Sidney Williams Huts
If there’s one structure that epitomises the extent of military activities in the Territory during World War II it is the Sidney Williams hut – or ‘Comet’ brand hut – that was home to thousands of Australian and Allied servicemen from the late 1930s when the defence build-up in the north became more urgent.
The firm of Sidney Williams and Company was formed in 1879 in Rockhampton, Queensland. From around 1910 the company was producing the famous Comet brand windmill, which dotted the Australian landscape for decades.
The company relocated to Sydney and during the mid-1920s moved into the production of prefabricated steel buildings, including large aircraft hangars. The Daly Waters hangar, manufactured by Sidney Williams in 1929, remains a reminder of the Territory’s long involvement in Australia’s aviation history. In Tennant Creek, the Australian Inland Mission hall and a number of other Sidney Williams buildings were erected in the mid-1930s.
Sidney Williams huts began to appear at military sites in Darwin in the late 1930s when they were erected at East Point and Emery Point. They were the forerunners of the thousands of huts that were shipped to the Territory over the next few years. They featured steel frames, and were corrugated-iron clad with ripple-iron doors at each end. Push-out shutters along their length were set alternately high and low to allow airflow. The flexibility of the Sidney Williams design allowed the 20-foot (6.11m) sections to be joined. Some huts, used as warehouses and accommodation, were up to 60 or 80-feet in length (18.34m and 24.45m).
With increasing numbers of troops arriving in Darwin, hut encampments were set up at Winnellie and Parap from 1940, and at Adelaide River in 1941. They were in effect ‘tin cities’ with as many as 70 or more Sidney Williams huts serving a variety of purposes at each camp. Throughout the Territory the Sidney Williams hut became a familiar sight to servicemen. At Gorrie Airfield near Larrimah over 90 Comet huts were erected, while at Fenton Airfield and Noonamah Supply Depot they served as headquarters and warehouses. In Katherine they housed civilian workers of the Allied Works Council, including Italian and other enemy alien workers.
Aboriginal army workers were also housed in the huts. By late 1942, the Sidney Williams company was supplying over 40 buildings in prefabricated form each week. By war’s end there were some 4,000 huts throughout the Territory from Pee Wee Camp in the north to the huts at the Anzac Hill camp in Alice Springs, which later housed the Totem Theatre.
With the Japanese surrender in August 1945, a dramatic withdrawal of military forces began and with it came the post-war disposals of camps, buildings and equipment, which were sold and used in the construction of outstations, businesses, churches and homes.
In Darwin, the former military camps and the Sidney Williams huts there became home to evacuees and families returning from the south. The flexible and portable nature of the Sidney Williams hut has seen it survive in many guises. The Stuart Park Sidney Williams Hut on Westralia Street is one of several surviving huts from the wartime camps.