Updated 13 Nov 2001
Submitted by Michael Cronin and posted here with his kind permission.
The following is a description of living conditions in British army barracks and is applicable to the period 1815-80. During this period the army stagnated, change, if any, came slowly. The only major war of the period was the Crimean war and the only good to come from that fiasco was the sanitation committee which was established in part because of agitation by Florence Nightingale. Throughout this period the army suffered from a major recruitment problem, in 1860 a royal commission was set up to investigate but they could find no reason a young man might not find the army an attractive career. This reminds me of that story about most football referees "he would make a great referee if only the white stick did not get in the way".
In 1830 the Irish made up 42% of the regular army, this had reduced to 25% by 1871.
The source for this material is:
Peter Burroughs, "Barrack Life", The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army, ed. David Chandler, (Oxford University Press, 1994).
The sections enclosed in quotation marks are extracted directly from the article, the rest is my summary.
Construction and maintenance of barrack buildings was the responsibility of the Ordnance until that department was disbanded in 1855. The size and construction of barracks varied greatly but they were generally arranged around a barrack square. What they all had in common was overcrowding. "……Often soldiers had to make do with 200-300 cubic feet of air per man, when 600 was considered the minimum in British prisons."
Conditions inside were squalid and unsanitary. "….frequently soldiers washed indoors, the overnight urine tub being used for this purpose, until the sanitary commission in 1857 advocated ablution rooms and baths." Sometimes the buildings were located close to open sewers which served to exacerbate the problem.
The diet had little variation, breakfast was 1lb of bread with coffee, a midday dinner consisted of ¾lb of boiled meat served with potatoes (in Britain) and any vegetables the men purchased with their own money. Facilities for roasting or frying were not introduced until the 1860s.
Basic pay was 1s. per day (slightly more for the cavalry), from this was deducted 6d. per day for rations, further stoppages were made for other living expenses so that after the deductions a soldier would be lucky if he got anything.
Marriage for the rank an file was discouraged, the reason given was lack of suitable facilities although the real reason was simply that senior officers did not want women around the regiment. A soldier could marry with the permission of his commanding officer in which case his wife and family were either ‘on the strength’ or not. Those ‘on’ were permitted to live in the communal barracks and received half rations, there was little privacy other than a blanket hung as a curtain. Married quarters were introduced from the 1850s but progress on construction was slow and most continued to live in barracks.
The official roll for wives was restricted to six per 100 infantrymen, those ‘off the strength’ received no acknowledgement or help from the army.
In the British army the construction and maintenance of barrack buildings was the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance which had a reputation of being slow to act especially if that action might improve conditions for the common soldier. Accommodation for the rank and file was overcrowded, unsanitary, and squalid (up to six wives per 100 infantrymen were also permitted to live in the barracks). Conditions were slightly improved by the sanitation committee which was established following the Crimean war but no significant changes took place until the barrack building programme of the 1890s.
In the 1830s county Cork was part of the Southern Military District. There were 16 military stations providing, in total, accommodation for 352 officers and 6799 men. Given the overcrowding problems it is likely these figures were significantly exceeded. The barracks were for the most part populated by regular army regiments (the majority were English) which were changed often. During the Victorian period 20,000-30,000 regular soldiers were deployed in Ireland at any one time for the "maintenance of civil order".
The following were the permanent barracks in county Cork:
Ballincollig: This was the principal artillery depot for the county. The barracks had accommodation for 18 officers and 242 men, also included was a hospital, church and school. There were facilities for eight field batteries but normally only one (95 men and 44 horses) was stationed there. There was also a privately owned gunpowder works (which employed 200 people and produced 16,000 barrels of gunpowder per year) and the principal police training facility for the province of Munster.
Buttevant: Barracks covering 23 acres.
Charles Fort: See Kinsale
Clonakilty: Infantry barracks with accommodation for four officers and 68 men.
Fermoy: By the 1830s this was the principal military depot for the county. In 1791 Mr. John Anderson purchased two thirds of the manor and when, in 1797, the army was looking to establish a new and permanent base Anderson gifted them the land as an inducement to locate in Fermoy. Anderson and the whole town received considerable economic benefit from that gift. In 1806 the first permanent barracks, the East Barracks, were built. They were located on 16½ acres of land and provided accommodation for 112 officers and 1478 men of infantry, and 24 officers, 120 men, and 112 horses of cavalry. A general military hospital of 130 beds was also built. In 1809 the smaller West Barracks were built which also included a 42 bed hospital. When both barracks were complete there was accommodation for 14 field officers, 169 officers, 2816 men, and 152 horses. The town of Fermoy expanded around these facilities and retained its British military facilities until 1922.
Kinsale: Charles Fort, on the east side of Kinsale Harbour, was a coast defence fort with accommodation for 16 officers and 332 men.
Mallow: Prior to the construction of the barracks in Fermoy this was the principal military depot for the county but after 1806 the size of the military establishment was reduced. By the 1830s there was an infantry barracks with accommodation for seven officers and 103 men.
Millstreet: Infantry barracks with accommodation for six officers and 100 men.
Mitchelstown: Infantry barracks with accommodation for three officers and 72 men.
Skibbereen: A small infantry barracks.
Youghal: Infantry barracks with accommodation for six officers and 180 men.
The following were all located in and around Cork Harbour:
Camden Fort: Located on the west side of the harbour entrance, it was first fortified during the American war of Independence; remodelled during the Napoleonic period; used as a prison c1850-65; and remodelled again 1862 - c1874 first using contract but later military labour. Renamed Fort Meagher in 1938 and now owned by the Cork County Council.
