The Drill Hall - Northumbria University
Dr David Holmes
Director of Academic Development at NU


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The name 'Drill Hall' accurately reflects the former military use of the building, but in fact it was originally called The Riding School when it was built in 1849 as a headquarters and training facility for the Northumberland Yeomanry Cavalry. This was a volunteer regiment originally founded in Newcastle in 1794 'to assist in the defence of the realm against Napoleon Bonaparte'. Military Riding Schools have a long history in Britain, dating back to medieval times.

The Riding School was designed by the famous Newcastle architect John Dobson who was responsible for many of the city's finest buildings, including the Theatre Royal and the majestic sweep of Grey Street. In comparison, the Riding School/Drill Hall is one of Dobson's lesser works, but that surely is a reflection of its utilitarian function. Nevertheless, it remains a Grade
II listed building and subsequent renovations have been consistent with that listing. Buildings adjacent to the Riding School included the regimental headquarters, an armoury and stores.

In keeping with the equestrian function of the Riding School, the original floor was of compacted earth, overlaid with sand or sawdust, and the building had a double storey height. Later conversions introduced a solid ground floor and the construction of a first floor. However, the original double height space can still be experienced in the modern spacious lecture theatre. Within the upstairs suite the original wooden roof trusses can still be seen. To the rear of the Riding School there was a stable area and arches (now bricked up) that were the exits for fully mounted hussars can still be seen in the west wall of the building. Although it was over 70 years since the building was last used for cavalry, builders involved in the 1991 renovations testify to the heavy smell of horses still being present then!! Luckily, no such smell exists now!

The Northumberland Yeomanry Cavalry have undergone several changes in name but continue to recruit from Newcastle and the north-east of England. In 1879 they became the Northumberland Hussars, and scenes from this era by the local artist Ralph Hedley can be seen in the current Drill Hall. As such they served in the Boer War (1900) and with distinction in World War I. In contrast to similar regiments who were stood down after WWI, the Northumberland Hussars were authorised to continue to recruit, placing them in the top ten selected regiments of that era. In 1939 they became the Royal Artillery Anti-tank Regiment and served in Egypt, Crete, Sicily, and Normandy. After the war they reverted to being a volunteer (territorial) regiment, equipped with armoured cars and specialising in reconnaissance. The direct descendents of the original regiment are still based in Newcastle as D Squadron (Northumberland Hussars) of the Queen's Own Yeomanry.

Somewhat more controversially, the regiment has been used against fellow citizens, such as in the miners' strikes of 1831 and 1921. In fact the Riding School was last used as a military headquarters in the latter strike. Perhaps it isn't surprising that there were contrasting views of the Hussars amongst the local population, and these were expressed in the words of
contemporary songs. For those not convinced of their usefulness or patriotism, they were (in the vernacular):

'Blue-arsed bumblers,
Cock-tailed tumblers'
Fireside sowljiers
Dor'ny gan to war'

The opposite view is expressed in the Regimental Marching Song (1895) 'So here's to the man who fates dares defy, Who for Queen and country is ready to die, Who, though gentle in peace will be fearless in wars, Hurrah for Northumbria's Yeoman Hussars'

Viewed in an historical context, the acquisition of the Drill Hall by Northumbria University, and now the School of Applied Sciences, is very appropriate. Its original purpose was for teaching and learning, albeit in a military context, and this theme continues in a more cerebral educational use. And perhaps it is ironic that a building once used to prepare men for war will now be used to educate students who will save lives in their chosen career.

Dr David Holmes
School of Applied Sciences

Editor's note: Many refer to the Drill Hall as formerly being called St. George's Drill Hall, probably based on the fact that its environs were called St. George's barracks.