The word Barrack was probably taken originally from the French word ‘baraque’ meaning booth or hut.  However, there are some who would argue that the Spanish ‘barercoon’ meaning slave pen is perhaps the more likely derivation.

Before the construction of the Barracks at Devonport, men who are waiting for, or who had recently paid off ships were accommodated in hulks where, in theory, they could continue with gunnery and rigging drills.  However, in many hulks the rigging was so rotten that drill on it was impracticable, and the guns so obsolete that their use for training was of little value, even if instructors could be found who knew the appropriate drill; for there were in 1890 some ninety different types of gun in the Service, all requiring different ammunition.

The increasing use of machinery and complicated equipment decreased the training value of the hulks, whilst the advantages of accommodating men ashore became more apparent. Eventually accommodation ashore became Admiralty policy, although the decision to adopt this policy was by no means unanimous.

The architect of the West Country barracks was probably Sir John Jackson. The site chosen consisted of fields and market gardens at the head of Keyham Creek.  An early photograph shows the barracks lying in open country.  The small building in the foreground was an inn and patrons could come and go by boat at high water.

The barracks were first occupied on June 4th, 1889, and consisted of two blocks on the present Hawkins/Boscawen site, Administration Block and part of Howard Block. The Drill Shed and the Commodore’s House had also been completed by that time.

A Wardroom Ball given in January 1891 is of interest.  It was given in honour of the C in C, Admiral HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh and the Duchess of Edinburgh.  About 1200 guests arrived despite terrible weather, and consumed 48 dozen bottles of champagne, 45 dozen bottles of spirits, 250 dozen bottles of soda water, 24 dozen bottles of ginger ale and 6800 oysters. All the rooms in A Block were used and one guest was found still there at 11am the next day.  It was considered that the whole thing had been very well done by, the Army and Navy Stores at a cost of  7s 3d per head.

As more buildings were constructed and some alterations were carried out a contemporary comment has a familiar sound: ‘Most of the buildings commenced at the proper time, but the work was most dilatory and unsatisfactory as regards the time the contractor took about it’.

A press report of May 1892 states: ‘At the recent inspection of the Keyham Naval Barracks by the Commander-in-Chief, upwards of 2500 men were assembled belonging to the Fleet and Dockyard Reserves at Devonport. Notwithstanding this fact, officers serving in the Reserves complain of the great difficulty they invariably experience in obtaining working parties. At Keyham Barracks, large parties are engaged in gardening and improving the grounds of that establishment, and from this and other causes there is always a scarcity of men for working parties.’

The following month the Barracks were inspected by the Lords of the Admiralty, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir A Hoskins, declared that ‘he had never seen such a wicked waste of public money as the Barracks had cost.’

A note in the Barracks’ diary for July 2nd reads: ‘Carried the hay, a very sweet crop, made and thatched the rick under the trees by the Blacksmith’s shop.’ Perhaps it was the result of these excursions which caused reports in the ‘Western Morning News’ that ‘considerable dissatisfaction is felt among the Petty Officers and men in connection with the management of the Canteen’. They complained of the quality and the price of the beer.

The Barracks did, however, achieve some remarkable feats of efficiency, for example, on Monday February 20th, 1893 the ACHILLES, in Fleet Reserve, with ‘topmasts housed, running gear unrove, sails unbent and boats in store’, was ordered to proceed to Portsmouth .to embark a new crew for the VICTORIA.  The VICTORIA was sunk in collision with the CAMPERDOWN during manoeuvres off Tripoli (now in Lebanon) on June 22nd, 1893.  Sir George Tryon and many officers and men were lost.  ACHILLES had the task of transporting the crew to the Mediterranean.  A party of 200 men was sent to her at 8.30am to prepare her for sea.  She took in 50 days’ provisions for 700 men on the Tuesday, went into the Sound on the Wednesday morning, got in shot, shell and powder and sailed at 6.15pm for Portsmouth with a navigating crew from the Barracks. The ACHILLES entered Portsmouth harbour at 2 pm on Thursday, and the navigating party, with their bags, hammocks and mesa traps, were at once transferred to a special train and ‘slept in their own hammocks in the Barracks the same night’.

