‘Squatter Families Moving Into Birch Airfield’ That was the headline of the Essex County Standard on Friday 23rd August 1946, only six weeks after the airfield had officially closed. It goes on to say “Seven families are now installing themselves in huts which formerly served as a Hospital”
Several months earlier, Colchester Council’s reconstruction and development committee had explored the possibilities of disused aerodrome hutment’s being used for temporary dwellings. It was acknowledged that there would not be enough houses for many years after the war, so a temporary solution had to be found.
A year after the war was over, a solution had not been found and there was no sign of an official announcement being made. With some council houses home to three different families, many local people used their initiative and staked their claim on one of the dozens of ready made homes on the airfield.
The first families to arrive made their journey on whatever transport they could find. Together with all their worldly goods, they moved into the hut of their choice proudly fixing the family name to the door.
“We were on a bus travelling from Colchester to Tiptree when we approached the empty Hospital site at Birch. I had heard of the new residents at the camp so I asked the driver to stop. We got off the bus and crossed the road then selected a hut and put our name on it. It was as quick and easy as that!”
There were still some administrative officers at the airfield, who were advised by the council to observe what was happening but not to ‘interfere for the moment’
Although at first the huts were in a bare and uninviting condition, many still had the names of servicemen on the bunks, it didn’t take much to make them home from home. Resident tradesmen reconnected water and electricity and early DIY came into it’s own. Partitions were put up dividing huts making several smaller rooms from one large one.
Families settled into their new environment and it wasn’t long before bread and milk was being delivered. Within just a few weeks, several other airfields in the area had a similar situation. Regional committees from local Councils were appointed to make a full report on the scale of the squatter problem and what could be done to eliminate it.
The war was over, people now had somewhere to live, and things were getting better all the time. Families had a new found zest for life and a real community spirit developed among the settlers. Although they all had their share of the same problems, rationing and adverse weather conditions, the camp was given the official address ‘Squatters Paradise Layer Marney’. On more than one occasion, many huts were flooded out although this did nothing to dampen their spirits.
After several dozen families had made their home at the airfield, Colchester Council decided to take over the running of the camp. Most were moved from the disused Hospital site and relocated at one of the camps near Messing Village. Rent was now charged; with this the Council could now supply the services they needed. It was becoming clear that this was to be a permanent home for the foreseeable future. Daily life on the camp followed routine as much as possible, snaring rabbits one night and poaching pheasants the next! Unlike today, fending for yourself was the norm using whatever means you could.
“One night I stayed up all night digging up a whole row of potatoes from a farmers field that was next to the camp”
Each family had their own patch, although this wasn’t always respected and often lead to internal friction. Many people turned a blind eye to what was happening, but landowners saw the squatters and their lifestyle as a real threat. This contributed to a frequent visit from the local constabulary. Regularly the village police would take a cycle ride around the camp to see if all was in order, sometimes at night when it was least expected.
“One particular night I had been for a drink, by the time I left the pub the fog had come down. I eventually found my way back to the airfield, then spent the next two hours riding round the runways because I couldn’t see to turn off to camp”
Squatters Paradise continued for several years and many of the camps residents refer to them as ‘the best years of their lives’
One lasting memory for some was the sound of a rat pushing a potato between the double skins of the Nissen hut roof. The rat complete with the potato would claw its way up one side of the hut, when it reached the top, the potato would roll down the other. This was the cause of many sleepless nights.
It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that Council houses became available for those on the camp. Gradually each family was re-housed and once again Birch airfield became deserted. This time there was no reprieve, finally the wartime Bomber Station, Station 149 fell into disrepair. Age and the elements had taken their toll.
Nearly fifteen years after the 846th Aviation Engineer Battalion “bred and nursed into being an outstanding example of what a crack engineer battalion could do”, Birch airfield fell silent.