Archive of the Month Nov 2020: Photograph of Alan and Trevor Edwards, 1948, Haymill Camp, Slough
This is a photo of Alan Edwards and his little brother, taken at Haymill Camp, Slough, in 1948. What does this photograph tell us about life in post-WW2 Slough? Using this photograph as a starting place, Lisa Edwards (daughter of Alan), talks about her search through contemporary newspapers and local government records, done to contextualise Alan's memories of that time. Lisa weaves a tale that takes in Slough Industrial Estate; injured veterans; squalid living conditions; squatters taking over former military camps; and the slow rebuilding of post-war Britain.
Lisa Edwards has worked at Buckinghamshire Archives since 2008. She is a historian with publication credits in Family Tree and History Workshop.
I am going to be talking about the post Second World War National Squatter movement that started in earnest in August 1946 and how this impacted on my own family in Slough Buckinghamshire, using official documents and the memories of my dad Alan Edwards who recently passed away.
The term squatter has many different connotations, defined by the organisation SHELTER, as ‘a person who enters and occupies property without permission from the person entitled to possession of the property’.
Squatting over time has been vilified in the press, normally being associated with radical social-action organisations. Interestingly the movement that was borne out of the deprivation of the Second World War was all of this; a phenomenon that it could be argued took the Atlee Government completely by surprise as they struggled to fulfil elections promises made.
To put a little context to the situation it should be remembered that house building slowed down for the duration and over 200,000 homes were destroyed by enemy action and a further 250,000 were so damaged that they were made uninhabitable (Alan Holmans, Housing Policy in Britain: a History (London: Croom Helm, 1987).
Added to this hundreds of thousands of service men were returning home and the population in general and the number of married couples had grown considerably since 1939. There were also over 160,000 Polish serviceman and their families who were granted the right to remain in the UK at the end of the war. Building materials and skilled labour were in short supply. In his research Alan Holmans estimated that in 1939 housing shortages in the United Kingdom were at least 500,000 and by 1945 this figure was 2.1 million households needing a home.
And so the post war housing crisis became a perfect storm and by October 1946 39, 535 people had taken matters into their own hands.
In July 1946 there were according to Slough Borough Council notes, 6,250 families on the housing waiting list in the Slough Borough and at least 443 families consisting of husband, wife plus children permanently living in single rooms. To make matters worse, the Greater London Council was planning to send 40,000 people from Greater London to Slough to be rehoused.
Until August 1946 my family on both sides didn’t have homes of their own. Each lived in one room within a shared house. I found reference to my mum’s family in the Housing Committee Report of the Borough Engineer for Slough Council and it said that:
A house was being let on 31 August 1946 to ex Merchant Navy man James Keenan. He had first applied for a house on 17.07.1939. He had 4 children (2 males aged 6 and 5 months and 2 females aged 8 and 3.5). (The 8 year old was my mum Jean Keenan). There were 11 persons living in 4 rooms. Mr Keenan said the family had the use of 1 room and that they had been living in the room for 8 years. My mum’s family were lucky and were finally given a house, my dad’s family not so lucky.
My dad and his parents and younger brother lodged in a single room in various houses within Cippenham from 1943 and sometimes slept on the floor of the Hygienic Ice factory on the Slough Trading estate where my grandad was a night watchman. The last room they had was in a house on Haymill Road Cippenham, directly opposite the army camp housing injured Canadian soldiers who had been discharged from the Canadian Red Cross Hospital and were waiting to be sent back home to Canada. And it was this camp that was to change my dad’s life forever.
The camp had a cinema that repeated the same films over and over again. My dad was 5 years old and the Canadian soldiers would let him in to watch the big screen. He was often given chocolate too. He would tell us how for a long time he used to think it was normal for a person to have limbs missing or be badly burned as many of the soldiers at the camp had terrible battle scars.
In 1946 the soldiers were starting to leave and by August the camp was emptying out; the day that the last soldiers’ left, word got round of their departure and local people began moving in. My grandparents picked a hut and chalked their name up on the door. Though by the time they had managed to get a van for their pieces of furniture another family had taken it. They ended up living in what had been the camp’s storage hut. A vast space that they shared with another family, and in order to afford some privacy to each, blankets were put up by my grandad to divide the room in two.
Historians sometimes refer to the past as a foreign country and my dad’s childhood world of army hut life is certainly that. Water was collected from the washhouse and heat provided by a small wood burning stove that heated only the area directly around it. The toilet consisted of a bucket placed in a shed. The water was always dirty to begin with and unless you were sat right next to the stove you would be cold. The huts were freezing cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer.
For my dad, the camp provided a world of adventure. Young boys playing in the detritus left behind by the Canadian Army, not understanding the danger they placed themselves in. A famous tale he often recounted is the time he and his friends found a stock of bullets left behind by the troops and how they tossed them onto a bonfire and ran for cover when the shells exploded in all directions. I cannot be sure if this is just a childhood myth but it does make for a good family story.
I have been looking at newspaper cuttings from the period and it would appear that the Haymill Road Camp they moved into wasn’t actually disused. The Canadian Army left in the morning but they were due to replaced in the afternoon by a unit of Polish soldiers from Amersham, however by the time they arrived to take up residence, dozens of families had moved in and the camp was almost full. Newspaper reports talk of …“the squatter invasion spreads. This week three more camps have been seized, two at Cippenham – Royston Way and Haymill Road and one near the social centre”. My family hadn’t just moved in, they had seized the camp!
