The fight for a post-war home in Doncaster

An abandoned miners’ hostel in Bentley became home to two families desperate for somewhere to live during post-war housing shortages 73 years ago, writes Alison Vainlo.

Tuesday, 15th October 2019, 12:11 pm
Updated Tuesday, 22nd October 2019, 4:33 pm
Map of the Queen's Drive area of Bentley in 1948, showing the old miners' camp.
Map of the Queen's Drive area of Bentley in 1948, showing the old miners' camp.

The families were soon joined by other, equally desperate families and so began the extraordinary story of the Bentley Squatters.

Six years of war had taken its toll on housing in Britain. Properties had been lost through bombing and house building had been halted. Many couples and families were forced to live with parents or relatives in cramped conditions. The Government were so out of touch with the severity of the housing situation, they were totally taken by surprise when the public began to take control.

A "Squatters Movement" began in the summer of 1946, which saw sweeping seizures of empty properties up and down the country in an effort to force the Government to take action.

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Photo from the Yorkshire Evening Post, January 7th 1948, showing two residents packing belongings as they faced eviction from the camp.

The Bentley miners’ hostel was made up of a collection of semi-circular Nissen Huts situated on Queen’s Drive. Built in 1943, it was used as a camp for trainee Bevin Boys during the war. Once the war ended the hostel became empty.

The Ministry of Works offered 850 former camps redundant to service needs to be released for housing. Unfortunately Bentley was not among them; in fact it was revealed that the Ministry of Works required possession of the hostel for other mining trainees within three months.

In August 1946 two families, the Jaggers and the Passs moved into the Queen’s Drive hostel. Mrs Jagger and Mrs Pass were sisters and the two families, consisting of nine adults and two children, had previously been living with their mother in a two-bedroomed house in Sunnyfields.

Despite police patrols to prevent more people moving in, seven more families broke in and settled in the miners' hostel. It was decided to leave the water supply on in the property for the families, but the electricity was cut.Meanwhile the authorities were realising the seriousness of the situation.

Photo from the Yorkshire Evening Post, August 14th 1947, showing the squatters marching to Court in Doncaster.

By the end of August 1946 seventy families had moved into the hostel, making nearly 300 people. A daughter was born to Mrs Olive Thomas in the hostel dining hall, however, the lack of heating and hot water hampered the nurse who attended Mrs Thomas. Following this a squatter’s deputation approached members of the Housing Committee of the Bentley Urban Council to request heating.

The Ministry of Works were defeated in their plan to re-open the hostel for trainee miners within the required three months, and by July 1947 95 families were still occupying the premises. The families were told they faced eviction but they expressed their determination to resist and appealed to Doncaster MP Evelyn Walkden to intervene, but he could not do anything until the eviction notices had been served.

Following verbal notice given to the squatters by the Ministry of Works, it was reported on July the 23rd 1947 that summonses were being prepared against 90 families.Ernest Lenin Pratt, a 21 year old Bevin Boy and Chairman of the Squatters' Committee at Queen's Drive, paid a 24 hour visit to London and presented the Ministry of Works with a 30,000 signature petition against the Ministry's eviction threat.

By now, it was being reported that the Ministry wanted the hostel for Polish and other foreign mining trainees, which further angered the squatters. The families were summonsed to appear at Court on August the 14th. On the 14th of August 1947 three hundred squatters from the Queen's Drive hostel marched the two and a half miles to Doncaster County Court. Summonses for trespass against 88 families were to be heard.

Photo of a child in front of one of the Nissen huts in the early 1950's, courtesy of Mr Graham Westerman

The court was told that in June of this year (1947) each family was visited, warned they were trespassing and told to leave.

Mr A. E. Stephenson (for the defendants) said "What these people bitterly resent is that they allege they are being turned out for Poles."

The Judge, A. C. Caporn, in his discretion, gave them all one month to find alternative accommodation or face eviction.

Despite efforts to gain support from factories, LNER Plant Works, local collieries, Winston Churchill M.P. and even the Queen, a further court hearing resulted in a final notice of possession.

By the middle of January 1948 all the squatters had left the hostel or been evicted and work started to prepare the camp for the arrival of 500 foreign mine workers.

The miners’ hostel was used until around 1951. Then, empty once again; the huts were converted into temporary homes, legitimately this time – before house building projects began to ease the shortages from about 1956. Today, houses and bungalows cover the land.