And they all lived in little boxes/And they all looked just the same .

. . but unlike many 1960s system-built houses, prefabs came to be loved

by their inhabitants. Joe Donnelly investigates.

THIS was where John and Mary Birrell had their honeymoon. ''We

couldn't afford to go anywhere else. So it's more than just home to us,

that's for sure.'' More than just home, to John Birrell, is a

two-bedroom house in its own plot of land. There used to be thousands of

them, all over the country, all built to take the overcrowded and the

dispossessed and the homeless. More than just home is a Prefab.

Only a handful of them still exist, manufactured one-storey houses

that look like a hybrid between a Butlin's chalet and an upmarket Nissen

hut. A few still stand in Glasgow, a scant half-dozen or so. There are

some in Edinburgh, all of them under threat of the bulldozer. There's a

community of prefabs in Midlothian, where John and Mary Birrell have

lived contented lives for 26 years. There's even a rumour that one was

lifted on to a trailer and driven north to take a ferry to the Western

Isles where it, reputedly, still stands.

They are a rare and dying breed, if that's a fair enough phrase to use

about a tin house. It probably is, because the prefabs, built from

aluminium, asbestos, nuts, bolts, and concrete, just after the war,

became home to so many people that they became part of the culture, part

of the memory of the 50s and 60s. Even in the 90s people are prepared to

fight to save them, campaigning with as much anger and vigour as animal

rights supporters now battle.

It's clear that these little houses, stuck on cement bases and given a

few square yards of land of their own, were special. They might have

rattled in a gale and contracted with the cold in the winter, pinging

back again in the heat of a Scottish summer, but they were still magic.

Two bedrooms, a living-room and a kitchen; a bit of a hallway and

windows with steel frames. ''But it was more than that,'' says John.

''You had space and you had privacy and that was worth a whole lot.

People in the prefabs weren't crowded on top of each other, packed in

like sardines.''

He and Mary live in Sutties-Lee Drive, Newtongrange, where a few years

ago an enlightened local authority decided to clad the aluminium prefab

box and rehabilitate it. ''We came here 26 years ago, straight from our

wedding,'' John says. ''Our two daughters and our son came here as

babies and learned to walk and talk here. All the laughs and all the

tears happened here in this wee house. It's been a brilliant home and I

wouldn't shift for anything.''

That's just one man's view of his prefab castle, but it is by no means

unique. These little metal houses, borne of necessity and housing

poverty, are icons to the mid-twentieth century. They were conceived and

constructed for an emergency and an exploding population of post-war

baby boomers. The builders and designers had no conception that they

could become part of the culture, loved and lauded, architectural

landmarks of a nation's history.

They had no idea that their cheap assembly-line metal boxes would

become the focus of bitter battles to save them from demolition. Nor

would they have believed, back then in the forties and fifties, that

people would even be moved to write poetry about the humble prefab.

So what casts the spell? From the outside, looking in, it's not so

easy to comprehend. They were small and sometimes cold and draughty, yet

there are still battles to save them. It's a cultural thing. Folk who

lived in single ends, who lived up four flights in crumbling tenements,

or in overcrowded racks of grey sandstone without the luxury of an

inside toilet, they were the people who moved into the prefabs.

The new tenants found themselves with a bit of space, a piece of land

they could walk round and, even if rented, it was theirs. It was the

territorial imperative, a place all of their own, marked by all the

boundaries of a garden and a hedge or a fence. Strangely, it was that

privacy that bound the prefab communities together.

''It was always a happy scheme,'' says William Lawson, 56, one of the

last few residents left in what was once a thriving community in

Hangingshaw, near Hampden Park in the South Side of Glasgow. ''The

neighbours respected each other. You never had any trouble. There was a

real feeling of community. I lived in my prefab for 21 years and I

bought it when I got the chance. My wife Catherine and myself came from

a tenement in Govanhill and this place was a real breath of fresh air.

''My son Tony was just five then. He loved having a garden to play in

and I loved having one to work in and grow things. The house was just

the right size. Everybody loved having their own house and garden. Now

there's just a handful left here. They've knocked the guts out of the

place, out of what was once the best scheme in Glasgow. It really was a


William's battle is still going on. ''It's like a bomb-site here. Most

of the prefabs have gone and now they want to demolish the last

half-dozen out of 52. We put up a great fight to save the others, but we

lost. They have offered us #30,000, but that's nowhere near enough to

buy somewhere like this anywhere else. It's nowhere near enough . . .

after all we've spent on putting in double glazing and central


Despondently he adds: ''The council will get us out, though. I believe

that within four months this scheme will be finally and completely

cleared. This piece of ground will just end up as part of the car-park

for Hampden, mark my words.''

In Edinburgh, the battle is hotter. In Craigour Avenue, 146 prefabs

have been facing demolition. ''Over my dead body,'' says Sylvia Blyth.

