Weymouth’s Tommy Atkins and Jolly Jacks.

Something that many of the younger generation might not realise but Weymouth has a long and fascinating history with the army and navy.

troops in front of Gloucester lodge

Even during my own lifetime I can recall a certain ‘liveliness’ when  hundreds of sailors would take their shore leave, hoards of men streaming along the esplanade heading for town, all eager to make the most of their free time in one way or another.

At the time I worked for Next which had a mens wear department upstairs, come  Saturday afternoon it would be absolutely heaving, Jolly Jack Tar having come on shore would be booting and suiting themselves ready for the weekends revelries.

Not to be left out the squaddies would arrive on scene, frequently in the area for training exercises…something which certainly led to somewhat  interesting evenings out on the tiles, (the two fiercely opposing fractions seemingly taking every opportunity to size one another up!)

During the Victorian era a constant military presence was kept in the town, the serving soldiers and their families were billeted up at the Red Barracks or later, in the newly built Nothe fort itself.

royal engineers outside building

Our own Thomas Hardy sets the scene in one of  his novels,  ‘The Return of the Native,’ “Now Budmouth (Weymouth) is a wonderful place-wonderful-a great salt sheening sea bending into the land like a bow…bands of music playing-officers by seas and officers by land walking among the rest-out of every ten folk you meet, nine of ‘em in love.”

If you have ever watched the excellent ‘Far from the Madding Crowd,’ especially the scene shot along Weymouth’s esplanade and beach, you could hardly fail to spot the flashes of scarlet uniform in amongst the perambulating throngs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2lBeea7-sA#t=89

Down below the lofty Nothe headland sits Portland Roads (or harbour,) which was the base for many a visiting naval vessel, their crew coming ashore in their hundreds to enjoy the great delights of the traditional seaside resort and no doubt the pretty females within.

In April 1882 the Channel Fleet had arrived, “On monday, a large number of sailors from the fleet, now lying in Portland Roads, were allowed four days leave of absence. Many have availed themselves of the advantages of that excellent institution, the Sailors Home, whilst others have gone to various places to visit their friends and relatives.”

Channel fleet 1882

That was life in Victorian Weymouth, a bustling scene with residents, visitors, soldiers and sailors rubbing along together.

Of course, in a  town where servicemen were present in great numbers, it was certainly never going to be dull. Despite the growing Temperance movement, the tales of their liking for a drop or two of grog, the joy of a female hanging on their arm, or  the need to fight one and all filled the columns of the local papers.

These visiting protectors of our sea and shore caused  mixed feelings in the local population, it was they who had to witness their constant arrivals and departures by sea or rail, they who sometimes had to endure their anti-social antics while the men were stationed here.

For a few unlucky residents, even the military barracks themselves were capable of reeking havoc in their lives.

In 1852 the Red Barracks were hinted at as the cause for some poor residents on the Nothe losing their home.“In the barrack-yard at Weymouth where 200 soldiers are stationed, there is a magazine containing 6,000 pounds of gunpowder, unprotected, save by a single door, from the effects of ligtening. A house within 300 yards of it was fearfully shattered during the late storms.”

Or maybe that was just a bit of sensational, far-fetched reporting by a very bored reporter with a vivid imagination? No mention was made at all of the gunpowder store room having blowing up!

The men based in the barracks played a big role in the town, frequently called upon to assist when help was urgently needed, such was the case in 1865 when disaster struck. (An extract from my forthcoming book about the lives of the people on the Nothe.)


“The Engineers did more than just drinking and womanizing, they were frequently called upon for one reason or another to assist the locals whenever trouble arose in the area. At the end of March they were summonsed into action. A major fire had broken out on the outskirts of Weymouth, in a hamlet of houses bordering the old steep Ridgeway road that once run straight up over the Ridgeway. It started in the thatched cottage of old Mr and Mrs Humphries. As was usual, that morning the dutiful housewife had lit a fire under the old boiler in the outhouse, ready to do her weekly washing, but unbeknown to her the flue from the boiler was defective. A stray spark ignited a fire in their roof thatch, which smoldered unseen for a while, but then swiftly took hold. Before long their whole roof was well and truly ablaze. Unfortunately, the weather that day happened to be extremely blustery and fanned by the strong winds the fire spread rapidly up through the row of cottages, sparks and flames leaping from one thatched roof to another. Once news of the disaster reached the Nothe, a detachment of sappers under the command of Captain Smith were rushed to the scene with their fire engine and hoses to help. By now people had arrived from all over the district, everyone frantically trying to quell the raging inferno that was sweeping its way up through the little hamlet, destroying everything in its path. Lack of nearby water was a huge problem, so a human chain was formed down to the Royal Inn on the main road , buckets of water were passed up the hill from hand to hand. One thatched cottage after another fell victim to the inferno. The villagers, soldiers and helpers were pulling together, doing what they could, dashing into the smoldering and smoking dwellings to pull out any personal possessions and furnishings they could before they burst into flames.

