Queen Street naval barracks was ‘perfect place’ in 1903

King George VI pays a visit to the Royal Naval Barracks
King George VI pays a visit to the Royal Naval Barracks
Phil Spaven, Paul Morgan. Ian Whitewood and Roger Glancefield with Paul Morgan's 1940s Willys JEEP    (180082_01)

History re-enactors herald the opening of Second World War film

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Many of us have passed the former main gate of what is now HMS Nelson in Portsmouth. The original gate now stands alone with plenty of space for traffic to pass around it.

Most might have thought that the barracks had been there since Victorian times. But in fact they were not opened until 1903, although the roots of where to billet sailors go back farther than that.

When the press gangs ceased, it was down to the captain of a ship to recruit his crew. The Admiralty only supplied a captain, officers and a detachment of Marines to each newly-commissioned ship.

A recruiting office was opened locally to the dockyard, no doubt in a public house. On accepting the Queen’s shilling, the men were put to work.

A new ship came empty and everything had to be man-handled from the dockyard stores. This was from top to bottom – masts, yards, rigging, guns, ammunition and the many other items needed to run a ship.

No living accommodation being available, a hulk was drawn up alongside for the men to live in. For those who do not know, a hulk was a ship ready for the breakers.

Living conditions were notoriously bad – cold, dark and with little air to ventilate the decks. There was barely space for the men to wash themselves, let alone their uniforms.

All men being strangers and some being thieves, theft was rife. There were no such things as lockers. The food was poor and little if no wages were paid before the sailing date.

Plans for a purpose-built brick building for 4,000 men were drawn up in 1862. Over the years the proposals were cancelled and recalled, cancelled and recalled until, at last, the former Anglesey Barracks were purchased bit by bit and the modern barracks were built.

No official ceremony took place to mark the opening of the new General Depot. It was placed under the command of Captain CHD Barry and on September 30, 1903 4,000 officers and men marched from the hulks to take possession of their new quarters.

The Hampshire Telegraph of the time reported that Queen Street was packed with cheering crowds from the dockyard to the new main gate. Once all were inside, the barrack gates were shut and the crowds besieged the railings.

No ceremony was displayed on leaving the hulks as they were miserable and unpleasant quarters. All trappings and furniture had been moved a few days previously.

The new quarters were made up of long rooms which held 125 men. They all slept in rows of hammocks. All rooms had electric light and water taps and there were toilets on every floor.

Having said that, in 1953 at the golden jubilee of the barracks it was noted that this ‘perfect place’ of 1903 would not have been tolerated then.

After an initial settling-in period, King Edward VII visited in February 1904. The King arrived in a rainstorm and, after taking the salute, he dismissed the parade as it was pouring down by this time.

In 1906 a signal school was established in the barracks, but such was its success that by the mid 1930s it had outgrown itself and a new establishment, HMS Mercury west of Petersfield, was established.

A physical training school was also established in the gymnasium, but again outgrew itself. A new gym was built on the site of a burial ground for victims of the plague called Pest House Fields, which we now know as Pitt Street. The school opened in 1910 at a cost of £15,000.

When the First World War started, thousands of reservists were called to the colours. Such were the numbers of men, a new establishment was opened at Haslar in Gosport taking 2,500 of them.

In 1938 Queen Street was again thronged with naval personnel passing between the barracks and the dockyard. Britain was once more on a war footing and under the parade ground a complex layout of shelters were dug. Only a thin layer of concrete protected those sheltering underneath.

During the war about 30 bombs hit the barracks and about 50 people were killed, with many more injured.

The barracks came through the war of course and still stand to this day. In August 1974 they became HMS Nelson and in 1996 lost the status of a shore establishment, becoming part of Portsmouth Naval Base as a whole.