A permanent home for a temporary house - the prefab at St Fagans

Thousands of British homes were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War (1939-45). They could not be replaced immediately because of the shortage of builders and materials. In 1944 Winston Churchill announced the Temporary Housing Programme as part of Britain's post-war reconstruction. The aim was to provide half a million 'prefabricated or emergency houses', with a lifespan of fifteen years.

The first prefabs

An aluminium prefab prototype being installed, ready for exhibition, outside the Tate Gallery in London, 1945. Crown copyright NMR
An aluminium prefab prototype being installed, ready for exhibition, outside the Tate Gallery in London, 1945. Crown copyright NMR

The prefabricated houses, or 'prefabs', had four standard designs: two timber framed designs (the Tarran and the Uni-Seco), one steel-framed with asbestos panels (the Arcon), and the Aluminium prefab, made from surplus aircraft materials. Examples of these were exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1944-5.

The aim was to produce as much as possible with the minimum resources available that could be mass-produced and quickly constructed.

At first, reactions were mixed. Many thought the prefabs were a waste of money that could have been better spent on permanent housing. As clusters of prefabs sprouted up all over the country, concerns were raised about their appearance. By the end of the project in 1949 only 156,623 prefabs had been built out of the proposed half a million. Of this total, 7,600 were built in Wales.

Houses for heroes?

Some people saw the prefabs as ugly and characterless, and were afraid they would become slums - hardly the promised houses fit for heroes. However, the quality of their design was so good that many lasted well beyond their projected lifespan. They became valued homes that were well cared for and respected.

The Museum saves an Aluminium prefab

Some of the vacant prefabs at Llandinam Crescent, waiting to be demolished.
Some of the vacant prefabs at Llandinam Crescent, waiting to be demolished.

Fifty years later, the few surviving prefabs were showing advanced signs of corrosion, and in 1998 Cardiff County Council offered Amgueddfa Cymru a prefab from Llandinam Crescent, Cardiff, that was due for demolition. The house was once the commonest type of prefab built in Britain, but most have now been demolished. It's possible that the example now re-erected at St Fagans National History Museum will be the only one left in the whole of Wales.

When built, each section of the house was fully fitted, including all the electrical wiring, gas piping and plumbing. The house just needed to be bolted together, the joints sealed and the flooring laid before the occupants could move in. The most advanced feature of the prefabs was a coal fire with a back boiler that heated the water and circulated warm air to the bedrooms. The bathroom and kitchen units were built back-to-back for economy of space.

The Historical Buildings Unit dismantling the prefab at Llandinam Crescent in November 1998.
The Historical Buildings Unit dismantling the prefab at Llandinam Crescent in November 1998.

Due to the simplicity of the construction, the house was dismantled in a single morning.

Although the prefab was built in 1948, the Museum decided to exhibit it as it would have appeared around 1950. This date provides an opportunity to interpret a more developed garden and the sense of community spirit that had developed on the Crescent. The year 1950 also saw the start of a new optimism after the war, which was mirrored by new designs in furniture and household goods. However, it was also a time still deeply affected by the war and its aftermath of making do with what you had. The prefab re-erected at St Fagans is therefore a symbol of a major period of change in Wales, bridging old and new ways of living.

Article Date: 18 January 2009

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Glossary

Prefabricated
Constructed in a factory, usually in modules or units, which is then assembled where it is to be used.

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