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An interesting aspect of Amersham's past and one which
has almost disappeared were the various camps set up during World War II and
which survived long after the War and the estates of prefab
Around Amersham in Rectory and Pipers Woods and at Hodgemore, military camps were set up during World War II. The camp at Pipers Wood was occupied by the Americans and was used after the war as a reception centre for returning prisoners of war and Polish servicemen and their families. The camp at Hodgemore became the home to a large contingent of Polish servicemen. This camp remained in existence well into the 1950s with its own shop and post office. Click here for details of Hodgemoor camp
Pipers Wood today, hard to imagine the woods were once full of temporary buildings and a large camp for many years after the Second World War
After the War, there was a huge shortage of housing. This
is one of the reasons why the camps above stayed in existence for so long after
the war. In order to meet the housing shortage, the government introduced the
prefab house. Nationally about 160,000 were built. They were built in sections
in factories, which could then be quickly erected on site. In Amersham, estates
of these houses were built at Finch Lane and White Lion Road. The last at Finch
Lane was not vacated until the late 1980s. The Chiltern Open Air Museum at
Chalfont St. Giles has restored a prefab from Finch Lane and a picture can be
seen on their web site here . If anyone has any memories of living in the
pre fabs or pictures, please email
the web master
Barbara Thomson, now from Staplehurst, Kent has written and says "I was born in the Pipers Wood camp. We moved to the prefab St. Georges Estate, White Lion Road when I was about 2 years old and stayed there until 1961 when they were demolished and we were re-housed in Elizabeth Avenue where I stayed until I got married in 1972. I have very happy memories of the prefabs. There was one car owner and the car was an old Austin 7. The owner would frequently drive about 6 children to Brownies at the village hall. We took turns to stand on the running board during the journey. This was incredibly exciting and no-one thought anything wrong of it at all! I can remember playing wonderful hide and seek games which involved creeping through all the gardens and houses to get to the communal play area which was a large concrete pitch surrounded by grass. There was an electricity substation and we would climb on the top and watch for the hiders and seekers gradually creeping in. This game was played all through the summer holidays. I can also remember the Truancy Officer, a scary man with red hair. He would appear and haul any offenders off to school. We had big parties with many families joining in and on Bonfire night a huge fire and fireworks was organised down on the play area."
As well as the camps mentioned above and prefabs, the
Amersham area also had another "solution" to the housing shortage, again like
the prefabs and camps. This was in the form of the Beech Barn "Top" and
"Bottom" Camps. Little evidence remains to show the Beech Barn camps existed.
They occupied an area off the Amersham / Chesham Road where today 'The Leys'
development is and part of the Beacon School are located. If anyone can provide
any pictures or memories, then again please
email the web master.
Owing to the housing shortage, many without suitable housing shared with friends or relatives. However, some realised they could make use of former camps that were becoming empty after the military moved out. Two such places in Amersham were the beech Barn Camps.
I am grateful to Dave James, now living in Australia, for providing the following information.
"The families that needed homes and their attitudes during that
When I look back now and realize - from stories that were eventually told to me after the event - that during that terrible time of worry and fear to many parents as the war ended in its final, but still uncertain, conclusion, I can recognise now how those parents, many living at the time in rented, though sometimes so-undesirable and unsafe lodgings, were overjoyed to discover that there was a way to have a 'home of their own' if homeless folk were determined to 'fight' for their rights and be prepared to live in 'squalor' while they waited for the opportunity of their 'Dream-House'.
As was similar all around the UK, thousands of families had tried to take advantage of the former military camps to try and better their lives, and some families, as was similar to my own family's story, had 'landed up' in the Amersham area, and were so very grateful to eventually find a 'home' in one of the local camps after the terrible times of WW2.
Who cared if the huts were freezing cold, had condensation running down the inside of the roofs, were bare of any furniture, had no interior walls, no lighting and no running water and were made of wood, tin, or asbestos. (Three of the huts were constructed of asbestos in the Beech Barn 'Top' camp at the time). To the desperate families of the time it was somewhere to live!
As a future record; most of the families were not 'begging for help' from the Government. They were all mostly hard working folk, and my family would have been a good example of the situation at that time in the camps: My Stepfather (Mr. Z Kissman and Polish) was a labourer, then later a shoe repairer. Bertram James Challis, my Stepgrandfather (and one of the famous 'Challis' family from the 'steam' days), was a JSSC (Latimer) steam Boilerman. Annie Kate (his wife) was a cleaner at the Regent Cinema, and their son, James, became a projectionist at the same cinema after he left school. My Mum, Elizabeth James (later Kissman, then Barry) was an usherette also at the same cinema, as well as a counter-girl / waitress for the Darvell's Cafe / Tea-rooms in Amersham, and a cleaner for both a local solicitor (Panton) and a doctor (Wise). Finally, my Uncle Frank (Barnes) was a woodworker in a furniture factory in Chesham - and all while we lived in the Beech Barn camps.
