Contents List College History Retrospective Articles

   

One Decade

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the first 10 years

The Nissen Hut Designer

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College Magazine spoof

Nissen Around

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the true story

Forty Years Back

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a look back in 1991


One Decade
... was the title of this introduction to the 1962 College magazine

Please, Sir, I had such a strange dream, Sir, there seemed to be someone banging on an anvil in the Biology Lab., Sir, and there were boys playing FOOTBALL - real football, Sir - on that field where the cows are by the tennis courts, Sir.  And the teachers were drinking tea in one of those little tiny offices in 39, Sir, and the Needlework Room was the Library, and the Chapel was a dormitory, and 34 was a dormitory, and 32 and 31 and 30 and 29 and  - - - - -  All right.  ALL RIGHT!  Calm down, lad; it was just a vision of the past.  What you saw did really happen, and there was a lot more besides that you didn't see. A little earlier and you would have found the Nissen Huts full of young men and women training to be teachers.  Before that, the place was a hospital for American airmen, built on what had been a golf-course.  A few years ago, when they drained the duck-pond, they found lots of golf-balls at the bottom.  Go back far enough, and you would find a Saxon settlement - remember the Morley Hoard of silver coins?  And we know that pottery was made here in Roman times.

However, I expect you are more interested in the early days of Wymondham College.  You should have been here in 1953 when the place was full of firemen and fire-engines; they had come to Norfolk from all over the country, and used the College as their depot while they went to the coast to pump out hundreds of flooded homes.  At that time, of course, there weren't anywhere near as many children here.  There used to be only about ten buses to bring them here instead of the great fleet we see now. "G.C.E.'' and "O'' Level and "A'' Level were words which had little meaning for anyone. That's hard to imagine now, isn't it, when two halls are full every July with people to whom these words mean so much.

There was no orchestra (perhaps that wouldn't have worried you too much?); there were no School Houses, not even the old North, South, East and West.  Football, as you saw in your dream, was played with a round ball!  Good old days?  Well, not really.  Wymondham College - incidentally, do you know why it was not called Morley College? - was not the household word that it has become in the County today.  It certainly looks much better now; when I was first here you could count the brick buildings on one hand!  And I think most of the pupils, though they might not admit it publicly, are proud to be here.  Our lion rampant, too, strikes me as being more appropriate than the WC monogram that used to be worn on the College blazer.

I asked you a question just now, and it occurs to me that if you can't dream any more of our history, you might like to see what you can find out for yourself.  What chalet and Nissen Huts have been moved - one of them twice?  What huts are longer or shorter than they used to be?  Why is one of the doors in 13 so terribly heavy?  What is the history of the Cricket pavilion?  What pond has disappeared?  And what are you doing standing here talking to me when you should have started prep ten minutes ago?  Be off with you - and if you dream of a finished College, all brick, and not a Nissen Hut in sight, let me know.  I want to know if I am still there!

P.R.B.  (Paul R. Banham)

The reason the doors of hut 13 (used for 'Commercials' training) were so heavy was that they were lead-lined.  The building was the WW2 hospital's X-Ray department. Can anyone answer the other questions in the last paragraph (bar the last!)?

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The Nissen Hut Designer
(A NOTE ON THE FOUNDATIONER; by Michael Rice)
From the 1963 College Magazine

WCRemembered Editor writes: Well done Michael; I fell for this, hook, line and sinker, nearly 40 years after you wrote these words.   Roger Garrard kindly made me aware of my gullibility and pointed out that the true  inventor of our erstwhile homes was Lt Col Peter Norman Nissen; an Army Officer and mining engineer (1871-1930).

Bjorn Farlein Nissen was born in Gjovik, near Oslo, in August, 1863; so we have particular cause to remember him in this, his centenary year.  His father was a minor civil servant, and his mother the daughter of a shopkeeper.  Together they had four children, of whom two died in early infancy.

