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Major William Clarke
Saturday, February 11, 2012
In the first of a three-part series, Major William Clarke traces the barracks’ early history
The departure of the King’s Troop from St John’s Wood Barracks on February 6 will bring to an end more than 200 years of almost continuous occupation by military units, in particular those of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.
The history of the last battery station of the Royal Horse Artillery stretches from occupation by the Corps of Gunner Drivers in 1804 until the arrival of V Battery Royal Horse Artillery in 1900.
The first occupants of what was then St John’s Wood Farm were the Corps of Gunner Drivers in 1804.
The farm was a simple Board of Ordnance hiring, used only for the purpose of quartering and stabling the drivers and their horses.
In those far-off days, London was a distant metropolis – smoke filled and congested, it barely reached what is now Marylebone Road.
The boroughs of St Marylebone and St Pancras consisted of large dairy farms leased by tenants from a variety of landowners, among them the Eyres, who owned St John’s Wood.
The villages of Hampstead and Highgate were mere specks on the horizon at this time.
By 1810, the Board of Ordnance proposed to base the whole brigade at the farm, and to this end, they secured the lease of a piece of land just north of the farmyard, the present-day barrack site.
On this site the board built a long, two-storey barrack block, running north to south in a line roughly parallel with the present-day Ordnance Hill, designated “New Artillery Barracks” and completed in 1812.
During the rundown of the Army following the Battle of Waterloo, the brigade at St John’s Wood was ordered to Woolwich and not replaced. The barracks stood empty for the next three years.
After much deliberation, the vacant site at St John’s Wood was chosen to become the new home of the Cavalry Riding Establishment and so the Treasury granted approval for the construction of a new riding school there.
The school was designed by the Royal Engineers and is now one of the oldest buildings in St John’s Wood.
In 1835, the Cavalry Riding Establishment was moved to Maidstone and the Wood stood empty once more.
Yet again, a reorganisation of household troops was to bring new occupants to the Wood.
On this occasion it was the Guards recruits depot which stayed for little more than a year.
For the next two decades various detachments of Foot Guards and sometimes infantry of the line were in residence.
By 1870, the Guards had departed and the Wood became the temporary home to the various regiments of the Household Cavalry while Knightsbridge Barracks was rebuilt.
In early 1880, Knightsbridge Barracks was ready for reoccupation and on May 5 the 1st Life Guards left the Wood.
Six weeks later, on June 24, A Battery A Brigade Royal Horse Artillery arrived from Aldershot.
With only a few interruptions, successive Royal Horse Artillery batteries were stationed at the Wood over the next 20 years, culminating with V Battery at the turn of the century.
Although not charged with sole responsibility for state ceremonial, they were all very much involved with the firing of royal salutes, competing in the annual driving competitions and, from 1895, performing the now famous musical drive at the Naval & Military Tournament at the Agricultural Hall, Islington.