How Newmarket’s ex-military Nissen Huts were pressed into use after the war ended.
Nissen Hut. (Historical Terms) a military shelter of semicircular cross section, made of corrugated steel sheet US and Canadian equivalent Quonset hut [named after Lt Col. Peter Nissen (1871-1930), British mining engineer, its inventor].
The Nissen hut tended to be more curved, maximising floor space but was often not lined in war time. The Quonset had a shallower curve, restricting use of floor area, but were lined. (T.P. remembers living in one (with 9 others) in his early days in the R.A.F., freezing in the winter, roasting in the summer)
After World War II ended in 1945 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 demobilized 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.
What was to be done? One temporary solution lay in the colonies of Nissen Huts being vacated by service personnel from units that were disbanding. One such colony stood on the Depot Field at Newmarket’s Houldsworth Valley where it had accommodated RAF personnel from the local airfield on the Rowley Mile.
However, there was a problem. Squatters had moved into the empty buildings and were occupying them illegally and bearing in mind the acute housing shortages they had a degree of public sympathy. After a year or two the squatters were persuaded to move, and 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 included the installation of Dormer type windows in the side of the huts as can be seen in the pictures below.
So what was it like to live in a Nissen Hut?
Karin Starmar writes; I know that the huts were painted black and were fitted out with amenities for a family – stove, bath, two bedrooms, kitchen, toilet, outside coal bunker, and there were even air raid shelters nearby. Also, there was a building which seemed to be like a wash house as a laundry, or something akin to communal use, situated nearby as well.
While families occupied the Nissen huts, during the early 1950s, the nearest school for their children, was situated along Black Bear Lane, on the corner of Fitzroy Street, as Houldsworth Valley School was built later. Mr & Mrs. Goreham. ran the school with the help of young teacher assistants. Children learnt their alphabet writing with chalk on handheld, slate black boards.
Directly opposite the school’s entrance, across the road, was a tuck shop, which ran from a room in a house. Children could spend a couple of pence, or if they were really fortunate, spend sixpence on sweets, such as a sherbet dip, or a small bar of toffee.
A little more than halfway down Fitzroy Street, leading from the school, on the same side, there used to exist a house set back from off the road, which could have been a Vicarage. It had a sandy path leading up to the entrance. One of the rooms was used as a temporary Health Centre, where children who attended the school were sent for their jabs: afterwards, they were rewarded with a sweet, which they could choose from a large jar.
In the former playground of the school, which is now used for parking, are the original patterned bricks of dark grey, and also the original flint stone wall. The school was later converted to the town library and has since been turned into office use, and there have been a few alterations made upon the building, although it still retains most of its original features.
For a period of time, while Mr and Mrs. Drake lived in their Nissen hut, the Air Ministry was still working in adjacent offices, which were buildings constructed of bricks and mortar. Residents of the huts continued to live out their daily lives in the huts, separated by a wire fence to keep private the restricted areas. One of the office buildings was filled completely with papers and documents, as a storeroom, obviously the paperwork related to the war effort.
The shell remains of an aircraft’s engine, (the nose) lay for a long time by the old communal building, and it was used by the children as a plaything.
A Mr and Mrs Rule and their two children, Christine and younger child, name not certain, could have been Janet, lived in the last hut (next to Mr and Mrs. Drake), and at the end of their garden, lay two air raid shelters, with a brick entrance, disguised as a grassy mound. Once inside, there was sufficient room for four adults or more.
Unfortunately, though, there was no roof, at the time, which must have deteriorated or been removed. On the opposite end of this row of huts lived a family of German folk, whilst right in the centre of the site, a hut was occupied by a Mrs. W, and her children.
Vera Dodd moved into one of the Houldsworth Valley huts in the mid 1950s, after starting her married life sharing a parent’s house. She 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. They did have an electric cooker that could be used in summertime but no amenities such as refrigerators or washing machines that we take for granted today. Not a good place to bring up a baby, she says.
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.
As is often the case when people have to share hardships a good community spirit grew up among the residents, as may be sensed from the group picture below.
Vera was grateful for the independence from parents that it provided but was not sorry when she was able to move into a new house in Valley Way after about four years.
Karin Starmar, Mrs Vera Dodd, Peter Norman, Alan Mann, Derek Coombes