Bjorn, the second child and only son, left school at twelve to become apprenticed to a pitchfork maker, but he soon discovered that this was not his bent, and he entered the business of a master builder as an office boy.   At the age of seventeen his talent for drawing led to his being taken on as a junior draughtsman.  Thus he became acquainted with the problems of architecture, seen from the practical, not the purely artistic standpoint.  When he began designing for himself in his early twenties he was able to incorporate his experience gained in building, and so produced solid, practical designs of no striking artistic originality.

After the death of his parents, Nissen lived with his elder sister in Oslo.  When she died in 1912 he went to America, where he came under the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and began to produce primarily functional designs.  He resisted with typical stolidity the bizarre attractions of Lloyd Wright's more fanciful creations, although adopting his fluent approach.  He was preoccupied with expressing the old Norwegian style in the materials of the day, and used concrete and steel freely in combination.  He was one of the first architects to insist on designing his own interiors, and here used wood for panelling and fittings in the Scandinavian fashion.

Nissen stayed on in America, producing houses, schools, and post offices, until 1933, when he returned to Norway.  A design for the Norge Rundfunk caused his work to be severely criticised.  An article in "Det Tageblat '' made a strong protest against ''the stark facility and un-enterprising symmetry of Nissen's erections."  Nissen returned to America for good a year later.

So far his career had been unspectacular, but on his retirement he found time to devote himself to the task of making a building for quick erection by builders starting on the expansion of U.S. forces' camp sites.  His aim was to produce a standardised building for speedy construction and one that could be used in any conditions.  With great simplicity of line and reliance upon the fundamental techniques of building as used by the Aztecs, Esquimaux and Mongolians, a prototype pre-fabricated "Esibild '' house was erected in Nissen's garden at Still Water on 2nd August, 1937.  It was a minor breakthrough in architecture.

With the U.S.A. preparing for war, Nissen's design was immediately accepted as an all-purpose building for use overseas. It had a semi-circular cross-section for strength, cavity walls for insulation, and required no special skill to erect.  It had the further advantage that it used common materials such as concrete, corrugated iron, and plaster-board, and was therefore cheap.  Nissen's hut (for such it was) immediately became the standard U.S. army building overseas, and with the return to Britain of the sons of the Pilgrim Fathers, great numbers made their appearance on airstrips, hospitals and depots.  Since the dissolution of these latter, the huts have seen service variously as hen-houses, barns, and even schools.  It is a striking, though not uncommon, thing for a creative artist to pursue his career unknown until the end of his life, when perhaps one work will make his name a household word.  This was the fate of B. F. Nissen, for he died in Minneapolis in March, 1943 at the age of 79, only a year or two after the acceptance of his design.  Thus he was never able fully to appreciate the import of that building which, although intended for temporary use, is still widely utilised today.

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Nissen Around
by Hamish Mitchell FInstCES

We are grateful to the Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors for permission to reproduce
this article from the Civil Engineering Surveyor magazine of May 1999

Remains of a Nissen Hut in a field near Chedzoy, Somerset
click to enlarge

Many of those who served in HM Forces may recall being awakened by a dreadful rattle as some sadistic NCO took great delight in running a stick along the corrugated side of the hut in which they had been sleeping. This building was known as the Nissen hut and this month's article looks at its development and subsequent use.

The Army has always had a requirement for accommodation for its troops but it was the advent of the Crimean war which first drew attention to the need for quick and easily erected buildings. Photographs taken at the time show soldiers standing in front of very substantial 'temporary' buildings that must have taken a considerable time to erect. At this time, the eminent engineer I.K. Brunel addressed the appalling conditions that existed for medical services, with the design of temporary buildings constructed of several parts to suit the form and nature of the site.

Unfortunately, despite this auspicious start, the War Office failed to grasp the need for good, easily erected hutting until an earthquake destroyed Kingston, Jamaica in January 1907 and it took until April to produce the first hospital hutting.

