Driving into Bury St Edmunds along the Newmarket Road, one encounters a rather forbidding red-brick Victorian building. This is The Keep of Gibraltar Barracks, now home to the Regimental HQ of the Royal Anglian Regiment, the local Army Recruiting Office, and the Suffolk Regiment Museum.
As part of far reaching military reforms in the 1870s, a whole series of new military depots was organised. Bury received its new military complex in 1878 to house what would become the Suffolk Regiment. It only became known as Gibraltar Barracks in 1938, named after the Regiment’s first Battle Honour. Apart from some of the perimeter walls, The Keep is the only original building to survive.
The museum’s entrance is understated, fully in accord with the utilitarian late Victorian military design. This austerity is quickly offset by the warm welcome given to visitors by the volunteer staff.
An introductory display case pulls the visitor into the museum. Past the reception desk, a good collection of medals takes you to the stairs which carry you up to the glorious main space of the museum. Here, the story of the Suffolk Regiment begins.
In 1685 James II ordered the Duke of Norfolk to raise a regiment against the threatened Monmouth Rebellion. The XII Regiment of Foot included men from both Norfolk and Suffolk, and it was not until 1782 that the title East Suffolk was added to its designation, with Norfolk having been allotted to other regiments.
The Cardwell reforms of the Army in 1873 established the Regiment’s Depot at Bury, and in 1881, it formally became The Suffolk Regiment. By the end of the century some 90% of the men came from the county.
The general layout of the museum is primarily a chronological one, but there are lots of displays to side-track you. There is nothing to stop you from wandering about as the fancy takes you. The relatively open, yet cosy space allows you to make comparisons between periods or types of artefacts with ease.
At the top of the stairs the first thing that comes into view is a military life display of the Regimental Band instruments and uniforms. Much is crammed into the displays giving a good sense of the relationship between different items. More modern museums can often make objects more valuable than they are. This may be fine for dress uniforms or pieces of regimental silver, but not for the everyday objects that accompanied soldiers in their day-to-day lives.
There is a collection of military uniforms, particularly from the nineteenth century. An officers full dress uniform of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of 1885, sits alongside a Militia officer’s full dress uniform of 1869-1890, as well as accompanying the Mess Kit of the 3rd Cambridgeshire Volunteer Battalion of 1880. This range shows the complex mix of formations that go into something as simple-sounding as a county regiment.
It also demonstrates a county link, not just with Norfolk, but also with Cambridgeshire. The 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment during WWI was known as the Cambridgeshires and the museum hosts a display of Cambridgeshire material.
At the far end of the room there is a well-presented display of firearms. Those on the left were all fired by in battle by the Suffolks, while those on the right were captured.
Women and children first
The two sections are divided by a spear from the 8th Xhosa War (Frontier Wars) 1851-1853. It was during this campaign that the HMS Birkenhead ran aground on the Cape Coast while carrying reserves for the campaign, including men from the XII Regiment of Foot, with wives and family. Over 300 men died during the incident, including 55 from the XII. As the men paraded on deck the women and children went first into the lifeboats and it was from this incident that the famous maxim ‘women and children first’ came into being.
A happier story surrounds a tenor drum of the 1st Battalion during the WWII. Having formed part of the BEF the 1st Battalion were forced to withdraw to Dunkirk. However, rather than destroy their drums they left them at Roubaix with a note saying ‘to be called for later’. The drums were hidden in a hat factory or private homes. After D-Day, three of the drums were returned intact, though one was later destroyed by enemy action. The other two went into general use after the War and lost sight of. However, in 2004 one appeared again on Ebay and was acquired for the museum.
The museum also has a nice collection of flags, which are suspended from the ceiling. There is a flag captured from the Imperial German Embassy in the former Togoland, a Nazi flag from the port of Bremen captured in 1945, and an intriguing Japanese prayer flag taken from a dead soldier at the time of the battle of Imphal in Burma, also WWII.
This latter lends a Far East flavour which is taken up in other exhibits. There is a harrowing exhibition of photos of prisoners-of-war held by the Japanese. The Suffolks’ involvement in Malaya after the war is shown by a display of the uniform of a ‘Communist Terrorist’. Many soldiers involved in the Malayan conflict were National Servicemen and a corner is given over to them.
All in all, this is a small gem of a regimental museum. Due to the volunteer nature of the museum it is only open at limited times. If your visit to Bury doesn’t coincide with the opening times, there is a splendid introduction to regimental history in the Moyse’s Hall Museum in the town centre. This has its own Suffolk Regiment Gallery with a great display. An excellent taster of the Suffolk’s Regimental history.
The Keep, Gibraltar Barracks
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk IP33 3RN
Open: 9.30am – 3.30pm on the FIRST and THIRD Wednesday each month, and on the FIRST Sunday each month.