The Duke of York's Headquarters, Chelsea, London

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 01-1980

From the King's Road it looks like a slumbering oasis in the Sloane Square turmoil. But when CHRISTOPHER LONG looked in to see just what is happening at the Duke of York's Headquarters he found it was ...


By Christopher Long

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It is a strange fact that while Chelsea is traditionally connected with the arts, literature and important men and women of ideas who have had immense influence on the course of English history over several hundred years, nevertheless, one-eighth of the old borough is dominated by the quiet presence of the British Army in one form or another.

As the army continues its £1.5 million project of restoring the facade of the Duke of York's Headquarters in King's Road, a glance at a map shows that one of the most prominent features of the east end of Chelsea is the vast block of land made up of the Royal Hospital and the National Army Museum in the south, the residential area surrounding the Army's 'playground' in Burton Court in the centre, and the jumbled mass of Regency and Victorian buildings that make up the Territorial Army Headquarters in the old Duke of York's Headquarters in the north.

What goes on up there in the north, many people wonder? It all seems so empty and quiet, in and around the massive and very impressive headquarters building.

The answer is, quite a lot – at least according to Col. Nigel Crawford, a senior officer responsible for administering the TA in London and the historic buildings that are its London base.

The story of Duke of York's started in the reign of King George lll when the present site (along with the manor house, which had previously been the seat of the Cadogan family and, later, the home of Sir Walter Farquhar) was bought by the government of the day to house the 'Royal Military Asylum for the Children of Soldiers of the Regular Army'.

An architect by the name of John Sanders was called in to design the now familiar and very dignified building that dominates the top end of King's Road. He had been a pupil of Sir John Soane and the son of a London tallow-chandler. The Royal Military Asylum was his first work, built in 1801-3, and he was later to become famous as the architect of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1811, among other works, ending up as an eminent archaeologist.

The Asylum was designed to house 1,000 orphans – 300 girls in the south wing (on the Royal Hospital side) and 700 boys in the north wing, which runs parallel with the King's Road. The sexes were carefully segregated by the mess rooms that made up the large centre block.

But the girls didn't last long. They moved to Southampton in 1823 and the boys took over the whole building until they too left in 1909 to move to the present Duke of York's College in Dover. From that time on, in one guise or another, the Territorials have made it their home.

And an impressive home it is too, much influenced by, and similar in detail to, Sir Christopher Wren's Royal Hospital close by, even to the extent of having the technically incorrect feature of great Doric columns sitting on Corinthian bases. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote of it as having a 'combination of austerity and dignity that is wholly successful' – which was recognised in 1967 when the entire complex, including the Chapel of 1824 in the north-west corner, was listed as of architectural and historic interest, 'Grade ll'.

So, what goes on there now?

"A lot of people must wonder about that," said Colonel Crawford as we sat in his office overlooking the parade ground which is often used as a playing field by boys from Hill House prep school.

"I think people wonder if anything goes on, because there's so little coming and going during the day, as far as they can see.

"But of course, basically we're a Territorial Army Headquarters for Greater London, which is mostly made up of volunteer soldiers and officers who work during the day and do their training here in the evenings or on special exercises at weekends.

"And in addition there are a lot of offices here for all sorts of strange organisations which operate during the day."

Indeed, during my visit I didn't see a single uniformed man or woman. Except, that is, a simply enormous stuffed lion in the form of a soft toy, stretched out on the Colonel's window-sill, gazing at the noble architecture around him and wearing a staff officer's hat on his head at a jaunty and most un-soldierlike angle.

"Let's see," said Colonel Crawford, "we've got the five TA groups here which include the 144 Field Ambulance, the 257 General Hospital who are a mobile medical section who can set up a fully operational field hospital under canvas here or abroad in virtually no time at all.

"We've got the headquarters and one company of the TA Parachute Regiment. We've got one company of the London Irish Rifles here while the rest of that regiment are serving in Ireland as the Royal Irish Rangers; and we've got the TA's 21 SAS (Special Air Services) who are, of course, a sort of élite force in the British Army."

The SAS, actually, have special significance for Chelsea. They were set up after the Second World War from the old Artists' Rifles Regiment, who in turn were mostly made up of Chelsea artists who banded together to form their own fighting force.

Most of those artists were killed in the First World War, although their name still continues in the official title of the SAS – still based on the same spot in Chelsea where they were first formed and trained.

"Anyway, those are the TA units based at Duke of York's," the Colonel continued.

"In addition, there are regular army units as well, including the Royal Signals Regiment Headquarters, the Coldstream Guards Band who are based here and do their practising in the drill-hall, as well as a Light Aid Detachment of REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) who service vehicles, etc."

