Category Archives: History

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Scrapbook: UKAEA Harwell housing archive

While I continue to prevaricate re: the faff of re-formatting northdrive.wordpress.com in order to make this post the static front page (definitely on the cards), I will try to remember to add a ‘latest update’ highlight to this pre-blab, thus:

Latest update: 25th February, 2017

Live the dream! Local jobs for local people.

Chilton Estate

Wayland Crescent

chiltonprefabswcavon_edited-1On Wayland Crescent, looking toward its junction with Avon Road, late 1970s. (Personal collection)

Wayland Crescent 1977editAt the top of the oval, looking up the crescent. Many thanks to Rev.Dr. Brian Meardon for his contribution of this picture from 1977.

WaylandCrescent_ aug1954.MHanksAugust 1954 (M. Hanks) When built, the prefabs had been sprayed with a wash of white paint. I am told this had been applied quite roughly, leaving lumps and drips. Note the swan-necked concrete masted streetlight. Construction aggregates forming such things as fenceposts, bollards and streetlights were given an architectural finish in which the individual stones forming the composite materials were clearly discernible. The estate was lit with mercury vapour lamps until the early 1980s, when these fitments were replaced by sodium types.

Wayland Crescent Anderson ShelterGarden on Wayland Crescent, 1956, featuring Anderson Shelter based shed. (M. Hanks).

 

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1WaylandCrescent19681 Wayland Crescent, late Spring 1967. Author attempts explanation of how electricity is essentially supernatural in origin. I know this as my infant finger is pointed toward the humming sub-station: a source of some fascination. The family mo’er, a 1966 Hillman Minx, appears half in shot, its AA badge displayed with pride. Beyond the hedge separating us from what was then the A34 can be seen the K6 telephone kiosk and, in a gap in the hedge, the northbound bus-shelter. I remember the AERE bus-shelters each being to this standard green-panelled and part-glazed design until the 1980s.

WaylandCrescent_parkingbay1972Early 1972. Taken from roughly the same spot as the previous picture, looking across the oval. On the other side of the green are the electricity sub-station, the postbox, another row of parking bays and an opposing line of prefabs; the two roadways converging just out of shot. Looks like the 1966 Hillman had begun to need welding.

prefabselfage4At the rear of 1 Wayland Crescent; probably 1968-9. Behind small-boy feature, the strips covering connections between sections of the building are seen clearly, as is the concrete base. The coalman delivered anthracite or whichever shade of bituminous coal was that year’s winner of the calorific cup, in sacks, to be tipped into the coal hopper.

Plot sizes were generous, as this 1971 photo shows.Wayland Crescent Garden 1971 edit Houses across the field are those of Severn Road. (Rev. Dr. B. Meardon)

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Kennet Road

I urge you to read Phil Hall’s reminiscences of life on Kennet Road in the early days of the Chilton prefab estate. It’s a great read: detailed and humorous. Phil paints a vivid picture of his post-war Berkshire childhood, and there is much that would, I’m sure, resonate with anyone who remembers life in an AERE prefab. I’d almost forgotten about the towels on the condensated windowsills, and who remembers the siren drills? You can find Phil’s piece here.

Avon Road

Avon Road West 1948 M Hanks

Looking west from the last prefab on Avon Road toward recently decommissioned runways. Thanks to Margaret Hanks for contributing this 1948 view. Severn Road is yet to be built; its junction would be behind the photographer. I am told that one of the hills here was nicknamed ‘Pylon Hill’ by local children.

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Frome Road

Local press article_prebab demolition_Chilton_smlThe prefab demolition programme was implemented from 1986. The last prefabs to be knocked down, several years later, were a small number on Frome Road, adjacent to the runway from which 6th Airborne division had taken off for Normandy on 6th June 1944 and close to the site of the experimental catapult pit. Harwell’s last AIROH prefab was demolished in March 1991. A temporary solution to the post-war housing shortage and said to be designed for a lifespan of ten years, these characterful homes lasted, in some cases, more than forty. (Click image to enlarge.) (M. Hanks)

Downside

ChiltonCP_1972Chilton County Primary School, 1972. Reception class was in the building nearest the fence, with year-groups progressing through the school toward a final year in the terrapin building out of shot to the left beyond the aluminium classroom block. This large prefabricated structure was built at the Bristol aircraft factory after the war. Upper windows were openable by means of very long poles.

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Aldfield Estate

This British Pathe newsreel from 1947 documents construction of the “atom village” at Harwell, contrasting this fangled high-tech realisation with the rustic charms of its Berkshire countryside setting.  There’s a brief shot of prefabs adjacent to a runway or taxiway at 2m 06s – I think this is the upper section of West Drive … and then several shots of Hillside and West Drive from  2m 34s. Can anyone identify any other locations shown? No.17 Hillside was home to Klaus Fuchs prior to his arrest and imprisonment, in 1950, as a Soviet spy. (Thanks to Moira in the comments for this information.)

Thames Road

Thames Road_Eileen GallagherA 1954 view from the back garden of 9 Thames Road. Thanks to Eileen Gallagher for contributing our first photo from the Aldfield Estate.

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Thames Road_2 Eileen GallagherAnother photo from Eileen’s collection. This one dates from 1955. The prefabs shown are those of West Drive and Hillside.

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North Drive

48 North Drive 1947At the garden gate of number 48; one of the four semi-detached houses on North Drive. This photograph from Margaret Hanks dates from 1947.

