If you’ve travelled along the A303 in Somerset, you may have noticed, like many thousands of others since the mid-1920s, a rather strange sight to the north of the village of West Camel. Amidst the green rolling English countryside, four chimneyed semi-circular red roofs add a touch of rolling exoticism. They look like a domesticated version of the army Nissen huts familiar to older generations and that, indeed, is pretty much what they are. This is their story; the story of one of the most unusual attempts to provide the cheap and decent council housing our country has needed.
The four pairs of semi-detached homes in West Camel were erected in 1925. Their prototype was developed by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the 29th Company Royal Engineers some nine years earlier in April 1916 in the midst of the Great War whose execution demanded such economic and easily assembled buildings to house its personnel and services on an enormous scale. Production began four months later and by war’s end some 100,000 of these eponymous Nissen huts had been erected. (1)
The end of the war saw an unprecedented commitment to provide ‘homes for heroes’ for those whose sacrifice had secured victory but the idealism and financial generosity of the 1919 Housing Act was short-lived – quashed by austerity measures imposed in 1921. And while new Housing Acts passed in 1923 and 1924 were intended to boost council housing, shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour continued to hinder its construction. The search for new cheaper and labour-efficient methods was on and in 1925 the Ministry of Health (also responsible for housing) allocated £34,000 to support the building of demonstration homes using non-traditional methods in 86 local authorities across the country. (2)
Ten councils were already pioneering such efforts. A bewildering variety of systems was on offer though broadly differentiated by those using steel, timber or pre-cast concrete factory-made components for on-site assembly and those using pre-cast or in-situ concrete components manufactured on-site. (3)
The Somerset houses were designed by John Petter and Percy J Warren, a local architectural practice appointed Borough Architects to Yeovil Town Council in 1911. The obvious debt to Nissen was acknowledged in their formation of Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – a company established to market their new design to local authorities – with Nissen on the board of directors, alongside Sir Ernest Petter, a Yeovil industrialist and founder of Westland. (Petren was a compound of Petter and Warren as you’ve probably worked out.)
These were steel-framed houses, obviously so given their dominant feature – the semi-circular steel ribbed roof (covered with ‘Robertsons’ Asbestos Protected Metal’) bolted on to concrete foundations – with, in this first iteration, pre-cast concrete cavity walls. The company’s advert in The Times proclaims the advantages of this revolutionary and unusual design – it required only half the skilled labour needed to build traditional brick-built homes and could be erected in half the time. Another benefit: the early erection of the roof enabled ‘the work of filling in the walls and building the fireplaces and chimney backs to be proceeded with independently of weather conditions’. The estimated cost of construction, at £350, was reckoned £100 less than that of traditional housing. (4)
The first two of the Nissen-Petren houses, commissioned by Yeovil Town Council, were erected on Goldcroft in the town in 1925 and the Council’s pride in its pioneering role was amplified when it was visited ‘by a large and distinguished company’ including ‘representatives of the War Office, the Air Ministry, various municipalities and members of the London Press’ in March. The delegation was conveyed by car to the Borough Restaurant where it was addressed by Sir Ernest Petter who stated his hope that the experimental houses ‘would prove to be the solution of the housing problem of the country’. (5)
There were cavils about the appearance of the new homes (to which we’ll return) but these were swept aside by the Mayor:
when the model of the new houses was first shown to the Council many of them were not enamoured of them but they felt that there was something far more important in Yeovil than mere outward appearance of the houses. The great problem which confronted the local authorities today was to build a house, the rent of which the ordinary wage-earner could afford to pay.
In those terms, their estimated rents – at 5s (25p) a week plus rates and reckoned to be well within the reach of the average working man – were a critical advantage.
The same point was argued strongly by the chairman of Yeovil Rural District Council, JG Vaux, and, given the low wages of the rural working class, was judged even more important. (Yeovil Town Council was an urban district council; the surrounding countryside was administered by its rural counterpart):
Whatever their appearance, they were better than some of the brick hovels existing today. If they could put up 200 of these houses they would be able to demolish some of the hovels in their district. He believed that with regard to the dome-shaped roofs they had been just a little prejudiced against them and that if a number were erected away from the brick houses that people would soon get used to them.
