This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Housing, or the lack of it, is a theme that keeps cropping up in British history. With fears of the young being priced out of the market, and government efforts to cap housing benefit payments, the issue is still headline news.
Britain’s housing problems just after the Second World War were even more pressing than today, but in a very British uprising, many people solved their accommodation woes by taking matters into their own hands. During the summer of 1946, thousands of families, most headed by ex-servicemen, illegally occupied the military camps which were now lying disused.
Virtually no new houses had been built during the war. Most building workers were in the forces, while those remaining had laboured on projects deemed essential to the war effort.
The Luftwaffe, and later Hitler’s V-bombs, had destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Many damaged buildings had been hastily and inadequately repaired.
The war had also seen an upsurge in the birthrate. And now over four million men and women were being ‘demobbed’ from the forces and returning home.
Britain needed millions of new houses; it was a promise on every party’s manifesto in the 1945 election campaign. And it was an issue that threatened to overwhelm Attlee’s Labour government when it came to power in July of that year. Its massive housing programme was dogged by shortages – and frequent thefts – of building materials. Contractors also complained of being held back by excessive red tape and over-regulation.
Former arms factories were now turning out well-designed and high-quality prefabricated homes as a temporary measure, but they weren’t being produced in nearly enough numbers.
Already in 1945, some leftwing ex-servicemen tried their own solution, and with some success. The so-called ‘vigilante campaign’ saw a number of empty private properties being occupied by squatters in towns along the south coast.
People began to squat in empty military sites the following summer. The movement may well have started in Scunthorpe, where workers were moving in large numbers for jobs in the expanding steel industry, only to find there was nowhere to live.
Another early site to be occupied was at Vache Park, Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire. The army camp there had been earmarked for resettlement of Polish ex-servicemen, but a group of British veterans moved their families in first.
On 13 August 1946 The Times reported from Vache Camp: “The huts now occupied nearly all have inscriptions chalked on them, such as ‘Taken by ——‘. In each of them there was already a heavy deal table and a wardrobe cupboard. This cupboard has also been used by most families as a post for setting up a curtain to separate one corner of the hut for use as a bedroom. The remainder of the hut serves as living room and kitchen with the large fireplace as kitchen stove, for which dead wood from trees outside is abundantly available.”
The idea spread across the UK – including Northern Ireland – with astonishing speed in the middle weeks of August.
Some buildings were high-quality brick or concrete places built for the British or American forces. Others were draughty, ramshackle and leaking; some had even become shelters for livestock. Few of the camps had water, sewage or electricity services.
For many people, even a derelict Nissen hut was preferable to having the whole family living in one or two rooms. Military huts provided plenty of space, and most could be made habitable easily enough.
Grabbing a hut
Tom Kirk, for example, came out of the army in 1946 after serving in north Africa and Italy and resumed his married life, living with his wife’s parents in Bristol. “They were very nice people, but I wanted my independence, and then there was this squatting all over the country…”
He grabbed a hut at a small camp to the north of the city and moved in with his wife Joan. “We were fortunate: there was a sink in there with a cold tap,” he told BBC History Magazine. “I altered the hut to make it a bedroom and living room, and we had one of those round Soyer stoves. I was then working at the smelting works as a fitter’s mate, and I got the welder to make me an oven, which we fitted on the top of the stove.”
From newspaper reports and readers’ letters, it’s clear almost everyone sympathised with the squatters. Empty government property was seen as fair game; it was the government’s responsibility to provide housing, and government property belonged to the people anyway.
The newsreels and papers presented squatting as the Blitz spirit, as ‘make-do-and-mend’. It was part of the armed forces’ tradition of ‘scrounging’ or ‘liberating’ much-needed items.
Willing to pay
Key to public support was the insistence of all squatters that they were more than willing to pay rent. Many of the camps started out with management committees which collected money for this purpose. In any event, squatting was a civil rather than criminal offence; it wasn’t possible just to send the police in to eject them.
Quickly and quietly, the government pragmatically caved in. It set up regional committees to deal with the camp question. Where a site was needed, the committees were charged with instigating eviction proceedings. In the great majority of cases, however, management was devolved to local councils, which became responsible for providing water, electricity and sewage services, and for collecting rents (typically between seven and ten shillings a week). Most councils were delighted to co-operate as the squatters were taking pressure off council house waiting lists.
Then, in September the Communist party decided to raise the stakes. Communists in London organised the occupation of a number of privately owned (but empty) flats in the West End. The action was well organised and determined, and it scared the wits out of every property-owner in the land.
Even the normally staid Illustrated London News condemned these new squatters as “the dupes of Communist promises and the cat’s-paws of the party’s tactics”.
The government acted quickly. Some ringleaders were arrested and charged with incitement to trespass, although they were treated sympathetically by the courts. The West End squatters were evicted, but quickly rehoused. A potentially serious threat to private property had been headed off. But the camps remained occupied.
By October, the vast majority of empty military premises – from anti-aircraft batteries with a hut or two, to extensive military hospitals and barracks – were occupied. The Commons was informed that across the UK over 46,000 people were living in 1,811 camps.
Most would leave within the next few years, as the house-building programme picked up speed and council houses became available. Yet, in a few places, good quality camp buildings were converted into permanent homes.
In most histories of postwar Britain the squatters’ movement hardly rates more than a few pages or a footnote. It’s almost completely forgotten, except by those who lived in the camps. But it was, briefly, part of the transformation of the country.
Eileen Milton has one of the best stories from that time. Eileen, her husband Bill and their three children, occupied a Nissen hut in what had been a PoW camp housing Italians. “I needed a clothes line, so one Sunday afternoon we all went to the entrance barrier pole, sawed it off, and then we all carried it back to the hut. And now I had a lovely clothes line!”
Eugene Byrne is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes answers for our Q&A pages.