Attending a recent event at the excellent Ware Drill Hall, I thought back to the early 1960’s when, serving in the Territorial Army, I attended a number of drill halls, when they were quite different places altogether.
Putting the question I was a little surpised that, amongst our group, nobody really knew why “drill hall” and what sort of drill they were intended for.
The story really goes back to some 45 years after the defeat of Napoleon. Although an ‘ally’ of Great Britain, due to the ambitions of Napoleon 111 in Europe, Africa, Asia and Mexico, there was enough unease in Great Britain to necessitate in 1860, a Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdsom, which resulted in the building of coastal forts throughout the land earning the nickname ‘Palmerston’s Follies’. Earlier something of an arms race had begun with the the launching of the technically advanced ironclad, HMS Warrior, in answer to the perceived ‘threat’ of ‘La Gloire’ in 1859.
However this concern was removed by the humiliating defeat of France by the Prussians in 1870. Quite soon, though, the earlier threat of French ambition was to be replaced by concern regarding the growing strength of the emerging German nation.
The late 19th century saw a concerted effort by the authorities to create a reserve of men with military training along the lines of the regular army. Whereas previously the militia in the form of yeomany was the preserve of the landed gentry, volunteer service was opened up to the general population in 1859, which proved to be a popular move, with 120,000 men having signed up by the end of 1860. Standards were set by the 1863 Volunteer Act and later the Cardwell Act of the 1880’s aligned the units as Volunteer Battalions of the County Regiments. Later, in 1908, the Haldane Act disbanded the Volunteers and set up the Territorial Force which was funded by County Territorial Associations.
Ware Drill Hall was a relative latecomer to the scene, being built in 1899 at a cost of £5,250 on the site of 27 cottages purchased by Mr. ES Hanbury. This formerly comprised Dickinson’s Yard and part of Cherry Tree Yard. The Drill Hall was occupied by D Company, Hertfordshire Volunteer Battalion for purposes of drill and training, prior to going to South Africa.
Looking around the refurbished Ware Drill Hall, which became a listed building in 2006, it is easy to imagine it as purpose built for modern day use as a highly valued and loved centre for community activity.
My experience of drill halls in the 1960’s Cold War years was very different. In those days, dependant upon size, typically there would have been a large area – not surprisingly – for drill, and the hall would have echoed to the crash of boots in unision and the scream of an n.c.o.giving instruction. There may also have been a class gathered around a stripped down Bren Gun, familiarising platoons with its various components.
Also to be found would be the CO’s office and Company Commanders’ offices, together with a Lecture Room, a Quartermaster’s store and an Armoury. Where space permitted there would be an indoor Rifle Range, to maintain high standards of accuracy, without which territorials could not expect to receive an annual ‘bounty’. Some buildings were actually able to accommodate a rifle range withing their roof space.
Since the chilling years of the Cold War, most drill halls seem to have gradually disappeared through re-development. It is good, though, to see that of the town of Ware surviving in an altogether different role.