Stourbridge Historical Society

Michael Blamire-Brown, President of Stourbridge Historical Society welcomed 83 members and 11 visitors to a talk by Ned Williams entitled Palaces for the People: the story of Prefabs.

Ned’s illustrated talk was born of a lifelong interest in houses in general and prefabs in particular as they were part of his childhood.  He showed the audience some photos taken from the Ideal Home in 1926 and 1962 houses in kit form which set the scene for the rest of the talk. He explained that prefabs came in many shapes and sizes and were made of a variety of materials.

Manufacturers of corrugated iron buildings exported their kits across other parts of the world especially the colonies, Australia and New Zealand. The colonial style with a veranda was very popular. The versatility of the buildings was a positive feature. They were customised according to their destination. Those produced for the Queensland market were built on stilts because of the risk of flooding.

War had a significant impact on housing stock and prefabs were considered as a means of solving the problem. Even before World War II in the 1930’s there was a serious housing crisis which was further exacerbated by the bombing. By the second half of the war squatting was becoming common. A photo of people living in a POW camp vacated by the Italians evidenced this. In 1944 Winston Churchill announced The Temporary Housing (the TPC) which he saw as a temporary of five years duration.  Prefabricated buildings were chosen as a means to solve the housing problem. Many firms producing goods for the war effort foresaw that they would need to diversify post-war. Wolverhampton company Boulton and Paul was one such firm who moved from manufacturing aircraft wings to producing prefabs. Many variations were produced by different companies; aluminium, concrete block, steel framed and corrugated iron for example.

Distribution of prefabs across the country was uneven; some areas had significant numbers but others relatively few. The Ministry of Housing made decisions on their location. Their decisions were based on how ready areas were to accept prefabs with regard to roads and services etc. Ned explained that Folkestone had a large number on what had been an Army camp. By 1948 the TPC had ceased and 156,667 prefabs had been built; well short of the quarter of a million which had been the stated aim in 1944. Several types were built. The Arcon Mark V made with cement coated asbestos panels, an example of which can be seen in the Avoncroft Museum. The Uni Seco which had a rectangular porch. The Tarran which came in either one or two storeys. The Orlit made of concrete blocks and which featured heavily in the Black Country and the Scotswood which had self-supporting walls with windows installed before delivery. After 1948 Local Authorities subsequently built prefabs. On the Buffery Road Estate in Dudley there are examples made of iron and in Fordhouses in Wolverhampton prefabs constructed from stuccoed concrete blocks.  

In the 1980’s Margaret Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy which led to prefabs being sold to tenants. Many were then customised. They were re windowed, re roofed, and painted different colours and consequently became more difficult to spot. Problems arose when local authorities wanted to demolish prefabs as many estates had a mix of rented and owned examples. Ned pointed out that in the 21 century we are still experimenting with prefab and that the mobile home could be considered to be the modern prefab.

The President thanked Ned for his fascinating and entertaining evening and announced that the next meeting will be held on Thursday 17th May at 7.30 when Max Keen will deliver his talk King John: The Worst or Most Useful King?

Founded 1946, by Geoffrey Beard