fire q 1892

            After hours of hot and dangerous toil the raging fires were finally brought under control, but very little was left of the hamlet bar what remained of the smoldering cob walls and a few charred beams. Unfortunately the tinder dry state of the old thatched dwellings, the fickle fate of nature providing a strong wind that day, and a lack of water nearby had defeated everyone. Even the local pub, the Ship Inn run by James Bushrod, didn’t manage to escape the full fury of the fire. That too had gone up in a blaze of glory. Despite the fact the Engineers, resplendent in their fireman uniforms and armed with the latest fire pump, had arrived fairly promptly, there was very little they could do. By the end of that disastrous day 11 of the cottages in the hamlet were totally destroyed, despite the valiant efforts of everyone.

  A little footnote to this story reveals that even during the Victorian era, some people were quick to take advantage of such disastrous situations. Not everyone in the huge crowds that gathered at the scene of the fire was there to help, or rather, they were, but ‘help’ themselves. A certain amount of looting of personal possessions had taken place amidst the chaos. One nimble fingered chap was spotted by an eagle-eyed observer attempting to sneakily lift an old lady’s watch that had been placed outside her burning home along with her pitifully few worldly possessions. The cry of ‘thief’ brought him to the attention of one of the local bobbies attending the incident and he found himself being collared by the strong arm of the law. The same policemen who were on site to control the crowds that had gathered were having very little success in controlling the drunkenness. The beers and spirits that had been so bravely rescued from the burning inn were finding their way down the throats of the thirsty spectators.”

In February of 1876, one  military departure from Weymouth  left more than just  the obligatory broken hearted females  stood wailing on the quayside waving their sodden lace hankies as their beau’s sailed off into the sunset, a terrible tragedy struck on board as the packed troopship sailed out of the harbour heading for postings anew.

“The troopship Assistance, which arrived in Kingstown yesterday with detatchments of artillery and infantry, had also on board two dead bodies, those of children named Sarah Gerkey and Arthur W Lazenby, who were killed by the snapping of the chain cable as the vessel was leaving Weymouth;two soldiers and two stokers, besides two women, were also seriously injured by the accident.”

Rather surprisingly, life in tranquil Weymouth also contained many hidden dangers for the resident Tommy Atkins or Jack Tar, from accidental drownings to theft by nimble fingered ladies of the night, many tales of which are covered in my book about life for the soldiers and their families on the Nothe.

1891 saw Weymouth and its unsuspecting residents come under a fierce attack, when a simple fight that had started out in town between a few locals and a group of drunken solders turned into full blown, running amock, sabre swishing, blood-curdling charge that no amount of bugle blowing could bring under control.

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, the military and naval bands were frequently called into action to play in the New (Alexander) gardens and out on the Pleasure pier, where residents and visitors alike would would sit back and enjoy the rousing tunes or dance to the  harmonious melodies.


1899 cyclist_2

Those serving men who were destined to spend longer based in the town frequently took part in many of the local activities, societies and clubs, such as the popular Weymouth Bicycle Club or the local Rowing Club.

Life in Weymouth certainly wasn’t dull for my ancestors!

sailors on cabin_2

A website full of interesting old photographs of Weymouth and the surrounding area, many showing soldiers and sailors taking part in Weymouth life.



1870; The Queens Own Regiment of Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry week at Weymouth.

Weymouth down through it’s past history has quite a link with the military.

In the late 1700’s The famous Red Barracks that sits up on the Nothe, its Georgian built accommodation blocks towering above the quayside cottages below, were built, first to house the cavalry troops, but then later converted to house infantry troops.


The Nothe fort that was constructed in the mid Victorian era was to become  the home of the Coastal Artillery, built to protect our shores in response to a threat of invasion by Napoleon and France.


Not only did we have the static soldiers that were based here, but Weymouth also became a favoured destination for those voluntary troops, such as the Militia, Rifle Volunteers, and of course the glamorous dashing young men on horseback, the yeomen, or to give them their full title, The Queens Own Regiment of Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry.

So important were their yearly visits to the town viewed by the council and traders that they went all out to make it  a special occasion. A fund would be started by a designated committee, this would have been used to provide entertainment for the mounted troops and their officers that arrived in the town. There was good logic behind this, for with the men came the crowds, rich and poor, poured into the area to watch the weeks spectacular fun and entertainments, it ultimately became viewed as the start of the season for Weymouth..

Each year, the papers would fill columns with the news of the weeks camp and entertainments.

What follows is a report from the year 1870;

On a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in May the men of the Dorset Yeomanry started to gather at Corfe Hill, about 2 1/2 miles from Weymouth town,(not totally sure where this was, as Corfe and Corfe Mullen is far further away). This was to be their designated meeting point, the volunteer mounted soldiers and their steeds would travel from all over the county, excitement mounting, they had an action packed 8 days before them in Weymouth to look forwards to.

