Gateshead prefabs become part of history

'Prefabs' were a post war housing solution: image sourced under creative commons.

Another four prefabs have been saved to add to the dwindling national stock of a post-war housing type which was once familiar all over the country.

Powered by article titled “Gateshead prefabs become part of history” was written by Martin Wainwright, for on Monday 7th May 2012 06.30 UTC

Another four prefabs have been saved to add to the dwindling national stock of a post-war housing type which was once familiar all over the country.

Built in an emergency programme by the Ministry of Works, more than 200,000 were flung up in haste after the Second World War to house blitzed-out families and returning servicemen and women.

They were supposed to last no more than ten years but many established a hold over families, especially the snug bungalow versions whose hot water, bathrooms and separate kitchenettes were novel luxuries for their tenants.

I played with friends in the small prefab estate on Long Causeway in Leeds as a boy, built on the site of an anti-craft gun emplacement whose shouted drills – ‘Number one gun ready? Number one gun fire!’ – were an evening litany for my grandparents. They were neat, manageable and formed the sort of naturally friendly little world which the current attempts at ‘localism’ keep talking about.

There’s been a major row over the demolition of over a hundred of these on the Excalibur estate in Catford, south London, with English Heritage getting six of the most original listed for, among other qualities, their ‘subtle modern influences and the thoughtfulness of post-Blitz reconstruction.’

This was less the case with the four ‘Airey houses’ from Coltspool at Kibblesworth in Gateshead which are to be reconstructed at the excellent Beamish open-air museum in county Durham. Much less appealing superficially than the bungalow version, these were mostly two-storey semis with a metal skeleton made from the recycled frames of military vehicles clad in slats of greyish-brown concrete.

They shared the bungalows’ advantage of mod cons but were much disliked as a blot on the landscape. One of my great uncles started a speech to the Yorkshire branch of the Institution of Civil Engineers back in the 1950s; “Ladies and gentlemen, except Sir Edwin Airey…” Family legend likes to believe that this was more because the builder was a vigorous Conservative, but there was certainly an element of anger at the sea of concrete. The first, prototype Airey Homes were in Seacroft, next to Roundhay where the great-uncle lived.

Time has softened attitudes, and a modest number of the houses have been rebuilt with breeze blocks faced with insulation and brick, while originals remain in use further north of Beamish in the former Northumberland mining towns. The museum is very pleased with its four as an addition to its ‘1950s area.’ It says:

We are currently undertaking a long-term development review and it is hoped that in the medium term a 1950s development will be added to the existing Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian areas. As well as appropriate buildings, it is anticipated that the collecting of 1950s artefacts will commence later this year.

How quickly history catches up on us. I am sure I’ll be able to supply some.

County Durham is good at preserving prefabricated homes. At Harperley, the county has the UK’s only former prisoner-of-war camp which is a scheduled national monument. English Heritage is currently spending £500,000 on repairing that too. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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