Brompton Barracks was built in 1804-1806 and was originally called the Artillery Barracks as it was required to house the gunners who were to man the defences of Chatham. Provision was made at the barracks for about 1000 men and nearly 500 horses. In 1812 Major Pasley arrived to found the Engineers Establishment (see Army and Navy section). The Artillery eventually moved out and the Officer’s Mess became the Corps Headquarters Mess in 1856 when the Royal Engineers Woolwich Depot closed and the staff moved to Chatham.
The grand ‘RE Institute Building’ on the barracks, today is the Headquarters of the Royal School of Military Engineering. It was designed by Lieutenant MF Ommaney RE and the foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Cambridge, Colonel in Chief, on the 22nd May 1872. In 1884 Pasley House was built next door to the Institute and in the 1890s Nos 1-4 Gibraltar Avenue were constructed.
The Ravelin building, another key building in the Barracks was opened in 1905. It was designed by Captain ECS Moore RE and was used as the electrical school, it was built at a cost of £40,000. Today, the Raveling building is home to the Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive.
A number of memorials can be found throughout Brompton Barracks. The Crimea Arch built as a memorial to the battles of the Crimean War (dates) was designed by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt. It was paid for by a subscription that was made by all ranks of the Corps. It cost £1954 to construct and the bronze gates are said to be made from the same type of Russian guns that give their metal for the Victoria Crosses. Snob, a dog rescued during the battle of Alma, lies to the side of the arch and a plaque marks his final resting place.
The South Africa arch built opposite the Crimea Arch was unveiled by Edward VII on the 26th July 1905. It commemorates the 420 Royal Engineers who died in the Boer War and was erected at a cost of £2750.
The famous statue of Gordon astride his camel is made of solid bronze weighing 15 tons. Mr Onslow Ford made the statue which was shown at the Royal Academy of 1889 before being unveiled by the Prince of Wales on the 19th May 1890.
The War Memorial which stands between the two arches was again subscribed for by all ranks. It commemorates the death of Field Marshall Lord Kitchener and the 18,000 Royal Engineers who lost their Lives in the Great War. A sealed copper casket is buried within the base and the monument was unveiled by the Duke of Connaught on the 19th July 1922. After the Second World War the memorial was rededicated to commemorate the further 11,000 sappers to have lost their lives.
References to Brompton Barracks
Oxford Journal 28 Jan 1804
“The ground for the new barracks adjoining Brompton in Kent is marked out these are intended to be the most extensive in England. They will contain a very large number of infantry besides cavalry and artillery. A great number of houses in the north east part of Brompton are ordered to be taken down in order to give an uniformity to the building as well as to prevent an encroachment on the lines which are kept purposely for the exercising and manoeuvring the troops.”
Hampshire Chronicle 9 Dec 1805
“The beautiful artillery barracks on Chatham Lines, a part of which is now completed, are ordered to be prepared for the reception of 800 artillery.”
Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 27 March 1860
The new buildings ordered by the Government to be erected at Brompton Barracks, Chatham, are to be commenced forthwith, the plans and drawings having been prepared and approved. The site selected is the vacant piece ground at the end of the north and south wings of the barracks, near the gun sheds, and in line with the Crimean memorial now in course of erection. The range of buildings will include a commodious laboratory, a large lecture theatre, lithographic and photographic schools, non-commissioned officers’ and sappers’ library, surveying school, non-commissioned officers’ mess-rooms, telegraph school, and other establishments.
A prisoner, a sapper belonging to the Royal Engineers, named John Oates, has made his escape at Chatham from the guards who had him in charge, in a somewhat extraordinary manner. It appears that Oates had been apprehended as a deserter, and brought up to head-quarters to be tried by district court martial. After his trial he was taken to a closet, and while the guard who had him in custody remained outside, he contrived to drop down the one he was in and ascend an adjoining one which led to a different part of the barracks, and so made his escape. Alter some time he was missed, but no clue whatever has been obtained to lead to his re-apprehension.”
Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 04 September 1860
Considerable progress has been made in the extensive range of buildings now in course of erection at Brompton Barracks, Chatham, for messrooms and other apartments for the officers of the Royal and Indian Engineers, a large sum having been taken in the Estimates for the proposed works. The buildings include commodious and lofty messroom, the end of which is a gallery capable of accommodating the entire band of the Royal Engineers, together with retiring rooms, coffee and smoking rooms, and other rooms on the same floor, the messroom being so arranged that it can be converted into a handsome ballroom. The whole of the buildings will be completed and handed over to Major General Williams, commanding Royal Engineer, in the course of a few weeks. The Government has also determined upon erecting range of buildings on the present vacant side of the square of Brompton Barracks, adjoining the memorial arch erected to the officers and men of the Royal Engineers who fell the Crimea, to be used as lecture-rooms, halls of study, class-rooms, &c, for the officers and men of the Royal and Indian Engineers. The works have already been commenced. the whole will be completed by the ensuing spring.”
Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 18 September 1860
EXPLOSION AT THE ROYAL ENGINEER BARRACKS. — An explosion took place, on Wednesday afternoon, in the blacksmith’s shop of the Royal Engineers’ establishment Brompton. The cause the explosion appears to have been owing to the man at the bellows having heaped upon tbe fire a quantity of damp coals, without first exhausting the air out of the bellows. The consequence was that a quantity of carbonic acid gas entered the bellows. So great was the force of the explosion, that a piece of iron weighing 28lbs. was forced upwards through the roof of the building, destroying one of the rafters, and making a hole in the roof of four feet and a half by two feet and half. Fortunately none of the men in the workshop were injured.”
Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 29 January 1861
“TERRIBLE EXPLOSION AT CHATHAM.
Yesterday (Monday) week, shortly before noon, a frightful explosion occurred in that portion of the Royal Engineer establishment which is set apart for the manufacture of hand-grenades, fuses, and other missiles of a destructive character, by which a number of men employed in the factory were severely injured, some of the cases being likely to terminate fatally.
The part the Engineer establishment which the accident occurred was that which is known as the north gun shed, a long building extending about 200 feet in length by between 20 and 30 in width, the interior, which is not required for the guns and field pieces used by the Royal Engineers, being set apart for the stowage of the engineering implements in use by the sappers and miners, while the central portion is used as a manufactory for fuses, hand-grenades, &c, a number the sappers of the Royal and Indian Engineers being under daily instruction in the building. The working party, numbering about 30 men, and a few non-commissioned officers, nearly the whole being Indian Engineers, with a few of the Royals, commenced operations in the factory at the usual hour on Monday morning. The men were under the direction of sergeant-instructor named Adams, of the Royal Engineers, a man of great experience, and in every respect stated to be well qualified for the responsible post he fills. The work chiefly performed the Engineers consisted filling the grenades, shells, and fuses with a composition previously prepared. This composition, which consisted of fine powder and saltpetre, in about equal parts, with a small portion of sulphur, is known to be of a highly explosive character, and therefore great care is always required in its manipulation. Special directions were accordingly given to the men employed in the factory to use the utmost care in filling the tubes, the sergeant-instructor by personal observations ascertaining that his orders were carried out. The composition is dealt out to the men in moderate quantities, and placed in saucers by the side of each. The tubes and grenades are then filled and rammed tightly means of copper rod. This operation, which is technically known as “tamping,” requires to be performed with great care, as any undue ramming of the composition will cause it to explode. Constant use and experience have enabled the men engaged in the work to know the exact number of blows which may be given to each fuse and grenade, and any beyond that number are likely to prove dangerous.
Everything connected with the work proceeded satisfactorily this morning until shortly before 12 o’clock, when the frightful explosion took place. Just before the accident occurred Adams noticed one of the engineers, named Smith, performing his work in a rather careless manner, and reprimanded him for it. The same man afterwards, finding a difficulty in ramming the composition into his fuse, asked the man next him to assist him, which he did, the two giving blow and blow. Suddenly the composition of the grenade which Smith held in his hand became ignited, Smith, who appeared paralyzed with fear, continuing to retain his hold of it. The fire from the grenade then communicated with the loosej composition lying about, which immediately ignited a large quantity of powder in a barrel, when the whole building blew up with a terrific explosion, resembling the discharge of artillery, and creating the utmost dismay throughout the entire establishment. The first explosion was followed number of other reports as the various heaps of grenades and fuses became ignited. The effects of the explosion were of the most serious character. The building itself was shaken to its foundation, while one entire side of the factory in which the work was being carried on was carried completely away, and the woodwork was blown a considerable distance. The force of the explosion being sideways the roof of the shed was not blown off, but portions of it were lifted, and the lead work, for a considerable length, rolled and twisted in an extraordinary manner.