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A34NorthDrive1947Another 1947 shot from Margaret’s collection, taken at the southerly entrance to North Drive and looking north along what was then the A34. The large building seen between the second and third telegraph poles appears to be situated just beyond the junction with the Winnaway, approximately level with the northerly North Drive entrance. Can anyone identify it or guess its purpose? (The answer’s in the comments, facthunters.)

 Police Club

PoliceClubNDThe police club, on the northern oval of North Drive, was demolished in the early 1990s. This photograph dates from the winter of 1989/90.

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I am grateful to Margaret Hanks for contributing several photographs. This inspired me to search through my own family archival suitcase for more, and to suggest compiling a community-sourced photographic archive documenting how the estates have changed down the years. So… do you have any photographs from your time on the Chilton or Aldfield prefab estates? Or from North Drive or Severn Road before the sell-off? Let’s include the Abingdon and Wantage AERE housing as well. Anything you have, especially from pre-1990-ish, that you’re willing to publish.

UKAEA Harwell is a historic site, yet relatively undocumented when it comes to its social history: photographs and memories of those who have worked and lived here. With South Drive about to be destroyed and replaced by a new development on a new road layout, it would be good to have some photos of these fine houses and their landscaped setting in better days [mutter, grumble, “localism” my ‘arris etc. etc.]. Whilst absolutely no-one is interested in anyone else’s holiday snaps, then or now, the photographs giving greatest historical appeal may well be those clicked off on return in order to use up the roll of film, and hurry up cos Boots closes at 5. Those are the ones I want. Don’t worry if the quality’s not perfect, it’s the record that matters here. Leave a short comment somewhere on this blog and I’ll e-mail you for the goods.

 Reference

Nick Hance (2006), Harwell, The Enigma Revealed, Enhance Publishing, pp51-60

Heritage to be Razed, Local Opposition Airbrushed

The following formed part of my objection to the planned demolition of South Drive. It was received by the council on 25th February:

“There is nowhere in the county quite like South Drive: a 1936 colonial-style Air Ministry development of mellow red brick, garden bays and sash windows,retaining its original road-layout and situated on chalk downland in an area of outstanding natural beauty. South Drive houses are among the oldest surviving parts of this former airbase.

No.8 South Drive, Sir John Cockroft s former residence, should be considered historically important in relation to the development of the site. The bomber station’s first CO decreed that the station should take the name of whichever parish his house was situated in: thus it was that RAF Harwell is what the UKAEA inherited in 1946, rather than RAF Chilton.” 

I was not the only North Drive objector to raise the soviet hammerheritage value of South Drive as a reason to not destroy it.  Yet here is the planning officer’s summary of our neighbourhood objections:

“3.3 Representations from local residents
– A total of 13 representations had been received at the time of writing this report, of which 11 object and 2 consider that there is not enough information submitted. The objections made are on the grounds of the following concerns:

•Loss of landscape setting and open character of the site
•Increased traffic generation and appropriate parking
provision
•Adverse impact on wildlife, particularly bats
•Impact of construction on routes to the site
•Loss of privacy and of existing residential amenity

So when,  in Section 6.20, Heritage Assets, we are told:
” The proposal has no heritage assets within the site or within the surrounding area. The submission has not identified any heritage asset that is identifiable in the local area that would be subject to any adverse impact from this proposal.

… it is as if no-one had any other view.

Feb 2013: Objections to the South Drive re-development proposal

This post may be updated if and when  appropriate. If you have info that you think will be of general interest then please add your comment.

Feb 16 2013_0658_edited-1Thanks to Holly Spence for forwarding the following example letters of objection. These are downloadable from the links below.

New Harwell Doc

Objection to South Drive HS

I might add that the largest South Drive house, Sir John Cockroft’s former residence, can be considered historically important in relation to the development of the site. The bomber station’s first CO decreed that the airbase should take the name of whichever parish his house was situated in: thus it was that RAF Harwell is what the UKAEA inherited in 1946, rather than RAF Chilton. (Source: Nick Hance, 2006, Harwell: The Enigma Revealed)

For the full horrors of what’s being planned for our area, the list of documents relating to Goodman’s application is on the VWHDC site here. This is also the page to access the comment facility for your objections. So I think I’d better give it a bigger link. Here then is a nice big red objection-button, linking straight to the form:

NO THANK YOU, I DON’T WANT TO SEE THOSE LOVELY SOUTH DRIVE HOUSES DEMOLISHED AND, NO, I DON’T WANT GOODMAN PLC TO PLONK A SMALL TOWN WHERE THE TREE-LINED AVENUES USED TO BE.

Get ’em rolling in. Deadline for objections is 27th Feb.

Update! 19/2/13

Natural England object:

“Natural England objects to this proposal, as we consider that the scale of the proposal is likely to adversely affect the purpose for which the North Wessex Downs AONB has been designated.
The level of housing provision within an AONB should be directly related to the need for housing in that area. This application shows no justification for the need for 120 houses at Harwell.”

Vale and South Oxon Countryside Officer’s initial statement:

“Following my initial review of the submitted information I have contacted RPS the Ecological consultancy who prepared the ecological reports to request
further information regarding the extent and distribution of White Helleborine
across the application site. The site has been found to support a nationally
important population of this endangered plant and it is therefore important to
fully understand the impacts of the proposals before determining the planning
application.”

Meanwhile,  Thames Valley Police acceptance appears to be available on receipt of a  new car.

“Having undertaken a qualitative examination of the scheme and the impact of the policing the Local Police Area Commander has requested a contribution of £21,259. The contribution represents a pooled contribution towards the provision of a new marked PCSO vehicle to serve the site and surrounding area.”

Would the proposed development not be served by site police then? Like wot we are…?

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 downland 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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