The semi-detached Goldcroft houses were non-parlour homes with a living room, bedroom, scullery, bathroom, larder and coal store on the ground floor and two bedrooms and two box-rooms on the upper floor. Despite this rather unconventional layout, they were judged (by one observer at least) as ‘cosy and comfortable’:
The rooms are wide and airy, being well lit and properly ventilated. It would seem to the layman that the new roof far from restricting inside space, has allowed of more room.
Later, the tenants themselves were said to be ‘very satisfied with the accommodation provided’. (6)
This then was an optimistic period for the promoters of Nissen-Petren housing in a context where they appeared to offer a genuine solution to a very real need. Yeovil Rural District Council followed up its initial interest with a decision in April to invite tenders for six Nissen-Petren parlour houses in Barwick, four (two parlour and two non-parlour) in South Petherton and six non-parlour in West Camel. But only after a ‘heated discussion’. One member had declared himself personally ‘very much against these things’ (‘I call them “things”’) and there were allegations of water leakage in some of the houses built to date. (7)
A compromise ensued in the next meeting in which the Council agreed to proceed only where desired by the local parish councils. Some remained enthusiastic. Barwick ‘urged the erection of houses in that district with the utmost speed’, knowing that ‘it was impossible for an agricultural labourer to pay a rent of 8s or 9s a week’ that traditional homes cost. West Camel now asked for eight Nissen-Petren homes and South Petherton said it could take more. But Montacute refused them and, one month later, Ash requested brick or stone houses in preference to Nissen-Petren. (8)
A pair of Nissen-Petren houses was also built in the beautifully named north Dorset village of Ryme Intrinseca – it features in a John Betjeman poem – by (I assume) Sherborne Rural District Council but clearly taking its inspiration from Yeovil six miles to the north. In their idyllic setting, Lilac Cottage and the Lilacs look quite bucolic and the facing of the concrete cavity walls has a patina of age not dissimilar to that of adjacent cottages in local stone.
Interest in the new homes had spread further, however. Petter and Warren’s design had been worked up in conjunction with DJ Dean, the Surveyor for Bampton Urban District Council in Devon and that council built a block of three semi-detached Nissen-Petren houses in Frog Street. The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in which the Palace of Engineering (overseen by Sir Ernest Petter) featured seven prototype new homes including a model of the Nissen-Petren houses, was still running and the locals apparently nicknamed them Wembley Terrace, a name which has stuck unofficially. (Or perhaps, more likely, it was a reference to the twin domes of the then new Wembley Stadium.)
A subcommittee of the adjacent Tiverton Rural District Council visited Yeovil and returned ‘favourably impressed’ though Mr New, the chair of the Council, felt it incumbent to ask ‘the members to set aside prejudice’ – ‘the houses were not obnoxious and the people would be delighted to occupy them and pay an economic rent’. That might sound a little like damning with faint praise but a tender for 16 Nissen-Petren houses in Uffculme was accepted for a contract price of £5000 in December 1925.
At £312 each, that was low but problems of water percolation were reported in the new homes in the course of erection in 1927. (9) The local contractors erecting them stated that had followed the specifications set by the Nissen-Petren Company (to whom they paid royalties) and the Company claimed this was the first time they had had a complaint (though, as we’ve seen, water seepage was reported in the Yeovil Rural District). Presumably, a damp course inserted took care of the immediate problems but the houses themselves have, to the best of my knowledge, subsequently been demolished.
Meanwhile, councils beyond the West Country were expressing an interest in the potential of the new homes. Ipswich appears not to have taken this further but a delegation of two councillors and the Borough Surveyor from Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey (who had visited Yeovil in May 1925) were, having investigated a number of other options, keen to proceed. It was agreed to build three semi-detached ‘specimen houses’ on Edward Road, numbers 6-8 and 10-12 as parlour houses, and 2-4 as non-parlour. On this occasion the external walls were constructed of roughcast brickwork. (10)
The final authority to investigate the Nissen-Petren houses was Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex where an initial tender was accepted for homes on the Sidley estate and a further tender for 36 homes in the new Buxton Drive housing scheme in July 1927. A final tender from Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – but not the lowest – was received in September 1928.
