UKAEA Harwell housing: a short history

Don’t Mention The War

With the country preparing for war against an expansionist-minded Germany, the estates were constructed in 1936 by builder John Laing on behalf of the Air Ministry, as part of the nascent RAF Harwell. The simple modern 2-bed terraced and 3-bed semi-detached North Drive houses were designated as married quarters for the ratings, whilst the elegantly proportioned Colonial style detached houses on tree-lined South Drive, with their garden bays and sash windows, were reserved for officers.

RAF Harwell became operational as a bomber station in 1937 and, in the early years of the war, Wellington bombers of No. 38 Group took off from here for bombing raids over Bremen, Essen and Cologne. In 1944 the base was reallocated to No. 30 Group, whose Albemarles towed the Horsa gliders that would drop the first wave of troops from 6th Airborne Division onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Our houses served as some of these men’s final billets for the few days before departure on the night of June 5th, as documented in Nick Hance’s excellent book Harwell: The Enigma Revealed, which also relates eyewitness testimony from one of the many Luftwaffe bombing raids on the airfield.

With the Luftwaffe finally swatted in 1945 and, following RAF Harwell’s brief post-war period as Transport Command,  the land was transferred to the Ministry of Supply and, under their auspice, the UKAEA was formed on 1st January 1946. The RAF housing stock was inherited and, augmented by the construction of 200 prefabricated bungalows on the south and west sides of the site, followed by 12 new houses on Severn Road and an additional terrace of 4 houses on South Drive, were let to employees of the new facility. UKAEA also built estates in Wantage and Abingdon so as to avoid the creation of a new town at Harwell and ran their own distinctive fleet of blue buses, providing a subsidised commuter service from neighbouring areas.

Prefabria

AIROH B2 Aluminium Bungalow. Image: National Museum of Wales

The Aldfield and Chilton prefabs were Type B2 Aluminium Bungalows designed by the Aircraft Industries Research Organisation for Housing [AIROH]; itself charged with turning surplus aircraft manufacturing capacity over to address the urgent national housing shortage, as identified by the Housing Act of October 1944. The bungalows weighed nine tons each and were brought to the site by lorry in four pre-assembled sections, which were then lowered onto their concrete base by crane. A gang of German PoWs assisted with the on-site assembly.

The National Museum of Wales at St. Fagans have restored one of the few remaining AIROH B2s, relocated from Cardiff. They have a page of interior photographs here.

The last prefabs on Chilton Field were demolished in the mid 1980s and, since demolition, the land has been unused. On the western Aldfield estate, several concrete prefab bases are still extant, along with the occasional period artefact buried in the undergrowth.

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Flogging the Family Silver

By the end of the 1980s, UKAEA no longer needed a housing-stock of its own to attract employees from afar so the North Drive and Severn Road houses, along with the UKAEA houses in Wantage and Abingdon, were sold to sitting tenants and a housing association. The South Drive houses were retained but tenancies were not renewed when their occupants moved on; the houses being boarded-up one by one as they fell empty. The estate roads of North Drive and their small enclosed areas of grassland were transferred to the North Drive Management Company, of which every property-owner here is a shareholder and liable to pay an annual maintenance charge for upkeep of these common areas.

Today

The high value given to atomic research in the post-war years is reflected in the landscaped environment that was created in order to make this an attractive place to live and work. Woodland areas provide safe outdoor play opportunities for children and there is a traffic-free route to the shops on Curie Avenue. The whole site testifies to the optimism of the period and is a rare example of utopian thinking that somehow remains in harmony with its setting. Reminders of the old airbase include what looks like a sentry point where the AEA western footpath crosses the Icknield Way and many North Drive houses retain the sheds that were made from surplus Anderson Shelters.

Sir John Laing’s North Drive houses, though modest, were well-built and had an advanced specification for the 1930s, featuring cavity walls, internal coal-storage, first floor bathrooms and large windows providing plenty of natural light. A mystery feature is the first-floor connecting aperture between houses. In my house, the area between the fireplace and the inner wall in the smaller bedroom is a plasterboard partition the size of a doorway: this meets my neighbour’s first-floor landing. I can find no evidence of there ever having been connecting doors between the houses; most likely is that the houses were built with this option of internal connectivity, but that it was never used. *

Boarded-up houses on South Drive. These fine houses, still owned by UKAEA, have been left untenanted for years.

Today, in 2011, only three of the ten Colonial style houses on South Drive remain occupied. The rest, including No.8 South Drive, the former home of Harwell’s first director, Sir John Cockroft, stand boarded, empty and decaying. We would like to see these buildings restored to use; with some or all possibly being converted to flats. But, if UKAEA and their developer partner Goodman have their way, then these high-quality houses will be demolished.

Update! 29/1/12

* Thanks to a commenter here who tells me that these connections did see some use, I finally worked out that they were designed-in for flexibility: the adjoining houses could be adapted easily to  3 -bed/1 bed  pairs. This makes sense with the layout and within the context of a wartime airbase, where tenancies would have been short-term.

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24 responses to “UKAEA Harwell housing: a short history

  1. My parents moved to North Drive in 1946. I do not know the number but it was the last house of the terrace on the north side. They allowed their neighbours, who I believe were called Blundell, to use one of their bedrooms through the connecting door. I was brought home to that house as a baby in 1947. They then moved to Wayland Crescent sometime after then. I spent the next ten years having the downs as my playground.

    • Thanks for the comment Margaret:- interesting stuff and the first evidence I’ve heard about any of the connecting-doors having been used. A bygone era of neighbourliness!

