The Building Of Newcastle Barracks. (Later known as Fenham Barracks)
The first mention one can find about this is an entry in the Newcastle Courant of April 1804, which refers to the granting of a parcel of land by Newcastle Corporation to a crown agent for the erection of a large depot for the storage of military equipment, barracks and stabling horses. The land was part of the Town Moor, and 51/2 acres is referred to, although later reports talk of 11 acres, and there is a difference as to “rental” or sale. Whatever be the case, building got started and cost £40,000 in all, and took about 2 years, and consisted of 3 large blocks, for 593 men and 8 officers, plus stabling for 298 horses, and a recreation room and reading room. Grooms were billeted above their horses, and there was a veterinary hospital for the animals, and another for the troops. There was a chapel, stores and some form of accommodation for women, most unusual, as it had been the norm that a blanket across the bottom of a room had usually sufficed in cases where wives were present. It made an impact on the city, as they became aware of a much larger number of soldiers about.
This may have been brought about by the fact that the first troops in the place were the 6th Inniskillin Dragoons, and the history has shown that the civil authorities made great use of Dragoons in the normal civil policing. As at that time, police forces were not truly formed. Dragoons with their sabres were a terrifying sight, and the story of peterloo needs no recounting. However the soldiers were only obeying orders, and initially they were accepted, even if their bizarre dress aroused comment. Early dragoons carried a sword, pistol, carbine and trenching tool and wore a leather helmet, but over the years fancy Busby hats, tight trousers and tunics with gold epaulettes made the outfit quite unsuitable really, but various monarchs had decreed it. Costs to officers were astronomical, and they had difficulty in getting them. Following the 6th Inniskillins came the 6th dragoon guards, 3rd light Dragoons, 1st Light Dragoons, and engineers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, 37th Regt. (North Hampshire’s) 63rd (West Suffolk) 81st (Earl of Marrs). In 1846 it was decided to use the barracks for artillery units and the royal horse artillery moved in; in 1852 the 21st foot, Royal Scots fusiliers, 3rd Light Dragoons 28th foot, (North Gloucester) 26th Cameronians, Inniskillin Dragoons, 85th (Bucks Volunteers) 7th Dragoons Guards (the old straws) and the 29th foot (Warwickshire’s). They all saw service at Newcastle in its first 50 years, carrying out all manner duties, celebrating the accession of King George 4th in 1813 helping to put down seamen’s riots at north shields, and later the chartost riots in Newcastle. The duke of Wellington carried out a grand review on the town moor, followed by a ball at the assembly rooms, and the troops from Newcastle barracks escorted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their visit north. They had also given great service to Newcastle in the great fire; no doubt this helped to sooth the feelings between them and the new Newcastle police, after they had arrested a private of the royal Irish Fusiliers and sparked off a riot, which caused bad feelings for many years.
By the 1870’s there were a number of army reforms, which we will deal with later, and in 1879, there was first appearance of a company of Northumberland fusiliers at Newcastle, and the 16th brigade royal artillery. There was an air of change about the military circles, and Newcastle was included in these, bearing in mind that the barracks were over 60 years old and even though alterations had been made over the years, they were old fashioned even by Victorian standards.
An application was made to the city council for permission to have more land on which to extend and rebuild, and this was to be in the direction of the city. What a row that caused; no, not nearer the city was the reply, they did not want soldiers any closer, despite the fact that for many years on a Sunday, the barrack canteen had been open to the public, and there had been good relations. Eventually the matter was resolved and building commenced with Joseph Elliott as the main contractor. Old buildings came down and new guardhouse with 5 cells and a glassed in veranda to protect the guard from rain was built, accommodation for 464 men, (with lavatories), new reading room and library, married quarters (10 passages, with 6 houses on landing with hot and cold water) 2 cookhouses, canteen block, sergeants mess, an officers block with 5 rooms to a block, and new admin offices. Then there was a new gravelled parade ground, 3 storey armoury and powder magazine and standing for 1500 rifles, bringing it into line with the best in the country. To the public the most eye-catching were the 2 towers built each side of the main gates, and these still exist as part of the public house known as “The Cushy Billet” when finished it covered 27 acres, but they were unable to stop an embarrassing “right of way” which ran right through the camp; I am sure that the modern day brewer who gave the name “The Cushy Billet” had his tongue in cheek when he used that name, because Newcastle was never a “Cushy Billet” (soft place to live and work).Now the Cushy Billet is now currently known as THE LEAZES INN.