Carlisle Fort: Located on the east side of the harbour entrance, it has a history similar to Camden Fort except that convict labour was used for part of the remodelling in the 1860s. Renamed Fort Davis in 1838 and now owned by the Department of Defence.
Haulbowline (or Haulbowling) Island: Located only a ½ mile from the centre of Cove, It has been occupied by the military for many years and was fortified in 1602. A permanent garrison was established there in the 1690 but in 1806, when it was decided to shift the army to Spike Island, it was appropriated to the Admiralty and Ordnance. On the eastern half of the island the Admiralty established the only naval arsenal in Ireland (large enough to supply the entire navy for one year). The west of the island was used as an ordnance depot that was closely associated with Rocky Island. In 1869 Haulbowline was upgraded to a naval dockyard (a major industrial facility for the repair and maintenance of ships). At its peak in 1918 it employed over 1000 shipyard workers. The dockyard was handed to the Irish Government in 1923.
Spike Island (Fort Westmoreland): was purchased by the Government from Nicholas Fitton c1779 and fortified with a small 21 gun battery but it was the war against revolutionary France that saw the beginning of the major construction which, in 1790, was named Fort Westmoreland, after the then Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Westmoreland. Construction continued throughout the period of the Napoleonic war at Westmoreland, Camden and Carlisle Forts.
Opposition to the practice of 'transporting' convicts, most notably from the convict colonies themselves, saw a decline in transportation and the establishment of 'home convict depots'. In 1847 Spike Island and Philipstown (Kings County) were selected as male convict depots (females were accommodated at Fort Elizabeth in the city of Cork). By 1853 there were 3,764 male and 514 female convicts in Ireland of which c2,500 were on Spike Island. By 1860 this had dropped to 1,076 male (c500 on Spike Island), and 416 female. Intermediate prisons were also established at Carlisle and Camden forts but were closed by 1865. Prisoners were employed quarrying stone, building the Haulbowline Island docks, and construction work at Fort Westmoreland. The two Islands were connected by a causeway and wooden bridge for the duration of this work. The last prisoners were removed from Spike Island in 1885.
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century all the forts were manned by elements of the Royal Garrison Artillery (often artillery militia) and were periodically updated with new guns. They survived the Great War without incident but by 1921 a bizarre situation had developed. By a clause in the Anglo-Irish treaty the harbour defences at Cork, Berehaven and Lough Swilly were to remain under the control of British Government and were known as the 'Treaty Ports'. They could neither be extended nor used during hostilities without the consent of the Irish Government, and the Government of De Valera was not cooperative. When the dockyard was handed to the Irish Government in 1923 the harbour was reclassified as 'a commercial port and naval anchorage of minor importance'. The harbour defences were eventually taken over by the Irish Government in 1938 at which time Fort Westmoreland was renamed Fort Mitchel, it is now owned by the Department of Justice.
Rocky Island: A small island near Haulbowline, honeycombed with tunnels and used as a massive gunpowder magazine (25,000 barrels), it was designed to supply the whole of Ireland. An army detachment of one officer and 30 men was assigned to operate it.
Fort Templebreedy: Located on the coast south of Camden fort it was built 1904-1909 and dismantled in 1946. It is now owned by the Department of Defence.
1. Palmerston Forts Society
2. James Coleman "The Story of Spike Island", Journal of Cork Historical and Archaeological Society (1893) Vol. 2, pp. 1-8.
The following barracks were located in the city of Cork
Barracks for Infantry and Cavalry located on 'a commanding eminence NE of the city'. The Barracks were erected in 1806 by the late Abraham Hargrave Esq. and were later named 'Victoria Barracks', in 1922 they were renamed 'Collins Barracks'. In 1837 there was accommodation for 156 officers, 1994 men and 120 horses. The barracks included a 120 bed hospital and there was also a separate 130 bed military hospital in the southern suburbs.
Elizabeth and Cat Forts
From the earliest Anglo-Norman times Cork was a walled city depending on the walls and Shandon Castle (located outside the walls on the north side of the city) for its defence, but with the development of artillery its position became weak due to the many surrounding hills. During the reign of Elizabeth I a new fort was built to the south of the city on the site of the former Church of the Cross. The fort was built at the expense of the citizens of Cork and named after the Queen.
In 1603 the Mayor and Council of Cork were opposed to the new King, James I. They demolished Elizabeth Fort in order that it might not be used against them, however they were soon defeated by the army of Lord Mountjoy and, as a penalty, were made to rebuild it. The fort was rebuilt again in 1624.
In 1690 Cork was in Jacobite hands, recognising the defensive weaknesses of the city an 'outwork' was built on high ground SE of Elizabeth Fort on the ruins of St Brigid's Church, this was named Cat Fort. When the army of The Earl of Marlborough arrived in September 1690 Cat Fort was the first obstacle encountered, it was quickly stormed and taken, allowing artillery to be bought to bear on the city. Elizabeth Fort held out but the main attack was directed at the eastern city wall, the wall was breached and the city capitulated within four days.
The two forts ceased to perform any 'military function' from this time but barracks were built nearby in 1698 and in 1719 a new barrack was built within Elizabeth Fort. In 1835 it was used as a female convict prison but later reverted to military use becoming a station of the Cork City Artillery.
In 1920-1 Elizabeth Fort was occupied by the "Black and Tan", handed to the Irish Provisional Government in 1921, then burnt by anti treaty forced in August 1922. Elizabeth Fort is now a police station but Cat Fort has been demolished.
1. Cork Urban Pilot Project.
2. J. T. Collins "Military Defences of Cork", Journal of Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Vol. 48, pp. 63-6.
3. Herbert Webb Gillman "Notes on the Siege of Cork in 1690", Journal of Cork Historical and Archaeological Society (1892) Vol. 1a, pp. 137-40.