During the First World War the build-up of troops in France - particularly on the Somme front- meant a high demand for hutting for encampments and other shelters. However, problems were met when the existing Armstrong sectional hutting - which had been used successfully in 1912 to build the Flying School on Salisbury Plain - was found to be too bulky for shipment. A solution had to be found.
The problem came to the attention of a temporary captain serving in the Royal Engineers. Peter Nissen was lying in bed thinking of the hutting problem when the idea came to him for the design of semicircular huts using corrugated iron sheeting.

Nissen, who was a Canadian, later admitted that he probably drew inspiration for the design from the ice-hockey rink at Queens University in Kingston Ontario. This building and the drill shed at the same university were semi-circular in shape and Nissen, who had been a student there, knew them well. Whatever the source, the idea was a breakthrough. Up until then all hut designs followed the 'house-type' pattern, with walls and eaves that could not be produced rapidly in the quantity required.

Interest in the idea conceived by Nissen was quickly taken up by the General staff in France and Nissen, who had been with an RE Field Company, was transferred to General Headquarters at Hesdin, Pas de Calais, with instructions to oversee the design and construction of prototype huts. The first prototype was inspected in May 1916 and the first manufacturing order was placed in England in that August. Many firms were employed on the venture. For example, end panels were made by Boulton and Paul of Norwich; the Coatbridge firm of Wm. Baird & Co. produced the ribs; corrugated iron sheets were produced by Brady & Co. and many Black Country firms were employed to produce the fixings. A total of 100,000 Bow huts were manufactured and supplied to France and Belgium. To give an idea of the scale of this achievement this number of huts accommodated some 2,400,000 men!

At the end of the war Nissen was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his invention. Unfortunately, after the conflict a confrontation developed between Nissen and the War Office over payment for his invention. The offer made to him of 500 was considered by Nissen to be derisory in view of the large numbers of huts that had been manufactured. Eventually common sense prevailed and the matter was settled with a payment to Nissen of 10,000 tax free!

The Concept of the Hut

Three prototype huts appear to have been designed and built. Nissen describes two of these as:

'No 1. Hut: 18' (5.486m) long by 18' wide. Three bays, with one large window on each side or two small ones at each end, A door at each end with a ventilator over each. Lined 5/8" rebated stock boarding. Five sheets iron in circle.'

'No 2. Hut: 20' (6.096m) long by 18' wide. Three bays, window on each side, or two at each end. Door both ends with ventilator over each. Lined 5/8" rebated boarding which I held was unsatisfactory and advised 1/2" matching. Bows of 4 ply with one narrower to form grove for lining.' - Nissen of the Huts by Fred McCosh.

These two had some faults. It appears that the original bows were constructed of 3/4" timber which was bent to a curve and nailed together. The curved corrugated iron was held in place by iron straps, the ends were made of plain boarding and the hut was not lined. Nissen insisted that provision of a lining was essential and developed the hook bolt to attached the timber purlins.

The third hut replaced the timber with 'T' iron bows and the width was reduced to 16'(4.877m). Side windows were omitted in favour of ones at the end and oiled linen was substituted for the glass. Matchboarding replaced the rebated boards and the ends were constructed from 2 ply panels.

Following the trials a standard model emerged using the iron bows. This was 27' (8.230m) long, 16' wide and 8' (2.438m) high. A hospital hut was also developed. This was 60' (18.288m) long, 20' wide and 10' (3.048m) high and dormer type windows were added to the sides. The 2 ply ends were abandoned in favour of vertical boarding with battens placed over the joints.

The erection sequence was:

1. Wooden bearers were laid on level ground, usually on brick supports.
2. The steel bows or ribs were bolted to the bearers and the timber purlins attached to the ribs using hook bolts.
3. Wooden floor joists were screwed to the bearers to receive timber floor panels.
4. End panels were fixed into position and the internal lining added.
5. The exterior corrugated iron skin was fixed.

Erection was normally carried out by six men over a period of 4 hours. The record time for erecting a hut was 1 hour 27 minutes.
The 'standard' Nissen hut did not exist, as the design was never static. For example, the timber lining was - due to the occupants using it for firewood - changed to one of vertical corrugated iron sheets, while the more permanent huts had a concrete floor and concrete blockwork end panels.

