Living in south Wiltshire, England, to the north of me is Salisbury Plain – often called the home of the British Army. Unsurprisingly then, many of the 148 Regimental and Corps museums supported by the Army Museums Ogilby Trust can be found within an hour or two’s drive. Six regimental museums can be found in the old Peninsula Barracks in Winchester, Hampshire (pictured above) and so the area is known as the Military Quarter. I chose a Friday in the autumn to visit them all, as the museums have slightly different opening days and times (and some close for lunch).
Before I continue, it’s worth noting some key dates in the history of the British Army and its regiments:
I stepped into the RGJ Museum at 10am to be met with a warm welcome at the front desk. Mentioning my plan for the day, I was reminded that a combined ticket could be purchased for £11 for entry to all the museums – three of the six have an entry fee that totals £13 if bought separately. I was then introduced to what I’d see: the mid-Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries upstairs and Twentieth Century downstairs. As well as the RGJ, the collection brings together their antecedents too: the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (1741-1966), the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (1755-1966) and the Rifle Brigade (1800-1966), which came together to make up Royal Green Jackets Brigade in 1958 then the RGJ Regiment in 1966.
The museum raised £400,000 a decade ago for its ‘Road to Waterloo’ exhibition, which opened in March 2015 and remains its centrepiece. The whole museum is laid out well, but the upstairs truly considers all visitors with information boards containing longer text for adults and lower-down simpler descriptions for children; display cases with uniforms, weapons and soldiers’ paraphernalia; and the outstanding Waterloo diorama with accompanying touchscreens enabling visitors to zoom in on focal points of the battle. Also not to be missed is the medal room with wall cases and drawers full of the many many awards with which these rifleman have been decorated over 300 years.
The Twentieth Century story downstairs feels like a change of pace to the expensively-refurbished Waterloo exhibition as we transition to a more narrative retelling of the regiments through the World Wars and Cold War. However, this sets the scene for the other collection housed in the same building.
Remaining in the same building and crossing opposite the RGJ Museum’s front desk, we enter the Rifles Museum telling the story of the regiment born in 2007 of the light infantry regiments including the RGJ. With a shorter history than its many antecedents, the Rifles Museum is a smaller collection consisting of a number of galleries. As you’d expect, operations in Afghanistan and Iraq feature heavily, but there are also poignant displays of artwork and details of anti-poaching actions in Africa. It may be strange to describe it like this, but the Rifles Museum feels like a temporary exhibition rather than a permanent museum. Perhaps that’s because it has the potential and capacity to adapt to the stories it continues to tell about an active regiment in an uncertain time in history.
It’s just 100m to the Gurkha Museum and in that short walk I wondered what else I could possibly discover having followed the British Army through 300 years already in the last two museums. However, the Gurkha Museum does not open like any military museum I’ve visited before. The first information boards and displays introduce visitors to Nepal and its people, customs and culture. This was unexpected and so refreshing. My concerns of just a few moments before were blown away and I invested fully in this long and proud history. Through a combination of sights and sounds, the museum leads you through how and where Gurkhas were recruited to actions on the Northwest Frontier, World War One, World War Two, the post-war struggles for independence (especially that of India), and the Falklands. The museum is also the venue for a regular lecture programme.
Taking a short break, the small café in the Guardroom at the main gate offers a selection of hot and cold drinks and light bites.
Also situated in the Guardroom, the Adjutant General’s Corps Museum is another of the free museums. Sitting enjoying a coffee, visitors can see the first few displays and I expected those boards to be the extent of the museum. After all, entry is free and how big is the guardroom? However, as I walked around the first corner, I saw the corridor that led visitors through the history of the British Army’s administrative functions. Although the AGC was only formed in 1992, it has roots that stretch back to the army’s first soldier pay system in the Fourteenth Century. Today’s AGC is responsible for education, pay, guarding and policing.
Now, I knew to expect something different again as I left the infantry and entered the realm of cavalry. Traditionally, hussars were light cavalry (from the Hungarian ‘husarz’), but today the King’s Royal Hussars are heavy cavalry equipped with Challenger 2 main battle tanks. As already seen in the RGJ Museum, today’s regiments have long histories made up of many antecedents and the KRH traces its lineage back to three regiments formed in 1715 and a fourth in 1759: the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales’ Own), the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own), the 14th (King’s) Hussars, and the 20th Hussars (see here). HorsePower is what we may label a fairly “traditional” army museum in that its chronological and highlights key battles with associated artefacts such as uniforms and weapons. There is a small display on families and the regimental entourage, and a very interesting mock stable introducing the visitor to equine care. The centrepiece is a gallery of uniforms and medals and features a rider on horseback. For this unable to visit in person, the website hosts a virtual tour.
Technically, visitors leave the Peninsula Barracks to walk out to the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum situated in the ground floor of Serle’s House. The third of the free museums, the focus is more on themes and periods rather than the granular details of every battle in which the regiment (and its antecedents) fought. Though the ‘Hants’ served from 1881 to 1992, it traces its history back to 1702. The museum consists of two large rooms and a corridor between them; the first room covering the mid-Eighteenth Century to World War One, and the second room centring on the Second World War and post-war period.
Winchester’s Military Quarter offers a fantastic variety of stories and ways of storytelling. Although I was in the Peninsula Barracks for six hours, it goes without saying that I could’ve spent far more time in each museum. Certainly, I’ll return to some of them again to take in more details or view temporary exhibitions and talks, but visiting them all in one day provided a very different experience in each which would not be appreciated fully if taking each in turn across multiple trips. The combined ticket is definitely good value for money for anyone wishing to spend the whole day.
Winchester’s Military Museums
Address – Peninsula Barracks, Romsey Road, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 8TS
Website – https://www.visitwinchester.co.uk/listing/winchester-military-museums/
The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum
Website – https://rgjmuseum.co.uk/
Opening times – 10am-4pm Monday-Saturday
Prices – Adults £5; Children free; Concessions £4 (students) to £4.50 (senior citizens)
The Rifles Museum
Website – https://riflesmuseum.co.uk/
Opening times – 10am-4pm Monday-Saturday
Prices – Free
The Gurkha Museum
Website – https://thegurkhamuseum.co.uk/
Opening times – 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday
Prices – Adults £5; Children free; Concessions £4; Military personnel free
The Adjutant General’s Corps Museum
Website – https://agcmuseum.org.uk/
Opening times – 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday
Prices – Free
HorsePower, The Museum of The King's Royal Hussars
Website – https://horsepowermuseum.co.uk/
Opening times – 10m-4pm Monday-Friday; 12pm-4pm Saturday
Prices – Adults £3; Children free; Military personnel free
The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum
Website – https://www.royalhampshireregiment.org/
Opening times – 10am-4.30pm Tuesday-Friday; 10.30am-3pm Saturday and Bank Holidays
Prices – Free
* * *
David developed an interest in military history in his teens, which led him naturally to War Studies at King’s College, London. His professional life involves delivering data and marketing consultancy across the education sector, and beyond that he is also the Marketing Officer for the Salisbury Military History Society and provides support to a range of heritage institutions. He enjoys exploring new ways to tell stories and engage with audiences.
DCS Heritage (Twitter) – https://twitter.com/DCS_Heritage
Salisbury Military History Society (website) – https://salisburymilhist.com/
Salisbury Military History Society (Twitter) – https://twitter.com/salisburymhs
David Simons email@example.com