The post-war temporary 'tin can' homes still standing 70-years on

‘They’ll have to take me out in a box’: Eight of the 17 post-war prefab bungalows in Birmingham’s leafy Moseley suburb now lie EMPTY… but the remaining ‘tin can’ tenants say there’s no place they’d rather be

  • The prefab homes in Wake Green Road, Moseley, were built as temporary houses after Second World War
  • Like many of the 156,000 prefab homes built after the war, the properties were meant to last for 10 years
  • But the Wake Green Road prefabs remain 70 years on and have since been granted Grade-II listed status
  • Birmingham City Council are even attempting to source money to help bring homes to modern day standards 
  • Along a two-mile winding road situated in a leafy suburb of Birmingham is a conspicuous row of homes seemingly frozen in time.

    The time is one of post-war recovery when the Government, keen to rebuild quickly after devastating bombing raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe, would turn to temporary homes in a bid to solve the country’s housing crisis.

    More than 156,000 ‘prefab’ homes – flat-pack properties constructed in a factory out of a limited number of materials – were built across Britain on the orders of Winston Churchill’s war-time government.

    Sometimes mockingly referred to as ‘tin can homes’, due to many being made from steel plate, the structures were only ever meant to be a stop-gap.

    And so thousands were demolished within a decade and replaced with more permanent structures as access to resources improved.

    But more than 70 years on some still remain, including a row situated on Wake Green Road in the leafy Birmingham suburb of Moseley.

    The 17 steel-framed prefabs have gained somewhat of a cult following by supporters who deem there a ‘a testament to and symbol of post-war recovery, innovation and optimism for a brighter future’. 

    And all but one of the now protected in planning terms with Grade-II listed status.

    But half now lie empty as hollowed relics, sitting opposite pricey semi-detached homes with two car driveways and owned by high-flying professionals.

    Despite this, the residents still occupying the ‘tin can’ homes insist there is no place they would rather be.

    ‘They’ll have to take me out in a box,’ said Margaret Butler, a resident who has lived in her pre-fab home more than four decades.

    70 years on from Britain's post-war prefab drive, some of the temporary homes still remain, including 17 along Wake Green Road in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley

    70 years on from Britain’s post-war prefab drive, some of the temporary homes still remain, including 17 along Wake Green Road in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley

    one resident, Margaret Butler, who has lived in her 'tin can' home for more than four decades, insist she has no intention of leaving.

    one resident, Margaret Butler, who has lived in her ‘tin can’ home for more than four decades, insist she has no intention of leaving.

    'This house has been here since the Second World War. It hasn't changed that much apart from having new windows and central heating and my brother redecorated it,' said Ms Butler

    ‘This house has been here since the Second World War. It hasn’t changed that much apart from having new windows and central heating and my brother redecorated it,’ said Ms Butler

    Margaret Butler, who lives in one of the prefab homes (pictured) adds: 'I want them to stay as they are. I plan on living here for the rest of my life'

    Margaret Butler, who lives in one of the prefab homes (pictured) adds: ‘I want them to stay as they are. I plan on living here for the rest of my life’

    The Moseley ‘tin can’ homes still standing the test of time  

    As early as 1942, three years before the war ended, Sir Winston Churchill was thinking of means to combat the housing crisis.

    Thousands of homes had been destroyed in Luftwaffe bombing raids, and the situation which would no doubt worsen once the 2.9million British soldiers serving in France, Italy, West Africa, and the Middle East were demobilised. A cheap and quick solution was needed.

    Churchill announced the establishment of the Emergency Factory Made housing programme during one of his many famous radio broadcasts in March, 1944.

    As many as 156,000 pre-fabs homes went up across the country,  with around 4,000 prefabs installed across Birmingham.

    Various models made their way to Birmingham, including the 17 Phoenix-brand prefabs in Wake Green Road, which cost around £1,200 each to build in 1947.

    The houses were constructed from steel plate over rolled steel poles and were favoured over other, flimsier, models.

    David Humphries, a local pre-fab enthusiast, told Birmingham Live: ‘The specification was to build them to last just 10 years, but many of them lasted well into the 60s and 70s.

