Visit to Amport House

Tuesday 24 September 2019

A party of 20 or so members was privileged to be the last Group tour around the Museum of Army Chaplaincy and the Chapel and Gardens of Amport House near Andover, the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre, before it closes and moves to the Defence Academy at Shrivenham in 2020.   The tour was led by David Blake who has been the museum’s curator since 2003.

The tour started with an introductory talk in the museum when David explained the history of the Army chaplaincy service and the roles played by Army chaplains in past battle campaigns and in the modern army today.   The museum is confined to the Army as the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have their own historical collections elsewhere.

The museum houses archives and historical artefacts relating to the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department.   The collection includes camp service books, soldiers’ Bibles and prayer books, communion vessels, uniforms and, at the entrance, a collection of brass plaques from various garrison churches.    The museum was originally located at Bagshot Park, Surrey (now the home of the Earl and Countess of Wessex) and moved to Amport House in 2001.   The displays in the museum give a fascinating insight into the work of Army chaplains in peacetime, in war, and in captivity.

During the First World War, over 2,472 Church of England clergy applied to become temporary chaplains and the museum holds an interesting archive of recruitment cards containing notes made by the Chaplain-General at their War Office interviews.   Chaplains also came from other Christian denominations, in particular Roman Catholics and Presbyterians.   There were also a few Jewish chaplains.

Some Army chaplains have shown extreme bravery on the battlefield and the party saw a display about the Rev Theodore Hardy, the most highly decorated chaplain, who was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Military Cross (MC).   In 1916 at the age of 52 the Rev Hardy, a country parson, became an Army chaplain and worked in the trenches giving comfort and moral and spiritual support to the troops.   

Another well-known Army chaplain was ‘Woodbine Willie’, the Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who served on the Western Front in the First World War and was renowned for giving injured and dying soldiers Woodbine cigarettes as well as spiritual comfort and support.   He too won the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in attending to the wounded while under heavy fire.

After touring the museum the party visited the Chapel in Amport House.   This was built in 1999 and houses a war memorial commemorating chaplains who lost their lives in the Second World War and a stained glass memorial window, both of which were originally at Bagshot Park.   It is a place of calm, a place for reflection and prayer and is used on a daily basis by chaplains in training at the Chaplaincy Centre.

Finally, before walking round the gardens David gave the party a brief history of Amport House.   For centuries the house and estate had belonged to the family of the Marquis of Winchester and the present house was built from 1857 to 1859 in what was described at the time as ‘an elegant building in the Elizabethan style’.   This opinion was however not shared by the distinguished writer on art and architecture, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who described it as ‘nothing special’ in the first edition of Buildings of England published in 1967.   The house was sold by the 14th  Marquis of Winchester in 1919 and it remained in private ownership until 1939 when it was requisitioned by the War Office to be used as the headquarters of RAF Maintenance Command.   It became the Armed Forces’ Chaplaincy Centre in 1996 serving the training needs of all three Armed Services.

The gardens are impressive.   They were laid out in 1923 by Sir Edwin Lutyens with Gertrude Jekyll.   There are two broad terraces with an oval pond in the centre of the upper terrace with rills dropping down to the lower terrace.   A parterre in front of the chapel has some stunning topiary and to the west is a long avenue of pleached lime trees, believed to be the longest such avenue in the country.  

The tour ended with an inspection of a cedar tree which had been planted earlier in 2019 to commemorate the centenary of the award of the title ‘Royal’ to the Army Chaplains’ Department in 1919.  

The group was sad to learn that the house is to be put up for sale by the Ministry of Defence and members of the party expressed the hope that the property would end up with a sympathetic owner.   John Isherwood thanked David Blake for a fascinating and interesting visit on behalf of the party and wished him well for the imminent move to Shrivenham.

Peter Clarke