The Political Origins of the Shack Communities

In various parts of England there are shacks and shack communities, where people live and holiday. Such sites exist as far apart as East Sussex, Leicestershire and Northumberland.

The anarchist writer Colin Ward highlighted the origins of these communities in his book “Arcadia for All’. He identified Peacehaven, near Brighton, as one of the original settlements of this kind.

Although temporarily and self-built dwellings have existed throughout time, the author highlights that these shack communities were part of a significant lifestyle, a reclaiming movement which was specific to their early 20th century context.

As families reunited after the horrors of WWI many working class people began to buy up small plots of cheap land. Here they built  dwellings in often recycled materials or whatever was affordable and available to them. This included the frontier style building of small wooden shacks, converted gypsy caravans and railway carriages. In turn small shack communities began to be formed.

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Many people involved connected such construction to reclaiming the land they had been conscripted to fight and work for. Their appeal was an escape from the slums, pollution and industrialisation of the towns and cities and a lifestyle that offered the simplicity of living  on the land. It was an opportunity previously only available to the privileged and wealthy. To many poorer people who had been used and abused within the onslaught of capitalism and world war, this enabled a sense of ownership and freedom for the working classes.

Many gypsy families were also involved, tired of both local and state persecution for their traditional nomadic lifestyles, as such communities allowed a continued connection to the land.

As time went on shacks and shack communities began to spring up on the downs, meadows and valleys of England.

This became known as the ‘Plotlands Movement’.

However such a potentially radical movement for those normally controlled and constricted unsettled the state, the rich land owners and the ruling classes alike. By the 1930’s, therefore, stricter planning laws were put in place with emphasis on wealth, capital and an ability to navigate a complex planning process for building dwellings. This all but curtailed the Plotland Movement and its ideals, and access to the land for poorer people.

However, a few small shack communities have survived, but only with restrictions on use and often in the hands of land agents and landowners.

Many such communities in the North of England, that I’m personally familiar with, however still retain some of the original ethics and ideals. Many are still the preserve of working class people and settled gypsy families who continue to utilise such places as a retreat from the cities and to connect to the land. Self-build, often with recycled materials is still common, as is a community spirit of help and co-operation and the pioneering spirit of the original shack builders.

My own shack near the North Pennies is one such example of the movement. Built in the early 1920’s near land well known as an early 20th century gypsy encampment, it is one of the original dwellings still in use. I’ve been told it has been utilised as both a home during and after WW2 due to housing shortages and as a place of weekend escape from the industrialized northern towns.

It also still holds clues and secrets of its original inhabitants, including a probable Romany talisman for warding off curses hidden and lodged within the chimney breast.





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