Colchester's Military Heritage
This web page looks at the history of Colchester's proud connection with the armed forces.
Colchester has been a military town since the Roman times. The Emperor Claudius came and set up the first military garrison, here, in Colchester, in the year 43. The Romans stayed until around 410, leaving the Romanised British to defend for themselves. Then we had the Dark Ages; a time of disorder. Then Harold lost his eye and the Normans came and set up their garrison, here in Colchester. After that all settled down there were no more garrisons here until Napoleon Bonaparte in France caused us to declare war and to set up a new garrison, here in Colchester. Napoleon was defeated and we dismantled the barracks after Waterloo. Surely, there wouldn't be any more war? Then it all kicked off in the Crimea and we were once again to have a garrison here. So from around 1856, The Camp was built, mainly wooden barrack huts, but gradually developing as more and more wars and campaigns were entered into. The military garrison was here to stay, finally being sold off in 2004 after the new Merville Barracks were ready to be occupied. Nobody can deny that Colchester has a military heritage that it can be truly proud of.
This series of web pages will attempt to give you a better understanding of our proud military heritage across the ages. We will start with the Romans and the Normans and then move on.
The Romans came here in the year 43 and created the first military garrison in Britain.
So, before we move on to what most people today see as Colchester's military garrison, that of the Victorian to modern day period, let's just have a look at what started it all. The following maps shows what archaeologists have discovered over the years, their maps being laid over a modern day aerial map. The black lines are all archaeological features. It reveals the militarily strategic earthworks (dykes) that had been created both before and during the Roman period. Camulodunum (now Colchester) was, in the early 1st century AD, the most extensively defended area in Britain and home to the most powerful tribe in Britain. It was because of this that the Romans came here to begin conquering Britannia (something that they never managed to complete).
At the Camulodunum Park at Gosbecks was discovered one of the first century AD Roman forts. Whilst the indigenous British people had surrendered, the Romans were clearly wary of them and a fort was considered a wise thing to build - just in case of trouble. Another was built on top of a nearby hillside, within modern day Colchester's town centre; one assumes as backup to the other and to keep a better eye on the Brits over Sheepen way.
The Romans tended to build structures such as forts, barracks, temples, etc. to a standard pattern and similar structures to what we had in Colchester, are to be seen across Roman Britain and the Roman Empire. The two illustrations that follow show how the archaeologists think the Gosbeck's Roman fort and the barracks nearby (along the Iron Age Triple Dyke on present day Straight Road, Lexden) were laid out.
The following map shows the Roman colonia as was then known and now known as our town centre. The obvious outline of our magnificent town wall defines the town, as it still does today. That wall was built by Roman soldiers and Roman engineers.
The Roman army system gave us the forerunner to how we organise the British Army today, starting with the contubernium of 8 soldiers, 10 contubernia making a century of 80 soldiers, 6 centuries making a cohort of 480 soldiers, leading up to a legion of 5000 soldiers. See the modern day system as below.
The Romans had trouble back home and they ended up leaving us after 350 or so years, the job of conquering Britain incomplete.
We have no clear information about the 11th and 12th century Norman garrison but there must have been such a garrison to defend Colchester Castle.
It wasn't until the late 18th century that a proper army garrison was to be established here again; one that we know quite a bit about.
Colchester has therefore been a garrison town for many centuries and is currently one of the largest in Britain.
ONE LARGE ARMY GARRISON COMPLEX
STEEPED IN HISTORY AND WITH UNDISCOVERED HERITAGE FEATURES
The old Victorian garrison in Colchester, some of the buildings dating back to the 1860s, was made redundant by the construction of modern buildings for a modern army at the new Merville Barracks in Colchester. It was sold off in 2004 and there began a programme of planned destruction the extent of which was to horrify local people.
Also, our new military heritage leaflet
can be seen by clicking on the following image.
If you have anything to contribute to this, please contact us.
Please help us if you are able to.
17th October 2013
4th October 2015