Sunday, November 18, 2018

Homes for heroines

It’s that time of year again: for a week or so this blog is given over to some reviews of new and recent books – for your friends’ Christmas stockings, perhaps, or your own...

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, Prefabs: A Social and Architectural History 
Published by Historic England

In the late-1940s, Britain had to build more houses than ever. A huge chunk had been taken out of the housing stock by bombing – and there were pre-war slums to clear. The call went up again, as it had after World War I, for ‘homes for heroes’. One solution was the prefab – the prefabricated bungalow, mass produced and able to be quickly erected; a way, it was hoped both of filling the housing need and providing work for factories that had made the fighters or bombers that were, mercifully, no longer required in such numbers.

The story of Britain’s postwar prefab has been told before,* but there is room for another book, and especially at this time, when so few prefabs are left and residents of those that do remain are having to fight for the survival of their much loved homes. This new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova tells their story in the light of new research,† a fresh emphasis on their social history, and the sense of the urgency and relevance that’s needed if some of these modest but important buildings – and their histories – are to be preserved.

The book looks at the historical background to prefabrication in building (everything from Paxton’s Crystal Palace to Nissen huts), the modernist architectural context of thinking about prefabrication in the 20th century, and the setting up and implementation of the governments Temporary Housing Programme that brought the prefabs into existence. It deals with the various different designs of prefab (Tarrant, Uni-Secos, AIROHs, and so on), but much of the fine detail here (production figures, costs, number off each type made, etc) is hived off into an appendix, which makes it easy to find and allows the authors’ main narrative to stick more to cultural and social history.

So we learn quite a bit about the people who lived in the prefabs – who they were and, especially, what they thought of their new homes. The reaction, on the whole, was very positive. Many early residents found the prefabs futuristic: not just because of their rapid construction and unusual materials (asbestos, aluminium), or because they had electricity when many houses outside cities did not, but also and especially because of their fitted kitchens and bathrooms, features very rare in British homes of the 1940s and 1950s.§ Women especially liked these, and also praised the fact that prefabs came with gardens – somewhere to grow plants and a place for children to play safely. The interiors were uncluttered and easy to clean too.

Postwar prefabs were greatly loved by their occupants, and the narrative is well supported by residents’ comments and anecdotes, and by historical and recent photographs. But Blanchet and Zhuravlyova don’t gloss over the bungalows’ faults. For example, the heating was not very effective in many of the first prefabs. People complained of the houses getting stuffy in winter and freezing cold in winter. But this was put right later.

The authors extend their survey to look at other kinds of prefabricated housing built after the initial postwar programme, ranging across concrete Airey houses, wooden Swedish houses, and other types. Most of these, unlike the postwar prefabs, were intended to be permanent, and some have lasted well. But to the surprise of many, a few of the postwar prefabs, meant to last a decade, are still going strong, 70 years after construction. Some of the best preserved – those in Moseley, Birmingham, for example, and a small group of what used to be a crowd on the Excalibur Estate in Catford, London – have been listed. If only there were more. Blanchet and Zhuravlyova have done them proud.

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* I have learned much in particular from Brenda Vale’s Prefabs: A History of the UK Temporary Housing Programme and G Stevenson, Palaces for the People. But Vale’s is an academic book focusing on the technical and architectural history and Stevenson’s is most valuable for its excellent pictures – and neither are that easy to obtain. This new book gives a more rounded picture. 

† The authors draw, particularly, on Elisabeth Blanchet’s work with the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which has researched, documented, and archived much material (oral as well as physical) relating to the history of prefabs and their occupants.

§ Some of those moving to prefabs in the 1940s had been used to a lack of: electricity, a fitted kitchen, hot running water, and even, in some places, mains sewers. I remember my own maternal grandparents, living in rural Lincolnshire in the early 1960s: they survived without any of these facilities.


bazza said...

I grew up in Forest Gate, East London. There were prefabs on Wanstead Flats nearby to us which had to be removed in the sixties by an Act of Parliament because it was crown land (now managed by The City of London Corporation as a part of Epping Forest). I can certainly testify that all the people that I knew who lived in the prefabs absolutely loved it and were sad to leave.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s contemplative Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

The story of Britain’s postwar prefab has certainly been important in the UK and elsewhere for decades. I have included other countries with postwar examples like Aluminium City Terrace Pa and Robin Boyd's houses in post-WW2 Australia. and

But when so few prefabs are left, we need to preserve, record and analyse as quickly as possible. Is it too late?

And I need to ask who the heroines were?

bazza said...

I would add, further, that the homes were light and airy, spacious (except for a galley kitchen and detached with their own small gardens.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I'm not sure from your last comment if you've missed my point. I quote the oft-quoted line 'homes for heroes', which was used to meaning fitting homes for those returning from the war. My use of 'heroines' in the heading was simply to allude to the fact that prefabs were especially liked by their female occupants – who values thew fitted kitchens, easy-care surfaces, and so on. They're the heroines – and of course many of them had heroically worked their way through World War II on the Home Front, whether working in factories or on the land or at home making do and mending and keeping the country on its feet.