Monday, April 2, 2018


Flat-pack houses, Edwardian style

Thinking about the corrugated-iron house in the previous post, I thought I should have a look in a catalogue of prefabricated buildings from the Victorian or Edwardian periods, to see the kind of thing that was on offer. I have the perfect thing on my shelves: the 1902 catalogue of Boulton and Paul of Norwich.* This company began at the end of the 18th century as an ironmonger, expanding over the years into a large manufacturing business with a very strong line in prefabricated buildings (later they made aircraft too). They made houses, cottages, and bungalows (including designs suitable for ‘the colonies’) in both wooden and corrugated iron, as well as all kinds of agricultural buildings from barns to piggeries, and even prefabricated schools and hospitals, as well as a vast range of fittings and equipment – scrapers, screens, screw jacks, seats, seed protectors, soot boxes, step ladders, stoves, strainers: that’s just a small selection from letter ’s’ in the index.

My photograph (clicking on it should reveal more detail) shows one double-page spread from the section on buildings. The main images show two compact corrugated-iron cottages. These are single-storey buildings that Boulton and Paul would deliver and erect on the purchaser’s own foundations at a reasonable price. Estate owners ordered them for staff accommodation or as hunting lodges; someone with a bit of land could build themselves a house. More elaborate bungalows were available with spacious verandahs – just the thing for a company that was employing a representative in the far reaches of Britain’s then worldwide empire. For a little extra, the manufacturers would include fittings such as a sink, stove, shelves, and ‘Earth Closet Apparatus’. It strikes men that the building in my previous post looks less ‘designed’ than these neat off-the-peg cottages and may well be either a building in another material clad with corrugated iron or something put together by the first owner to his own plans.

Boulton and Paul made an effort to create attractive buildings. There are curvy bargeboards, fancy cresting on the roof ridge, and small panes to the upper parts of the windows, in the Norman Shaw tradition though less well proportioned. The catalogue is sprinkled with testimonials from happy customers. ‘I am very pleased with the House, which answers my purpose admirably. It is evidently very carefully and strongly made,’ writes Buckley Holmes, Esq., from Glenconway. ‘The Cottage is the first of its kind in our neighbourhood, and is much admired,’ says Rev. Chas. Trollope of Wansford. They may have been prefabricated, but these houses were built to last. Nearly 120 years later, most of them have gone, but a few remain, so show us why their first owners were so enthusiastic.

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* There were several other companies, offering very similar designs and construction methods.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

These look like the "chattel houses" in Barbados - some protected by the B. National Trust. They could be dismantled and moved as needed. I wonder if the idea therefore could have COME "from the Colonies". Not happy with a corrugated iron roof during hot weather. Also in a hailstorm! The post-war "Pre-Fabs" were very popular with residents in Birmingham, and many regretted their disappearance. Some of the replacements seemed just as tiny. I believe the Black Country Museum had experimental council houses (from Dudley?) built with metal frames - a sort of halfway house (!) to these - but they were discontinued.

Michelle Ann said...

Whilst they look nice, without insulation they would have been baking in summer and freezing cold and running with condensation in winter, and would eventually rust away. Not surprised they haven't lasted!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: Thank you. I didn't know about the chattel houses.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Michelle Ann: Thank you for your comment. It's a good point about the insulation. Many were insulated, although I don't think insulation came as part of the standard package from the manufacturers. The standard approach was to line the interiors with wooden boards, which provided some barrier to the cold, but to make this more effective it would have been best to stuff insulation between the wood and the corrugated iron outer layer. Corrugated iron houses must have been a bit like caravans, which in my experience can suffer from condensation but are surprisingly easy to keep warm, provided that all the doors and windows fit well. As for rust, the iron sheeting was usually galvanized, and so rust resistant.

Hels said...

Bungalows, especially those suited to the colonies, was a brilliant idea. I am guessing the company did very well from this market.

Stephen Barker said...

I believe the huts that Captain Scott used in the Antarctic were supplied by Boulton and Paul.