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Post by Stanley »


There are many inventions that carry the name of their originator. The Lewis Gun, The Mills Bomb and the Stokes Mortar spring to mind immediately in the context of the Great War, but how often do we know anything about the inventor? In the case of Peter Norman Nissen we have the great advantage of the research carried out by Fred McCosh for his book Nissen of the Huts from which the information in this article has been drawn. Let’s begin by learning a little about Nissen and his background.

His Early Life

Peter Norman Nissen was born in the United States in 1871 of Norwegian parents. His place of birth was either North Carolina or New York; the records are not clear on this point so, he began life as an American citizen.

His father, Georg Nissen, seems to have been able to turn his hand to most things from house building to shoemaking but he was primarily a mining engineer and the family travelled around the United States and across the Canadian border to Nova Scotia as he moved from job to job.

Georg, who was himself an inventor, had devised a machine for crushing ore in copper and gold mines, the Nissen Stamp Mill, which he had mixed success in marketing, as there were other similar rival machines available. However, he made enough money from his various enterprises to support his family in a fairly comfortable style and even to travel back to Norway to visit relatives. He was also able to ensure that as the family moved from place to place his daughter and two sons received a good education.

When he was 16 Peter, the hero of our story was studying at a college in North Carolina, but left in 1891 to join the family in Nova Scotia. In Canada he found work with a firm in Halifax, which in 1896 sent him, at the age of 25, to the Mining and Agriculture School of Queen’s University, Ontario to erect and demonstrate one of his father’s Stamp Mills. He also enrolled and studied for some time on one of their mining courses. It was while there in 1896 that he obtained his own first Canadian patent for “Pneumatic Boots and Shoes”. These seem to have been a sort of inflatable insole. Whether they caught on is not recorded but there is no known reference of them being manufactured. It was also at Queen’s University that he met his future wife, Louisa Mair Richmond, a Canadian citizen. They married in 1900.

He then moved around Canada finding work in various mining concerns. Now a married man he spent some years making improvements to and selling a version of his father’s crushing machine in the United States and Canada. However, in 1910, at the age of 39, he decided to emigrate to South Africa to try his luck with it in the rapidly expanding gold mining industry there.

He and his wife Louisa and daughter Betty sailed to England where he arranged for the manufacture of the Nissen Stamp Mill by a British engineering firm and received an indenture from them giving him the right to sell the equipment and receive royalties for doing so. The family then settled in Witwatersrand in the Transvaal.

The business was reasonably successful and the family remained there until 1912 when they returned to England and in 1913 he sent up a building contracting company, Nissen’s Ltd. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he quickly made the decision that he had to become part of the struggle to defeat Germany even though he was still an American citizen and, in fact, only took British citizenship in 1921.

World War 1 and the Genesis of the Nissen Hut

At the start of the war he was 43 years old and his initial attempt to join the army was unsuccessful because of his age. However, in January 1915 he was accepted into the 12th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters as a Temporary Lieutenant. By May of that year his engineering skills had been recognised and he was transferred to the 103rd Field Company Royal Engineers. In August 1915 he was promoted to Captain.

The enormous expansion of the British forces caused serious shortfalls in hutting of all kinds. By early 1916, while stationed in Ypres Nissen, now a Major, had started to apply his mind to the problem of providing accommodation for troops and began sketching his initial ideas for the semi-circular hut. He later traced its origins back to a drill hall at Queen’s University, Ontario which, though much larger and of a completely different construction, had the same shape.

The idea didn’t spring fully formed from his mind and he built several prototypes whilst with the Royal Engineers in Ypres, gradually refining the design. His commanding officer at the time, Lt. Col. Bertram Shelley later claimed some of the credit for the hut, but after the war Nissen recorded his own account:

“Whilst in Ypres I introduced my scheme [for the hut] to General Capper [A senior R.E. officer], who wrote to General Plumer [Commander 2nd Army] who in turn took up the matter and introduced me to the Engineer-in-Chief as ‘too valuable an inventor for an ordinary Field Company R.E.’. So I was transferred to General Headquarters [at Montreuil]. On 16th March 1916 I went to 29th Company R.E. General Headquarters under command of Colonel Shelley.”

There are also various accounts and statements which prove irrevocably that the hut was Nissen’s sole idea. One of the main pieces of evidence comes from a letter written in April 1918 from Brigadier General W A Liddell, Deputy Engineer in Chief.

“I started this question because I thought it would be interesting to have on record a statement of various officers' share in the design which has proved so successful and on which two and a half million pounds will have eventually been expended.

