London Barracks – Living London 1902



As dawn approaches the sentry at the London barrack gate counts the moments to the hour of relief. This is probably his last spell of “sentry-go,” and he has nothing more to do but to stand at arms with the rest of the guard when reveille sounds, and to clean himself decently against dismounting guard.

It has been a tedious and trying time, marching to and fro on his short beat for two hours out of every six, lounging in the guard-room in idle talk with his comrades, always prompt to answer the startling summons, ” Guard turn out! ” whether for inspection, or to pay a proper compliment to some passing superior officer. But this tour of guard will not return for a week or so ; for ” six nights in bed,” as the saying goes, is about the average of the London Guardsman’s escape from ” sentry-go,” whether at Chelsea, St. George’s, or Wellington Barracks, or at the Palaces or the Tower.

Reveille sounding is the barrack alarum clock. It wakens the whole interior to active life. A single trumpeter in the mounted regiments standing alone in the barrack square has blown out the brazen “rouse”; in the Foot Guards a bugler or two, in some regiments the band of drums and fifes, have signalled the start of another day. The hour varies according to the seasons ; from 5.30 a.m. to 6 a.m. in the summer, and in autumn or winter never later than 6.30. The trumpets sound “stables” at 6 a.m. in summer, at 6.30 in winter, and this, the grooming and feeding of his charger, and the cleansing of the stall, are always the cavalry soldier’s first care.


Inside   the   barrack rooms,   although  men may yawn and grumble and hesitate to turn out, there is no more sleep after reveille, and great stir and turmoil prevail on every side The sergeant or corporal in charge of each room is already on the alert, girding at the laggards, rousing them out by name, if needs be by force, with emphatic cries of ” Turn out, turn out! Show a leg ! ” and very soon the room is busy as a hive. Personal ablutions come next, and the men take it in turn to visit the general lavatory or Ablution Room to sluice and scrub themselves into fresh, clean, morning vitality, and the toilette is completed or postponed according to the duty immediately ahead. If there is to be an early parade for adjutant’s or more important drill, in the square, or further afield in one of the parks, then it is finished once and for all; if not it awaits the greater leisure after breakfast.

The prudent soldier prepares betimes for turning out in full fig. His belts, which are cleaned overnight, are already white and spotless as pipeclay on the most approved recipe can make them. A little elbow grease will give the last burnish to all metal and brass work; clothes are brushed and brushed again, and boots, the soldier’s pride, blackened and polished till you can see your face in them. If there be no parade there is certainly guard mounting, and in the Household Cavalry Royal escorts have constantly to be provided for. In this last case the work and preparation entailed are really severe. Man and horse between them give superabundant work for a single pair of hands ; esprit de corps demands absolute perfection in every detail. The Life Guardsman has his cuirass, which must shine like silver; his white leather breeches, which must be without a crease; his great jackboots, which must be as glossy as patent leather. As for the horse, it must be groomed till its coat is like a racer’s, every hair in mane and tail must be combed out as carefully as a beauty’s by her lady’s maid. Saddlery and trappings, bridle and chains, all must be scrupulously clean.

It is a gallant sight when the escort parades for final inspection, embodying all the pomp and circumstance but little of the matter-of-fact side of grim-visaged war. A crowd of regimental idlers collects round the barrack-room door with admiring pride at the fine military spectacle. Men indeed have been known to carry a comrade in their arms and deposit him in his saddle lest some speck should fall upon him in mounting and mar the perfection of his appearance. It is said sometimes that the blacking brush is carried round the ranks to give the last touch when the men are on horseback, or the adjutant himself will condescend to remove dust from the soldiers’ boots with his pocket handkerchief.

Meanwhile the morning business is progressing in barracks, and—apart from drills for instruction or punishment, or the morning exercise for the horses of cavalry, in ” watering order ” without show, that is to say—is largely of the housekeeping order. The “orderly men” for the day have been marched by a corporal to the quartermaster’s stores to draw the day’s rations. Already the meat has been inspected by the officer of the day assisted by the quartermaster, the joints have been apportioned amongst the messes, and they are carried on to the regimental kitchen. The breakfast bread, hot and fresh as the soldiers love it, is brought to the barrack room, and here the housemaids so to speak, the fatigue men whose business it is to sweep and furbish up the one living room, have got the place ready for the morning meal. The trestle tables which are reversible have been scrubbed and scrubbed again upon one side, and this is turned downward except on special occasions, such as the Captain’s inspection, but the other is the workaday side for constant use.