In 1894 a loft was installed in the Barracks for sixty homing pigeons, and training of the birds started.  Fifty-two Naval pigeons were drafted.  The course was described in the local press as being strict: first from the end of the pier, then from boats in the harbour, and then from torpedo boats running into the Channel.  Similar arrangements were adopted by the French and other navies; but reliability was not very high and many pigeons were lost in fog and bad weather.

The Clock Tower was finished on 20th August 1896, the Clock itself having been made by Gillet and Johnston of Croydon, with four faces and a large bell for striking the hours.  The Clock is driven by weights which run right through the tower to a considerable depth below ground.  The weights require resetting weekly.  1897 saw ‘electrical communication’ established between the Barracks and Mount Wise, replacing in due course the semaphore arms which had been fitted to the top of the Clock Tower.  On January 18th 1897, a coffee canteen was opened in the skittle alley fulfilling a much felt need.

In 1898 the Canteen Committee had a ‘moveable sitting gallery’ built for themselves, at a cost of a hundred and eighteen pounds, to go in the Drill Shed, which was then the only place of entertainment.  The gallery held nine hundred men, and they attended a series of variety shows, lectures, such as ‘The British and the Boers in South Africa’, and some very early movies called ‘Animated Photographs’.  Miss Agnes Weston gave four lectures - for which she made no charge.

The swimming bath was opened in 1905 to permit swimming instruction all the year round, large numbers of the men being unable to swim in those days.

A major extension to the Barracks was also begun in 1898, and was planned to accommodate a further 1000 men.  A new Wardroom was part of this project; work began on lot March and was completed 4 years later when a start was made on the furnishing.  The furnishing of the Centre Block, comprising all the public rooms, was done by Messrs Hampton & Co, much of the furniture being specially made to order under contract, for which Hampton’s offered the lowest tender.  The North and South Cabin Blocks were furnished with Dockyard furniture.

The Wardroom was first occupied on January 29th, 1903, and a Ball to celebrate the opening was held on January 23rd. The following is a contemporary account of the occasion:


A Brilliant Scene

To celebrate the opening of the new Officers’ Quarters at the Royal Naval Barracks, Devonport, Captain H S F Niblett and the 28 Officers resident in the old quarters gave a ball on Friday, for which over 600 invitations were issued. More then ten years have elapsed since a ball attracting so large a gathering was given at the Barracks, and never before in the history of the depot has there been witnessed so brilliant a scene.

The buildings, whose completion the ball was intended to commemorate, formed part of the scheme for the extension of the barracks commenced as long ago as 1897, the Diamond Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria. The block is situated on the South, or Johnston Terrace end, of the old building, and the cost of the erection was £80,000, to which must be added about £20,000 for the furnishings, so that the new quarters, when completed and ready for occupation, represent an expenditure of £100,000.  New Depots are being built at Portsmouth and at one or two other ports, but Devonport takes the lead for the present, and the block opened yesterday is, probably, the most magnificent building yet erected for Naval purposes.  It is one of limestone with Portland stone dressings, and surrounding it is a noble dome which is the most striking feature in the series of buildings.  The decorations of the interior are exquisite. Nearly all the woodwork, including the furniture, is of oak, so that while there is evidence of outside treatment everywhere, the whole building has the appearance of being substantial and of lasting character. The capacious entrance hall, dining hall, billiard room and library are especially attractive.  In each of these four rooms are four ponderous pillars of polished Torquay marble and alabaster, and in the dining room are also some very effective frescoes. A feature of this commendable room is a music gallery at one end.  The arrangement is excellent and the effect of the gallery in the general scheme of decorations is pleasing, and would probably be even more so if the front were of oak instead of pitchpine.  In this room there is messing accommodation for at least 200. In addition to the rooms already mentioned there is a smoking room, a breakfast room, one large and several small tea rooms, bathrooms, servants’ quarters, and a splendidly appointed kitchen.  In the quarters now occupied by the officers there is accommodation for 34 only, while 106 can be accommodated in the new building, allowing a separate room for each officer When the transfer takes place a large number of officers now borne on the books of the VIVID [1] , but living outside the Barracks, will reside permanently at the depot, and the old officers’ quarters will, from 7 February approx, be occupied by 60 Sub-Lieutenants who will be sent from Portsmouth to undergo a period of torpedo instruction on the DREADNOUGHT tender attached to the Torpedo School DEFIANCE."

