Prefabs - Palaces of the People

The unseasonable hot weather did not deter a large audience from enjoying a highly informative talk at our June meeting from Black Country historian Ned Williams. Mention the word "prefab"and an image is immediately conjured up of small single storey houses erected in the aftermath of World War II, designed to tackle the serious post war housing shortage. However, Ned revealed that prefabricated housing was introduced many years earlier. In fact, he has traced its beginnings to the turn of the twentieth century. As early as 1900, catalogues illustrated prefabricated housing designs for sale. These were often two story dwellings, mostly designed in the rusticated tudor style which was popular in the early part of the twentieth century. Hundreds of designs were available. The prefabricated sections were exported around the British Empire, especially to the newly emerging countries of Australia and New Zealand. Many, both at home and overseas, survive to this day. Here, some were erected on smallholdings provided especially for returning soldiers from World War I, when David Lloyd George reputably coined the phrase "Homes Fit For Heroes". Such was the proliferation of prefabricated houses that a debate sprang up in the 1920s as to whether prefabrication was a quicker, simpler and cheaper solution to meet housing need than conventional "bricks and mortar" construction. Sadly, prefabrication lost out because, although it was speedier, it could not be shown to be cheaper than conventional building techniques. Nevertheless, a substantial number of prefabricated single and two storey houses were built by Councils as part of their emerging council house building programmes. Many still survive, often updated and reclad so that the passer-by might not recognise them as original prefabs.

The emergence of the World War II prefab was therefore based on past experience, speedily tackling the housing shortage caused by enemy action in the Second World War. The story of the prefab begins in 1944 with the Government's Temporary Housing Project. Realising that something had to be done about the growing problem of homelessness, which forced families to share homes or even resort to squatting, the Government turned to the prefab as a solution. We may think that all prefabs were constructed from one design - not so! There were at least six designs produced by a range of companies which were diversifying into other types of production after the cessation of war production; there were even two storey prefabs. So Ned told us about the Arcan Mk V, the Uni-Seco, the Tarram and the Orlit. They were not just designed as a basic roof over peoples' heads. Modern for their time, they had all "mod cons"; fitted kitchens, inside toilets and ample storage space. As Ned put it, they felt larger on the inside than the outside! They caused some locals to be jealous of their neighbours' new-found comforts. Distribution nationally was very uneven. If a local council could guarantee that services (eg. water, electricity) were readily available, then they could be erected quickly. Consequently, some councils were allocated a large number, others a few. By 1949, 156,667 had been built, some way from the target of 250,000. Although built to last a maximum of 10 years some are still with us today - but not as we might recognise them. Many have been reclad, extended or refurbished. Ned's exploration of the country has turned up a number of fascinating survivors, often proudly defended by their owners. Of course, a number have found their way into museums. Locally, the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings at Bromsgrove has one; as does the Black Country Museum at Dudley. For those of you who will now want to start "prefab-spotting" as you travel around the country, required reading, we were told, is "Palaces for the People - Prefabs in Post War Britain" by Greg Stevenson. Happy hunting!

Roger Hockney
June 2017