By this time, things were going downhill for the enterprise. The final bill for the Goldcroft houses in Yeovil was received in September 1925 and came to the grand total of £1028 – over £513 per house and more expensive than conventionally built homes of the time. The architects waived their fees and the builder accepted a £100 loss but – despite reassurances that costs would be lower in larger future schemes with consequent economies of scale – that was essentially the end of the experiment. The Council congratulated itself on its initiative but licked its wounds. (11)
Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd was wound up in September 1928 and a bankruptcy notice issued in 1930. (12) I’m not clear that any of the Bexhill houses were built – I can find no further record of them. Does anyone know?
That is almost the end of the story so far as Nissen housing in Yeovil is concerned but for two quirky codas. In 1946, in the midst of an unprecedented housing shortage, a wave of squatting spread like wildfire across the country. By October an estimated 1038 military camps had been commandeered as emergency homes by almost 40,000 activists. Two of these unlikely radicals were – as named by contemporary press reports – Mrs Frank Ward (her husband was a dustman for Yeovil Town Council) and Mrs Kenneth Bowley (whose husband was serving with the RAF in Egypt); each had a three-year old child. They jointly occupied ‘the better of two Nissen huts off Eliott’s Drive’, a local site for barrage balloons, cleaned them out, hung curtains and got the stove going. (13)
Finally, to return to the Nissen-Petren houses proper, many are now listed, beginning with 172 and 174 Goldcroft in Yeovil in October 1983 despite their being described at the time by local councillors fighting their preservation as ‘eyesores, abysmal and shocking’. (14) Those in Barwick, Ryme Intrinseca and Bampton are also listed; those in South Petherton had been previously demolished. The pair in Queenborough survive without protection for the time being. (15)
Of around 4.5m new homes built in Britain between the wars, it’s estimated that not more than 250,000 were of non-traditional construction. Most of these, despite their unconventional construction, mimicked a more or less traditional form. The Nissen-Petren houses, of which there were around 24 in the Yeovil district and not more than 50 nationally, stand out. Their distinctive appearance wasn’t always well liked but many survive to provide an eccentric addition to some of our towns and villages and an arresting footnote to our wider housing history.
My thanks to all those people who responded to an earlier Twitter exchange on Nissen-Petren homes. The ‘Nissen-Petren Houses’ are also discussed by Bob Osborne in his A-to-Z of Yeovil’s History and Yeovil in Fifty Buildings.
(1) ‘FWJ McCosh, Nissen, Peter Norman (1871–1930)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (September 2004) [Subscription needed]
(2) ‘Steel Houses’, The Times, 18 June, 1925
(3) Harry Harrison, Stephen Mullin, Barry Reeves and Alan Stevens, Non-Traditional Houses. Identifying Non-Traditional Houses in the UK 1918-1975
(4) Nissen-Petren Advert, The Times, 7 April 1925 and ‘Steel Houses at Yeovil’, The Times, 11 March 1925
(5) ‘The Nissen-Petren House’, Western Chronicle, 13 March 1925. Quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.
(6) ‘Nissen Houses’, The Times, 29 May, 1925
(7) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses. Heated Discussion by RDC’, Western Chronicle, 24 April 1925
(8) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses’, Western Chronicle, 22 May 1925 and ‘Yeovil Rural District Council’, Western Chronicle, 17 July 1925
(9) ‘Housing in Tiverton Area’, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1 May 1925, ‘Tiverton Rural District Council’, Western Times, 11 December 1925 and ‘Complaint Concerning New Buildings Being Erected’, Western Times, 4 February 1927
(10) Susie Barson, Jonathan Clarke, Geraint Franklin and Joanna Smith, Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey, Kent Historic Area Appraisal (Research Department Report Series no 39/2006, English Heritage)
(11) ‘The Nissen-Petren Houses Houses’, Western Chronicle, 25 September 1925
(12) The Times, 17 August 1928 and The Times, 11 September 1930
(13) ‘Families in Army Huts. Squatters in the West Country’, Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 17 August 1946
(14) ‘Nissen Huts Not Needed’, Building Design, no 677, 17 February 1984
(15) You can read the Historic England listing details for these buildings on their website.