The history of post-war prefabs

The Prefab Museum is a living history online museum about Britain’s post-war prefabs. Part of the Temporary Housing and Emergency Factory Made Homes programmes, 156,623 prefabricated buildings were erected all over the UK between 1946-9 to rehouse ex-servicemen and their families or bombed-out people. In 1942, following the Blitz, the Burt Committee was set up by the wartime coalition Government to provide guidance on the housing shortage. The committee recommended temporary housing as a solution to the shortage of construction workers and the destruction of housing in the Blitz. They aimed to accommodate servicemen returning from the war, people made homeless by bombing, or living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions. Read about the politics behind the prefabs here.

As early as 1941, local authorities had been meeting to discuss proposals for prefabricated sectional bungalows to be stored at key points across the country.  Source HC Deb 16 February 1944 vol 397 cc187-8W 187W

In March 1944, Winston Churchill broadcast a speech titled Our Greatest Effort is Coming in which he mentioned prefabs as a solution for re-housing servicemen coming back from the war and their young families. D-Day hadn’t even happened, nor the infamous V1 and V2 attacks and Churchill already promised the building of 500,000 of these new all mod-cons cottages.  You can read the full text of the speech here.

The part dealing with prefabs is titled Million Homes Destroyed and was kindly read and interpreted in July 2013 by actor Neil Titley known for his Oscar Wilde shows.

uk100

American ‘UK100’ prefab, exported from the USA via Lend Lease

uniseco

Uni-Seco Mk2 prefab in Hale Street, Poplar

Prefabs were located on bomb sites and open spaces including parks, in rural locations, towns and villages, and were scheduled to last 10 to 15 years. They did much longer as hundreds of them are still standing, lived-in and cherished 70 years later.

People tell us about locations of prefabs all the time. But most of them are under threat of demolition to be replaced by modern dwellings and flats, which in most cases are not reaching the standards of the 1946 luxurious bungalows! Research and planning went into their development, how best to address the housing crisis caused by the devastation of war, and the shortage of skilled construction workers who had been called up or on other war work.

 

Seco Mark 2 building with a Mark 3 being built inside

The Uni-Seco Training Centre in London (Seco Mk.II building with a Mk.III being built inside)

Factory workers assembling the prefabs

The result was the ‘prefab’ which was made of prefabricated parts and could be put together and erected by semi and unskilled workers.

Prefabs boasted fitted kitchens and wardrobes, indoor toilet and bathroom with heated towel rail, constant hot water, a vented heating system – and a fridge! Visit our Design page to find out more.

The first fully fitted prefabs to be erected were the American UK100 prefabs supplied to the UK under the Lend Lease programme from the United States. When Lend Lease came to an end in the summer of 1945, domestic prefab production stepped up.

How did this extraordinary endeavour take place? Thanks to a document at the Chiltern Open Air Museum archive we have a timeline of events from 1944 to 1947, from the perspective of one local authority the Amersham Rural District Council. Local authorities were given extensive powers of compulsory purchase, from empty homes to bomb sites to vacant land, on which to place the prefabs. They applied for the number of prefabs they needed to the Ministry of Works and were given a deadline of December 1945 to secure the sites. Plans were submitted for approval to the MoW for the layout of the prefabs, and the sites were prepared to receive the prefabs. This included roads, utilities and drainage, and preparing the bases. It also included clearing and levelling bomb sites.

Apart from the AIROH B2, which was delivered in four sections, most of the prefabs had hundreds or thousands of components. The Arcon MkV comprised 2,500 components, supplied by 145 manufacturers. Delivery of the hulls  and components was managed by the Ministry of Works in conjunction with large construction companies like Taylor Woodrow and Wimpey. A further programme of Swedish timber prefabs imported to Ministry of Works’ specifiations was undertaken to provide homes in mainly rural areas of England and Wales, with a separate programme for Scotland.

It is unique as the only period when central government took control of new public housing rather than providing subsidies or grants to local authorities to build.

Ones to watch: The 1944 films a ‘Home of the Future‘ showing a prototype prefab, and ‘Huts for the Homeless‘. From 1945 ‘Houses at Speed‘. Post-war reconstruction of Dover is shown in Rebuilding Dover: approximately 7 minutes into the film, American UK100 and AIROH prefabs are featured.

Read Building the Post-War World, a short history, and our guest blogs on two prefab manufacturers Uni-Seco and AW Hawksley,

Educators: download our EDUCATION PACK

Please note we are updating the education pack which will be available on this page later in 2017.

Prefabs in museums (UK & France)
Local history prefab groups and websites 

 

 Photos from the Airfield Research Group archive.

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