The history of barrack construction in Great Britain is an interesting study, but can only be touched on briefly. As long as operations in the field were carried on by troops levied especially for the war in hand, no barracks apart from fortifications were required, except those for the royal bodyguard; and even after the standing army exceeded those limits, the necessity for additional barracks was often avoided by having recourse to the device of billeting, i.e. quartering the soldiers on the populations of the towns where they were posted. This, however, was a device burdensome to the people, subversive of discipline, and prejudicial to military efficiency in many ways, while it exposed the scattered soldiers to many temptations to disloyalty. Hence barracks were gradually provided, at first in places where such an arrangement was most necessary owing to the paucity of the population, or where concentration of troops was most important, owing to the disaffection of some of the inhabitants. The earliest barracks of which there is any record as regards England, were those for the foot guards, erected in 1660. Among the earliest of those still existing are the Royal Barracks at Dublin, dating from 1700, and during the 18th century barracks were built in several parts of Ireland; but in England it was at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century that most of the earlier barracks were constructed.
So long as barracks were mainly in connexion with fortresses their construction naturally fell to the duty of the King's Engineers, afterwards the Corps of Engineers, working under the master-general of the ordnance. About 1796, however, a special civil department was formed under the commissioners for the affairs of barracks, to deal with barracks apart from fortifications. In 1816 we find a warrant appointing a civilian comptroller of the barrack department to deal with the erection and upkeep of barracks and barrack hospitals not within fortified places. This warrant gives one of the earliest records of the nature of accommodation provided, and a few extracts from it are worth notice. No definite regulations as to cubic or floor space per man are laid down; but in the infantry, twelve men, and in the cavalry, eight men are allotted to one room. "Bedsteads or berths" are allowed, "a single one to each man, or a double one to two men," or "hammocks where necessary." The married soldier's wife is barely recognized, as shown by the following extract: - "The Comptroller of the barrack department may, if he sees fit, and when it in no shape interferes with or straitens the accommodation of the men, permit (as an occasional indulgence, and as tending to promote cleanliness, and the convenience of the soldier) four married women per troop or company of sixty men, and six per troop or company of a hundred men, to be resident within the barracks; but no one article shall on this account be furnished by the barrack-masters, upon any consideration whatever.
And if the barrack-masters perceive that any mischief, or damage, arises from such indulgence, the commanding officer shall, on their representation, displace such women. Nor shall any dogs be suffered to be kept in the rooms of any barrack or hospital." Another regulation says: "Where kitchens are provided for the soldiers, they shall not be allowed to dress their provisions in any other places." In about 1818 the civil barrack department was abolished on account of abuses which had grown up, and the duke of Wellington as master-general of the ordnance and commander-in-chief transferred to the corps of Royal Engineers the duties of construction and maintenance of barracks. In 1826 a course of practical architecture was started at the school of military engineering at Chatham under Lieutenant-Colonel (afterwards Sir Charles) Pasley, the first commandant of the school, who himself wrote an outline of the course. Wellington interested himself in the barrack question, and under his orders single iron bedsteads were substituted for the wooden berths, two tiers high, in which two men slept in the same bed, then a certain cubical space per man was allotted, and cook-houses and ablution-rooms were added.
Next, sergeants' messes were started, and ball courts allowed for the recreation of the men. It was not, however, till after the Crimean War that public attention was directed by the report dated 1857 of the royal commission on the sanitary state of the army, to the high death-rate, and certain sanitary defects in barracks and hospitals, such as overcrowding, defective ventilation, bad drainage and insufficient means of cooking and cleanliness, to which this excessive mortality was among other causes assigned.
In 1857 a commission appointed for improving the sanitary condition of barracks and hospitals made an exhaustive inspection of the barracks in the United Kingdom, and reported in 1861. This was followed by similar commissions to examine the barracks in the Mediterranean stations and in India. These commissions, besides making valuable recommendations for the improvement of almost every barrack inspected by them, laid down the general sanitary principles applicable to the arrangement and construction of military barracks and hospitals; and in spite of the lapse of time, the reports repay close study by any one interested in sanitary science as applied to the construction and improvement of such buildings. The names of Sidney Herbert (afterwards Lord Herbert of Lea), Captain (afterwards Sir Douglas) Gallon, R.E., and John Sutherland, M.D., stand out prominently among those who contributed to the work. The commission was constituted a standing body in 1862, and continues its work to the present day, under the name of the Army Sanitary Committee, which advises the secretary of state for war on all sites for new barracks or hospitals, also upon type plans, especially as to sanitary details, and principles of sanitary construction and fitments.
A definite standard of accommodation was laid down, which formed the basis of the first issue of the Barrack Synopsis in 1865. A general order dated 1845 had directed that a space of 450 to 500 cub. ft. per man should be provided in all new barracks at home stations; but this had not been applied in existing barracks or buildings appropriated as such, and when detailed examination was made, it was found that some men had actually less than 250 cub. ft., and out of accommodation for nominally 76,813 soldiers, 2003 only had 600 cub. ft. per man, which was the minimum scale now laid down by the royal commission of 1857. To give every soldier his allotted amount of 600 cub. ft., meant a reduction in accommodation of the barracks by nearly one-third the number. Many buildings were condemned as being entirely unsuitable for use as barracks; in other cases improvements were possible by alterations to buildings and opening-up of sites. Ventilation of the rooms was greatly improved, cook-houses, ablution-rooms and sanitary accessories were carefully examined and a proper scale laid down.
Separate quarters for the married soldiers did not exist in many barracks, and in some instances married men's beds were found in the men's barrack-rooms without even a screen to separate them; in other cases, married people were accommodated together in a barrack-room, with only a blanket hung on a cord as a screen between the different families. The recommendations of the committee resulted in a single room being allotted to all married soldiers, and this accommodation has gradually improved up to the comfortable cottage now provided.
From the time of this first thorough inquiry into barrack accommodation, steady and systematic progress has been made. Although lack of funds has always hampered rapid progress, and keeps the accommodation actually existing below the standard aimed at, much has been done to improve the soldiers' condition in this respect. Numerous regimental depots and other barracks were built under the Military Forces Localization Act of 1872. The Barracks Act of 1890 replaced the worn-out huts at Aldershot, Colchester, Shorncliffe and Curragh by convenient and sanitary permanent buildings, and further additions and improvements have been made under the Military Works Acts of 1897, 1899 and 1901. As some evidence of the practical result of the care and money that has been expended on this work, it is interesting to note that while, in 1857, the annual rate of mortality in the army at home per 1000 men was 17.5 (compared with 9.2 for the civil male population of corresponding age), forty years later, in 1897, the rate of mortality in the army was only 3.42 per 1000. No doubt, improved barrack accommodation contributed greatly to this result.
Barrack construction work remained in the hands of the Corps of Royal Engineers until 1904, when a civil department was again formed under an architect styled "director of barrack construction," to deal with the construction of barracks at home stations, and the construction and maintenance of military hospitals.