Barracks Sick Quarters were ready for the accommodation of 40 patients early in 1902 and greatly relieved the demand on the Royal Naval Hospital, Stonehouse.

The Western Morning News records a visit to the Barracks on 8th March, 1902, by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.  Much painting had been done and a railway platform constructed.  The Royal couple were driven to the parade ground in a carriage and four, and at a parade of 3650 officers and men, the King presented 280 China and 60 South Africa medals.  There were also on parade 150 Engineering students of the Engineering College, and His Majesty, in a short address to them, said ‘Engineering is a very important branch of the Service and very much more important than several years ago. The duties are very onerous and require the greatest attention in these days.’

During the summer of 1902, C Room of C Block, now Raleigh Block, had been fitted out as a church room, but 3 years later the foundation stone of a new church was laid by the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral of the Fleet Sir A E Seymour, GCB, OM, LLD, RN.

The church was dedicated in the name of St Nicholas, by the Bishop of Exeter on 18th February, 1907 (St Nicholas is the patron saint of Sailors because according to the legend he calmed a storm at sea on his voyage to the Holy Land). A three manual organ was installed later and was dedicated on August 18th, 1907.

Amongst many interesting remembrances to be found in the church is a silver replica of Drake’s Drum, presented in 1904 by the men of Devon to HMS DEVONSHIRE. The drum passed to successive ships of the same name until during the 1930s the last DEVONSHIRE had a run of misfortune and several accidents involving deaths and injuries, all of which were blamed by the ship’s company on the drum. They thought that the drum brought bad luck and that Drake’s spirit resented it.  Eventually a new Captain wrote to the Commodore and asked if the drum might be landed for safe keeping, until a less superstitious crew manned the ship.  However, superstition in the Navy dies hard and the drum has remained ashore since it was landed in 1936.

The Cricket Pavilion was completed in 1905, and, although only a lightly constructed building, has survived in its original setting of tennis courts and cricket fields. 1906 saw the completion of the Gymnasium, Squash courts, No 1 Battery and the Commodore’s stables. Later in the year a committee descended on the Barracks to examine ‘organisation’.  It is recorded that ‘they had no great fault to find with the organisation or good order of the Barracks’ which was still growing fast.

On 30th October, 1907, the old gunnery hulk, CAMBRIDGE, launched in 1857 as the WINDSOR CASTLE, was towed up the Hamoaze to her new berth in No 5 Basin close to the Barracks. The transfer of the personnel of the Gunnery Establishment from the CAMBRIDGE and CALCUTTA to the RN Barracks took place on Monday November 4th, and the cruiser THESEUS and the tenders CUCKOO, SNAP and BADGER became tenders to HMS VIVID for service with the gunnery school.  Gunnery instruction was resumed using the guns of the CAMBRIDGE hulk, the newly completed lecture rooms in the Barracks, and the tenders.

In 1907 the main gate guard house, extensions to the Drill Shed, and the tramway were completed.

Before the first World War partial mobilisation of the Fleet was carried out once a year, usually in July.  Mobilisation in 1914 passed off exceptionally well, and on 15th July, 3,400 Reservists passed through the Barracks and embarked in their ships in 21 hours.

[1] VIVID was the ship name of the Barracks at that time and derived from the Commander-in-Chief’s yacht HMS VIVID.

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