  2. Hi,
    My husband and I are currently looking to buy a house in the Didcot area (hubby is from Didcot and i’m from Newbury, currently living on Ladygrove) and have discovered the hidden gems of South Drive. Would you happen to know who we would need to contact with the view of purchasing one of these houses? They are exceptional and it’s such a shame to see them sitting empty; they certainly need new owners who would give them some TLC!

    Many thanks,

    Michelle

  3. We lived at 13 Wayland Crescent – our father George Breckon worked at teh Medical Research Council Radiobiology lab. I have a few bungalow pictures from the family album.

  4. Hi There

    Myself and my other half have just purchased number 69 North Drive.
    We have just stumbled across this great page full of information on the houses on our street.
    We have already spoken with some of our neighbours and found out some interesting history including, as mentioned the integral door upstairs to link the next house. As far as I have heard you are correct about the doorway being there to enable flexibility for the houses to change between 1 bed and 3 bed.

    It would be interesting to know where the internal coal storage would have been.

    Jamie & Leanne

    • Thanks for your comments Jamie,

      The internal coal storage is/was underneath the narrow window at the rear of the house. Many of the coal stores have been removed to create dining rooms or to enlarge the kitchens, but I still have mine.

  5. Margaret Hanks

    How interesting, have just checked my parents address & it was No.68 !
    I believe it was a house on the North end. Am I correct ? I do have a photo of the Nissen hut. A corrugated structure which was used as a shed. We also had one at Wayland Crescent. Can I put photos on this site ?
    Margaret

    • Hi Margaret,

      Yes, the 6x numbers on North Drive are all at the north end.

      Yes please on the photos… in particular, anything you have of Wayland Crescent. If the upload doesn’t work, leave another message here and I’ll e-mail you.

  6. Could you tell me about the AERE houses in Didcot and in the villages. Do you know where I can find out how many were built and who they were sold to. I cannot look at a Beech hedge without thinking of the Harwell site.

    • Hi there,

      Sorry, but I can’t find much info on AERE housing outside the site. I do know that some/all? of the Charlton Heights AERE houses are BISF steel-framed prefabricated jobs and that there are several roads in Abingdon with AERE houses: Appleford Drive and Stamford Drive are two that I’m aware of. I’m not aware of any AERE houses in Didcot. All I’ve found in a quick search was this, from Wikipedia’s AERE page:

      “The RAF prewar NCO married quarter housing at Harwell together other UKAEA housing in Abingdon, Grove, Wantage and Newbury totaling 129 houses were sold in their entirety to the Welbeck Estate Group in 1995 and following extensive refurbishment were sold to local buyers.”

  7. Margaret hanks

    I have found part of a photo showing north from Avon Road, 1948.Please could you remind me how to send.

  8. Hi All,
    The Rurherford Lab had houses in Lloyd and Edwin Road in Didcot and I believe a few in Wallingford. They were built and owned by RAL ,I think they were also sold to Tenants. I still worked at the Lab when the Harwell Pre Fabs were demolished , what a waste, the gardens and all their trees and flowers still existed for many years. Many of my friends and colleagues lived in the Hostels both at Harwell and in Abingdon during their training, the harwell Hostels being old RAF quarters.

  9. No e mail received,please try again.

  10. Hi has anyone any old photos of the houses-very keen to find out info and photos 🙂

  11. Are the bodies on south drive available to renovate or are they being demolished? I would love to get one!

    • Hi Alex.

      Looks like a predictive text blooper on the ‘bodies’ in South Drive! Unfortunately, these historic houses are due to be demolished to make way for a high-density housing estate .

  12. Hello every one, well you all want to know about North Drive, my family moved to N/D in 1947 and I was a child of 1 Year we were a family of 6 living at No 52 and it had the 3rd bedroom over the adjoining nieghbour the Thomlinsons our name was Slatter, Mr Thomlinson was the Chauffeur to Sir John Cockcroft and his wife Betty drove the Isotope cars from the car pool, opposite our house was a single Garage that my father rented and was later pulled down and along the back of the circle they built a row of garages, the large windows in the houses that were steel were replaced with modern wooden ones in the 50’s together with the down pipes and spouting and the coal storage was under the pantry that was adjacent to the Kitchen, the original kitchens had Gas stoves with a meter box mounted over the stove that we would feed with 1 shilling coins and the Anderson shelter was outside of the Kitchen, further over past my fathers garage was an old boiler house that fuelled the Kithchens of the old mes and was somehow destroyed in an explosion, here many food vans and staff would assemble all day and ferry food the the the main site A.E.R.E. it was a busy place and to the back of the canteen was a Rifle range where I as a boy would filter the sand to retrive lead bullets for recycle and as payment I was aloud to fire the rifles, to the far north of North Drive was the old police club that featured a large billiard table and bar and adjacent to that was a billett used for social occasions, and fine grand occasions they were, as a boy the firm would put on Christmas shows for us all in ths billett , further down to the back of the police club were the allotments and chicken runs as well as an large area ( 2 x fields ) that ground staff would grow crops in, cabbage etc, the original shop and post office was located on the main road behind a large bus shelter at the top end of South Drive and the post office built of brick was at the end of the wooden shop, they were relocated as a new building to the south of South Drive, and opposite the shop were the Hostels for the apprentices and there were many of them and of course the Hospital / Dental and Mr Priors Barber shop. I truely believe that I was so lucky to have been brought up and having lived there as a child and my memories of Harwell go on and on as when they had troop exercise around the firm, I could just go on and on, the old MRC with the monkey’s etc, the old pre shool where the BBC recorded the children singing Christmas Carrols etc the old Bog and Smiths Farm and the woods and the Ammo we as kids found, Happy days happy memories.

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