Now a little before 7.45 a.m. the basins for breakfast coffee have been set out by the orderly man, the bread ration, baked usually in 4lb. loaves, has been divided up so as to give each soldier his share, one pound per diem, which he eats as he pleases now or at dinner, and any bread that is over he keeps upon his shelf with his fork stuck into it as proof of ownership. The regulation breakfast is no more than bread and coffee, but all who can command the funds lay in something from the canteen; it may be a scrap of butter or some jam, for the young soldier has a sweet tooth, or bacon, brawn, sausage, eggs, and even cheese.

After breakfast comes a spell of leisure, not quite of idleness, for the men sit round to peel the potatoes for dinner, and then ” soldiering ” demands their full energies. To “soldier” is to clean and polish accoutrements, to give the last touch to the folding of great coat, the brushing of the bearskin, the shine of the helmet. Parade is near at hand, the principal function of the day : ” Commanding Officer’s parade,” at which all must appear punctiliously neat and properly dressed, for keenly observant eyes will detect the tiniest flaws. Parade is long or short as the Colonel has decreed ; he may be bent upon a field day which will take the time from 9.30 a.m. to a late dinner at half-past one, or he may dismiss the men after an inspection or a short drill in the barrack – yard. ” Orderly Room,” or “Office,” follows: the C.O. sits in judgment upon offenders, meting out pains and penalties for breaches of discipline, and the culprits are ” billed up,” sentenced to be confined to barracks for a term with “pack drill,” or locked up in the punishment cells for the inside of a week according to the nature of the wrong-doing and the character of the man. Well for him who has a “clean sheet,” —no entry in the Defaulters’ Book, or record of previous “crimes”—he may go scot free. Not so the old delinquent, whose cup may be full, and who will perchance be put back for court martial, or in the Household Cavalry summarily dismissed from the corps.


The dinner hour opens up a pleasanter prospect, and midday marks the broad distinction between business and relaxation. It is a wholesome, plentiful meal, but as a rule it is served to the private men in their barrack-rooms without much luxury. Fatigue men bring over from the cook-house the steaming can of soup (on soup days), the baked or boiled meat in a tin dish, the potatoes in their net; the soup is poured into the basins standing ready, the meat is not carved but hacked into equal portions as nearly as possible, with a due proportion of bone and scraps to each mess. Sometimes these portions are distributed by lot; one man with his back turned is asked, ” Who takes this ? ” and as he names the recipient it is given out. There is no table-cloth, no soup-plates are provided, no chairs, only hard benches, no tumblers or drinking cups, for by immemorial usage the soldier takes no fluid with his solid food. There is a pretty general exodus to the canteen directly after the meal. At this, the regimental bar and general supply store, it is forbidden to sell fermented liquor until high noon, but from now till 9.30 it is open to all but “defaulters,” and those who, particularly on pay day, have obviously imbibed too much. The barrack-room is left to the maid of all work—the orderly man, who washes up, scrubs, and sweeps out the place.


The life of the officer runs on very different lines. Although he is charged with the command and care of his men, in the Foot Guards he is little associated with them, except on parade, or on guard, or when orderly officer. As the last-named it is his business to inspect the rations early, to visit the barrack-rooms at the dinner hour, to attend the Colonel’s morning “office” or orderly-room, and speak to the character of prisoners charged with military offences. There is no mess for the Foot Guards in London except at the Tower; but the Guards’ Club in Pall Mall serves as such, and is counted within bounds for those on guard at St. James’s Palace hard by. Again, except at the Tower, no officers in the Foot Guards have quarters in barracks, but live at home in their own houses, or chambers, or with their families as they please. They are seen constantly on foot or in whirling hansom wending to and from their duty always spick and span in full-dress or undress, for the utmost punctilio as to smartness in appearance is strictly observed.

