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Aldershot is known worldwide for it's links with the British Army. However, it did not really become a town at all until the first military camp was set up here in 1854. Before this, it was a small agricultural village, just like hundreds of others; but since it was in an area of barren heathland, it could only support a tiny population. Nevertheless, people have lived around Aldershot since the earliest times. Some very old flint tools and weapons have been discovered in the area; and there are also the sites of prehistoric earthworks.
The nearest, Caesar's Camp, is thought to date from well before Roman times (despite it's name, given to it much later). The name "Aldershot" means a wood (or copse) of alder trees. It was first recorded as "aldershete" inthe 13th Century; and since then at least 19 different spellings have been recorded. Incidentally, "shot", meaning wood or copse, occurs in the names of many other local towns and villages.
Aldershot was once part of the ancient Crondall Hundred, which covered 30,000 acres of land in North East Hampshire. This area of land was left by King Alfred to his nephew Ethelm in the 9th Century. In 975 it was handed over by King Edgar to the monks at Winchester; and remained in their hands until 1539 (the time of the dissolution of the monasteries) when their lands were seized by King Henry VIII. Two years later, he gave this land to the new Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral. It remained in their hands (except briefly, during the Civil War, when it was seized by Parliament) until 1861, when it was taken over by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.
Throughout this period, Aldershot remained a quiet and obscure rural hamlet, centred around it's parish church (St Michael, dating from the 12th Century) and it's Manor house, first recorded in 1481. In 1725 the first census count for Aldershot gave it's population as "six score and fifteen souls". By the middle of the 19th Century there were still only a few large houses, some farms, and several inns. We can still recognise some of their names today:
Aldershot Lodge, Elm Place, Ayling Farm, Boxalls Farm, Holly Farm, and Herretts Farm, for example. Some of the old roads still exist today, such as Cranmore Lane (originally known as Cranmer Lane), North Lane, and Church Lane. Rowhill Copse was once called Rough Hills Copse; and the present High Street was initially a mere track leading from Ash to the main London - Winchester Turnpike Road (now Farnborough Road). Most of Aldershot's inhabitants paid tithes or rent to the owners of their land. Many were farmers, producing grain and hops which were taken to Farnham to be sold at the market. Many of the local people were born and died here without ever travelling very far away. However, they were not completely insulated from the outside world; although there were no
big battles in the area during the Civil War, there were a number of small skirmishes, particularly around Farnham Castle. And in 1675 Nell Gwynn is said to have stayed at a house on Weybourne Road, opposite the end of Ayling Lane. Many people travelled along the main London - Winchester Turnpike. This road (and the area around Aldershot) was considered to be quite dangerous, since it was a regular haunt of highwaymen and was the scene of many highway robberies.
In the 1850's great changes came which were to transform Aldershot from an agricultural village to the town famous throughout the World. The transition began with training exercises by the army in the area around Chobham, Surrey, in 1853. They were experimenting with the idea of training troops on a large scale, and wanted to build a large permanent camp (the first of it's kind) where this could be done satisfactorily. The area around Aldershot was thought to be particularly suitable for this; it lay in a good position; there were large areas of infertile heathland ideal for training troop concentrations; and the owners of the land were willing to sell. After investigations, the Government brought 25,000 acres of land (at twelve pounds per acre), and the building of the first Aldershot camp began.
The first troops arrived in 1854, and were housed in temporary huts while the main work of building the camp began. Men and materials poured into the area. High wages were offered to attract building workers so that the camp could be completed quickly, and many agricultural labourers left the land to work at the camp. The building materials themselves had to be transported from the railway station at Tongham. To serve all these soldiers, workmen and labourers, shops of all kinds soon sprang up; the beginning of the town centre as we know it today.
The camp grew over succeeding years. Permanent buildings gradually replaced the huts and other temporary structures; and tracks and footpaths became established roads as the town rapidly developed and changed out of all recognition.Aldershot's first newspaper, the Aldershot Military Gazette (later Sheldrake's Military Gazette) was started in August 1859 by William Sheldrake. The Aldershot News began in 1894 (these can also be found at the library). The growing town needed places to relax. Tweseldown Racecourse was opened in 1867, initially for the use of military men only; and in 1900 the Queens Avenue swimming bath was opened. Boating was then very popular, and many people took advantage of the Basingstoke Canal for this. Medical facilities were also needed. Cambridge Military Hospital was built in 1879; and Louise Margaret Hospital (named after the Duchess of Connaught, whose husband was Military Commander in Aldershot) was completed in 1898. The railway extended it's line to Aldershot in 1870, with the actual station being added later that year.
The Duke of Wellington statue was brought to Aldershot in 1885. It had initially been erected at Hyde Park Corner in London, but had not been well received there; and after a period of controversy was moved. By the time of the 1861 census, the town's population had risen to 16,720; over half of them military personnel. Aldershot soon became famous all over the world as the "Home of the British Army".