The history and archaeology of the former St John’s Wood Barracks

Archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) explored the site of the former St John’s Wood Barracks ahead of its redevelopment. In conjunction with the City of Westminster and Historic England, a programme of archaeological work was devised, encompassing historical research, historic building recording and targeted archaeological excavation.

Site History

Before building recording or archaeological excavation could commence on site, archaeologists first had to investigate the historical background of the site and the potential for survival of archaeological remains.

Research revealed that until the Roman period (c. AD47) the area was almost certainly covered in woodland. By the medieval period the forest had been cleared to make way for farmland and remained so until the early 19th century. It was in 1812 that the site was developed into a barracks for the Corps of Gunner Drivers. The Corps was replaced by the Cavalry Riding Establishment in 1823 and in 1824 a Riding School was constructed on the site. The Cavalry moved out in 1832 and the Recruit Depot for the Foot Guards moved in after which a barracks was built to the south of the Riding School.

The property was continuously occupied as a barracks until 2012, when the King’s Troop relocated to Woolwich. In its 180 years of use the barracks had a number of occupants, including: the Infantry Battalion, the Life Guards, the Brigade of Royal Horse Artillery and, latterly, the King’s Troop.

These residents modified the buildings to fit their requirements and old maps indicate how they were reconfigured over time. By the mid-19th century an open area used as a parade ground was established to the south of the Riding School. Ancillary buildings, including the Officers’ Mess building, were built to the south and east of the site in 1921. A final round of improvements was made from 1969-1972 when nearly all of the existing buildings were demolished and replaced with modern barracks and stable blocks.

Historical research also explored Queen’s Terrace, a residential block constructed in 1862 and which included within it the Knights of St John public house, operational until 1993. The south end of Queen’s Terrace was redeveloped in 1935 as a block of flats known as Jubilee Buildings.


Surveying and recording the site’s historic structures has also taken place. Covering 22,000m², St John’s Wood Square houses 20 buildings that were built over 180 years use of the former St John’s Wood Barracks. The most notable of the structures recorded is the Grade II listed Riding School, constructed in 1824. Neo-classical in style, it is the only building that survives from the original barracks.

The Officers’ Mess, constructed in 1921, was also recorded. The neo-Georgian style Mess was added to the barracks following the return of the cavalry to St John’s Wood. The Riding School and Officers’ Mess survived extensive remodelling of the barracks in the early 1970s.

The 70s designs, by London born architect Elie Mayorcas, included construction of replacement cavalry buildings, stables and accommodation blocks.

The site comprises a row of terraced houses located on Queen’s Terrace, to the east of the main barracks site. These houses were built by the mid-19th century and include the Knights of St John public house, which served the local area until the early 90s.


In order to investigate the buildings that once stood on the site, which are today only known from historical maps, a series of trenches have been excavated. A large trench was opened across the parade ground to examine whether there were any remains pre-dating the barracks on the site, not recorded in historical maps or documents.

Although no earlier archaeological remains were discovered, the excavation did show that the area had been levelled during remodelling of the barracks in the early 1970s. Medieval farm soil had been removed and a layer of modern building debris placed directly above the natural London clay.

Within the Riding School a second area was excavated to investigate whether the building had ever been sub-divided, or if there were earlier floor surfaces surviving below the modern soft tarmac. Instead of one large trench, a series of three small trenches was opened along the Riding School’s width, to ensure the Grade II listed building was not weakened.

Fragments of moulded building stone and stamped bricks were discovered during the excavation. These objects were found in a layer of modern material and are likely to be debris from one of the many periods of demolition and redevelopment in the 180 year history of the barracks. Evidence for earlier floors or internal structures did not come to light.