The British Empire Library

Nissen of the Huts: Biography of Lt.Col.P.N.Nissen, RE DSO

by Fred McCosh

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Ian Bampton, FRIBA FRSA
One is attracted by the biography of an individual who has given his name to that all too familiar 'temporary' structure, the Nissen Hut. Fred McCosh has been tireless in researching an obscure character in order to present this biography; to discover origins and then to follow a none too clear trail, but to what end?

Lt. Col. Peter Nissen was undoubtedly a man of many parts; a fascinating character. An inventor and an adventurer with several careers based on opportunities that came his way. By any standards he proved a poor business man, lacking salesmanship and poor at financial management - but that has not been unusual at any time for the most original inventors. His upbringing and career took him across North America, to South Africa, and by Great Britain to Europe in the First World War, where it all happened.

Fascinating as it may be to a few readers, the biography traces in too much and largely irrelevant detail of Peter Nissen's parentage and family. We find his father, originally from Norway, to be a wanderer to such a degree that there are doubts as to where Peter was born in 1871. His youth in North Carolina with a mediocre education at Trinity College led to a Mining Course in Kingston Ontario, which he failed to complete but here it was that the young Nissen first noted a structure supported by a curved, arch-like frame. When he should have been completing his course in mining, Nissen is up and off to an Art College or 'Exploring'. The author rightly acknowledges on page 51 that he may have strayed from the theme of the biography; this is true and the results of his research have been set out so fully that the points pertinent to the core subject have not been clearly identified for referencing in the narrative of Nissen's greatest achievement: the Hut.

Chapter 4 is given over to the development of the stamp mill, used in the extraction of ore (in Rhodesia, amongst other places). Although interesting to a mining engineer, this is of less interest to those who are seeking the history of the Nissen Hut and its designer.

And so to Chapter 5 where we learn that the arched form of the hut is not an original idea, but is inspired by the roof of the Drill Hall at Nissen's college in Kingston Ontario some 20 years previously. This does not detract from the 'originality' of Nissen's use of the form, for all forms used in buildings have been tried and tested previously. Credit to Nissen for realising the functional quality and strength with economy of the form that he was to adopt for the new Hut. But for chance the opportunity would not have come his way as at 43 he had difficulty in entering the British Army; first becoming a temporary officer in an infantry regiment and then transferring to the Royal Engineers when his talent as an engineer had been noted. Even then his initiative in designing a curious semi-circular hut' was not readily accepted by the regular engineer officers, but the overwhelming accommodation problems in Flanders allowed the prototypes to be built and tested. Its potential would appear to have been readily accepted as others were quick to lay claim and credit for the design or its development.

The credit to Nissen for the invention is established by a memo of 16 April 1918 from Gen Liddell, Deputy Engineer in Chief. By the end of the war some 100,000 huts were produced for 2,500,000 pounds (2 pounds 10 shillings each)! We learn that the two basic types were 27ft X 16ft X 8ft high and the 'hospital hut' of 60ft x 20ft x 10ft high. Significant is the role of the principal draughtsman Robert Donger, not only in developing the Hut and its variants, but also for his role in the development and production of the Nissen Hut between the wars.

Nissen, ever the inventor, then developed a drying hut, shower baths, sheet iron stoves to heat the huts, an oven (field cooker) and mudpunts to transport shells to the artillery from the dumps. On demobilisation Nissen became a naturalised British citizen and the biography then endeavours to trace the subsequent development of the Nissen Hut through to the Second World War and its use in the Falklands in 1982. This is rather thin and although some space is given to description of variations on the theme of the original hut, the wide use in World War Two is not described; even the total number produced does not appear. Nissen died in 1930, but his original draughtsman Robert Donger lived until 1952. But the story of the 'Hut' dies away in spite of the many variants and its trial use in post-war housing. The conclusion is that Peter Nissen's poor business acumen and unfortunate choice of business partners led to an unhappy period from 1920 onwards. Quite probably the military development of the hut showed only limited change as it would have been in the hands of RE personnel.

As an inventor Nissen continued to pursue new ideas, whereas the original concept, although not an architectural 'gem', does lend itself to wider application and development than appears to have been the case.

British Empire Book
Fred McCosh
BD Publishing