When Oxford Archaeology first came to evaluate a site on the outskirts of the small village of Weeley, Essex, we were faced with some truly atrocious weather. January 2021 featured horrific rain, flooding, snow, and freezing temperatures, but despite these challenges we still managed to come away with some rather exciting finds: we had identified the remains of a military barracks dating from the Napoleonic era (1799-1815). It should be said that this discovery did not come as a complete surprise – historic maps indicated the structures’ presence, while the field is known to locals as ‘Barrack Field’, which is a bit of a giveaway. There is also a wealth of documentary sources to tell us about the barracks, from parliamentary documents to contemporary newspaper articles and even letters written by an officer’s wife. But what was not known was the full extent, layout or state of preservation of the remains – prior to our arrival, the site had never been investigated archaeologically. That was all set to change, though: over the latter half of 2021, we returned to the site to excavate 3.5ha on behalf of Rose Builders, bringing traces of the barracks to light again for the first time in more than two centuries.
Birth of a barracks
The story of Weeley Barracks begins in the earliest years of the 19th century. As of 25 March 1802, Britain and France had reached a brief peace following the Treaty of Amiens, but come May the following year war had broken out once more, reigniting fears of a French invasion. This sparked a programme of construction to improve defences along the south coast, and as part of this a number of barracks were built (and existing ones expanded) to allow troops to be concentrated near potential landing sites. Weeley was one of the locations selected for this purpose, with construction of the barracks beginning in 1803, on land that the government rented from the eponymous Mr Weeley for the princely sum of £491 per annum. Initially this appears to have been a temporary tented encampment, but by the end of the year it was replaced by more permanent structures. So rapid was their construction that Mary Anne Grant, the wife of an officer from one of the first regiments to arrive, wrote: ‘it appeared hardly possible that in so short a space of time, as seven or eight weeks, barracks to contain five thousand men, could have sprung up by the hands of men.’
When complete, the complex covered around 24.3ha (so our 3.5ha excavation captured only a snapshot of the whole thing), and at its height it housed 4,116 troops and 220 horses. Many of the initial units stationed at the barracks appear to have been Scottish in origin, including the 42nd Regiment of Foot (famous under their nickname: the Black Watch). As invasion fears eased, though, the camp appears to have been increasingly used as a rest stop for troops in transit via the nearby port of Harwich to or from overseas campaigns. Men from over 30 different regiments are recorded as having spent time at Weeley, including a small detachment of the 95th Rifles (a name that will be familiar to fans of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels), who were stationed there in 1804-1805.
Weeley parish records for the period 1803-1815 document a large number of baptisms, marriages, and funerals relating to the men of the barracks, suggesting that some of their families lived with them. With historical sources testifying to an original parish population of around 250, these newcomers would have considerably outnumbered the villagers – and there is some evidence of friction between the soldiers and the local population. In August 1806, the London Star reported the death of a soldier of the 79th Foot following an altercation with four local men – his grave is still visible in Weeley churchyard today.
When the end came, the barracks was dismantled as swiftly as it was created: following the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the site was decommissioned and all of its fixtures, fittings, and building materials (including some 300,000 red and white bricks) were sold at an auction advertised in local newspapers. When the land was handed back to its owner, though, it was in such a terrible state that Mr Weeley took the government to court for damages, asking for £7,900 in compensation (after the court hearing, though, he was only able to get £2,500).
Although the barracks had been comprehensively demolished, a watercolour of the site painted by Captain John Durrant c.1810 provides some clues as to how its structures had looked. This image (which can be seen at https://collections.hampshireculture.org.uk/object/index-letter-c-painting-watercolour-painting-view-weeley-barracks-near-colchester-essex) appears to have been painted from the hillside to the south of the camp, nearer Weeley Church, and shows the southernmost row of buildings along with part of the village (then known as Weeley Street) to the west. While the details are small, the buildings visible do show clear signs of the use of standardised designs, and of tile roofs. So, what did the excavated evidence add to this picture?