Heating was provided by an oil drum with two holes in it and a smoke stack. This contraption was known as the Canadian stove and it could become red hot when fed on green wood.

Sketch of Nissen Hut showing the main components
click to enlarge

Conclusion

The Nissen hut survived the First World War and was seen again in the Second, although by this time popularity had waned on account of the curved sheets being difficult to pack and transport. Despite this, the hut, in various guises, featured in many theatres of war.

Nissen huts can still be seen today on the Orkney islands. There the Italian Prisoners of War in Camp 60 obtained permission from the Commandant to turn a Nissen hut into a Chapel. The result was almost miraculous when you consider the circumstances which surrounded the conversion. Led by Domenico Chiocchetti the prisoners turned the iron hut into a thing of beauty. For example, they disguised the ironwork with plaster coving and built a concrete altar behind which, on the end panel, they painted a portrait of the Madonna and child, flanked by two painted windows.

After the First World War Nissen huts helped with housing shortages when were marketed under the name of Nissen-Petren Houses. In 1925 a number of these houses appeared in the Yeovil area of Somerset. They were constructed using a framework of semi-circular steel ribs and had a corrugated asbestos-steel roof. Today eight of these dwellings - four 'Parlour' types and four 'Non Parlour' - still exist just off the A303 at West Camel. It is interesting to note that following an application in 1983 by Somerset County Council these have been listed as Grade II houses of architectural and historic interest.

Nissen died in March 1930, but his legacy lives on in his hutting, which was used by the Army in the Falklands campaign in 1982 and which can still be seen on farmland and old military bases around the country. There is another legacy that links to the first article of this series. In the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy in London the figure of a Royal Engineers Tunneller on the Institutes memorial to those members who fell in the 1914 - 1918 war was modelled by none other than Peter Nissen!

Nissen huts certainly made an impact in the world of temporary accommodation. They also made an impact on those required to live in them. The story is told of a father who met his son coming home on leave at the railway station with the words:

'Well, my boy, the cares of the War seem to be weighing heavily on your shoulders.' 

'It's not that Dad, I've been living in a Nissen but for two or three months - I'll soon straighten out.'

(from Nissen of the Huts by Fred McCosh)

References

History of the Royal Engineers Vols. V & VIII
Nissen of the Huts by Fred McCosh
20th Century Defences in Britain, Handbook of the Defence of Britain Project, Edited by Bernard Lowry.

Nissen-Petren houses at West Camel
click to enlarge

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Forty Years Back
From the 1991 College Magazine

Most of us know that the nissen huts were built when the site was used as an American Field Hospital during the Second World War, but what was the site used for after 1945? When, how and why was a school established? I decided to investigate the development of Wymondham College by consulting Mr Taylor and other past pupils who are in themselves the "living history" of those first pioneering years ...

Until 1939 the eighty acre site was used as a golf course adjacent to Morley Hall; after that, of course, it became a hospital and our famous corrugated iron huts were erected. After 1945 an emergency Teacher Training College was established, the site also being used as a genera! storage area for, for instance, the county's "Green Goddess" fire engines. From 1950 the nissen huts also began to be used to gather the more academic pupils from secondary modern schools in S. Norfolk for a few hours a week to "enhance" their curriculum, - perhaps a preview of what was to come? In 1951 Agricultural and Secretarial courses were also being conducted on the site and the first two full-time schools were established: a Technical school (with 11 plus entry) and a special Grammar school (for 13 plus entry). At this time the nissen huts were the only buildings; these were used as both classrooms and sleeping quarters. Mr Taylor's dormitory was the present staffroom; it was heated by a central coke-fired boiler that provided little warmth for the thirty boys who slept there. At the far end of this dormitory was a common room, considerably smaller and barer than the present ones. Two tables were allowed to be used tor a game ot table tennis: otherwise the boys sat playing cards and talking for much of the time. There were no radios and certainly no televisions. (What no "Neighbours"? How did they survive?!) Staffrooms and bathrooms were in side rooms. The boys' matron of that time was not one of those motherly figures we now take for granted but a nineteen-year-old male student! All meals were taken communally; the food was of poor quality; no choice was available - vegetarians were unheard of and certainly not catered for.