    ‘The people that moved in absolutely loved them. Most of the others in Birmingham had gone by the early 1970s, but the ones in Wake Green Road just clung on.’ 

    In 1998, the 16 council-owned units in Moseley were awarded Grade II-Listed status – giving them extra protection in terms of future redevelopment.

    Birmingham City Council have conducted some works since, replacing windows, fitting central heating and upgrading appliances – but much of the properties’ original features remain unchanged.

    Plans are currently in the works to restore the pre-fab homes, though the council says it needs to source additional funding to help fund the project.

    According to the Pre-fab Museum, an archive which holds information about post-war prefabs, their history and design, say there are around 8,000 left in the UK today. 

    However they say many have had new roofs and windows and so nowadays look more like bungalows. 

    One expert told MailOnline that nearly all of the Swedish timber post-war prefabs – many of which were built in rural areas – are still up and accounted for.

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    The 82-year-old said: ‘I think it’s nice to live here. I’ve been here over 40 years now. My mum died 21 years ago and dad died before that.

    ‘This house has been here since the Second World War. It hasn’t changed that much apart from having new windows and central heating and my brother redecorated it.

    ‘There’s no problem keeping it warm. Sometimes the rain leaks in from the ceiling a bit but it quickly dries up. It’s not a problem.’

    She adds: ‘I want them to stay as they are. I plan on living here for the rest of my life.’

    Brenda Grattan, 78, lives with her dog Gypsy in the first two-bedroom home on the row. She’s been there 10 years having been moved in by Birmingham City Council – which owns the properties. 

    ‘I was a school caretaker before I moved here. It was strange when I first moved in,’ says Ms Grattan.

    ‘I remember sitting on the wall across the road and looking over here and someone saying, ‘I think that’s the home the council has got you’.

    ‘I looked at it and I said ‘no, I’m not living there’. It was a shock. But I moved in and I spent a lot of money doing it all up. 

    ‘I had to have the whole thing rewired. There were pipes sticking out everywhere.

    ‘A man lived here before me and he had pulled one of the walls down, so I had to put that back up. I filled about 10 skips with all the stuff that was left here.

    ‘I lived here with my husband initially and there’s a family a few doors down who have raised two kids here.

    ‘One of the other neighbours I know has lived here a lot longer than me.’

    Inside, Ms Grattan’s house looks like a regular bungalow – the walls are nicely wallpapered, the rooms are spacious and the garden is big by anyone’s standards.

    Then she points out the kitchen floor is sloping – made obvious by Gypsy’s ball rolling across it – something which provides a stark reminder that this is no ordinary home. 

    However she insists the property is ‘lovely’.  Ms Grattan said: ‘They’re a lot bigger inside than you’d think.

    ‘I turned the other bedroom into a second sitting room because my husband was always watching sport on the TV.

    ‘The council put me a shower in but I’m pretty sure all the others have got baths. I think it’s lovely.’

    Ms Grattan pays £96 per week for her one-storey home and says it’s worth every penny – but there’s one thing she’d like to change.

    ‘The only thing I don’t like is the toilet,’ she says. ‘It’s like an airplane toilet, it’s so small.’ 

    Pub supervisor Lucy Burkett, 24, lives with her boyfriend in the only privately-owned prefab on the street.

    ‘I’d never seen somewhere like this in my life,’ says Lucy. ‘I didn’t know anything about the history when we moved in.

    Inside, Ms Grattan's house looks like a regular bungalow (pictured) - the walls are nicely wallpapered, the rooms are spacious and the garden is big by anyone's standards

    Inside, Ms Grattan’s house looks like a regular bungalow (pictured) – the walls are nicely wallpapered, the rooms are spacious and the garden is big by anyone’s standards

    Brenda Grattan's back garden to her pre-fabricated Second World War bungalow in Wake Green Road in Moseley

    Brenda Grattan’s back garden to her pre-fabricated Second World War bungalow in Wake Green Road in Moseley

    The leafy Birmingham suburb once home The Lord of The Rings writer J.R.R Tolkien and voted ‘better than Mayfair’ for city living

    The Birmingham suburb of Moseley might not immediately spring to mind when listing of the UK’s most prized property hotspots.