Due to the nature of the features we were looking for during our investigation – building foundations, the remains of walls, floor surfaces – the team spent the best part of five long months continuously cleaning. It is quite probable that if they never see a brick or roof tile ever again, it will still be too soon! But while the uncovered remains testified to the thoroughness of the site’s demolition, with most of the building foundations essentially reduced to robbed-out construction cuts backfilled with crushed mortar and brick, and only small amounts of the original structural elements remaining, we were able to identify the remnants of at least 16 buildings, laid out in two neat rows around three sides of a large open space that possibly served as a parade ground. The best-preserved structure (Building 1) was situated at the southern end of the site and measured 22.8m by 7.2m, with brick foundations surviving to almost 0.5m in height in some places. From these traces we could see that it probably consisted of a single room with a suspended wooden floor supported by two interior brick foundations. This structural form, together with the lack of any fireplace, leads us to think that this was probably a storeroom.
To the east of this building was another whose foundations were very different in style to any of the others on the site. It was large, measuring some 55m by 15m, and each of its sides was picked out in a line of 18 short rectangular pits (or beam-slots) that generally measured 4m by 1m and up to 0.5m deep. These lay perpendicular to the line of the wall they formed, and they may have been used as bedding for tall posts: at least one of them was cut through in the middle by a large post-hole. Remnants of brick wall foundations were found overlying the beam-slots on both sides, and there was another line of post-holes partway along the building’s footprint, hinting at some kind of internal division. Again, the purpose of this building is not immediately apparent, but it too does not seem to have any fireplaces, which might indicate it was not used for accommodation.
Meanwhile, over at the opposite end of the site we identified a pair of very large buildings, each measuring 37m long and 20m wide. What was interesting about these buildings was that they both had four fireplaces (or chimney stacks) along their northern walls, and one down the western side. While the foundations for these buildings were of brick and mortar, the fireplaces were made from large flat stones that are not local to Essex. These materials had clearly been brought in specially, and it is telling that the newspaper adverts for the auction in 1815 mention some 8,000 yards of pebble paving and Yorkstone paving. We suggest that these buildings probably housed officers, as you would not expect so many fireplaces to be built for lowlier ranks. Our current thinking is that these two buildings would have had internal wooden partitions, providing each officer with his own room and his own fireplace, while other buildings found across the site which only have one fireplace would be more in keeping with communal sleeping/living quarters for ordinary soldiers. These latter buildings are also very similar in overall size and layout, suggesting that they were built to a standardised design, and they bear some similarities to buildings visible in a plan of the contemporary barracks that existed at Woodbridge, Suffolk, between 1804 and 1815.
What clues did we find concerning how the barracks operated? The main entrance to the site is believed to have been from the west, via a road currently known as The Street, and people would then have moved around the camp using a series of roads running east–west and north–south. Today these routeways are represented only by their flanking gutters: square-sectioned ditches filled with sandy gravel and topped by a shallow brick or stone gutter (only small amounts of which survived). These gutters seem to have been used to separate the buildings, and also served as part of an extensive drainage system that had been put in place across the barracks. The main component of this network, though, was a large drain that ran beneath the main roadway (an east–west route cutting between the two rows of buildings) before turning to the south-east. It had a layer of brick and tile at its base, presumably in order to aid the flow of water. We also exposed a brick-built culvert in the south-east corner of the excavation, which may have fed into the large drain via another ditch, although modern disturbance made it impossible to determine an exact relationship between the two.
These extensive efforts to drain and manage water on the site suggest that its inhabitants had found ground conditions somewhat challenging. Indeed, one of Mary Anne Grant’s letters describes how, during the winter of 1803, after the camp was first constructed, the barracks was a pretty grim place. The muddy, wet conditions were so bad, she wrote, that ‘I was carried into our apartment and when I shall make use of my feet to walk out, appears uncertain’. Conditions inside do not seem to have been much better: within her husband’s quarters ‘the newly plastered walls were running with water’ and ‘were capable of receiving any impression by the slightest touch’.