As was usual on these auspicious occasions large crowds of locals had started to gather, many making their way up to Corfe Hill to watch the men and their steeds as they arrived, and to make that journey down into the town with the procession.

Down in Weymouth more local military men were gathering to greet the arrivals. The Rifle Corps complete with their drum and fife band under the command of Captain Thresher and Lieutenant Tizard were mustered at the Kings statue. Joining them were the men of  the Portland Artillery, Captain Brown keeping a strict eye over them with the help of his 2 trusty lieutenants, Eliot and Andrews.

That year Lord Digby was ‘indisposed’ so taking command of the men was Lord Richard Grosvenor, the Lieutenant Colonel.

At 5 0’clock orders were given to “form fours”, the men finally were on their way. Leading the Yeomanry was a team of grey horses, each one carrying a member of the brass band, the mounted procession started to make their slow paced journey down into the town.

The nearer to Weymouth they got, the thicker the welcoming crowds became.

When they reached Lodmoor Hill, here they met the men of the rifles and artillery and the customary compliment of presenting  arms took place, then with the Yeomen leading the way, and the rifles and artillery bringing up the rear  the whole force moved along down the hill heading for the Kings statue. Once they arrived at their destination the lengthy human and equine procession reached from the Statue back to the Belvidere.

The men were ordered to “return swords and break away.” That was their signal that they were free to find their accommodation at last and settle in for the  week.

354 men were here to enjoy themselves (as well as train of course) and they wasted no time in finding amusements for the evening.

The Esplanade was heaving, packed with locals, visitors, soldiers and visiting sailors, many headed towards the Royal hotel where the Yeomanry band was playing under the baton of Mr Eyres.

Sunday was started with church parade for the soldiers, a march on foot led them to the door of St Mary’s where they listened to a rousing sermon by Rev T A Greaves, the local vicar, who took the opportunity to appeal for generous donations towards the Dispensary in town.

After lunch the band was called into action again, this time in the New (Alexander) gardens, the Mayor had generously opened the gardens to one and all…and one and all arrived! They were packed, people were stood outside and on the esplanade and sands listening to the rousing performance.

The Monday saw the start of the working week for the men. Once they had gathered at the Kings statue, they were led by the band towards Lodmoor, here they would learn to perform the drills and routines that would turn them into fighting soldiers.

cassels 1904 yeomanry 2

When they had finished the military exercises, the men were all presented with their brand new weapons, a Westley Richards breech-loading Enfield rifle carbine, state of the art hardware compared to what they had previously been using.

Tuesday morning was more of the same, practise practise, practise, men and horses working as one thundered across the turf as they learnt the necessary skills that would  make the foe quake before their charging lines and keep them alive in battle. The afternoons entertainment was thundering hoofs of a different variety. Everyone moved to the flat sands on the beach where horse racing was the order of the day. Lords and ladies, chimney sweeps and strumpets lined the promenade, betting took place, money to be earnt here!…pounds or pence, it didn’t matter, it was the thrill of the chase!

Once again the men went through their complex routines on the fields at Lodmoor on the Wednesday and Thursday morning. The afternoon and evenings were kept free for the fun that the council laid on…aquatic sports around the harbourside, races on the beach, music in the gardens, soirees and afternoon teas, many a pub to visit, many a wench to woo, the men of the Cavalry troop fitted as much in as they possible could, after all this was their week of freedom and excitement, the annual escape from the every day worries and toil of life.

All too soon it was Friday…the big day!

The grand Review.

Lodmoor was packed, the surrounding slopes filled with carriages of the rich and the gentry, all jostling to stake the best view of what was to come. All walks of life were here, admiring females, wily pickpockets, farm labourers and washerwomen, what they were about to witness was as exciting as it got without actually being on the battlefield itself.

For an hour and a half the dashing men and their gleaming steeds formed columns, wheeled left and right, a form of equine poetry as man and beast walked, trotted, cantered and galloped in tight formation….culminating in a blood curdling charge…full out speed, swords extended, mens faces yelling murder, horses hoofs thundering as they swept past the  excited crowds…a sight to behold, who wouldn’t quiver before that!

charging 1

The last night was the annual officers Ball held at the Assembly Rooms in the Royal hotel. for the ordinary rank and file it meant another evening enjoying the delights of the town, mixing with the many pretty (and not so pretty) ladies who’d ventured in hoping to meet a dashing soldier. The local Inn keepers slapped them on the back and welcomed them in to their hostelries, hoping that the star struck followers would follow.

woman sat at ball

Another successful year for the men and their officers, and a right good start to the season in Weymouth.

Saturday morning and the mounted men said farewell to their friends and colleagues new and old, riding for home with grand stories to tell (or not !) of their weeks escapades in Weymouth town.


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