp from the Bailiffgate Collection

The work on the camp was supposed to be complete by November 1914 but there were repeated delays. This led to the Pioneer Sections of some battalions being sent to help the contractors get the camp finished.

The Newcastle Commercials (16th (Service) Battalion) started to occupy the site from 8th December 1914. They left Alnwick on 21st April 1915 to go to a new camp at Cramlington. They were in France by November 1915, serving as part of the 32nd Division.

The 1st Tyneside Scottish (20th (Service) Battalion) were the next to arrive, marching from Newcastle. They did this over a period two days, 29th and 30th January 1915, resting overnight at Morpeth. On their arrival at Alnwick they were welcomed by the band of the 16th Battalion and by the people of the town.

On the 12th March both the 2nd Tyneside Scottish (21st) and the 1st Tyneside Irish (24th) departed for Alnwick. The Irish arrived the same day; they went by train. The Scottish marched, arriving the next day.

The 1st Tyneside Irish didn’t stay very long; they left Alnwick on 30th April 1915 to join with the other three Tyneside Irish battalions at a camp near Woolsington, where they formed the 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade.

Finally, the 4th Tyneside Scottish (23rd) moved to Alnwick on 29th April, and the 3rd Tyneside Scottish (22nd) on 30th April.

The four Tyneside Scottish battalions were now together, completing the 102nd (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade. The men began to make themselves at home. Their huts soon acquired names, often those of the pubs in the villages where they came from.

The main purpose of the camp was training. The men would march for over 20 miles in the surrounding countryside, building up strength and stamina.

Trench building was a critical element in preparing soldiers for the Western Front, and it is probable that there were some practice trenches in the immediate surroundings. No remains are currently known.

There were ranges for rifle practice. Two were already in existence on Alnwick Moor and two new ones were created on the Pastures themselves. Significant remains of the target butts at Moorlaws can still be seen. There are also faint traces on Alnwick Moor (OS map reference NU166134).

Sports would also be a major feature of camp life, with inter-battalion football and boxing competitions. Sports days were popular and included intriguing events such as “pipers’ 100 yard race” and “buglers’ race” where the instruments had to be played while running! There were also cricket and football matches against teams from the town.

As well as the serious business of training and parading, there was also time for entertainment. Regular concerts were held in the camp and the A&C Gazette had a weekly review of life in the camp in its Hut Camp News. This section of the newspaper proved popular with the soldiers as they could send a cutting home to keep their families in touch with what was happening in the camp.

On 18th May 1915 there was a major parade in the Pastures, where the brigade was inspected by the Duke of Northumberland. Two days later the whole brigade went to Newcastle by train for the Kings Review on the Town Moor, where they were among over 18,000 soldiers who paraded in front of King George V and Lord Kitchener. It took a total of ten trains to move the soldiers to and from Newcastle!

The soldiers in the camp had ample opportunities to visit the town. A rest centre was established in the Northumberland Hall, where the men could get a cup of tea and socialise. Local shop keepers seized the opportunity to sell souvenirs. The local paper carried the following advertisement on 7th August 1915:

Tyneside Scottish! For Kilty Ties see AR Smith’s window, Bondgate Hill; A memento for Lady Friends. Specially made for The Scottish, with brooch, name

Also photographers from far afield descended on Alnwick, making postcards of the camp and its events for sale to the soldiers.

In mid-August, according to the A&C Gazette, the Tyneside Scottish left by train for a camp “somewhere in the south”, returning a week later “harder than hammers”.

But the training did come to an end, and the Tyneside Scottish Brigade started to leave Alnwick during the latter part of August, to go to Salisbury Plain where they joined with the 101st and 103rd Brigades to form the 34th Division10.

The 34th Division was in France in January 1916, where they fought at La Boiselle on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. They suffered terrible losses as they had to start their advance further back in order to avoid the expected debris from the planned detonation of the Lochnagar crater.

While the Tyneside Scottish were occupying the camp, companies from the 7th NF were still living in and around Alnwick. They were at times living in billets, but also spent time under canvas, including a camp at Moorlaws, on Alnwick moor.

There would ultimately be three battalions of the 7th. These were designated the 1st/7th, 2nd/7th and 3rd/7th. The 2nd/7th would spend some time in the Middle East, while the 3rd/7th were a reserve battalion.

The local paper reported on 11th September 1915 that:

The 3rd Line of this [3rd/7th] Battalion which is at present under canvas contemplates a route march next week with the Regimental Band in a part of the county little frequented by soldiers. The object of course is to get recruits to complete its strength, which is already diminished by drafts for overseas.

After the departure of the main body of the Tyneside Scottish, the camp started to be converted to a military convalescent hospital. The refurbishment took longer than expected, however, and it wasn’t until January 1916 that patients began to arrive.

The camp took on a new appearance. The A&C Gazette reported on 8th April 1916:

A visit to the encampment in the Pastures this week, after an absence of a fortnight, revealed a wonderful change in the ornamental approaches to B and C camps. The shrubbery adorning the sides is flourishing beautifully through the dry weather of last week.

The convalescent hospitals were intended to receive injured soldiers who were expected to return to the front after six weeks treatment, which included:

the dowsing heat treatment, and some 123 men are massaged every morning, while 70 others are being attended to by the ladies of the V.A.D., who dress their wounds.

The hospital also included two huts which were converted into a VAD hospital, administered by the Red Cross. This was occupied from 5th April 1916, at which time the hospital in Bailiffgate was closed.

By November 1916 the convalescent hospital had been closed and the camp was then used as a Command Depot for the rehabilitation of soldiers who were too fit for a convalescent camp, but not yet fit enough to be returned to their units. This new camp housed about 5,000 men from the Machine Gun Corps and Northern Command.

Throughout its life as a hospital, entertainment was a significant activity, with concerts every week. The highlight, however, was probably the visit of famous Scottish singer, Harry Lauder, in August 1916.

The final military use of the camp was by the Royal Naval Division, who occupied the camp at the end of the war and were demobilised from there. There are stories of the victory parade where the RND were a little worse for drink. They stopped the parade by the brewery to give three cheers and were so disruptive during the dignitaries’ speeches that the event had to be curtailed!

At the end of the war the camp was abandoned. It had a brief revival, when some of the huts were occupied for a few days by about 400 fisher girls who had been stranded at Alnmouth station during the 1919 rail strike. They had been travelling south, following the herring fleets, and were able to resume their journey once the strike ended.

The huts within the camp were then auctioned and were used across the local area . Some were relocated to the Freemen’s land on Alnwick Moor. The last of these huts was finally destroyed only a few years ago.

Nothing of significance now remains at the site of the camp.

Extract from Alnwick in the Great War, by Ian Hall.