    But the leafy community, located three miles south of the city centre, was once voted hotter than Mayfair by The Sunday Times in terms of city living.

    In 2015, the area, which is now home to swathes of wealthy hipsters and high-flying professionals, topped the list of best city locations to live.

    It was praised for its ‘village community’, its award-winning monthly farmers’ market and its easy access to the city centre.

    Moseley is also steeped in history, with writer J.R.R Tolkien, who penned The Lord of The Rings books, having lived there in his early years. The nearby Sarehole Mill is believed to have inspired his tranquille Shire – home to the hobbits. 

    It was also where 90s Brit-pop band Ocean Colour Scene flourished – with their most successful album (in terms of weeks on chart) even being named Moseley Shoals – while 

    Average property prices in the area are around £340,000, higher than the £275,000 average for the rest of the West Midlands, according to Right Move, with semi-detached homes regularly selling for around £480,000.

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    ‘My boyfriend’s friend owns it so that’s why we ended up moving here. But it’s lovely inside. It’s got two bedrooms and it’s been decorated really nice. It just feels like home.

    ‘We’ve only lived here just over a year and we’ve had quite a few people knocking on the door asking if they can buy it. They’re just a part of Birmingham now.’

    The prefabs’ longest-living resident Lawrence Attenborrow, 82, moved to Wake Green Road 52 years ago with his wife Patricia, who passed away in 2020.

    His daughter Lisa, who lives there and cares for him, believes her dad is the prefabs’ longest-staying resident.

    Lawrence and Patricia raised three children there, and even slept on a sofa bed in the living room for several years so their son and two daughters could have separate bedrooms.

    ‘We’ve been very happy here,’ says Lawrence, a retired builder and factory worker. 

    ‘When the children were growing up, I said to my wife ‘we needed another place, somewhere bigger’.

    ‘But my wife loved it here. She said we’ll get a bed settee and sleep on that and the children can have the bedrooms.’

    Asked if he plans to live there for the rest of his life, Lawrence tells me: ‘I haven’t got long to go now, I’m 82, but I should think so.

    ‘I’ve seen neighbours come and go. There have been loads over the years who have died here. You don’t often see people moving away.

    ‘People want these places, I don’t know why.’

    His daughter Lisa adds: ‘I’ve lived here all my life, I was born here. I have lovely memories growing up here. It was always nice and warm and a lovely family home, with lovely wildlife out the back.

    ‘I was always very aware of its history. My friends would come round after school and say ‘you live in a funny house’.

    ‘My mum adored the prefabs and always said she wanted to die here, which she did.’  Lisa adds: ‘I’d love to stop here. It’s my home.’ 

    As early as 1942, three years before the war came to a close, Sir Winston Churchill was thinking of means to combat the housing crisis.

    Ms Grattan pays £96 per week for her one-storey home and says it's worth every penny. But there's one thing she'd like to change - having a bigger toilet

    Ms Grattan pays £96 per week for her one-storey home and says it’s worth every penny. But there’s one thing she’d like to change – having a bigger toilet

    More than 156,000 'prefab' homes (pictured: A map showing some of the permanent prefab properties) - flat-pack homes constructed in a factory out of a limited number of materials - were built across Britain on the orders of Winston Churchill's war-time Government

    But many were torn down after 10 years and replaced with permanent structures (pictured: A map showing the prefab properties which have been demolished)

    More than 156,000 ‘prefab’ homes (pictured left: A map showing some of the permanent prefab properties) – flat-pack homes constructed in a factory out of a limited number of materials – were built across Britain on the orders of then Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But many were torn down after 10 years and replaced with permanent structures (pictured right: A map showing the prefab properties which have been demolished)

    So what does the future hold for the Wake Green Road prefabs? 

    The futures of the 16 council-owned prefab homes of Wake Green Road were given extra protections in 1998 when they were awarded grade II-listed status. 

    Though it does not stop the homes being redeveloped, it does place significant protections on the buildings as being of ‘special interest’.

    Meanwhile Birmingham City Council say they hope to one day preserve the buildings to modern standards.

    But the authority say such a project would be ‘very technically complex and costly’ and they are currently attempting to find funding to help support their restoration.  