The main idea for the semicircular pattern of hut on which all the rest depends is entirely Major Nissen’s…consequently, the hut has been known by his name and he has been allowed to patent the design…”

Other officers were rightly given credit for their ideas for improvements, but clearly the main credit goes to Nissen.

It has been pointed out that Nissen, as a non-professional soldier, suffered from a certain amount of jealousy from the Royal Engineers regulars but this did not prevent him from successfully promoting his idea.

His superiors were so impressed by his idea that he was moved to Hesdin in the Pas de Calais where he was given a small team of men to assist him. Amongst these was a Corporal, later Sergeant, Robert Donger who, as a trained mechanical draughtsman, was to form an important part of Nissen’s team and was later employed by him in his commercial concern after the war. Here at Hesdin the design was gradually refined and detailed plans of components prepared so that large-scale manufacture could be arranged. Another member of the squad for a time was a Private Newton of the Artists’ Rifles who assisted with some of the drawings. Perhaps a case of “Anyone ‘ere who’s good at drawring take one step forward!”

Nissen initially used wooden sheets as the covering material but soon changed this to corrugated iron, as this was more readily available in large quantities. Machines for bending the sheets already existed and one was borrowed from the Canadian Engineers.

It’s interesting that by April 1916, only weeks after his ideas had been put forward, plans for the standard basic model had been agreed and permission to proceed with manufacture given. Yet another nail in the coffin of the myth of hide-bound, unimaginative and slow to act senior officers, which sadly remains a widely accepted view of the war.

By June of that year Nissen had applied for a patent for “Improvements in and relating to Portable Buildings”. This initial model was named the “Nissen Bow Hut” it being Army practise to name things after their inventors. It was 27 feet long, 16 feet wide and 8 feet high. Many variations were to follow such as the Nissen Hospital Hut 60 feet x 20 feet x 10 feet with telescopic beds. Other types included one for drying clothes complete with its own heating system and racks and another for shower baths similarly complete in every detail.

The hut was essentially an oblong steel floor framework to which steel bows were attached. The floor and end walls were of wood with a door and two windows at each end. So long as you had a reasonably flat surface to lay the framework down it was possible to erect a hut anywhere.

The demand for hutting in the First World War was enormous and eventually around 100,000 Nissen Huts were manufactured along with many more of the standard conventional wooden types.

As with all great designs, simplicity was the key and this made it possible to produce instructions accompanied by diagrammatic drawings on how to erect the huts. This could, in theory as well as practice, be done by anyone of reasonable intelligence even though they had no experience of building. Could this be the first example of a ‘flat pack’? Probably not as I suspect that the Romans had something similar. I also imagine that the Nissen Hut instructions were perhaps written in somewhat clearer English than the ones that we sometimes have to deal with today from other Scandinavians.

Being semicircular there were no complicated eaves, gables or guttering and many of the parts such as the corrugated sheets were interchangeable.

Everything was worked out in minute detail, including precisely how the components were to be loaded so that they would fit onto a standard 3-ton capacity lorry. The kits even contained the spanner, which was the only tool needed to complete the task. It was possible for six men to erect a hut in four hours although one was once completed in an incredible 1 hour 27 minutes.

The detailed drawings and specifications were finished in August 1916 and orders were placed with the British manufacturers after which the production of the huts began in earnest and in September the first were in use in France.

Despite the great care taken, fine-tuning of the design continued. For instance, the original models had an interior lining of matchwood. However, in the innocent minds of the designers, the insatiable appetite of “Tommy” for kindling for his stoves had not been recognised. The plywood proved to be an irresistible and ready to hand supply and corrugated iron was soon substituted.

The hut began to be mentioned in the newspapers and even to start to develop a sort of personality. A Daily Mail reporter, Filson Young wrote a description of the unusual new building.

“…Overnight you would see a blank space of ground. In the morning it would be occupied by an immense creature of the tortoise species, settled solidly and permanently on the ground. And when the pioneer found that the situation was good and the land habitable, it would pass the word…so that in a week or so you would find a valley covered with them…

These are new homes for which many a soldier on the Somme front is thanking his lucky stars in this bitter weather. By day the beds are rolled up against the sides and the whole middle space is available for work, games, messing, reading and writing. The hut is warmed by the ordinary Canadian stove – an iron drum with two holes in it and a smoke pipe…In short, amongst the creatures to which the war has given birth, it has already earned a high character as a useful, tractable, kindly domestic beast. Some officers in high command think so highly of it as to make collections of it, so that there is hardly a chateau which houses a an Army or Corps headquarters but has two or three perfectly tame ones crouching within sight of the front door and acting with equal docility as telephone exchanges, map rooms, stables or offices”

The structures also became the object of some rather heavy-handed soldier humour such as “It’s one of them ‘uts what you sit down in but can’t lean back”. Or the father meeting his stooping son on leave; “Well my boy, the cares of the war seem to be weighing heavily on your shoulders.” “It’s not that Dad. I’ve been living in one of those Nissen huts for three months!”

