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The "Married Quarters" of Olden Days

(by L.C.B. in 'The Back Badge' 1937)

What about the Married Quarters of yestersay? Well, in the beginning of things, there were none. The only accomodation for married couples "on the strength" consisted of two bedsteads and two men's space in each barrack room. By the custom of the service they got the corner farthest from the door, but no matter how many children there might be in the family, only two beds were allowed and no privacy of any kind was officially provided, although most men managed to rig up some sort of screen around the beds.

There was no free issue of rations to either men of families at that period, but again, by the custom of the Service, the woman was allotted to share in the dinner of the squad, in return for which she gave small services in helping to keep the room clean, etc. The married man was "struck out of mess" and had to maintain his wife and family on his pay - eked out by the meal given his wife and anything she might earn.

When on the line of march, on change of quarters, women and children "on the strength" were allowed to ride the baggage wagons, but no billets were allowed for them. If the local inn proprieter were friendly they might share the billets of the husbands, but if the landlord objected, then the husbands had to find quarters for their families elsewhere. If funds were low, the families might be smuggled into a hayloft over the inn stables, but often they would have to bivouac on the lee side of a hedge. And further, there was no allowance to meet such expenses, for lodging allowance was not issued to married men until 1852, in which year an allowance of 1d. per day, paid quarterly in arrear, was authorised.

Some of the older readers of "The Back Badge" who come from Service families, will have probably heard yarns on these matters from their grandfathers, or more probably their grandmothers.

But gradually, public opinion - backed, it was said, by H.M. Queen Victoria - began to demand a change and about 1848 or 1849 an alteration was made by bundling all the families together in one or more rooms instead of leaving one in each barrack room with the men. This was a change, but not much for the better. In one barracks, seven families were huddled pell-mell into one room without any provision for family privacy and as there was but one fireplace in the room for cooking, the result round about meal times may be imagined. In another barracks, ten families were in one room and in yet another station eight families occupied one hut, while even this separation of the families from the men's rooms was not universal, for in some stations they remained living with the men in the barrack rooms till after the close of the Crimean War. As late as 1867 there were instances of four families in one room and even later than that, it was estimated that about one-third of the married strength of the Army at Home was still unaccommodated with separate rooms.

The writer's first acquaintance with married quarters was as a youngster in 1878, in the Verne Citadel at Portland. Here the married families were accommodated in casemates in the Ditch, which were only lighted and ventilated from the doors and had but one fireplace. The Colour Sergeants were much envied, as they could divide their room by using spare company blankets; but can the present day soldier imagine himself drawing his pay in such a room, with the recently confined wife of his C.Q.M.S lying in the same room behind a blanket screen? Yet this really happened and was taken as a matter of course.

A somewhat later experience was in 1883, when the married quarter in the Red Barracks, Weymouth, allotted to the writer's brother-in-law, a senior Colour Sergeant in a Line Battalion, was one room without any sanitary conveniences whatever, situated over the grocery bar of the canteen, which room had to serve, not only as a quarters for himself and wife, but also as Company Office.

The next experience - as a recruit on coal fatigue, etc. - was in Aldershot in 1889. At that period the Aldershot married quarters were wooden huts about 40 feet by 18 feet, each of which was divided into four compartments and held four families. Sanitary arrangements were very primitive and were situated in a hut about fifty yards from the quarters, all water had to be fetched from a single tap in the men's ablution hut, and bathing facilities were unthought of.

London followed. Here in Chelsea Barracks married quarters were in large four storied blocks of one roomed quarters. All the sanitary conveniences were on the other side of the compound and water had to be fetched from a tap on the ground floor. Even the Regimental Sergeant Major had to cross an open stone-paved passage to get from his living to his sleeping rooms, while the Company Sergeant Majors were glad to occupy two small rooms on the landings of the stairs leading to the barrack rooms.

In Kensington Barracks the accommodation was even worse, some of the married quarters being at the end of the barrack blocks, where the entrance passage was common to both, and married people had to pass the barrack room doors to get to their own quarters. Old hands will appreciate what that meant after the canteen had turned out at First Post! Here also, all sanitary conveniences were in the open across the barrack square, and as well as in Chelsea, bathing facilities were unknown.

The first real attempt to modernise the married quarters was made when the re-construction of Aldershot Camp was commenced about 1891, although even then, the sanitary accommodation was placed in the open away from the quarters and there were still no baths.

Somewhere about 1892 or 1893, efforts began to be made to give better accommodation everywhere and single room quarters were to be abolished - some day - for some of them survived in Ireland till at least 1922.

The writer made his first acquaintance with these improved quarters in 1895, when as a married N.C.O. he was quartered in Davenport. The one allotted to him consisted of two rooms on the third floor of a block in Old Granby Barracks, which originally had been two one-roomed quarters, but had been converted into one two-roomed quarter by the simple expedient of bricking up one of the exterior doors and knocking a hole in the wall between the two rooms, leaving all the other fittings in tact, which meant that each room had an enormous range, capable of burning a week's coal in one day, immense kit shelves and very little esle, no floor covering and no window blinds.

The furniture was two barrack bedsteads - one of which was a Mark 1 Turn over pattern, dating from about the year Dot and the other an ordinary pattern one - two sets of barrack bedding, a four-foot table, two sergeants stools, a broom, mop, bucket, soup can and last, but decidedly not least, a monumental, Box, Coal, 4 bushel. Everything else the writer had to supply at his own expense.

As in all other barracks of that time, sanitary conveniences were in the open at the other side of the square, there were no sinks and all the waste water had to be carried down to ground level, while there were no baths. One improvement had been made - there was one water tap on each floor of the block.

As time went on, improvements were slowly made; floor coverings were authorised, new Schedules of Barrack Furniture were published which gave married families decent furniture, cooking utensils and special patterns of bedsteads and bedding, leaving only crockery, ornaments and window coverings to be obtained at the occupant's expense. But in many of the older barracks, the construction of the buildings made serious improvements impossible and in these conditions remained far from good.

The writer's first experience of the (then) new type of quarter was in 1902, when he took over quarters in Millbank Barracks, London, then just completed, and he found he had little cause of complaint as things went then, beyond the interior walls of the quarter being of bare, unplastered, whitewashed brick and the lighting having been evidently designed by one who had never been forced to live in an Army married quarter; while the fact that 108 steps had to be climed to enter the quarter was only part of the daily duties. The occupants of these quarters still had to pay out of their own pockets - or go without - curtains, crockery, etc., and there were still no bathing facilities, but these were not considered as very serious defects.

Such were married quarters before and at the beginning of the present century, and those described in last years "Back Badge" if we had seen them in our time, would have struck us dumb with amazement and unbelief.

And yet, I'll bet a year's pension that the occupants of these "Luxury Flats" grouse about them just as much as we did forty to fifty years ago.

L.C.B.