Squatting in an Age of Austerity

01Aug10

The great thing about local history is just when you think you have a good grasp of it, something startling comes along. Like the forgotten (and possibly suppressed) tale of mass-squatting in the postwar era. I want to do some more work on this, and get some eyewitness accounts, but here’s the outline story for starters …

In the summer of 1946, the War had been over for a year, and huge numers of servicemen and women were being demobilised to rejoin their families. The problem was that the country, materially and financially exhausted by six years of total war, had nowhere near enough housing. Countless homes had been destroyed by German bombing, and a huge rebuilding programme was dogged by shortages of materials. What materials there were were often stolen and sold on the black market.

Bristol had been badly bombed during the war. Over the course of six major raids and dozens of smaller ones, thousands of houses right across the city had been damaged or destroyed.

Some of the gap was now being plugged by pre-fabricated houses. The BAC aircraft works at Filton had successfully turned much of its production line over to making its famous ‘Airoh’ pre-fabs for use all over the country.  (Here’s one I made earlier! If you’d like a pre-fab of your own, OR some Bristol aircraft top trumps just go here!)

Bristol, however, still suffered from a chronic housing shortfall.

Meanwhile, with continuing demobilization, the armed forces no longer needed many of the camps and military installations which had sprung up across the country since 1939. As the forces abandoned them, they became the responsibility of the Ministry of Works. By August 1946, the army, navy and air force had vacated 850 sites around the country, ranging from small installations such as searchlight or anti-aircraft batteries, through to full-blown camps with accommodation for thousands.

Most buildings were unfit to live in, but some were not, and many were easy enough to make habitable again. People cast envious eyes over many of them; even a draughty, leaking Nissen Hut seemed preferable to only having a room or two for your whole family – especially if you were living in substandard housing in the first place.

In a spontaneous movement which rapidly spread across the country, families started moving into the abandoned camps and taking over the buildings.

Bristol was in the forefront of the movement. The first squatters moved in on August 12. Their target was a camp at White City, between Ashton Gate and the Cumberland Basin.

White City got its name from the international trade fair and exhibition held there in 1914. As soon as the event ended, the Army moved in as WW1 had broken out, and it became a training camp for the 12th Battalion of the Glosters, whose numbers were made up mostly from Bristolians. In WW2 it became one of the many camps occupied by American servicemen in and around Bristol. The area is now roads and the site of an allotment.

On August 12 1946, something between 50 and 70 men, women and children  gathered in pouring rain at the gate and asked the guard to let them in. He refused and telephoned the police. A police inspector and four constables turned up in a patrol car and told them they were trespassing. At this point, the squatters decided to ignore the police and forced their way in.

Within two days, nine more camps were being occupied in and around Bristol. Before a week had passed, 20 camps were under occupation. Locations included Shirehampton, Bedminster Down, Brislington, Speedwell, Hanham, Westbury-on-Trym, Purdown, Whitchurch and Mangotsfield.

The movement across the country was a genteel revolution, with squatters offering money for rent and rates. It was felt that military camps – government property – were fair game because it was the government’s responsibility to provide housing, or because it belonged to the people anyway. In any event, squatting was a civil rather than criminal offence, and so it wasn’t possible just to send the police in to eject them.

It left the politicians confused. Bristol City Council’s Housing Committee issued a statement warning the squatters they were trespassing, and emphasizing that it would not take responsibility for their comfort or convenience.

At the same time, though, a Labour member of the Committee, Alderman W.H. Hennessey addressed the White City squatters, saying: “Sit tight. Carry on. Take no notice of rumours. The police cannot touch you. They cannot drive you out of your huts unless they are given sanction by the Ministry of Works in London, and I am satisfied the Minister will not give the police the power to enter this estate and turn people out.”

The Bristol Labour group executive rapidly issued a statement distancing themselves from Alderman Hennessey. It said they “viewed with grave concern the action of a small section of the people who have adopted methods which are akin to mob law in taking over accommodation quite unsuitable for housing purposes. If those actions are to be accepted it means a diversion of time, labour, material and energy from the provision of proper homes.”

The movement fizzled out towards the end of the summer, particularly when the Communist Party started to organise squats of private property in the West End of London. Politicians and people alike started to think that while there was nothing wrong in making use of government property, private property was crossing a line.

Nonetheless, in October the government estimated that almost 40,000 people were squatting sites around the country. Meanwhile, politicians passed the buck around. As there were lots of worries about cleanliness, sanitation, heating and water supplies at disused camps, it became a health issue. Health Minister Aneurin Bevan told councils to cut off supplies of gas and electricity to squatted properties and claimed squatters were “jumping their place in the housing queue”. Few councils seem to have done so; squatting was seen by many as a temporary solution to an urgent problem.