Nissen was particularly proud of the fact that Queen Mary, on a visit to France, inspected one of his hospital huts. He was apparently even prouder of the dressing table he made for her out of packing cases and muslin for her overnight stay.

Even though he was fully occupied with his hut he found time for other inventions such as the “Mud Punt”, a curious device for transporting shells short distances and powered by a Ford car engine.

He also designed a successful three-tier field cooker which could prepare three dishes simultaneously and which was produced in large numbers and was, apparently, highly thought of.

He also suggested improvements to the Mills Bomb and at the end of the war patented a steel tent, which was also put into production although it was not available in time to be used during the hostilities.

When the war finished he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was awarded the D.S.O. for his work and had been Mentioned in Despatches. 100,000 huts capable of housing 2,400,000 men had been used as well as 10,000 hospital huts with 240,000 beds. The effects on morale of being able to accommodate such large numbers of men and women in dry and warm conditions cannot, of course, be calculated, but must have been immense.

Nissen After The Great War

He now began something of a struggle with the War Office over royalties. He was initially offered £500 but dismissed this as totally inadequate. As has been mentioned earlier Nissen had obtained patents for his design, which gave him certain rights over their sale and manufacture after the war. After extended discussions his patent agent, Walter John Chamberlain eventually negotiated a £13,400 payment, tax free – quite a sum in 1918. It could be though a little odd that at the end of a war which had devastated Europe and nearly bankrupted Britain that Nissen should be so intent on fighting for this settlement. However he was at heart a businessman with a family to support and he felt entitled to claim the reward for his idea.

Many of the existing huts in France and Belgium were sold to the governments of those countries. Other unused ones, still in storage in the UK, were bought from the War Office by Nissen at a very reasonable price and formed the initial stock for his newly created company, Nissen Buildings Ltd which was set up at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. This was, naturally, housed in Nissen huts. His former right hand man, Sergeant Donger joined the firm as Chief Draughtsman and remained with the Company for many years.

One of the firm’s first major contracts came in 1921. This was to build the National Wool Sheds which were to hold the yearly Australian wool crop which the British government had bought under an agreement made with the Australian government during the war. The sheds covered a ten-acre site on the Humber plus a further three-acre complex in the Hull docks.

Many other types of building were designed including two-storey houses, and even churches, for civilian use but the company was only moderately successful.

These post-war years were not particularly good ones for Peter Nissen in his personal life and, amongst other things, his wife Louisa died in 1923 at the aged 50. Nissen himself survived only until 1930 when he too died at the age of 58.

The firm continued without its founder and the Second World War brought back something of the hut’s glory days. It continued production but finally ceased trading in 1971.

So, the firm and the man have gone but his name and his hut still amazingly survive, apparently indestructible. There are examples of Nissen’s products all over the world from the Falklands to Uxbridge where I recently saw two still in use as a social club.

Another interesting survival, and now a listed building, is a double-length hut converted into a chapel by Italian prisoners of war on the Orkney island of Lambholm in the Second World War. A wall of Gothic design made of concrete disguises its end but the main structure remains clearly recognisable as a Nissen Hut. The interior walls are decorated with murals and the whole chapel fitted out with objects ingeniously fashioned from corned beef tins and other scrap, mainly by Domenico Chiocchetti when he was a POW.

Hopefully it will be saved for posterity and will preserve Nissen’s name for future generations and he deserves to be remembered, for although most of his ideas were formed in the heat of war the important ones were all essentially humanitarian.

As mentioned above, this article could not have been prepared without the enormous efforts of Fred McCosh in researching and piecing together the details of Nissen’s life. His book, Nissen of the Huts, is another worthy memorial to Peter Nissen.

Any errors in this article are entirely my own responsibility.

Leslie Graham

Nissen of the Huts by Fred McCosh was published by B.D. Publishing in 1997. ISBN 0 9525799 1 X
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
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"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
The floggings will continue until morale improves!
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