Hethel 'Camp'

A temporary village with a community spirit


Hethel Air base was vacated by the USAAF soon after May 1945 - VE Day. It continued in use as a RAF base, including a Polish squadron of men whose homes were now behind the Iron Curtain. Military use finally ceased in 1948, but the base buildings remained, and the US military had built better accommodation compared to the Nissen huts on RAF bases.

Housing was in desperately short supply - Norwich had suffered a lot of bombing and virtually no new housing has been built during the war. When war ended, service personnel were de-mobbed and returned to their families, or married their sweethearts, and soon 'baby-boomers' needed accommodating. Council waiting lists were burgeoning.

People had to find whatever accommodation they could - and squatter moved into many deserted airfields, including Hethel. But Forehoe & Henstead Rural District Council quickly took action to bring order out of chaos, and to renovate the remaining accommodation so that it was fit for families. By the end of 1949, Hethel Camp was a well-organised community of several hundred families. The huts were supplied with running water (cold tap only), a flush toilet, a kitchen with a kitchen range (including an oven) and a pantry. Each hut had access to a wash-house, with a copper under which a fire could be lit for hot water. This might double as a bath-house, or families might bring a tin bath into the living room in front of the fire. Certainly the wash-houses were used to store coal and all manner of oddments! Gradually, electricity was installed - before which people had to make do with paraffin lamps. Accommodation varied between 2, 3 and 4-bedroomed huts, and some of the larger huts were divided between two families - as described by Barbara Gent:-

'My parents' name was Wilson - my father was called 'Tug'. We were the very first to be allocated a hut on Hethel Camp' (above) [after her father lost his job as a gardener at Saxlingham and thus lost his tied cottage. They moved, with all their belongings, on a couple of flat-bed lorries lent by her husband's firm....]. 'It was called Eastwood Site. There was a cold water tap in the kitchen, a flush toilet, one fireplace but no other heating. The old "Guard Hut" had a stove with a chimney running through the middle, and it was in here that we did the washing, heating pails of water on top of the stove, washing the clothes in a bath and on the old scrub Dolly Board. We also had our weekly bath in there, in the old tin bath - very cold and draughty, so it was in and out very quickly. But we didn't grumble - we were happy and it was home.'

[The two families, of father and daughter, lived in either end of one hut, and Mrs. Gent's father and husband turned the area around the hut into a beautiful cottage garden - below.]

'Tradesmen got word that we were there, and other families moved in as the huts were made ready. Mr. Rushbrook came round with milk; a fish and chip van came twice a week; Mr. Eastell of Swardeston came with fruit and veg. in his van, Leslie Swingler was our 'Postie', so we did not want for much. Eventually there was a little shop selling groceries and stamps. We had a school, a chapel, a surgery.... We lived there 5 years - my two daughters were born there.

'On the morning of my second daughter being born we had a letter from the Council to say we had been allocated a house in Cuckoofield Lane - the first to be built. There were lots of families from Hethel Camp moving in as the others were completed. We often spoke of the happy days there - that was 54 years ago, and some of us are still here in Cuckoofield!'
(Barbara Gent, 2004)

Eventually, 9 sites were converted for housing and village services. Each site housed about 20 families, so the total population must have been around 700 - 800 people. To begin with, the sites were numbered - but then the RDC gave each a name. Hethel Camp, as it was usually known, was separated from the old airfield (now the Lotus site) by Hethel Wood and Potash Lane. There were two entrances to the Camp from Potash Lane. The main entrance from the North was from Hall Road - a track that emerged onto a crossroads opposite Spong Lane. And the fourth entrance was 'Bush Lane' - a track that came from Hethel Church along the edge of Mr Myhill's land.

Fairly central to the camp was a 'village centre' (Site 7) with a general store and Post Office (once the base 'PX'), a fish-and-chip shop, the only telephone box for everyone, and a tall, black water-tower. Nearby was the social club-cum-cinema, the gym and the chapel - the last two buildings still standing as part of the 389th Bomb Group Museum. The school was almost opposite the Chapel. 

In the northern part of the Camp, between the village centre and the Hall Road entrance were Sites 1 and 2 with a spur road into Site 4 ('Westwood'), plus the site of Hethel Hall - still standing derelict until it was demolished around 1951-52. Due east of the village centre (north of Bush Lane) was Site 3 ('The Fields'). To the south of Bush Lane were Site 8 (formerly the WAAF base), Site 6 ('The Meadows') and (closest to Hethel Church) Site 5 ('The Woods'). The roads linking all these sites were narrow cinder tracks with occasional stretches of tarmac. Site 9 was the former Headquarters area beyond Hethel Woods on Potash Lane, where most of the buildings were also converted into housing. On the opposite of the Lane was the entrance to the airfield with three huge hangars in commercial use (one was occupied by the old Hethel family, Messrs F W Myhill & Son, Corn Merchants) and the old Control Tower - then derelict but now the Social Club for the Lotus car factory. The old airfield, with its 3 concrete runways and farmland in between, stretched as far as the boundary of Stanfield Hall.

Above: Michael Coates' home, no.3, site 6, 'The Meadows' - with sister Janet and fox terrier Pat. 

The sites were made colourful as people claimed patches of unused land as gardens or even small-holdings. Michael Coates' father fenced off a large area to grow fruit and vegetables, built a cold frame, a tool shed, and later a large shed with cages for about 100 hens. When Michael's sister won a piglet at a fete at Hethel Old Rectory, he built a pigsty for 'Joey' until it had to be sold at Wymondham market. Putting the chicken and pig muck to good use, Michael recalls that his father '...grew some of the largest and juiciest raspberries that I have ever tasted, together with what were by far the largest potatoes I have ever seen. Once again, the surplus was sold to various friends and neighbours.'

[Based on Memories of a Hethel Childhood 1950-1955, privately published 2008, available from the 389th Bomb Group Museum, Hethel, and quoted with the author's permission]