But perhaps more interesting in some ways are the little-known organisations such as the 'Fannies' (FANY) who are properly known as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. This is made up exclusively of highly-trained and intelligent women who performed heroically during the Second World War, doing special service [Special Operations Executive] and undercover work.

[N.B. By 2005 The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry had moved from the Duke of Yorks HQ to TA Centre, 95 Horseferry Road, London SW1P 2DY.]

This led to many of them being shot or tortured for their part in such daring and dangerous work as that undertaken by Odette Churchill, for example.

But spying and undercover work then was only part of their duties, which included driving staff vehicles and providing high calibre staff for sensitive operational and administrative positions.

In peacetime they are likely to be just as invaluable, specialising in foreign languages and communications, so that it was they who were called in to set up a communications service during the horrific and very complicated Moorgate tube-train disaster in the City a few years ago.

Equally, it will be they on whom we will be relying for maintaining communications if ever the Thames should flood its banks and swamp Chelsea. They are permanently ready to go into action at a few hours' notice. "I think we all have rather a high regard for them," Col. Crawford says.

Also based at the Headquarters is the RAF Escaping Society, which concerns itself with the many heroes of Second World War resistance operations and the airmen who tried to escape the clutches of the enemy to return to England – in some cases, but by no means all, living to fight another day.

In other offices are the headquarters of the Army Historical Association and another department concerned with the history and study of army medals and decorations.

Two charitable organisations are also housed in the rabbit-warren premises that cluster around the parade ground: The Army Benevolent Fund, which distributes millions of pounds each year to needy ex-soldiers, their widows, children and dependants; and the much-admired Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association which continues to do invaluable social work on behalf of the families of servicemen from their offices at the Duke of York's.

"The SSAFA were the people who did such good work during my time in the army," said Col. Crawford, "when a soldier found out, for example, that his wife was having an affair with someone else while he was away, or the family at home were having problems while the husband wasn't there to help."

Meanwhile, in the main block, the Duke of York's Headquarters Club, is the centre for activities of all sorts, the venue for gatherings of ex-servicemen's associations, TA get-togethers and the co-ordinating administration for all the country's Territorial Army branches, including the 61 branches in London that come under Col. Crawford's control.

With 600 men attending to the now very serious business of maintaining a professional volunteer reserve force in Chelsea alone, it is easy to see why Col. Crawford is anxious to dispel any notions that the Duke of York's Headquarters is 'a quiet place where nothing much seems to happen'.

The fact is that there's a lot going on here and that the TA is now a very serious business.

"Volunteers here are equipped and trained just as well as they are in the Regular Army, except of course that they only do one evening's training each week, a 15-day 'camp' each year, either here or in Germany, and are called upon to take part in six weekend camps or exercises each year as well."

"For that, they get a bounty of up to £300 tax free each year and the best equipment the Army can provide."

"Of course, it's hard work and the emphasis is on self-discipline rather than the old-fashioned image of bullying sergeant-majors, but recently the whole business has become much more serious than it was once thought to be."

All in all, my visit, brief as it was, soon dispelled any illusions that Duke of York's Headquarters has little or nothing going on in it, although the very scale and grandeur of some of the buildings do tend to make one feel that there should be a few colourfully dressed soldiers around to make it look like a 'proper' barracks.

And if one feels that many of the offices and buildings and corridors have a rather dreary and institutionalised drabness about them, there is little doubt that a very great deal of very worthwhile work is going on there apart from the rather less fashionable militarism.

"King's Road can do its trendy best to its heart's content," Duke of York's Headquarters seems to be saying as it stands four-square in Chelsea, representing a style of architecture and a more traditional attitude that has somehow still found an active and useful purpose in the 1980's.

And to enter the 80's in proper style, the £1.5 million facelift and restoration work, being carried out by architects Donald W Insall and Associates, is already showing signs of returning the building to its former glory – a major architectural and building project that will make an impressive improvement to the east end of King's Road.

Caption to original pictures:

These pictures, kindly provided by the architects, Donald W Insall and Associates, who are masterminding the £1.5 million facelift to Chelsea's Duke of York's Headquarters, show the facade of the building as was planned at the beginning of the last century, and (above), as it appeared before the recent cleaning and restoration work.

"It's really a very dignified building indeed," says architect Gerald Dalby, in charge of the project. "However, the job has developed from being a face-lift into a major repair and restoration undertaking because we've found extensive dry-rot and deterioration of the fabric – much of which we are hoping to solve right now."

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© (1980) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

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