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2. Nissen Huts for Homes? (this post)
After World War II ended the newly elected Labour government under Mr Clement Attlee faced big reconstruction problems. Not the least was an acute housing shortage brought about by bomb damage and general lack of maintenance. By the early 1950s young married demobilised servicemen and their wives were starting families and expected something better than having to live with parents or in-laws. Financially the country was broke after the crippling cost of six years of war, and house building materials were in very short supply.
One temporary solution lay in the colonies of Nissen Huts being vacated by service personnel from units across the country that were disbanding.
The adaptation of the semi-cylindrical hut to non-institutional uses was not popular. Neither the Nissen, nor the American version – the Quonset, developed into popular housing, despite their low cost. There were several reasons for this, not least their association with huts. A hut was felt not to be a house, with all the status that a house implies. Also, rectangular furniture just didn’t fit into a curved wall house very well, and, thus, the actual usable space in a hut was much less than might have been supposed.
Nissen Huts for Homes – Case Studies
One such colony of Nissen houses stood on the Depot Field in Newmarket’s Houldsworth Valley where it had accommodated RAF personnel from the local airfield. Newmarket Urban District Council carried out basic repairs and improvements to allow the Nissen Huts to be offered to deserving cases as low rent accommodation. These improvements included the installation of Dormer type windows in the side of the huts to provide more light.The huts were painted black and were fitted out with basic amenities for a family – stove, bath, two bedrooms, kitchen, toilet, outside coal bunker, and there were even air raid shelters nearby.
The Dodds Family moved into one of the Houldsworth Valley huts in the mid 1950s, after starting married life sharing a parent’s house. Vera Dodds remembers:
“…it as very basic living, cold with condensation problems in winter, both cooking and heating provided by a coal range. Washing was done in a coal-fired copper. We did have an electric cooker that could be used in summer time but no amenities such as refrigerators or washing machines that we take for granted today…”
On the plus side they had kitchen gardens, with washing lines erected, and little paved paths down the sides of each hut. They grew flowers, and cultivated their patch nearest to their huts.
Another family, the Chapmans, lived on Hothfield Common near Ashford in Kent. They were there, in Hut 926, from April 1949 until September 1950. Sewage services were external to the hut. Heating and cooking were provided by a coal or wood fired stove.
“We moved straight in after our wedding in 1949 and thought ourselves very lucky to have a place of our own. We had three rooms, kitchen with range and tap, living room and bedroom. The loo was an Elsan outside. The rent was ten shillings a week. We always had plenty of logs, a man used to come round selling them, it was always nice and cosy, lovely in the summer.”
Others reported a grim tale,
“The first night we spent there, fleas came out of the walls and all over us. We had to stay out of the hut all next day while the Council fumigated it. The hut was very damp in winter, your clothes and shoes and everything were spoilt. We had to call the doctor to see our daughter and he wanted to know what we were doing living in a place like this. We told him that this was all they could give the servicemen after five years of the war with one child. The cooking arrangements consisted of a Valor oven. No hot water other than boiling it on the stove. Electricity consisted of a light at either end of the hut. Heating was by a stove in the middle of the hut. Later we moved to hut 610 camp 4 and this was much better with three rooms and a toilet outside. Cooking consisted of a coal burning stove”.
As is often the case when people have to share hardships many families remember a good community spirit grew up among the residents, to the point that remaining examples of Nissen Homes are now passionately defended by remaining residents, and often subject to preservation orders.