Considering the number men employed at the time it seems surprising that several were not immediately killed, but as it is about a dozen are more or less seriously injured Sergeant Chapman and Sappers Goode and Elliott, of the Engineers, on the instant of the explosion occurring, were blown through the side of the shed and deposited in a coal yard some distance off. Chapman, With the exception of a few trifling bruises, escaped unhurt, but both Goode and Elliott are severely burnt and injured; they were both immediately conveyed to the hospital. Sapper Thomas Rogers, of the Indian Engineers, was so severely injured that he was not expected to survive. He was employed close to Smith when the explosion happened, and was injured so much about the face, head, and other parts of the body that should he recover it is feared that his sight is quite gone. Many of the engineers were almost entirely denuded of their clothing, which was blown off by the explosion, and two or three are suffering severely from burns, from their clothes taking fire. One man had the entire front of his clothes blown away, and was much injured. Seven men, who were suffering severely, were admitted into the Royal Engineer Hospital, at Brompton. Their names are Thomas Rogers, I.E., suffering severely, and believed to be blind; George Smith, I.E., much injured from burns; James Goode, R E., seriously injured; Stephen Elliott, R.E., slightly scorched, and suffering from the effects of being blown through the shed James Mackenzie, I.E., much scorched; William Ritchie, I.E., slightly burnt; and Francis Macdonald, I.E., severely injured. The two worst cases are those of Rogers and Smith, but the others were on inquiry on Tuesday proceeding satisfactorily. Many of the men who escaped injuries had their clothes torn, and Sergeant Adams, besides having his clothes partially destroyed, is slightly scorched about tie face.
As soon as possible after the accident Colonel Harnes, C.B., director of the Royal Engineer establishment, directed a board of officers to assemble at Brompton to investigate the cause of the explosion. The officers charged with this duty were Major J. W. Livell, C.B., president; Captain H. Schaw, and Captain W. J. Stuart, of the Royal Engineers. The members of the board of inquiry were occupied until late on Monday afternoon in the examination of the sergeant-instructor and the other non-commissioned officers and men who were in the factory at the time of the accident, in order to enable an official report of the occurrence to be forwarded to the Duke of Cambridge. From what was stated to the Court there seems little doubt that the explosion is to be wholly attributed to the incautious manner with which Smith, one of the men most injured, performed the process of ramming. Owing to the north gun shed being removed from the main buildings the barracks, no injury to the barracks occurred from the explosion.
The unfortunate occurrence caused the suspension of all work in the laboratory at the north gun-shed, where the explosion took place, and, from the utter ruin in which the interior of the factory was found after the accident, it will be some time before work of any kind can be resumed in that building by no means suited for the description of the work carried on within it, and which, as its name implies, was never intended to be used as a laboratory for the manufacture of dangerous missiles. The only protection afforded the inmates on the side of the shed is row of paling carried up to the roof, communicating with the outside, to which the public have access, and where the operations of the persons employed can be witnessed by any persons from the exterior. Now that fatal accident has occurred the authorities seem to be aware of the highly improper locality of the laboratory for a large establishment like that of the Royal Engineers at Chatham, and on Tuesday morning Colonel Harness, C.B., after paying a visit to the factory and inspecting the damage caused by the accident, gave positive orders that no portion of the north gun-shed should ever again be used laboratory, and the same time directed that the works should be suspended until a suitable building, in which the dangerous occupations could be carried on, was provided. Two large ranges of buildings are now in course of erection at the Engineer establishment for the requirements of the officers and men, and it is probable that a portion of one of these will be ultimately used for the purpose.
The above account of the accident conveys but a very imperfect description of the nature of the explosion, and, considering the force with which the heaps of hand-grenades and fuses exploded, it was little short of a miracle that there was not a large loss life. At the time of the explosion there were about fifty shells, of various sizes, on the floor of the laboratory, some them being as large as 10- inch; these, fortunately, were not charged, or the result of their explosion would have been most appalling. There were also several hundred hand-grenades and fuses, some charged, and others waiting for that operation to be performed on them. These were scattered about, and it was owing to this fortunate circumstance that the violence of the explosion was much less than it otherwise would have been. So great, however, was the force of the explosion, that nearly every hut in the range of buildings forming the hut-barracks, a short distance from the Engineer establishment was shaken to the foundation, the inmates of most of them rushing out to ascertain the cause. A number of troops of the line were being exercised very near to the north gun-shed at the moment of the accident, and these observing the sides of the shed blown out, threw down their arms and ran away, under the impression that the entire building would blow up. The whole of one side of the laboratory was blown clean away, and through this opening were hurled a sergeant and two sappers into a coal-yard below. After the explosion the laboratory was discovered to be on fire in two or three places, but the engines being soon on the spot, the flames were extinguished. During the whole of Tuesday a body of sappers were engaged in clearing out the interior of the factory and removing the fragments of hand-grenades, fuses, and also the shells there at the time.
