When Nissen Huts Were Homes For Squatters (14 December 1973)
Recent reports in this District bring to mind the greater amount of squatting that occurred hereabouts shortly after the last war. In fact, that was the first time I heard used for the unlawful occupation of premises for the purpose of living there, so it might have been coined about that time. It was a time of desperate housing shortage and in general the reasons were different from those of today. There had been no house-building for about six years and many thousands of former houses had been demolished or rendered uninhabitable by enemy action.
The system of demobilisation by means of age-cum-service groups (two months’ service equalled one year in age) was working reasonably fairly and well, but it meant that from about Group 26 to Group 30 men were coming out of the services in hordes. Many were now married and felt it even more imperative to land a house than a job.
That was how I came to Bletchley. My age and service made me Group 23, which gave me just enough time while still on demob leave to beat the bulk and begin a job with the promise of living accommodation.
It was an experience which gave me the greatest sympathy for the homeless of that time. These were not layabouts or people who had married too early and thought society owed them something. They were just the losers in the post-war housing stakes and, generally speaking, society did owe them something.
In the District were small groups of nissen huts which had been closed down and abandoned by the service units who had occupied them. Homeless ex-servicemen eyed them speculatively. Not that they particularly liked them.
They had known them only too well and so, in some cases had their ex-service wives. But the huts were better than nothing and, in some instances, better than living with in-laws
There was one such group of huts on the rise known as Rectory Field at Bow Brickhill. Inevitably one took the plunge, got into one of the huts and set up house there. In about a fortnight all the huts were similarly occupied. Naturally, on health grounds, Newport Pagnell Rural Council became worried by the development but eventually they took over and provided services for as long as they might be needed.
Squatters in other hut groups, such as the one at Skew Bridge, were not so lucky – if that can be the word – and were hardly in and they had to get out.
The efforts made by the womenfolk to turn those half-cylinders of corrugated iron into homes were admirable. The few I visited were spotless.
The most interesting attempt at temporary housing I saw about that time was at Simpson. The village had a fairly new Methodist chapel, but the tiny old one which it had replaced was still in being, complete with pews and pulpit.
They might have had permission, or been offered it – I forget which. But the old painted exhortations to “Praise the Lord” were still on the walls and I suppose they might very well have done so for that small mercy.
It reminded me of the time another youth and myself holidayed at an old-fashioned seaside boarding house and over my bed-head was a jolly inscription warning me that “In the midst of life were are in death.”
Three-and-a-half years of nissen huts were quite enough for me. Except for my first billet, I wish those years had come at the beginning of my service instead of at the end. I spent my first night in the army on a two tier bunk in an old rag warehouse. Slates were missing from the roof. We still had only our comparatively thin civilian clothes. It was the beginning of March and I awoke in the morning to find that nature had provided an extra blanket. It was snow. The irony of it was that my parental home was only about four miles distant.
After that I was luckier for about 18 months. First there was trade training at a centre where we were billeted mainly in requisitioned three decker buses. True, there were no beds, but a straw palliasse on a wooden floor is fine for a good night’s sleep.
Next, to a holding battalion centred on a woollen mill. Two-tier bunks again, but reasonable spaces, a good roof and even remnants of mirrors in the ablutions.
Then to another holding battalion, this time at the seaside, where I spent the winter comfortably in single iron beds in former hotels, but with no other furniture, nor floor covering, nor heating.
Next came what was called a single war office posting to a unit in Hampshire which was to be the first of its kind in the army. Here we were quids in. Smart wooden huts, single iron beds, brown lino on the floor. I never saw the like again until I visited Bletchley RAF camp after the war.
It was too good to last. Before long the unit went to do their own particular job in a large depot on the outskirts of London. Here we were billeted in a huge barbed wire camp consisting almost entirely of nissen huts.
Oh those nissen huts! The floor was bare rough concrete. Two-tier bunks ranged round the walls with hardly enough space for a kitbag between one bunk and the next. Everything else went on a plank shelf attached to the walls. Along the middle were a trestle-table, a wooden form and an iron combustion stove which worked when fuel could be got for it. One or two 40-watt bulbs provided the lighting.
It was an iron life. But I never had an illness, not even on the day when hundreds around me went down with dysentery. And I formed two lasting habits. Firstly, I always put on my socks before my feet touched the bedroom floor. Secondly, I still welcome a good hot breakfast as the most essential meal of the day, and make time for it. But as the ol-time army demob hymn tune might have had it, “No more nissen huts for me.”