In the Beginning
At the beginning of the 1920’s, there was growing concerns that a major depression was on the horizon, countries were still suffering the economic effect of WW1 and there were little monies left to train the workforce so an innovative approach was needed. This approach came in the form of a new facility to train young men within the Army, this gave a two-fold result, replacement soldiers for those lost during the War and tradesmen to provide the technical skills required for the new mechanised Army. This was the beginning of a new era and it started with The Central Training School for Boys at a temporary home at Buller Barracks in Aldershot, but work was required to facilitate this plan and so soldiers from the Royal Engineers supervised 500 workmen in clearing up the site and making preparations for the forthcoming changes.
Accommodated by No1 Corps Depot, RASC, based at Buller Barracks and under the command of Lt Col VTR Ford, DSO, The York and Lancaster Regiment, No1 Group, totalling 105 boys was formed as part of the Central Training School for Boys. They reported to Buller Barracks, Aldershot, on September 25th 1923, and this date became known as the official Foundation Day. However considerable difficulties became apparent, little available workshop space, few stores or tools, some very wintery weather and, finally, an outbreak of an epidemic disease.
After Christmas leave, No2 Group arrived in Aldershot and on the February 28th 1924, the School, now numbering 250 all ranks, departed its temporary accommodation and established itself at Beachley Camp, four miles from the market town of Chepstow in Monmouthshire.
The jobs that were available in civilian life had been taken up by those who were discharged at the end of the First World War, and there were few chances of obtaining a civilian apprenticeship, this in turn encouraged Boys of 14-15 years old to join the Army They joined for many and varying reasons, including a means of escape from a difficult family life, simply being fed three times a day was a common reason, being given a uniform and the opportunity of being paid whilst learning a trade. Recruits also came from military boarding schools. Service personnel serving abroad often left dependants behind in the UK, and when their schooling was complete, the parents would enlist their sons into the Army. Another surprising source of recruits was the judicial system, and often boys who had broken the law were given the option, Borstal or the Army! On arrival at Beachley, some may have wished that they had taken the Borstal option.
No1 and No2 Groups had arrived on military transport from Buller Barracks in Aldershot, and were shown to their new accommodation, wooden huts. These huts were arranged like the letter ‘H’ with two 16 men rooms in each of the verticals, and a washroom in the horizontal. No3 Group was formed comprised of new recruits direct from ‘Civvy Street’ and arrived in the Spring of 1924. On arrival the first two groups of boys along with the Training Staff discovered that the now newly painted huts had hardly dried, there were no workshops, no administrative offices, no gymnasium, no Sergeants Mess and no roads. But at least the School had a new home and a new name, the Boys Technical School.
To say that the facilities provided were basic is an overstatement. Only cold water was supplied to the washrooms, and although shower blocks were provided, the hot water supply was unreliable, as was the electricity, as both came from the boiler house which kept breaking down. There were no power sockets provided in the huts just elementary lighting. Heating came from two coal-fired stoves in each room to which a limited ration of coal was provided on a weekly basis. Inclement and cold weather did not warrant any extra supply and the coal ration had to suffice, although there are many tales of “coal raids”.
Life as an Army Apprentice had begun in earnest.
The History of Beachley Camp
The history of the Camp is fairly well documented and several Books on such are available but for this website a potted story will give an insight into what became a Home to many thousands of young men from 1924 until its closure in 1994.
In 1915 the then War Office (W.O.) decided to build three Dockyards to supply ships for the war effort, National Shipyard 1 was to be located on the River Wye at Chepstow, National Shipyard 2 at Beachley, where the Rivers Severn and Wye converge before joining the Bristol Channel and National Shipyard 3 at Portishead, further downstream in the Channel.
Beachley was at that time a large estate mostly occupied by Tenant Farmers and their families as well as other residents but nevertheless a fairly small population. This mattered not to the W.O. who set about commandeering the whole of the Peninsula and gave all residents, including the Master of the Estate, just two weeks to leave.
Once completely vacated operations to build the shipyard began. 6000 Royal Engineers and Prisoners of War arrived and work began. The site was cleared and accommodation was built to house the workforce, railway lines were laid to join up with the mainline services as well as a separate internal railway system for the movement of heavy equipment required at different places, slipways were prepared and the other necessary buildings needed for maintenance were built stretching from Beachley to Sedbury.
As quickly as the plans came to pass the W.O. decided that these shipyards were now not needed and the work that had been done came to an end at Beachley and the site left to nature.
In a short space of time another use for Beachley was found and it became a Prisoner of War Camp. It had huts to house PoWs, land to till and maintenance to be restarted. Evidence of this use is confirmed by local stories and the Military Cemetery adjacent to the Parade Square where you will now find the AAC/BOBA Memorial. This situation wasn’t to last too long because at the end of the Great War a new Training Programme was instigated to train young men 14/15 years old to fulfil some of the gaps left by war and to enhance the Technical skills now needed for the maintenance of equipment in the development of the now Mechanical Army.
Almost the final chapter in Beachley Camps history began in 1924 when the newly formed Army Technical School arrived from Aldershot to begin training in Trades, Education and Military Skills ready after 3 years to join the Regular Army as highly skilled young men who were destined to become the future leaders of the new Army.
Beachley Camp remained an Apprentice Training Establishment until 1994 when it was decided that there was no requirement for Boy Soldiers in the Army. Throughout those 70 years changes took place, name changes, duration of Training and career development opportunities. Beachley Camp has played a very large part in the history of the local area and is still iconic in it’s being. The Camp is still occupied by the Army and currently is Home to 1st Battalion Rifles, a fully operational unit with a proud record and also a very good friend to BOBA and the Heritage Centre.
Perhaps not the correct manner in which to remember the Camp but that fateful decision in 1992/1994 to dispense with Apprentice Training of Boy Soldiers has been shown to be an error, however those thousands of Boys that passed through the Beachley Gate are proud to have enjoyed the opportunity given them