I’m writing this in the second week of the Easter school holidays, and we have been blessed with some very fine and warm weather. I had to go into York town centre today and on days like this, it is an absolute pleasure to walk around the city.
York has so much to look at as you wander around, buildings bursting with history and splendid architecture around every corner. I particularly like to go slightly off the beaten track, and find things that are not on the normal tourist trail. There are so many interesting curiosities to see down the back streets and alleys that you might otherwise miss. I believe there is a map online that leads you on a route around these less-explored snickleways.
One of the buildings that caught my eye on this occasion is on St Andrewgate. It is constructed of red bricks, with white brick details, and an impressive set of double doors in the centre. An elegant tiled mosaic sits in an arch above them, and arched windows either side run the length of the single-storey building. In the brickwork near the roof above it is a Latin inscription which reads ‘Pro aris et focis’, which means ‘For home and hearth’. It is quite appropriate, for the building is currently owned by well-known York hardware store, Barnitts, which acquired it in the 1990s.
I decided to find out more about this striking construction, and discovered that it is the former St Andrew’s drill hall, and is Grade II listed. It was built in 1872 and designed by architects Gould and Fisher to house the headquarters of the 1st West Yorkshire (York) Rifle Volunteers.
Drill halls became commonplace during the expansion of the British Empire in the mid-1800s. At that time, there was significant unrest around the globe and the authorities wanted to establish a volunteer force with military training that could be quickly mobilised should the need arise. Enforced enlisting had been abolished, but in 1859 voluntary service was opened up to the general public which proved very popular, attracting 160,000 men by the end of 1860. These recruits were expected to train for between 21 and 56 days during the summer, but the British weather did not always play ball which meant that it became necessary to provide appropriate places to train them all. Thus, when it became clear that town and village halls did not always have the correct facilities, or were simply too small, drill halls began to spring up to provide internal as well as external space for training.
Originally they were privately funded and, as in the case of St Andrew’s Hall, quality architects would be brought in to design them. Most were quite elaborate, and followed the Gothic Revival style that was fashionable in the mid-19th century. There were several requirements that every hall had to have alongside a large open space, including an administration block, which needed somewhere to securely store weapons, ammunition and supplies, a large open hall, often with an indoor target ranges and viewing balconies, and last of all, living quarters for the caretaker or drill sergeant.
Following the Regulation of Forces Act of 1871, the responsibility for the volunteer forces was switched from county lieutenants to the Secretary of State for War, and they began to be treated more like the regular army. In July 1914, the various voluntary units, comprising cavalry, infantry, artillery and engineers were amalgamated, ultimately becoming what is today the Territorial Army. After the outbreak of World War I, their numbers swelled from 268,000 volunteers to 720,000.
The oldest drill hall in the country is in Armoury Road, Selby, North Yorkshire. It was built in 1862 at a cost of £1,300. Like the one in York, it also follows the Gothic Revival style, and although the internal structure no longer contains all the elements of its original state, the exterior has been well preserved. The same applies to one in Sheffield, the Edmund Road drill hall, which was built in 1879 when the Tudor Revival had become more popular. When these halls fell out of use, many were either pulled down or converted into houses or flats, but thankfully for some, their architectural importance has been recognised and they have been listed so these unique and beautiful buildings will hopefully survive for many centuries more.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 6th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 4th May 2022.