Local journalists wrote of council officials worried by the increasing numbers of squatters, so much so they were desperate to keep the location of the remaining hutted camps a secret. They didn’t want families coming in from other areas trying to settle, especially those from London.
This I have to admit was a part of post war social history that I knew nothing of and after seeing the newspaper headlines deploring the behaviour of the squatters, I wanted to know more!
You are looking at a photograph of the camp “invaders”. It is of my dad and his brother taken outside hut number 12, by a local reporter at the time of the camp occupation. We are not sure why the picture was taken but they were given some bread rolls if they smiled for the camera! We do not think it ever made it to print. I would suggest that it doesn’t really depict the mood of the highly emotive, local newspapers headlines of the time, which could be a reason for it not being used.
It seems quite astounding now but government statistics from 1946 state that 39,535 people in the UK occupied 1,038 camps. Camp invaders were accused by politicians of the day of trying to jump the housing queue. The two little boys in the photograph, waiting to enjoy their bread rolls had no idea the trouble they and others like them were allegedly causing council officials in their plans for post war reconstruction work.
In August 1946 it was reported that harvest work was being hampered in Buckinghamshire because the plan had been for agricultural workers to be housed in some of the army camps. In Burnham Beeches prisoners of war were due to start clearing the land of military waste, but the camp they were to move into had been taken over by homeless families and so the Beeches remained closed to the public. The Chairman of the Burnham Beeches squatter camp defended the families who had taken refuge in the huts and wrote that many of them had previously lived in terrible conditions, sometimes six in a room or they had been separated from each other.
Letters to the Times Newspaper called for the squatters to be returned to the properties they had vacated because the country was seemingly turning to mob rule.
The Times Editorial of September 10th 1946 cites the problem of …”the enormous gap between housing demand and housing supply” and talks of more than 250,000 people in London alone waiting to be re-housed.
Some of the camps were in a very poor condition. The Ministry of Health were responsible for housing and drafted people in to look at the sanitation within them. The Royston Way Camp in Cippenham was described as dilapidated and not fit for habitation. The council are said to have done what they could to bring it up to standard. The invasion meant all housing and sanitation departments within the council had to concentrate on making sure the camps were fit to live in. Again, this added to the bad press coverage. The invaders were accused of holding up new housing plans because work time was being spent on them and not on house building.
When the council visited the Haymill Road Camp they put a dividing wall up in my dad’s hut and so the blanket that separated the families could finally be taken down. My dad thought the camp sanitation was probably very basic. He remembered the water from the washhouse would often be a rusty colour when you first turned the tap on and it wasn’t till some time later when my dad got sick that they realised the hut they were living in was in fact on top of the main sewer pit.
Yet for all the negative press, the camps were well organised and had elected committees and as already noted in the Burnham Beaches Camp, a chairperson. There were camp rules. The council wanted a code of rule to be enforced on each camp. The number of people that were allowed in each hut was to be controlled and if any family broke the code of rule they were to be evicted from the site. The Council decided to charge 5s per week for the camp including water and rates. People were put on the electoral registers as the camp being their permanent address.
Slough and Datchet Electrical Energy Company charged the camp direct and the monies were collected from the residents by the camp committee.
The Ipswich Road gun site camp was deemed uninhabitable yet the Slough Borough council still charged rent. The people were moved out as soon as they could and the walls of the buildings were taken down so that no one else could move in.
Noel Mobbs Director of Slough Estates stated that he wanted the Slough Stadium cleared of huts and said he’d organise help to do it.
Many of those in my dad’s camp ended up living on the same street in the 1950’s when the council built new houses. Some even became councillors. He talks of the day that he discovered they had got a house. He came home from school to find the camp had emptied everyone had gone. He finally found someone who told him that people had been given the keys to their new homes and to try the new estate. He had no idea where they had gone but walked to where he had been told they might be. After what seemed an eternity to a child of 11 he saw his younger brother in the front garden of a house. He was shouting at him quite hysterically – you’ll never believe it but we have an inside toilet and a bath and everything!
My grandparents so relieved to get the keys had forgotten to let the school know where they had moved to.
I can see why the squatters angered officials. I can even see how they might have cost the council extra both in terms of time and money. Yet I also see a group of people who were so desperate for a space of their own that they would take the chance of moving into a dilapidated army hut rather than remain where they were.
It was a time when returning servicemen who were promised a better life by the powers that be, as a result of their wartime victory, often felt let down and frustrated. They wanted what they saw as rightfully theirs, a job and a decent place to live in. Civilians who had struggled for six years, many bombed out of their homes, wanted a place to start again. It is hardly surprising then that when properties became empty they seized the opportunity to try for a better life.
The camps became an important part of the answer to the housing crisis and remained in use by Slough Borough Council for many years.
Now, in the relative luxury of the twenty first century, I cannot begin to imagine what living in this way must have been like. Yet, the time we are speaking of it is not that long ago, it is still within a lifetime, but to me, looking at it through my dad’s memories and newspaper cuttings, it does feel like a different world; a different country.
And the most surprising thing is that the quiet revolution of 1946 when nearly 40,000 people went against the Government and took what they needed, has simply become folklore where members of Facebook groups discuss their memories of living as a squatter and yet the importance of this monumental moment in Social History does not seemed to have been recognised elsewhere.
A file of newspaper cuttings and photographs headed ‘Burnham Beeches’ (D113/69)