The sufferers by the accident, of whom there were seven lying at the Royal Engineer Hospital, are all proceeding favourably, notwithstanding that some are suffering very severely. Those most hurt are Sappers Rogers and Smith, both of them Indian Engineers. Rogers is so much burnt that scarcely a feature can be distinguished, he is also believed to have lost the sight of one if not both his eyes. His is the only case likely to prove fatal. Smith, through whose carelessness the accident is known to have occurred, is much scorched blackened about the face, head, and body, and suffering severely. The others are all progressing towards recovery.
The board of officers, under the presidency of Major Lovell, R.E, ordered to investigate the cause of the accident, concluded their inquiry on Monday night, and a report has since been forwarded to the Duke of Cambridge.”
Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 02 July 1861
The commodious messroom recently erected by the Government at Brompton Barracks, Chatham, for the officers of the Royal and Indian Engineers was opened on Wednesday evening, on which occasion the officers gave a ball on a scale of great magnificence, the heads of the various departments and several hundred visitors belonging to the neighbourhood being present on the occasion.”
Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 06 August 1861
INSPECTION OF THE ROYAL ENGINEERS. — At an early hour on Tuesday morning his Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge had the whole of the officers and men of the Royal Engineers assembled on their parade ground in Brompton Barrack-square, where, soon after eight o’clock General Sir J. .Burgoyne, G.C.B., Inspector-General of fortifications, and several other general officers, arrived. Then commenced an inspection of the corps, which included the various amalgamated companies of Royal and Indian Engineers now at head-quarters, the Engineers marching past in slow and quick time, and executing a few other manoeuvres. The inspecting officers next proceeded to the fieldworks, between Brompton Barracks and the river Medway, where the Royal and Indian Engineers are instructed in throwing up earthworks, excavating trenches and saps, and forming bridges. Here his Royal Highness spent nearly two hours in the examination of the various works on which the Engineers have been employed in the course of the summer. During his inspection his Royal Highness and the other distinguished officers examined with much interest an invention by Major Lovell, Royal Engineers, by which any number of men may be employed sapping close up to the enemy’s lines without the slightest fear of being exposed to a hostile fire. His Royal Highness then proceeded to witness some experiments with four different descriptions of pontoons, in order to ascertain which was the best adapted for use in the service. The pontoons were moored in St. Mary’s Creek, and a bridge formed, extending nearly across that arm of the Medway. The pontoons tested were the ordinary barrel pontoons; those known as General Blanshard’s, which are now used in the service; a pontoon invented by the late General Sir Charles Pasley; and a most valuable invention by Capt. F. Fowke, Royal Engineers. In order to ascertain the maximum weight each description of pontoon would sustain, a 16-pounder field-piece, with carriage complete, weighing about 42cwt., was wheeled backward and forward across the raft by about 50 men, whoso additional weight was, of course, thrown on the bridge. The ordinary Blanshard pontoons, which were moved 8 feet 4 inches apart, bore the strain well, the “dip” in the water being very trifling. On the weight being thrown on the Pasley pontoons, however, they almost entirely submerged. These pontoons were placed at intervals of 12 feet 6 inches. Captain Fowke’s pontoons are made of light kind of canvass, of great strength, and waterproof. When a pontoon is use it is stretched to the required form, and assumes the appearance of a small barge. The sustaining power of these pontoons, however, is very considerable, and this was fully evinced in the trials on Tuesday. Although 10 feet apart, they bore the strain thrown upon them without any apparent yielding. There is little doubt that in a short time this pontoon will supersede all others now in use, possessing, as it does, among other superior advantages, that of great portability. His Royal Highness, after leaving the pontoon-hard, proceeded to another portion of tho fieldworks to witness some subaqueous explosions and also the destruction of a fourgun battery, built according to the principles laid down by Sir John Burgoyne. The submarine explosion in St. Mary’s Creek was undertaken to show the ease with which piles, barriers, or any other obstruction in rivers or harbours might be removed, the charges of powder, sunk to the required depth, being ignited by means of the voltaic battery. Although the quantity of powder ignited was by no means large the force expended was very greet, the water, the instant the powder was fired, being forced up to a height of fully 100 feet in a fine spiral column. The 4-gun battery destroyed had been several weeks in hand by the Royal Engineers. It consisted of an elevated and half-sunken portion, beneath which galleries were driven for depositing the powder. The weight of gunpowder required to destroy this mass of earthwork was 580lb., deposited in three charges of 100lb, each, and two of 140lb. each. The instant the powder was ignited — which in this instance was accomplished with Col. Oude’s fuse, as well as the voltaic pile — the entire battery crumbled into dust, and was tossed to a great height into the air, which was for an instant darkened. The Duke left the garrison shortly before one o’clock.”