Back in July, this blog took you to the YMCA Eagle Hut of Aldwych. Here, we visit another building that added enormously to the war effort: the prefabricated Nissen hut.
Prefabricated buildings were not a new invention when the Great War began, but their advantages were clear: portable and inexpensive buildings were in great demand in the theatre of war. Canadian-American mining engineer and inventor Captain Peter Norman Nissen(1871–1930)(later Lieutenant-Colonel Nissen of the 29th Company of Royal Engineers)responded to this need, with his design for a prefabricated steel structure that was to become the eponymous ‘Nissen hut’.
Constructed from a half-cylindrical skin of corrugated steel, and underpinned by a skeleton of steel ribs and wooden purlins, Nissen huts were versatile, light and easy to construct. Devised by Nissen in April 1916, by August the huts were in production. Moving swiftly from drawing board to the production line, the speed at which a Nissen hut could be assembled once in location was also significant. A Nissen hut could be packed in a standard 3 tonne Army wagon, and erected by six men in four hours. Portability was a key factor; as well as ease of transportation on army wagons, the corrugated iron shells could easily be nested on top of one another for shipping.
Not only used as barracks, Nissen huts also served as mess rooms, kitchens, dressing stations and even churches. An illustration (below) published by The Illustrated London News shows a British artillery chaplain revisiting his ‘old parish’: the remains of his bomb-stricken Nissen church, lost to the enemy during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but regained during the advance of September 1918.
With wartime economy on materials, the Nissen hut presented a light, reusable and cost effective solution to the problem of the provision of shelter. Nissen’s design proved popular, patented first in the UK, then later in the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia. The distinctive shape of the Nissen hut was to become a familiar sight on the Western Front, with an estimated 100,000 huts being produced during World War One alone.
Nissen wavered his rights to royalties from his invention during wartime, and was decorated with a Distinguished Service Order. So successful and versatile was Nissen’s design that it continued to be produced in the interwar years, and into the Second World War, with some huts surviving to this day. Though he also patented other inventions, such as the Nissen stamp for crushing gold ore, it is the Nissen hut, which contributed so greatly to the war effort, for which he is chiefly remembered today.
Queen Mary visits a Nissen Hut