Officers in the Life Guards and Blues make their home in barracks, whether at Albany Street or Knightsbridge, and it is a humble, unpretending home at best. One modest room, plainly furnished, suffices for men who are soldiers first, ready to rough it and take their full share of knocks as we have seen in the recent war, and, next, gentlemen of fashion and, perhaps, great fortune. The mess is, of course, well mounted, but it is on the lines of any private household, and the officers of the Household Cavalry sit down at the dinner in plain black evening clothes, save only the orderly officer, who never leaves barracks during his tour of duty except for a ride in the Park. The idea of the plain clothes is that, without being obliged to change, they may take part in the social life and gaieties of the fashionable world of London. The officers of the Foot Guards, as already stated, have no mess in London except at the Tower, where mess dress is worn.


There is another aspect of military life in London—the domestic, that of the limited class who have embarked in matrimony. This, of course, applies to the soldier, not the officer, for the latter is perfectly independent as regards marriage, unlike his comrades in foreign armies, who are under many restrictions. Permission to marry is scantily granted
to the men of our modern short service army. The ” establishment “
does not exceed three or four percent, for private men, but the average is larger for non-commissioned officers, and many conditions are imposed before leave is obtained. The bride – elect must be of respectable character, the intending Benedict must have seven years’ service, must show a couple of good conduct badges, and own money
in the Regimental Savings Bank.
Many privileges are, however, accorded in return, including quarters graduated in number to the family as it arrives, or lodging money in lieu.


The   private  soldier, if he be a well-conducted  man, thoroughly  drilled   and competent in his duties, has generally the greater part of the afternoon to himself. The exception is when a second parade has   been ordered, or his turn has come for “fatigue.”  The parade is for the instruction of others; he is wanted to make up the strength of a battalion or squadron at which recruits, officers, and   men are taught some of the higher manceuvres, or he has to take his share of carrying forage to the stables, or “carrying coal.” This last is a “black job,” justly unpopular with all, for it is hard labour enough; the boxes when filled are heavy, and the coal dust sticks.      Long before tea roll at 4.30  p.m., or thereabouts, all such work is generally   over  for the  day.    The   tea meal has  been  but  a  Barmecide  feast—tea   and dry bread—possibly   supplemented,   as  at breakfast, by those who  do  not purpose to leave  barracks;   but  the  soldier  as   a  rule greatly prefers to go out into the town, and he will, if he is in funds, treat himself to tea or strong drink, or some sort of supper at restaurant, chop-house, or tavern. There are many inducements offered nowadays to remain at home— a well – chosen supply of books, papers, and magazines in the regimental library, with games, such as chess, draughts, billiards (cards are forbidden), and simple refreshments in the recreation room. Entertainments and variety shows are provided in the canteen, which becomes a private music-hall. But the men greatly hanker after change of scene and relaxation from restraints—slight enough perhaps, but still felt as checks on freedom.

Accordingly when tea is done, and all traces of dust and dirt have been removed, with chin fresh shaved, and hair well arranged under the forage cap smartly cocked, spotlessly neat and clean, with “swagger stick ” in hand, Atkins issues forth and, passing the ordeal of the gate sergeant’s minutely critical eyes, seeks his pleasure abroad. London is full of temptations to unwary goers, and commendable efforts are made to keep the soldiers from drink and dissoluteness. Sobriety and steadiness may not be universal, but the general demeanour of our gallant defenders is excellent in the streets, and the penalties for misconduct are severe.


Now, quiet almost, and unbroken, has settled down upon the barracks. They are nearly empty; only as night draws on, men, save those on “pass ” or special leave, begin to drop in one by one. Sometimes a man will “stay absent” to sleep off the drink, and return next day; yet again the absence sometimes is of malice prepense, the truant is resolved to forswear himself and desert his colours. When this absence has lasted long enough to constitute desertion he is struck off the rolls and his kit is sold.

By degrees the room has filled ; there is much talking and light-heartedness, rough chaff, the interchange of gossip as to the doings of the day, as the men throw off their things and betake themselves noisily to their beds. The non-commissioned officer in charge will wisely give sufficient licence at this the closing hour, satisfied if, as the first warning note of ” Lights out,” the long drawn ” G,” echoes through the silent square all are seen to be settling down to rest. With the second ” G ” few voices are heard, at the third nasal sounds predominate, and the tired soldier has finished another day of service under the King in London.

Source: Living London Edited by George R. Sims. Cassell and Company, Limited. 1902.