But my family wasn't the exception: There were also bus drivers and conductors, an electrician, a lorry driver, a woodworker in a brush manufacturer's factory, some council workers, a builder and builder's labourers, secretaries, etc. at the camps. The family's young boys of age still had to do their National Service at the time.
When I look back deeper, I realise that so many of those ordinary folk who were struggling alongside us (us being my Mum, sister & myself) for some kind of home in those days, had also done and sacrificed so very much towards a final peace and our safety so that we could all hopefully get on with a safe life. I can so well recall the many medals and ribbons I saw. Both soldiers & ex-soldiers were so happy to proudly show us little boys (I was only a youngster at the time) their medals and tell us of their experiences in typical 'hero to young lad' style. But there were others who didn't talk much about their wartime experiences, and my Uncle Frank was one of them. Although I was a typical young lad who would hang on to every word of the fighting war that I could hear, Uncle Frank never talked to any of us about his wartime experiences. But eventually when I was in my late teens I got him to finally open up about his wartime activities and he soon had my hair standing on end as he described some of his narrow misses while laying telephone lines of communication, etc. over in Europe.
The Pipers Wood Camp
Piper Wood consisted all of wooden huts (as I recall), and was apparently built for British troops during the early stages of WW2. Then American troops stayed there for a while and finally the returning troops were housed there until better homes were found for them. (Also reported ex prisoners of war used the camp). The road wound down through the wood, over the Metropolitan railway line, and came out on the main Amersham to Aylesbury road somewhere near Little Missenden. Eventually, for some reason, in the very late 1940's the Piper's Wood camp was closed down (and I well recall us 'Squatters' from the Beech Barn camps going to that camp one night and 'salvaging' huge amounts of ex-army furniture which was to be burned the next day by order of the Authorities in Charge!). (Note, by webmaster - my father in the 1950s can still recall buildings in Pipers Wood, so did it find another life from the 1940s to 1950s, or was it derelict until pulled down?)
I am grateful to Bernard Tyrell
of Newcastle for sending the below Identity Card issued to a member of his
family who was born at the Pipers Wood Camp
The Beech Barn 'Top' Camp
Beech Barn "Top" Camp was in the area on the left of the Chesham / Amersham road, where 'The Leys' housing area is at present. It was bordered on one side by that road, another by the Beacons Boy's school, a third side by the rear gardens of houses in Oakway Road, and the fourth side ran along Mayhall Lane, and consisted of wooden, tin & asbestos huts.
Diagram of Beech Barn Top Camp. Copyright Dave James
The above diagram is based on the layout of Beech Barn Top Camp in 1948. At this time, the camp had been taken over by Amersham Council and all the huts had been renovated. The large cookhouse / mess hut was just left there by the Council at first, maybe with the thought that it might be useful to the people on the camp, although it was never used except as a playground for the children. It was eventually pulled down somewhere around 1949-50 (could it be that it was realised the place posed a risk after Dave James got shut up in one of the big ovens and nobody knew he was there for quite a while?) The ablution blocks had been pulled down as soon as all the huts were finished being renovated, but the large water tanks on towers were still scattered around the camp until they too were all pulled down about the same time as the cookhouse / mess was demolished. There was also an old overgrown vegetable and fruit garden down one side of the camp. All the families had there own vegetable gardens near their huts. The youngsters often enjoyed themselves eating the surviving apples, pears, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, etc. that seemed to still grow on the old vegetable and fruit garden .
The Beech Barn 'Bottom' Camp
The Bottom Camp (as us 'Top' camp folk called the other Beech Barn camp) was in the area of the old Bois Farm (I believe). All the old farm buildings had been utilised as somewhere for somebody to live and there were also a number of tin Nissen huts around the inside perimeter of the area. That area is now owned by the Beacon Boy's School. Apparently in August 1946 both the Beech Barn camps, the Pipers Wood camp, and the Vache camp at Chalfont St. Giles (these are the only four camps I know of), were used as temporary housing areas for Polish ex-soldiers, who were said to have fought with the Allies in Italy, and their 'Italian' wives. Later it was apparently disclosed that the 'Italian' wives were really the soldiers' own 'Polish' wives.
Diagram of Beech Barn Bottom Camp. Copyright Dave James
A diagram of the Beech Barn 'Bottom Camp' during 1948 after being taken over by the Amersham Council and having the corrugated tin huts renovated by that council just prior to that time. This camp was probably called the 'Bottom Camp' only because it was the most down-hill of the two Beech Barn camps along the Chesham / Amersham road.
In 1946/7, 'Squatters' (at that time, people who had nowhere to live mostly due to the shortage of housing after the bombings of WW2) had moved into any empty derelict building, house, room, factory, shed, etc., around the country where they could find shelter as they began to search (or wait) for some better accommodation.
