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Post-war prefabs & social housing

This is a transcript of episode 12 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Amanda Lamb and Shrabani Basu as we continue our journey through the history of homes and gardens in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 places. I'm Emma Barnett, and in this series we're exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today.

You've been telling us the locations you think should be on the list. We've had thousands of nominations already, you can go to HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places, to nominate a place in one of our ten categories.

Our panel of expert judges, including George Clarke, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and Monica Ali, are revealing the hundred locations they've selected from your nominations to tell the story of England. Each judge gets to select ten places for their category, and in these programmes, we're finding out why they've chosen their ten.

We're peeking into England's homes and gardens to unveil the ten places judge, George Clarke, has picked from your nominations in this category. Today I'm joined in the studio by broadcaster and property expert, Amanda Lamb, journalist and historian, Shrabani Basu and Louise Brennan from Historic England.

In today's episode, we land in the 20th century. For our ninth location, we go to a suburb in Birmingham, to Wake Green Road in Moseley. It is here that 16 Grade II listed prefabs nestle. Loved and mostly inhabited 70 yeas after they were built, it's the largest collection of listed prefabs in the country. Professor Carl Chinn is a historian and writer, who's devoted his life to studying the history of Birmingham.

Professor Carl Chinn:

Following the Second World War, there was a massive need to build lots and lots of new houses. Don't forget there'd been six years with no house-building, so there was that accumulation of houses that should have been built, that hadn't been built. On top of that, big cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, Liverpool and London had suffered badly in the bombing. So, that led authorities across the country and the national government to look at: what can we do to quickly build new houses straight after peace comes?

Birmingham and Coventry were amongst the two authorities that started to think of this seriously. They both put up some steel framed buildings - and these were permanent inside, but the outside was temporary materials. And the hope was that, very soon after the war - after they'd been built, that the temporary materials would be replaced by brick for the walls and tiles for the roof. Birmingham also experimented with concrete-built houses, they were put up, two, only two, by Bryant, a local firm, but they were very expensive. So, those went by the board, and the steel-framed ones also fell by the wayside.

That meant Birmingham, like other local authorities, now had to take up the Government's offer of prefabricating materials, to put up prefab houses. These would be on one level, they would have two bedrooms, a kitchen, a toilet, a garden, and obviously a bathroom. And Churchill's government had put plans for these in place, in 1944. Birmingham didn't like the idea, they thought they weren't really good enough. But because of the failure of other plans, they had to go ahead with it.

Now, what was the advantage of these prefabricated buildings? Across the country, not only was there a massive need for scores of thousands of new houses, but there was a massive shortage of skilled labour, and of traditional building materials - bricks. So, that's why prefabs came about - factory-made buildings, that could be put up on site, by unskilled workers. The aim was, they would last ten years.  

We're standing in Wake Green Road, in Moseley, and there are 18 left here. They should have been knocked down a long time ago but, in the early 1990s, the tenants, the people that live here, liked them so much, they started a public campaign, which many of us joined, to save them.

If we knock down these last prefabs, people in the future will think: oh look, how did they live? We have a completely lopsided view of history. We have the saving, yes, of stunning architectural wonders, like Chatsworth House, Blenheim Palace and Windsor Castle. But we also need to look at how the vast majority of people lived, and the value of their contributions to our society. The prefabs are an example of that belief that the people of Britain could come through war, could come through adversity and build a ‘new Jerusalem’, where every young person would have the same opportunities as the rich. We haven't built it yet, but let's keep trying.

Emma Barnett:
Let's talk about then, Louise, what is so special about these 'temporary' buildings, if I can put it like that?