After trudging from distant areas of the site we may sometimes begin to feel our legs aching and wonder whether those detours in order to pass "HIM" or "HER" are really worthwhile ... Well, forty years ago it was the teachers who moved from classroom to classroom; but lessons were mainly centred in four rooms where the Careers Block now stands. The two schools, Technical and Grammar schools, had little connection with each other, except during games lessons when both would change in rooms where the blast-freeze now is. ("It was freezing then, too", according to Mr Taylor). There were, of course, no tennis courts then, no Games block and no rugby for the boys. The girls played hockey and netball and rarely even caught a glimpse of the male tennis teams. In all circumstances both sexes were strictly separated so that girls remained on the Tomlinson side of the "High Street" while boys had to keep on the "Butler" side (Butler Hall was a nissen hut next to the chapel). Boys and girls were segregated during film shows at the weekend, their only fingertip contact being at dances (ballroom style) which were no less enjoyable than our haphazard "bopping" to "E.M.F".

The Technical School and the Grammar School had common uniforms except for badge and tie; the badges were embroidered with an "Old English" Wymondham College motif in gold for the "Tech" and in silver for the Grammar.

Free-time was in short supply; even on Sundays time was regimented into regular duties as follows:

9.00            House cleaning
10.00          Letter writing
11.00          Chapel
12.00          Lunch
2.00-4.00   Walk

The afternoon walk was compulsory for all pupils; girls and boys went out in "crocodiles" in opposite directions, - girls to the left, boys to the right. In the first years of the school, pupils were allowed out on bikes within a five mile radius but uniform had to be worn and school caps or berets were to remain firmly on! The senior pupils took an active part in the controlling of the juniors: they supervised prep, for instance. A-level courses started in 1954 and the Technical and Grammar schools were combined. (Previously the only 6th years had been from yet a third school on the site, which was to become Thetford Grammar). Mr Metcaife, the head of the Technical school, was in charge of the boarding side and Miss Tebbutt was the Headmistress of the Grammar School. After a few years, inter-house matches began to take place between "North, South, East and West" as the first houses were ingeniously (?) named. Competition was between the Technical and the Grammar schools.

Wymondham College has, of course, grown since 1951 when less than 400 pupils were housed on the site. In 1957 "Peel Hall" was built in preparation for occupation the following year.

Conclusions? Those early boarders must have been much tougher (or less complaining?) than us "Soft Lot", with our bean-bags and carpets. But were they any "better" for it? Who knows?! Also, it seems clear that, far from being the decisive foundation which the slogan "Forty Years On" seems triumphantly to assert, the school (or schools?) seems to have trickled into being almost accidentally, - developing since then, like a river, in force and volume, rapidly gaining pace from 1953 with the encouragement of Sir Lincoln Ralphs, but with many shifts in direction, changes of course, and turbulent patches ahead!

BY ANNA BRADLEY

(Thanks to Mrs Hearle and Mr Taylor for their information.)

The article was illustrated with these rather blurred photos (click to enlarge)
Jackie Savage photographed between the 'Tomlinson' huts and Golf Links Road.  The corner of the golf professional's bungalow is is visible at left.
A group of girls next to hut 18.

Front row: Gladys Meale (?), Yvonne Plume (?), Ann Goward, Betty Watling, NK, NK, NK (possibly a Thetford Transferee)
Middle row: Pansy Sewell, NK, NK, Cynthia Gaskin, NK, NK, Mary Scott, Peggy Wright, Jackie Savage
Back row: Brenda ------, Joy Emmerson, Mary Howlett, NK, NK, NK
 
Jackie Savage, Jennifer Sayer & Denise Tate.
East boys athletics team.


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Wymondham College Remembered