York Civic Trust has been working with four University of York students to better understand the history of Tower House on Fishergate, where Northern Command was based for many years, and also the role the Command held in York.
The project complements the return of 43 portraits of all of York’s Northern Commanders to Tower House, now a business centre, in a special event held on 24th June 2021 and attended by the Lord Mayor and Garrison Commander of Imphal Barracks.
The University of York students are Joseph Keeley, a BA in History undergraduate, and three MA Building Conservation postgraduates, Emily Ditsch, Thomas Hart and Etta Kirkpatrick-Tice, from the Department of Archaeology. Their research draws on primary and secondary sources and was additionally informed by local history and heritage groups which they reached out to for information, notably Fishergate, Fulford & Heslington Local History Society, Yorkshire Architectural & York Archaeological Society, and Clements Hall Local History Group, as well as site visit of Tower House (kindly provided by the business centre’s Manager, Harry Gillam).
What was Northern Command? It was the British Army’s Northern Military District, which was established in 1793 as a response to the French Revolution and fears of invasion. Its headquarters were transferred from Manchester to York in 1878.
The Command played an important role in World War Two when it was responsible for the defence of the coastline from the Wash to the Scottish border and training of the local Home Guard, reinforcing why the people of York referred to Tower House simply as ‘The War Office’. The Command came to an end in 1972 when it was merged into the HQ UK Land Forces.
The research project discovered that Northern Command and its Commanders were integral to civic life in York. Military tattoos on the Knavesmire ran from the 1920s to 1950s. They included everything from 100ft plywood replicas of the Tower of London and York landmarks, firework displays, to synchronised motorcycle display performances.
British Pathé ‘News Parade’ video clip (2m 3s) of the 1955 Northern Command Tattoo in York.
The tattoos were attended by hundreds of thousands of people in what was an age more attuned to the presence and role of the Army.
Commanders posted with Northern Command represent a group of distinguished officers. Notable figures include Brigadier General Edward Browne, a Victoria Cross winner; Lieutenant General Sir Harry Smith, a well-travelled officer whose life was recorded in Georgette Heyer’s 1940 novel ‘The Spanish Bride’ – considered a classic of the ‘love & war’ literary genre; and Lieutenant General Sir Ronald Adam, a key figure in permitting the Dunkirk retreat.
Drawing upon his project research of the Commanders, Joseph Keeley, said “Despite generally representing an end of career role, they nevertheless convey impressive life stories. Together their service represents over 150 years of history and displays not only an insight into Britain’s military past but also a fascinating narrative of the rise and fall of the British Empire.”
Tower House was purpose built for Northern Command. An elegant U-shaped stairwell remains, and a bell and clock mechanism in the tower still show the date 1878, the year the building was completed. Reflecting on his site visit of Tower House, Thomas Hart, who has also provided a professional heritage assessment of Tower House, said: “Research and site visits helps present information that may not be general knowledge, discovering details on Roman burials under this building. To see first hand the original bell and clock mechanism in the Tower was humbling and thought provoking; the human hands and time spent working on and in the building, fascinating.”
While Northern Command was decommissioned in 1972, Tower House remains a noted landmark building. It is an important reminder of York’s military history, and, given Imphal Barracks closes in 2030, will become one of few remaining testimonies of nearly 2000 years of military presence in the city.
Secret military tunnel?
Like all good stories, there is an added bit of mystery. A bricked-up tunnel was discovered several years ago in the basement of Fishergate House, directly opposite Tower House. It seemingly connects the two buildings. But what was it for? Etta Kirkpatrick-Tice said ‘Historic OS maps from the early twentieth century show both buildings were used as military offices. It is likely that any tunnel acted as a direct, traffic- and hassle-free way of moving between the buildings. Perhaps not the most dramatic use of a secret tunnel, but very practical!’ The connecting entrance to the tunnel at Tower House has yet to be located, but recurring divots in the front lawn give a clue of its likely course.
The research project has delivered fascinating results. It has also been of great interest to the four University of York students who bring a new inquisitiveness of the city during their time in York. Commenting on what she found most interesting from the project, Etta said: “I found it fascinating to learn more about York’s recent military history and how it impacted on the area around Fishergate and Fulford Road. Researching the military tattoos was particularly entertaining, with some great photographic records of the huge structures that were constructed on the Knavesmire. I hope our research can help contribute towards a record of the history of the area and this chapter in York’s long military history.”
The Tower House / Northern Command information panels that the University of York students researched and designed and now are on display in Tower House, but can viewed here as a pdf.
The Research Project Team would like to thank Harry Gillam, manager of Tower House Business Centre, and Prof. Gavin H. Thomas, Prof. Simon Ditchfield, Fishergate, Fulford & Heslington Local History Society, and Clements Hall Local History Group for providing information, advice and insight.
As part of the project’s appeal for information, Sally Chamberlain contacted the Trust with information relating to her father, Brigadier N.J. Chamberlain, who was stationed at Northern Command in 1951.
Brigadier Chamberlain’s service record shows that after a distinguished and varied career that had started during the First World War with service in the Middle East, as an Army Education Officer serving in India in the 1930s, and with the British North African Force during WW2, he was appointed as Chief Education Officer at the Northern Command Headquarters on 26 November 1951.
It is assumed that such a position as Brigadier Chamberlain’s would have been involved with preparations for the resumption after WW2 of the popular Northern Command tattoos on the Knavesmire in the 1950s.