Louise Brennan:
Okay. So, they're a rare survivor of a type of temporary building that was really quite common after the Second World War. Over 100,000 temporary prefabs were erected across the UK by the Ministry of Works, between 1944 and 1948, and they were a response to what you've just heard, which was a housing crisis at the time - nothing changes, does it? So, not only had we not been building houses during the Second World War, but obviously quite a few people had been bombed out of their houses. So, for example, my aunty Vera was one of those people, and lived in a prefab. And one of the things that was really special about them was, how modern they were, they were warm, they were comfortable, had inside loos, they had fitted kitchens! All the things that we take for granted, but at the time were innovative.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, and they took quite a set pattern, some of those things you've just listed. They also included sheds and shelters in the back garden, and plotted with a view to you being able to grow vegetables - which we talked about in a previous episode.

Louise Brennan:
Yes, yeah, indeed. They were standard, standardised, and that's why they were able to be produced so quickly. And they came in almost kit form, and there were various different manufacturers, who, during the war, had been producing things like munitions, planes, cars and tanks - so things like that - and turned their energy into producing prefabs. And these ones are in the style called the Phoenix prefab, which I think is a wonderful name!

Emma Barnett:
It's a great name!

Amanda Lamb:
They're beautiful to look at, actually. I think visually they look wonderful. And I love the fact that, like you say, during the war, the factories that employed people for producing tanks, bombs and planes, were now using that workforce to produce houses. My grandparents - I grew up in Portsmouth - they were bombed out during the war, they lost their house. And a very similar thing, a huge estate grew up, about ten miles outside of Portsmouth, which enabled people to rebuild the infrastructure of the city, but it also gave people somewhere to live. And, yeah, they moved in in 1950, and stayed there until they passed away.

Emma Barnett:
In a prefab?

Louise Brennan:
It wasn’t a prefab, it was a local authority house. But they stayed there from 1950 until they passed away in 2000. And I think what I found so wonderful about hearing the stories that my grandparents used to tell, was the sense of pride that they had in these houses, you know, they'd lived through six years of extreme desolation and poverty, and all of a sudden they were given these, like you say, amazing houses that had inside toilets, and fitted bathrooms! And my nan thought it was just the best thing in the world.

Emma Barnett:

Interestingly, specifically on prefabs, there were… between 1944 and 1948 over 100,000 temporary prefabs were erected across the UK. And 2,428 of them were in this Phoenix style. I mean, it's an extraordinary movement, isn't it?

Louise Brennan:
It is. And I think there's something there about the government making good on promises about houses fit for heroes. That idea that you come out of this terrible conflict, where everybody has pulled together, there's nobody who's not been touched by the Second World War, you've all pulled together, and now the Government is gonna sort it out, and you're going to be properly looked after. It is an amazing number of temporary homes erected very rapidly - 1944 to 1948, it's not very long to get 100,000 houses up, and people living in them.

Emma Barnett:
And were they well built?

Louise Brennan:
They were pretty well built, I mean, some of the materials now, like asbestos, are probably not ones that we'd think were a good idea for building. But they were pretty well built, they were well insulated, and people loved them!

Emma Barnett:

And, of course, we should make mention of the fact, in the previous episode we heard how the Lever Brothers transformed work and living conditions to better their business, Shrabani, but this was obviously war driving change?

Shrabani Basu:
Exactly. Well, to bring it right up to the present now, now you have these DIY houses that they want to put together as well. Some of them are quite fashionable, and some of them are very expensive, the ones that come in from Germany.

Amanda Lamb:
I've done three series on them! I've seen more flat-pack homes...

[Laughter]

Emma Barnett:
How do you think they compare, flat-pack homes to these prefabs?

Amanda Lamb:
The speed in which they're built is incredible. But ultimately at the end of the day, you know, we've been talking about it throughout all of these podcasts, I think this is something that politicians need to look at, we have a housing crisis now. We had one in 1944, let's see if there's some way of learning from history.  

Emma Barnett:
And also having some of those learnings come to you, I mean, what strikes me from some of the places we've discussed, that have been borne out of necessity, or borne out of people's good planning, is that every need has been thought of. Whereas, there has been the criticism of modern homes, that people are just being piled on top of each other.