Buttons and buckles
As well as structural remains, we recovered a considerable array of artefacts – including more than 30kg of 19th-century pottery. A highlight from this collection were fragments from a teapot, finely decorated in neo-classical style, which show that the officers were clearly not going without at least a few luxuries. Rather fittingly, given the large number of fireplaces that were excavated, we also found part of a Staffordshire dog figurine that had possibly graced someone’s mantlepiece.
Among the smaller finds, the fact that buttons and low-denomination coins were particularly common (we recovered 66 and 29 respectively, through metal-detecting and from features) was not a surprise. They were of limited value and would have been prevalent in the barracks (some uniform jackets of the time had as many of 80 buttons each) so their recovery, once lost, would have been a low priority. The buttons were mainly plain brass – during this period the issuing of buttons specific to particular regiments was relatively uncommon – but we did find a single broken button belonging to the 79th Foot. Meanwhile, the majority of coins were from the reign of George III (1760-1820) and contemporary with the barracks’ use, but there were also two foreign coins: a Dutch duit of 1760 and a German quarter stüber of 1758. It is known that troops involved in the disastrous Walcheren Expedition of May-December 1809 (which saw the loss of more than 4,000 British troops, albeit only 109 in combat – the majority succumbed to disease in their swampy surroundings) came to Weeley after their withdrawal from the Netherlands, so it possible these coins travelled to Essex in the pockets of some of the ill-fated campaign’s survivors.
Some objects gave us insights into the experiences and activities of the men who lived in the barracks. A pair of pins and a thimble were a small sign of the many everyday tasks that required sewing – which would have certainly been done by the soldiers themselves, as well as by the women also living within the barracks. Smoking was evidently a popular pastime, with a large number of clay pipe bowls, both partial and intact, recovered. Multiple manufacturers’ marks have been identified, including several examples from previously unknown makers. Perhaps the most personal item was a rectangular buckle plate known as a stock clasp, on to which its owner had scratched their name: J T Miller. Meanwhile, a gilt trumpet-shaped stamp for wax seals was probably more likely to have belonged to one of the officers on the site. It had a sardonyx intaglio that would have impressed the image of a helmeted head into molten wax, and it would have most likely been worn suspended from a belt on a fob or ribbon. No doubt, unlike some of the lower-value items described above, its owner would have been rather annoyed to have lost it.
Among the items that could be confidently identified as military, we recovered quantities of lead shot, mostly of around 17.5mm in diameter – typical of the calibre of the standard British Army musket – these are, again, items that would probably not have garnered considerable effort to recover them if dropped. Some of the scrap lumps of lead recovered could also be the remnants of casting of such ammunition – but one particularly evocative military find (indeed, one of the first items recovered during our investigations) was the corner of a brass plate, dating to 1800-1812 and still bearing its embossed decoration, which would have been worn on the front of a tall, cylindrical soldier’s hat called a shako.
Overall Weeley has been an unusual project to work on, encompassing a period we have never worked with before, and a site-type never before investigated on this scale (though it was not only 19th-century archaeology that we uncovered: there were also traces of occupation going back to the Neolithic, as well as a pit containing Late Bronze Age pottery, and – along the western side of the excavated area – a proliferation of Iron Age and Romano-British features, including two small circular enclosures, several ditches, and a small Romano-British oven.) It also made a change to have such a wealth of documentary sources to compare our results to – something that we will be doing more of with great interest as our work moves into post-excavation analysis.
Bringing the military story of the site full circle, as part of the excavations we were glad to welcome a small team of modern veterans from Operation Nightingale (an MoD initiative that involves wounded and sick former service personnel in archaeological fieldwork – see CA 383, 354, 345, and 338). These volunteers helped to uncover the western end of Building 1, and although most had never done any archaeology before, they all enjoyed the experience, and several were interested in working on other projects. Several also returned during a public open day to see how the project had progressed since their involvement: soldiers checking on the barrack site for the first time in more than 200 years.
Nick Cox is a Project Officer with Oxford Archaeology East.
All Images: Oxford Archaeology