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The Cardwell Reforms took place between 1869 and 1881. They resulted in the old numbered, marching Regiments of Foot becoming County Regiments with a permanent base. Up until this time Britain had kept a relatively small number of troops at home; the majority being stationed abroad. This was not a problem whilst the 1815 Treaty Of Paris held the balance of power in Europe. The powerful 'Holy Alliance' between Russia, Austria and Prussia deterred any thoughts of war until Napoleon III engineered a dispute with Russia that resulted in the Crimean War of 1854. Europe became unstable as a new balance of power came into play, with Napoleon III arguably the most powerful statesman. Between 1866 and 1870, however, Prussia defeated first Austria then France. This led to the creation of a new power - the mighty German Empire - and the British Government realised that Army reform was urgently needed.
The British Army was, at this time, still organised along the same lines as in the Napoleonic Wars. Officers bought commissions and were not recruited on merit. Other ranks were enticed in by the recruiting sergeant who bought them drinks and offered them a bounty. Pay was low, conditions poor and once they had paid for the necessities of life, what little they had left was often spent on drink. Flogging was the main form of discipline. Nevertheless for many, conditions in the army were better than those of the unemployed or agricultural labourers. The army offered a job for life, basic rations and money for drink. One married man in every twelve infantrymen was allowed to take his wife and family with him to help with the regiments cooking and sewing.
Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for War instituted the reorganisation of the army. In 1867 there were 141 numbered Infantry regiments. Cardwell divided the country into 66 brigade units based on county boundaries. A Regimental Depot and Barracks was built in each county as the centre for administration, recruitment and training, for regular troops, militia and volunteers alike. This was why the Depot Barracks was built in Dorchester. Cardwell introduced many other reforms including a short service system, an army of reserve created from short-service soldiers, fines for drunkenness and the abolition of the purchase of commissions. The system was more economical with both men and money and led to a long-term improvement in the army.
The Military Forces Localisation Act of 1872 provided the money for the building of these new barracks. In Dorchester the local Justices of the Peace were only too keen to sell the Militia Barracks to War Office for this purpose. This offer was originally turned down, but the JPs were desperate to off-load the barracks and kept the pressure up. In June 1875 the Colonel of the local Royal Engineers intervened and this led to a War Office Inspector visiting the site. The War Office agreed to pay the local Justices £4000 for the site.
The Royal Engineers were responsible for building the new Depot Barracks, under the command of Brevet Colonel CS Askers. The Duchy of Cornwall agreed to sell the War Office the site itself for £1800 (it had been under lease to the Militia).
The building contract was put out to tender and this was won by Messrs Bull and Sons of Southampton for a bid of £38,000. Work commenced in April 1877. A temporary tramway was built from what is now Dorchester South Station to carry materials to the site. 150 labourers were employed to build barracks. In September 1879 Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimer (the Commander of the Southern District) officially opened the barracks (although there was to be no water supply until January 1881), and in October 1879 34 men from the 39th (Dorsetshire) and 75th (Stirlingshire) Regiments of Foot arrived to take possession of the Barracks. The link with the 75th Regiment of Foot was an interim one only; at that time the 39th of Foot had only one battalion. In 1881 the 39th of Foot became the 1st Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment and the 54th of Foot (The West Norfolk Regiment) became the 2nd Battalion the Dorsetshire Regiment. The 75th of Foot became the 1st Gordon Highlanders.
These men had been temporarily billeted in Weymouth. A further 113 men later joined them to work on the equipping of the barracks before it was fully occupied in 1881. See the 1901 census transcript for the occupants of these barracks in April 1901 and 'Life In The Barracks, Dorchester 1925-1935' for memories of a childhood in the Barracks.
In 1958 the Dorsetshire Regiment amalgamated with the Devonshire Regiment to become the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment. Regimental Headquarters was moved to Exeter. In the early 1960s the barracks were sold off to the Royal Mail and Dorset County Council. More recently the Tax Office, Job Centre and a car park have been built on the old parade ground. The Keep was the only building to remain in Ministry of Defence hands as the Museum of the Dorset Regiment and in 1994 it was refitted to become the Military Museum of Devon and Dorset Regiments. Today the building remains the property of the MoD and the Museum, now a private charity, leases the premises.