At about this time the place changed following army reforms, and it was decided that Newcastle barracks was to be the permanent depot of the Northumberland fusiliers and the Durham light infantry, to be known as the 5/68th depot, (the old regimental numbers). In addition the royal artillery assumed a greater presence there. The Durham’s did not want to be based there, naturally, having been at Sunderland in their own county. The fusiliers had been based at Ravensdowne barracks at Berwick prior to their move to Newcastle, and the story of each of these two famous regiments follows (albeit in brief.)
As we have seen, Queen’s reign saw a large variety of wars and campaigns, Crimean. Zulu, New Zealand and the 2 South African being the most important towards the end and Newcastle saw the departure of a variety of troops. In addition, within the barrack walls there were all the ancillary units needed for the running of such a place, with medical corps, service corps, engineers etc. In Newcastle also, there were also changes, and this is probably how the name of Fenham barracks came into use, with the various boundaries being altered, and accordance with necessity and political viewpoint, and after the Boer war, things settled down and there was little change at Fenham, once demobilisation was finished, and this continued until the beginning of the 1st world war, when once again the place came a hive of activity and empery accommodation. The Northumberland fusiliers and the Durham’s still had their depots there and much recruiting took place, and until 1918 was the hub of activity, but again, after the ending of the hostilities it again reverted to its peacetime role. Again however, it was showing signs of wear and tear and in 1933, some of the old Victorian buildings were demolished – there was a grand 5-year plan decided on. It was the time when Herr Hitler was flexing his muscles and some voices expressed their fears; things were put off, however, and by the time that any building did get started, they were only able to get the Sandhurst block built before the 1939 war began. The word “Militiamen” was being heard, and this was the idea of calling up all young men aged 18 for a period of 6 months training, but only a few were actually called before the war began, and many went to Fenham, and eventually there was a large militia camp built on the opposite side of barrack road. On the outbreak of war, Fenham closed as being the depot of the Northumberland fusilier, (now prefixed with “royal” – see section on their story) and the Durham Light Infantry. The Fusiliers moved to Chester, not returning the Fenham until 1946 when again it became their depot, and during the intervening years, all the parapharralia of war could be seen around the place.
On this occasion, however, unlike the ending of the 1914 war, the place was kept busy, because the government, which meant all young men over 18, had to do a term of 18 months training and that carried on for many years, and Fenham was no5 Training District, among other things, had adopted “National service Training”. And so another phase in the life of Fenham commenced.
Life in the post-war Fenham Barracks was re-called to me by Harry Richardson who, in October 1947 was called up to do his National Service training there, it being no5 primary Training Centre. As luck had it (good and bad) he went there with a pal of his whose father had a garage, plus an S.S. Jaguar motorcar, in which they arrived at the Barrack gates, causing the duty guard to give sharp salute. 0n seeing two fresh faced young men alight the duty sergeant was not amused. On being allocated a bed in the barrack room, he noticed that his “neighbour” sported a long shock of hair, unusual in those days, but it did not last for long – he was missing for an hour and returned as an unrecognisable “skin head”. The barrack blocks were multi storied with the usual communal ablutions etc and he was soon instructed in the art of army life. The parade ground was the sacred property of the Regimental Sergeant Major, and you trod on it warily – it was for drill purposes. Also, the Sergeants Mess was usually the place where you did “fatigue duty” for minor infringements; whilst on guard duty Harry learned that you did not say “Who the hell is that” to the Company Sergeant Major, when you heard a suspicious sound at night, but challenged “ Halt, who goes there”. (Which goes to show that the army had not changed all that much in some respects.) The old Cavalry gates were not in use of course, but the main entrance was to the West of them. What must have been the old gravelled parade ground was used as a bayonet practice ground, whilst actual weapon training and shooting took place at Ponteland.
