A Squatter's Write - Part Three of Dick Sturch's life at 'The Camp' in Millwey Rise

  Posted: 14.10.20 at 11:41 by Philip Evans

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Obviously today’s Millwey Rise bears little resemblance to that in which the early civilian squatters moved into in the Autumn of 1946.

It is difficult now, without photographs, to describe in detail its appearance and the buildings of which it comprised although there are still two examples of the 'flats' that remain to remind us. One is the row of garages across the very bottom of Bonners Causeway which once provided two homes, one of which was occupied by the Spurway family, and I will mention the other further on.

The flats or 'converted dwellings,' as was their official title, were originally Army Hospital wards and administration buildings. They consisted of single storey terraces built of brick topped with asbestos roofs supported on metal trusses.

Other habitable properties were Nissen huts, constructed of half round corrugated metal or asbestos sheets stood on top of a low brick wall. There were also a few huts whose outer walls were of black bitumen felt attached to a wooden frame with plasterboard inner linings.

One thing they all had in common were smooth, concrete bases which, when demolition began several years later, made excellent roller skating rinks for us kids and where I honed my skills to quite an advanced level.

There was one large brick building with big, double wooden doors that was situated below the intersection of Causley and Millwey Avenues which was the Hospital's fire station. It then became a council storage depot, but most importantly, a meeting place for the 'Camp's' budding footballers and cricketers which will come to light later.

The last Nissen hut recently demolished to make way for Macford Court

The road layout today is little different from that of the original footprint. The largest concentration of dwellings were the old hospital wards connected by two long corridors. One, totally enclosed, ran the full length of St. Andrew`s Drive. The other was open-sided and ran the length of Cawley Avenue. Each corridor connected eight rows of wards on either side. It was these wards that were then sub-divided to form several seperate dwellings (flats) in each terrace. They were accessed from the corridors by outside paths that ran their full length.

The only vehicle access into the 'Camp' was through the 'Main Gate' (now 1st Avenue) where a sentry box once guarded the entrance. There was also a pedestrian access through a small wicket gate adjoining the cemetery wall off Chard Road. It cut across the old football pitch and linked up with 1st Avenue opposite today`s shops providing a useful short cut when walking to or from Axminster, though navigating it on a pitch black winter night was not for the faint hearted.

The path also provided access to Nissen huts that then covered this patch of land. A resident in one of these huts was “Glory Goddard”, a recluse who was seldom seen outside, but in or out, winter or summer, was always dressed in a large ex-Army greatcoat with his long, silvery hair falling greasily over its collar from under his cap.

Juvenile bravado

In acts of juvenile bravado we would creep up to his hut after dark and peer through his makeshift curtains in an attempt to catch a glimpse of him, We rarely did, but we often heard him singing from somewhere in the candlelit gloom.

The flats connected by the open corridor that is now Cawley Avenue

Several other families lived in this group of Nissen huts including the Normans, Northcotes, Clancys, Taylors, Birds, Rouses and the Gappers.

Also, close to this path, on the raised ground beside the cemetery wall, was a pillbox built as part of the WW2 “Taunton Stop Line,” later providing a useful den and hideout for the local youngsters until it was eventually demolished some years later.

The second complex of Nissen huts was on the ground now occupied by the Industrial Estate. They were accessed by a series of paths from a road which ended where Second Avenue meets the first building of the industrial estate which in itself is the second example of an original construction though now much modified.

I can still remember the first time I walked along the path that led to our home. It was the last Nissen hut in a row of eight and the only land beyond was Weycroft Manor Farm. I remember Dad carrying Mum inside the door with Molly and myself following behind. Inside he had hung curtains to create three rooms, a living room/kitchen and two bedrooms. Stood in the middle was a large, cast iron combustion stove with its metal chimney pipe disappearing through the roof. Everything was so different from the house, with all its mod-cons, I'd left behind in Wellington.

The only water supply, toilets and washing facilities were in a communal block some 100 yards away so my father installed an 'Elsan' chemical toilet in a shed he built beside the Nissen hut. He also located a water main, tapped into it and piped our own supply to a tap outside the door -what luxury! I don`t think he would have got away with it today but this early pioneering enterprise was found in abundance on the ‘Camp’.

Galvanised bath for washing and laundry

A white enamel bowl on the kitchen table provided our daily washing facilities. The same bowl was utilised for washing dishes. We had a galvanised bath which we used once a week. It was set beside the combustion stove that provided both warmth and pans of hot water for it. This same bath, together with a washboard, was also utilised for the family's laundry.

One of my abiding childhood memories is sitting beside the combustion stove, gazing into the glowing coals through the open fire door with a slice of bread on a toasting fork while outside the wind roared and the rain lashed noisily on the asbestos, the only illumination being provided by a candle or paraffin lamp that cast flickering shadows full of fantasy, and sometimes terror.

Entertainment was provided by the wireless. The Home or Light programmes with the day’s news. Children’s Hour, Housewives Choice, Take It From Here, Wilfred Pickles with Have A Go, the early evening adventure serials - Just William, Dick Barton Special Agent, Paul Temple - all finishing in moments of great excitement which ensured only some earth shattering event would prevent you missing the next episode. Certainly it was entertainment to stretch, and mould, the imaginations of both young and old listeners alike.

For me my new home and surroundings were so different from the life I had previously known. It provided a freedom and adventure that children today can only dream of as I will recall next time.

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