Located on what is now Steeple Road PSNI Training Centre, was a 440 bed camp of the North Irish Horse. Very little is evident today of what was vacated over 100 years ago, but the site boundary is almost identical to what the reserve cavalry soldiers would recognise from their time there, its existence only confirmed following a single plan available in the National Archive at Kew, but enough to spark my interest and the publishing of this article.
The North Irish Horse (NIH) was a reserve unit formed from the North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry in September 1908, having only been established in 1903. The unit consisted of four Squadrons; A was based in Skegoneill Avenue along with the Regimental HQ, B in Londonderry, C in Enniskillen and D Squadron was in Dundalk. As the high readiness Special Cavalry Reserve unit, the NIH had the honour of being the first reserve unit to deploy to France upon commencement of hostilities in 1914 – the expeditionary (A) squadron departing only 3 days after war was declared. It was around this time that RHQ moved to Antrim to recruit and train reinforcement troops and establish additional squadrons. Their move to Antrim was most likely to Steeple Road.
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Based on accessible map data (PRONI Historical Maps), the following timeline can be established:
- 1832 – 1846 Agricultural land
- 1900 – 1907 Agricultural land. Site is still three separate parcels of land. Adjacent to saw mill and railway terminus
- 1914 North Irish Horse RHQ moves to Antrim
- 1905 – 1957 Agricultural Show Grounds. Site is now one parcel of land. Stables appear still in existence around the internal perimeter of the site
- 1919 – 1963 Industrial use. Railway terminus on site
- 1957 – 1986 Depot. Railway terminus still on site
- ???? – 2017 PSNI Training Centre
The camp appears to have been constructed very early on in hostilities and at the same time as many other training camps of the time. Construction would most likely have been very temporary in nature, with wooden billets for the men and wooden stables for the horses. From the plans we can see that the camp would accommodate 401 horses and 440 other ranks, or soldiers. There was no provision for Officers, who at the time would have been accommodated elsewhere locally.
The entrance to camp is bottom left on the plan. The relatively small and unassuming building housed the guard room, headquarters and office. There appears to have been at least one additional phase of construction with additional ‘new’ stables being build to the right of camp. The ‘old pavilion’ at the bottom of camp is on the edge of the parade ground (not shown on this map) and was most likely repurposed as the camp expanded. There is however a recreation institute, sergeants mess and bath house. For a relatively small camp with no Officers accommodated within, these features suggest a higher standard of living to that of an infantry camp, such as the 5,000 bed Randalstown Camp.
Being a cavalry camp, there are some features that are uncommon in most other camps; To the left of the pavilion is a forge, essential for making ironwork for 400 war horses! Around the perimeter of the camp are ample FS and DP – feed stores and dung pits. It doesn’t appear that fresh waster was piped to the stables, so I am sure that one of the daily tasks of the soldiers was to water their horses. As raw materials were in short supply and in a camp of this nature, very little area would have been concrete. Perhaps an intentional decision given the movement of horses around the site, all of the images below of soldiers posing for the camera are in front of buildings, but sitting on grass.
The images below help to tell a story about the make up of the camp as well as the standard of accommodation the men serving here would have had to endure. None of the images are my own and I have linked the source with each.
Very close to Steeple Road was a contemporary Royal Engineers Barracks based in the Union Workhouse. This seems to have been the result of a requisition, but from the plans it is unclear whether the workhouse and fever hospital were still in use throughout the time. The hashing of the buildings on the plan may indicate they were not for military use. Within the RE barracks, 6 Officers and 330 other ranks were accommodated, with an additional 300 horses between stalls and standing. The vast difference in camp layout and the accommodation facilitated to both the men and horses reinforce the utility of horses during the war. The cavalry camp afforded greater luxury to both men and horse; together they were a fighting machine. In the Royal Engineers, the horse was brute force in days before commonplace machinery; and as such had a more utilitarian approach to caring for them. The map below places both camps in relation to each other.