All the facilities of the barracks were fully used of course, at that time, so soon after the war, plus the National Service Training. Blanco was still being used and the old “Blanco Room” remains in his memory very vividly, plus learning “bugle calls” on the square under the eye of R.S.M. Griffin. On the other side of Barrack Road were the old Militias. Camp, and here was a large gymnasium where all had to attend to see the various boxing tournaments, which the army held dear for so many years. In the main camp, there was the usual representative unit needed to satisfy the requirements of a large busy barracks. All in all, his memory of the place was favourable; when one considers that he and all his comrades had been uprooted from their normal comfortable homes. But of course, does a 6-week stay as a new recruit give a really true picture?
My brother was stationed there in 1930, having been posted there as a regular soldier, and I well recall his telling my father what a dismal place it was. Then, of course there were still most of the old Victorian buildings in situ, and it was one of those periods of time between wars when the soldier was out of favour with public. It was also the time of the depression of the Northeast; Newcastle had not seen any “modernisation” etc, which is now a part of life, few old soldiers were much taken up with the place, from the few surviving to whom I have spoken memories of the life of Fenham Barracks must abound in the north of England; two other men to whom I have spoken are Sam Gormley and Terry Wetherburn. Sam was stationed there from 1935-6, in the Royal Artillery, in the days of horses, and told me of the teams of six, which hauled the guns. “When we went to Redesdale for firing, it was a two or three day trip just to get there. Now they hitch it on to a wagon and it’s only a couple of hours.” There are four batteries of about 700 men in the 24th field Brigade, as it was known in those days. They had little to do with the Northumberland’s or Durham’s, whose depot it was, other than a joint church parade. As I have said, the artillery had by far the most men at Fenham. Sam also recalled going to Ravensworth Castle to appear in the annual military tattoos. By and large his memories of the place were not too bad, and went on through the war, being demobilised with the rank of battery sergeant major. Terry Wetherburns memories are of a different era, having served all his National Service in the Northumberland’s, at Fenham, from 1956. Fresh from the hills of Norham, he reported to Fenham, and after initial training, due to some hitch or other, he was not posted out, and eventually served in the orderly room. “I saw and heard a lot of little secrets” he said, but one of his best recollections was the sudden appearance of lord Festing through the back door, complete with his shepherds crook, and little runabout car, when everyone else was expecting him at the main gate in a staff car and orderly. As that time much of the Barracks was standing empty, although there were many small units of a variety of regiments in situ. And Barrack road still attracted many of the ladies of the town, as it had for many a long year.
However life was changing and thoughts about the war were changing. Fenham continued in being for a further period but questions were being asked about its future. In 1962 the royal Northumberland Fusiliers were swallowed into the royal regiment of fusiliers and moved to Sutton coldfeild. The old infantry barracks and married quarters were pulled down and ex-major Bill Myers who had lived there as a child said, “not before time”; what had been a luxury in the 1880s were not so in the 1920s. As time want on more and more parts came down and fewer staff left, mainly as territorial units or representative units; - coldstream guards recruiting team, royal regt. Of fusiliers recruiting team, pay corps mess, H/Q. of 29th engineers brigade, royal army medical corps, and 103-field sdn. R.E. (TA) royal corps transport, 34th signals regt. There was, however a refurbishment of one part and became the headquarters, of the T.A.V.R. on the 12th December 1978, whilst in 1975 the 15th/19th hussars moved in. Both they and the R.N.F had their mussums there for a while.
The place is still active however, and Captain Alan Donaldson, Quartermaster of 201-field ambulance showed me around what is left. The old gates, of course, and much of the perimeter wall still stand, whilst there the Sandhurst block and other buildings are the Durham light infantry and the Northumberland fusiliers in one corner, whilst there has been made a neat little chapel. Photographically, there is a wealth of history on the various mess walls. “We are far from dead,” said Alan as I left.