''I've lived here for 12 years, but I've friends who have stayed in this

scheme for nearly 50. These houses were built in 1947 and the community

has grown up in that half century.

''Instead of knocking down the prefabs, they should preserve them. I

believe they should be made listed-buildings because they are an

important part of our history. They've been listed and protected in

other parts of Britain, but here, some councils and councillors seem

either short-sighted or downright blind.''

The pensioners of Craigour -- most of the folk living in the scheme

are senior citizens -- fighting to save the last of Edinburgh's prefabs

have won a stay of execution, though for how long, no-one is certain.

They've been battling for years to save the homes in the Moredun area of

the city. The district council claims the houses are structurally

unsound and too expensive to upgrade.

Sylvia and her neighbours have managed to persuade the housing

committee to look for an alternative solution. Whether they will find

one that is acceptably cheap is another matter. ''We've been told the

council will not demolish our homes, for now, so we've won a stay of

execution. We've won a victory, particularly because previously there

was no evidence that the council cared about the feelings of the people

living in the prefabs.

''But we have a community here, a strong and close-knit community.

Many of the residents are elderly and the worry and the upset in the

last few years has been devastating to them. I believe the strain has

led to a number of funerals that might not have taken place without all

this worry. Here, the prefabs are ideally suited to elderly folk and the

disabled who need peace and quiet and privacy.''

Edinburgh District Council says it will take no action for the moment,

although it insists that total refurbishment is ''unviable''. It is

prepared to consider options including minor repairs. Failing that, a

way of life will disappear forever, as it has in so many other cities.

Yet prefabs are still loved and lived in elsewhere. In Birmingham, 17

of them are part of a plan to have them listed as buildings of

historical and architectural importance -- as they have been described

by their aficionados in Scotland -- alongside churches and mansion

houses and castles. Almost 20 years ago, Birmingham announced a

three-year demolition programme. Local historians united with residents

to force a reprieve.

One resident said: ''The listed-building status doesn't change

anything. But it does make you feel that you're living somewhere a bit

special. Of course we've known that all along.''

In Midlothian, John Birrell would agree with that. The houses at

Sutties-Lee in Newtongrange were upgraded at a cost of up to #17,000

each, the aluminium panels covered with a skin of brick, a new roof

built and modern windows fitted.

''We've had more than a quarter of a century of happiness here and

nothing would make me give it up. The house was upgraded and modernised,

but inside, it's still got the same old familiar walls. I've been here

since I was married and I hope I'll be here the rest of my life.

Prefabs? They're magic, they really are.''


Farewell old friend, 'tis sad to know

Your time has come at last,

Our march of progress signifies

The prefabs' days are past.

However much its critics let

Their verbal fancies roam,

They can't deny the prefab was,

For many, home sweet home.

Although, alas, it must depart,

In changing times like these,

Nothing can demolish

The prefabs' memories.

J M Robertson, Circa 1963

The fab facts

* THE prefabs were designed as purely temporary structures, built for

a few hundred pounds, the product of the Temporary Housing Act, 1944.

The Act empowered the Government to spend #150m, then a truly enormous

sum of money, on providing emergency accommodation to replace homes

destroyed in the war.

Five prototypes of the first prefabricated homes were unveiled at the

Tate Gallery in May 1944, making them ipso facto works of art, icons of

the mid century.

Most of the homes were allocated to families of demobilised servicemen

and those dispossessed in the bombing. The construction programme --

each prefab came in a kit form and used more than 2000 components -- was

an early job-creation programme in both manufacturing and construction.

It was also a cultural and self-sufficiency programme. Each house had a

plot of land large enough to grow vegetables in the days of rationing.

Within five years, more than 150,000 new houses were constructed

throughout the country, most of them a cross between an army camp and a

holiday hut. They were supposed to last only 10 years. Many of them were

manufactured by Blackburn, a Dumbarton-based aircraft manufacturer that

re-tooled at the end of the war. Instead of making fighters and bombers,

it made homes for the air-crew -- and the soldiers and sailors -- to

come home to when the fighting ended. It was making homes fit for

returning heroes.

Most of the prefabs were indeed temporary, torn down and replaced by

brick and concrete council houses, but even in those early days such

demolitions were fought by the tenants who had grown fond of having

their own detached home. They had come to love the prefab.

Some councils listened to tenants and belatedly began to modernise and

uprgade. Initially improvements included rewiring and cavity-wall

insulation and later encompassed window replacement and exterior

cladding. Asbestos roofs were replaced with lightweight panels. Some

prefabs gained new kitchens and bathrooms, even central heating.

All of this was a far cry from the late forties when prefabs had a

cast-iron cooker, a boiler, and a mangle. To the young mothers of the

post-war era, after years of privation and hardship, a cooker and a

boiler, and a mangle were three of the ingredients of paradise.