As the housing situation improved, people gladly moved out of the camps, although one in Oxfordshire was still occupied by 100 families ten years later. There were some happy endings locally, too. In 1946 people squatted the former American military hospital in the grounds of the Tyntesfield stately home at Wraxall. This prompted Long Ashton council to convert the brick-built hospital buildings into 152 homes. Direct action here, at least, had a wholly constructive outcome.

If anyone reading this knows anyone who squatted a camp in the Bristol area, please get in touch!

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11 Responses to “Squatting in an Age of Austerity”

  1. 1 John milton

    Hi
    We were a family of 2 adults and 3 children and in need of a home.So when the nissen huts became vacant in 45’46 we visited different sites,the first was in Cumberland Basin but there were so many people scrabbling to claim a hut by putting up a curtain we went to Purdown.However there was a large static water tank close by and John(5) was too adventurous for us to stay there,so I went on my own (leaving the children with my aunt in Avonmouth rd) to visit the nissen huts off Westbury Lane and found a good one by the pavement and claimed it by hanging up a curtain so we moved in July’46.We had no running water or electricity just a hurricane lamp and water from the old officers quarters hut fetched in jugs.The toilets weren’t far away and we all had a rota for cleaning.There were two devil fires one each end of the hut so for a while everything was boiled on one devil.Then my uncle Fred and Bill my husband acquired a range from the American camp hut on the golf links and put it on the back of a cart pulled by a donkey ….very slowly.I needed a clothes line,so one Sunday afternoon we all went to the entrance barrier pole …sawed it off then we all carried it back to the hut…I had a lovely clothes line! We paid 8/6 a week part of which went towards electricity brought up from Westbury Lane it was turned on the day before we left.John went to school at St Edyths Sea Mills and one day he came home and asked ‘What’s a squatter?’ someone at school had told him he was one.The children were aged 5,3,and 18 months.
    View from a 5 year old…..
    I remember..fetching the water…helping carry the ‘clothes line….picking blackberries in the fields behind the camp……helping to partition off the hut into bedrooms with blankets…..sitting around the devil fires glowing red hot.

    • What a wonderful story! Thanks ever so much for that. I’m now finally starting to make contacts with some local people who took part in the squatting movement. Would you be willing to answer a few follow-up questions? If so, please mail me at eugene.byrne@gmail.com

  2. 3 John milton

    Hi
    Yep no problem.You’ve probably gathered by now the article was penned by my mum I am John the 5 year old.
    John Milton

  3. 6 Mrs Partner

    Hi. My Father Was A Young Boy In 1946 When He Along With Other Familys Were One Of The So Called Squatters Who Moved Into A Nissen Hut.
    These Huts Were In Birch Nr Colchester Essex. We Are Desperate To Hear Of Other Families Who Were Also Living There At The Time. He Has Vivid Memories Of These Times

    • Hi , I was a young child & can remember living here in the huts in Birch …I was certainly there in 1947 as I remember the Local paper doing an article on the bad winter of 47 ….I also went to a school which was next to a windmill.

  4. 8 Anne Davison

    Hi, I know that my parents started out living in a nissen hut around 1946 ish . I also know that the nissen hut was in the Westbury in Wilts area but more than that I don’t know anything as my dad was killed in a car accident in1956 and for some reason my mum never spoke about life in the nissen huts. I would like to find out more but don’t know where to look so I was overjoyed when I accidentally came across this site. I realise this is a selfish request but I wondered if you knew of any nissen hut sites that were around the Westbury Wilts area in 1946 ish. Thanks for your time.
    Anne Davison

    • Hi Anne. No worries! Glad to be of interest. You should be able to find out more about this, but a bit of work will be involved. I don’t know anything about Westbury specifically, but there would certainly have been several camps in the area. Your best bet would be to contact local history groups there; you might find these via Google, or failing that mail or phone the local library there. There will be someone there who knows where the camps were. Because the gov’t accepted squatting as a fait accompli, the camps were usually treated as council housing, with the local authority collecting rents. It may well be that somewhere in Wilts there are records of your family and where they lived and how much they paid each week.

  5. 10 jane devlin

    I am an ex-squatter from more recent days, I was a squatter in 1999 in Ashley ward in Bristol. I am deeply concerned about the criminalisation of squatting that is currently depriving desperate people of temporary accommodation in Bristol. If you ever decide to write any pieces on more recent Bristol Squatters history I would be happy to contribute, there is a very rich history there.

  6. My family lived in a Nissen hut at Woodlands Park Almonsbury in the early 50’s, we were homeless along with other families. Mum hung blankets to make bedrooms, there was a little round stove in the middle, the toilets were communal. As a 10 year old I quite enjoyed playing with friends in the camp, less fun for Mum I imagine.


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