Squatting in the cold

The practice of squatting – people taking over and occupying empty premises – goes back for centuries, sometimes through desperation for a home and sometimes as a political protest. The highly publicised squats of the 1960s and 1970s were simply a revival of a longstanding British tradition, previously seen on a large scale in 1946.

Bombing had destroyed homes, servicemen were returning and the population was growing. As no new housing had been built since the war started, demand was exceeding supply. The result was extensive squatting across the country.

As well as private homes, former military buildings caught the eye of the homeless: many parts of the countryside had wartime Army and Air Force camps standing empty,
and the government could find no reason for denying their use as emergency housing.

In our thousands

Many of them were handed over to squatters and, by the autumn of 1946, official figures recorded nearly 40,000 people living in more than 1,000 ex-military camps in England and Wales, with another

4,000 in Scotland. This was a respectable form of squatting and gained public support – opinion surveys showed that people saw a clear distinction between the occupation of private property and the use of publicly owned buildings such as old Army huts.

For a year in 1946 and 1947, my parents and I were squatters, though at the age of four I was too young to know it.

Fed up with living in rented rooms, my father moved us into an old Army camp in
the Cambridgeshire countryside. There was a mixture of about 20 corrugated iron Nissen huts and wooden huts with pitched roofs.

We had one to live in and one as a store for our surplus furniture, books and other possessions – my father never travelled light and I still don’t. Water and sanitation were basic and an iron stove was as good as it got for heating. But it was home and we were grateful for it at the time.

It must have been hard work for my parents, but it was exciting for me as a young child. The camp was a safe place to roam and play in, and the social mix was considerable, for the homelessness created by war knew no social boundaries and there were people from all backgrounds. In one of the neighbouring huts I remember seeing my first electric train set in operation, cherished by its owners from pre-war days.

Hardly anyone had a car at that time and we were a mile or two from the nearest village, so the sense of community was strong. It was certainly put to the test by the weather that winter. This was one of the harshest in living memory, and a wooden hut was not the best place to spend it in. First of all we were buried in snow for a week while men with shovels worked their way up the lane from the nearest village. A great cheer went up as their lorry came into view and we were finally rescued. The snow eventually melted, but then there was a huge gale, which one night almost tore the roof off the hut.

The following year we moved into a normal house with a few more mod cons. No longer living in isolation, we were now in a village full of thatched cottages.

But that year was one that stuck in my memory and over the decades, curiosity has taken me past the site of the hut many times. Each time I visited there was less to remind me of what squatting meant so long ago, until eventually it all vanished under an East Anglian field.

Peter Southgate, Woodchurch, Kent