Friday, August 16, 2019

Chedworth, Gloucestershire

Nissen and his huts

The other day I was driving to Cirencester and the route was blocked by roadworks in a village. I took the prescribed diversion, but turned off the signed route after a short distance, to take a back road that I didn’t know, but which the Resident Wise Woman and I both thought would take us closer to our destination. As we rounded a bend, a shout of delight rang out from the passenger seat: we had spotted the building in my photograph, probably the longest Nissen hut I’ve ever seen. A convenient gate provided a temporary parking space and I was soon out of the car and zooming in to this amazing enfilade of corrugated iron and developing rust. It was going to be a good day.

There was no one around to ask, but we guessed that the hut was a building associated with a former airfield nearby, itself not far from the current RFC Rendcomb Airfield. RFC.* That's RFC as in Royal Flying Corps, which is to say before the RAF. Suggesting that the area was home to a World War I airfield. If that’s the case, I thought we could be looking at quite an early Nissen hut. but it turns out to be a World War II hut, part of Chedworth airfield.¶

It was in 1916, that Lt Col Peter Nissen had the idea of combining a metal frame and sheets of corrugated iron to produce cheap, easily assembled huts for the Allied armed forces.† The army acted quite quickly on Nissen's idea because, they needed huts: like many a good inventor, Nissen had seen a need – for cheap huts that could be made quickly to house an expanding army – and set out to solve it. Although the idea of the hut is very simple, the finished design was not done in a day, because Nissen had to refine it, thinking of everything from an easy, watertight way to joined the iron sheets to a set of simple illustrated assembly instructions that could be followed by unskilled men working at speed.

And so it was that these strange rounded structures began to appear. The Daily Mail, being cheerful in terrible times, described what it must have been like they they emerged on to the field of conflict, without any apparent preparation and in magically short order:

‘At about the same time as the tanks made their memorable debut on the battlefield, another creature, almost equally primaeval of aspect, began to appear in conquered areas. No one ever saw it on the move, or met it on the roads. It just appeared! Overnight you would see a blank space of ground. In the morning it would be occupied by an immense creature of the tortoise species, settled down solidly and permanently on the earth, and emitting green smoke from a right-angled system at one end, where its mouth might be, as though it were smoking a pipe.’

The huts caught on, at first to house troops, kit, and even field hospital beds, after the war for all sorts of civilian uses. They're not uncommon on airfields§ and many have also ended up on farms, or used as factory extensions. But I have not seen one as long as this  – even the lon huts I saw on TV making up a former prisoner of war camp were not, I think, as big as this one. It must need its many windows, as the standard layout for the shortest huts, with just a pair of windows in each end, simply would not work in a structure as long as this. But work this one must have done, for years, for whatever purpose it is now used, and although somewhat rusty, it shows signs of care and recent repair. Long live Nissen’s huts!

- - - - -

* Wingwalking is one of the activities pursued here. For a fee, you too can get strapped on to a framework on the upper wing of a lovely Boeing Stearsman biplane and zoom and bank above the Cotswolds. I find it a frightening idea, but many love it, and someone was enjoying the experience as we drove past.

¶ Thanks to readers who supplied information via the Comments section.

† For much of my information on the origin of these ingenious huts, and the Daily Mail quotation, I am indebted to Fred McCosh, Nissen of the Huts, BD Publishing, 1997.

§ Back home, I checked the OS map and saw that the airfield indeed extended in this direction – and that maybe even the road I was driving along was originally part of it.


CH Johnson said...

The aerial photo for this airfield shows a number of other similarly shaped buildings in the trees to the north and possibly a further example to the SE. In 'Military airfields of the BI' this field is listed as coming into ww2 operation in 1942 as a tactical exercise unit for fighters with 'EO blister 2' hangers.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you. I just found that listing – probably as you were posting the comment! I have added a footnote including the fact that this is a WW2 airfield.

Municipal Dreams said...

Fascinating post as always. On the subject of Nissen huts, you might be interested in this:

Iain Robertson said...

The hut was part of the WW2 airfield at Chedworth. It is on Chedworth's Manor Farm's land and is now used as a cattle shed. In the surrounding area there are quite a number of Nissen and other huts associated with the airfield.

bazza said...

Several Nissen huts were still in use as homes around the area where I was bought up - Forest Gate in East London. Wanstead Flats had many prefabricated homes which were only removed when an Act of Parliament meant the land had to be returned to the Crown. Also, on the Flats there was a prisoner-of-war camp utilising Nissen huts for Italian prisoners.
And now pre-fabricated housing is making a return! I quite like the idea.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s ultimately unthinkable Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Municipal Dreams: Thank you so much for the link and for reminding me about these houses. I've meant for a long time to go and have a proper look at thew Nissen-Petren houses at West Camel, which a friend told me about years ago. Maybe next time I'm going down in that direction I'll take the A303 instead of my usual, more westerly, route.

I'd not seen the fascinating advert at the end your post – thanks for that too.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Thanks for your insight on your local area. This kind of building – both Nissen huts and prefabricated dwellings – was popping up all over the country during wartime and in the postwar period. Much of it has gone now.

CHJ said...

Following up my earlier comment isn't the use of this technology and material fascinating. In my work around the area of the Blackdowns ww2 airfields I often come across small examples of nissen huts on local farms which must have been sold off after the war and reassembled; mostly smaller examples but most of them are still sound now 70 years after their original use.