Amanda Lamb:
Yeah, absolutely. When you look at those prefabs, and you think about how difficult it must have been, just in terms of the infrastructure. You know, a lot of the major cities, all the roads, the train links, the transport links, they'd all been completely and utterly destroyed. How do you go about building them? How do you go about getting the materials? How do you go about transporting the materials? For me, it's a real sense of human spirit, persevering and that resilience that we have to go forth and build again.

Emma Barnett:
And we should really make a big mention here, Louise Brennan, of the idea that you didn't have to go outside to go to the toilet, necessarily.

Louise Brennan:
No. Something that we take absolutely for granted, and would be fairly horrified if we were asked to do - but it was the standard. And particularly going back to the 19th century, and thinking about Port Sunlight, you'd be sharing a communal toilet in a slum with 20 families, so you'd all be using one toilet, I mean, that is not a toilet I'd ever want to clean.

Amanda Lamb:
No thanks, no!

Emma Barnett:
Well, on the other side of this is the construction of these prefabs gave a lot of people work.

Louise Brennan:
Yeah, they did. And I think the other thing about them is, they're on a very human scale, so you're in your own detached house, in your own little cottage garden. So, they're a very human scale, that people can really relate to.

Emma Barnett:
We are coming to the end of our Homes & Gardens top ten, but which location has gained the final place in our 10 most irreplaceable locations, as chosen by George Clarke? It is the Park Hill flats complex in Sheffield.

In 1961, Sheffield welcomed a new era of living with the arrival of these streets in the sky. These concrete blocks housed 995 flats, 31 shops and four pubs on a total site of 32 acres. They even had goods lifts big enough for milk floats to ride in - just picture that for a moment. The flats are laid in flour blocks, linked by bridges, and their decks are wide enough for a milk float to pass along.

It was rather a rough area of densely-populated, low-quality housing before being developed in the late 1950s. Their goal was to build upwards, making use of space, keeping units affordable without creating social isolation. This was the first building to truly put these goals into practice with innovative design. If we could think about the Brutalist architectural style, which is what we're really talking about here, when we're considering the Park Hill flats in Sheffield. Amanda, what do you make of that style?

Amanda Lamb:
Ah well, it's not my favourite style of architecture, you know, give me a Georgian double-fronted any day; however, it has its place. And that's what I think is so wonderful about this tiny little island that we live on, is that you can walk in any direction, in less than a mile, and you will see so many different styles of buildings. I totally get the concept of it, and I can understand how a visionary would have had an idea that this would have made a perfect solution to overcrowding. Like I say, it's not my favourite, looking at the photograph of it, I can absolutely see how it deserves its place in this top 100, because of the idea and because of the vision behind it.

Emma Barnett:
Yes. And when you look at something like this, Shrabrani, do you feel respect for it? What do you feel?

Shrabani Basu:
Mixed feelings, actually. Architecturally, it doesn't appeal, but I think the spirit behind it, the fact that housing is needed, and how are we going to get a community together? I mean, that's the wonderful thing about apartments, is that you have a real community going. You know, you can knock on your neighbours if you run out of milk. And I think that vision to me is important. And the fact that they're reviving it now, with a different approach, it’s more modern, I think it would work.

Emma Barnett:
Well, that would be very interesting, we'll come onto that in just a moment. But they are the largest listed buildings in Europe.

Louise Brennan:
Yeah. Well, they're not just Grade II, they're Grade II*, so they're even more...

Emma Barnett:
Ooh, what does that mean?

Louise Brennan:
...That means they're even more special. It's 'Marmite architecture', isn't it? You either love it or you really just don't. It was a controversial decision to list them, especially at that high grade, because, for example, the demolition of a building that's Grade II*, or Grade I, is really considered to be hugely exceptional, and it would be difficult to envisage. So, that really did put the onus on everybody to work together to try and come up with a solution to keep them going.