In the 'Bottom Camp' of Beech Barn during 1946-7, families were packed into both the 'Living Quarters' area and the 'CO's House'. One family, with a small son, lived in a room called (at the time) 'The Officer's Mess'. Another family lived, already with a very small baby girl, and expecting another baby, on the sloping stairs / seats of 'The Balcony'. The parents were desperate. Meanwhile, after hearing through the local paper of the accommodation opportunities being offered by grabbing some kind of existence in the camps, the mother of a small family (mother, son & daughter), had decided to abandon a 'safe' rented room in Amersham and give the 'camps' a go. She & her small family had first lived on the 'Stage' of 'The Hall' (the Hall had apparently been used as an entertainment / dancing center for local forces stationed in the area), then moved into the ex-'Officer's Mess', and had then finally moved down into the horrifically rat-infested cellar under the ex-'Officer's Mess' as situations changed and others became desperately in need of somewhere to live. At that time, even though so many people were trying to find accommodation or some kind of safer existence, everybody helped everybody to eventually achieve a much better and safer life. Thanks to the help and encouragement received from fellow camp residents, Amersham Council of the time, the local hospitals, and many others (teachers, doctors, clerics, employers, police, etc.), all the Squatters were fairly happy and content to stay in the camps until their turn eventually came around to be given a 'real' house to live in. After the Amersham Council took over the camps, renovated the huts, and sorted some of the families out into other accommodation, nobody needed to live in the Hall, Officer's Mess, Living Quarters, etc. areas, and those areas began to become derelict until taken over by the Beacon School after the camps closed down.
Pictures of the camps and stories of living there can be found on Dave James' site here
Very soon the local homeless folk began to discover about the camps
and moved in to the huts (or anywhere else in the camps they could get, such as
the Officer's Mess, the Hall, the Sergeant's Quarters, etc. in the Bottom camp
alone) so that they were there ready to dash into a hut as soon as it was
vacated when the Polish soldiers were moved out.
Apparently none of the local folk complained and the ones who managed to get into a hut on any of the camps were just happy to wait in line for their own eventual 'dream-home'. Eventually in the very late 1940's the Piper's Wood camp was closed down as already mentioned and the Amersham Council took over the two Beech Barn camps. I don't know what happened to the Chalfont St. Giles camp although I do now know that there was a bit of an upset between the local authorities and the local homeless folk.
I remember that the council person in charge of allotting us huts, then later houses, at the time was a Mrs. Massalonis - pronounced as I've spelt, but maybe spelt different - we thought of her as a goddess and saviour who would give us our longed-for 'Dreamhome'!
Under the guidance of her and the Amersham Council, all the huts, which up until that time had been 'barrack-style' - just an empty shell - were given separate rooms inside using breeze-block walls, each consisting of usually three small bedrooms, a proper toilet and bath room (no more going out to the Ablution Blocks of which there were about 3 in the 'Top' camp), a kitchen, and a living room with a large cooking/heating range and oven. It was luxury to us at the time!
Diagram of Corrugated Tin Hut Layout, Copyright Dave James
A diagram of a corrugated tin hut layout after the Amersham Council had finished renovating it ready for a family to move into. A marked improvement on the previous layout of a bare hut with just a pot-bellied stove in the centre. This layout was typical of how all the huts were made more livable on the two Beech Barn camps. The wooden huts in the Top Camp were different from the above diagram in that they were divided into two homes, with a family living in each half and having their own front door at each end.
During the next 4 to 5 years most of us families lived happily on the
camps waiting for the day when we would be given a 'real' house, and gradually
over those years some families were moved out to houses and other families
moved into the vacant huts. Then, in the middle of 1953 the families began to
be moved out in earnest and, what was more promising to us was the fact that
the huts were being demolished after the families were moved. Later that year
our dream was realised and we were finally given a house.
By the end of 1953 the 'Top' camp was no more and, as us youngsters passed by on the way to church (Our Lady of Perpetual Succour - the Catholic church just down the road) we'd gradually see that the area was finally cleaned up and turned into the lovely area it is now - The Leys.
As for the Beech Barn 'Bottom' camp: I know that it was still going during the latter part of that year when we would walk by on the way to that same church while already living at our new home in Weller Close - at that time I had a 'girlfriend' from that camp and she often invited me to her hut after the church services. But, by the new year of 1954 I lost touch with her and I never went back to either camp again until it was well & truly too late and all traces of the camps were gone. "
As can be seen from the above, it must have been like
living in a different world and there is no trace today in Amersham of these
areas, which must have housed hundreds. If anyone has any memories or further
information about these camps, we would be delighted to hear from you. I
believe it is important to record these memories so we can appreciate what life
was like during the time. Please email the web master
You can read more about Dave James here
How things have changed. What we take for granted now could only be dreamt of in the 1940s and 50s and something perhaps could not even be dreamt of! For example, most people now have a mobile phone, in the camps there were no telephones at all. The nearest was in Chesham Bois.
Any additions, corrections, alterations, please
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