Emma Barnett:
Yes. I mean, the other thing to say about this is important, because it was a move towards a more kind of ethical slum clearance, wasn't it? Talk to me about that.

Louise Brennan:
Okay. So, previously when you decided you wanted to clear a slum, you literally cleared it, and it was up to all those individual tenants generally to find a new home for themselves, there was no, kind of: let's take care of people. So, this was completely different, the idea being that, yes, you would clear the sub-standard housing, but you would take the residence and put them back into this brave new world, terribly modern housing. So, you were really trying to look after a community and keep it together.

Emma Barnett:
Yes. And it was maintained, wasn't it, the community, by rehousing neighbours from previously existing streets next door from one another. And they even used old street names.

Louise Brennan:
Yes.

Emma Barnett:
I mean, things like that, these are small details that make a difference.

Louise Brennan:
They do. And it's clear that, although it's ‘Marmite architecture’, this was a building that was really well thought through. And the intentions were the best of intentions to try and keep that community together and create something really rather lovely for them to give everybody the best opportunity.

Emma Barnett:
But they were not perfect, I mean, poor noise insulation - Amanda, why don't I bring you in on this? [Laughter] Because that's still a problem today, but the specific issue here.

Amanda Lamb:
Well, yes, it is. Yeah, and I think modern homes, there is an issue. And if you are living on top of one another, where you've got somebody above you, below you, left and right, if you've got four families effectively all making noise at the same time, it can become incredibly difficult to cope with.

Emma Barnett:

And what do you make of the idea of there now being new developers trying to breathe new life into this?

Amanda Lamb:
I think it's lovely, I really do.

Emma Barnett:

Really?

Amanda Lamb:
Yes, you know, we all, sort of, talk about it being ‘Marmite architecture’, but it still has a very important role in our history. And I like that fact that when the developers have arrived, there's a big graffitied: “I love you, will you marry me!” sign. And, instead of getting rid of it, painting over it or knocking... they're going to immortalise it, and put a neon light on the estate - which I think is wonderful.

Emma Barnett:
I hope she said 'Yes'!

Amanda Lamb:
So do I! Imagine if she didn't, and she'll have to see it every... in neon!

Emma Barnett:
But I mean, it is, I suppose, a revival of the spirit of the 60s, Louise Brennan?

Louise Brennan:
Yeah, it is. If you go to Sheffield, you come into the train station, and Park Hill flats are above you, so they're up on a cliff, and they're really, really visible. And Urban Splash have revitalised them with... a lot of the panels, which were fairly, sort of, dull, muted colours, are now really bright.

Emma Barnett:

You can't miss it!

Louise Brennan:
You can't miss it now. And it's a real, sort of, celebration of that building, which is probably the only way you could do it.

Emma Barnett:
Yeah. Well, let's hope this irreplaceable landmark remains part of Sheffield's social heritage for many years to come.

That is it for our Homes & Gardens category, I hope you've enjoyed exploring these irreplaceable locations with us. They were: the Almshouse at Hospital of St Cross in Hampshire; Windsor Castle in Berkshire; Great Somerford Free Gardens and Allotments in Wiltshire; Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire; Birkenhead Park in Merseyside; Osborne House on the Isle of Wight; Port Sunlight in The Wirral; RHS Wisley in Surrey; the post-war bungalows in Birmingham; and, as just discussed, Park Hill flats in Sheffield.

We would love to hear what places you think should be on our list, you can head to HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places, that's the number 100, to vote on one of our upcoming categories and you can use the hashtag 100places on social media.

Thank you very much to my guests - Amanda Lamb, Louise Brennan and Shrabrani Basu. I hope you can join us next time when we'll hear from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, on the sporting locations you voted irreplaceable in England's history.  

And if you can, do rate, review and subscribe to this podcast on your podcast player of choice, so you'll never miss an episode. I'm Emma Barnett, thank you very much for your company, and I'll catch you next time.

Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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