    A spokesperson for the authority told MailOnline: ‘Birmingham City Council carried out various option appraisals and feasibility studies to establish the most appropriate course of action for the preservation of the Wake Green Road Prefabs with a conclusion that they should be sympathetically restored to modern day standards.

    ‘However, this is a very technically complex and costly project. The council have pursued alternate funding sources to help offset this cost including Heritage Lottery Funding and entering into partnership with Birmingham Conservation Trust.

    ‘However none of these options generate sufficient funding to deliver the works required without significant funding from the councils Capital Investment Programme so this project has remained on hold but the council are still committed to the works and bringing the empty properties back into use. 

    ‘To do this we are reviewing costs, revisiting funding options and considering phasing of the refurbishment works.

    ‘In the meantime with support from our local Estates Services Team we are tidying up and maintaining the gardens, dealing with any fly tipping and investigating the provision of unobtrusive security fencing/hoarding around the void properties.’

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    Thousands of homes had been destroyed in Luftwaffe bombing raids, and the situation which would no doubt worsen once the 2.9million British soldiers serving in France, Italy, West Africa, and the Middle East were demobilised. A cheap and quick solution was needed.

    Churchill announced the establishment of the Emergency Factory Made housing programme during one of his many famous radio broadcasts in March, 1944.

    As many as 156,000 pre-fabs homes went up across the country,  with around 4,000 prefabs installed across Birmingham.

    Various models made their way to Birmingham, including the 17 Phoenix-brand prefabs in Wake Green Road, which cost around £1,200 each to build in 1947.

    The houses were constructed from steel plate over rolled steel poles and were favoured over other, flimsier, models.

    David Humphries, a local pre-fab enthusiast, told Birmingham Live: ‘The specification was to build them to last just 10 years, but many of them lasted well into the 60s and 70s.

    ‘The people that moved in absolutely loved them. Most of the others in Birmingham had gone by the early 1970s, but the ones in Wake Green Road just clung on.’ 

    In 1998, the 16 council-owned units in Moseley were awarded Grade II-Listed status – giving them extra protection in terms of future redevelopment.

    Though it does not stop the homes being redeveloped, it does place significant protections on the buildings as being of ‘special interest’. 

    Birmingham City Council have conducted some works since, replacing windows, fitting central heating and upgrading appliances – but much of the properties’ original features remain unchanged.

    Plans are currently in the works to restore the pre-fab homes, though the council says it needs to source additional funding to help fund the project.

    A spokesperson for the authority told MailOnline: ‘Birmingham City Council carried out various option appraisals and feasibility studies to establish the most appropriate course of action for the preservation of the Wake Green Road Prefabs with a conclusion that they should be sympathetically restored to modern day standards.

    ‘However, this is a very technically complex and costly project. The council have pursued alternate funding sources to help offset this cost including Heritage Lottery Funding and entering into partnership with Birmingham Conservation Trust.

    ‘However none of these options generate sufficient funding to deliver the works required without significant funding from the councils Capital Investment Programme so this project has remained on hold but the council are still committed to the works and bringing the empty properties back into use. 

    ‘To do this we are reviewing costs, revisiting funding options and considering phasing of the refurbishment works.

    ‘In the meantime with support from our local Estates Services Team we are tidying up and maintaining the gardens, dealing with any fly tipping and investigating the provision of unobtrusive security fencing/hoarding around the void properties.’

    The prefabs that gave a home to those living in a post-war battered Britain

    The Luftwaffe’s destruction of London during the Blitz forced housing authorities to follow the American fashion for prefabricated buildings.

    The 1944 Housing Act authorised the Government to spend up to £150 million on temporary houses in areas like Lewisham, where more than 1,500 homes had been destroyed during just the first year of conflict.

    Cheap and quick to build, the prefab houses were popular with both councils and residents, not least because they were the first buildings many had lived in to have an indoor toilet.

    Gunner Hector Murdoch arrives at his new prefabricated house in Tulse Hill, London, greeted by his wife and son after returning from the Second World War

    Gunner Hector Murdoch arrives at his new prefabricated house in Tulse Hill, London, greeted by his wife and son after returning from the Second World War

    Tens of thousands of pre-fab homes were built in the UK as an emergency measure after the Second World War, at a cost of £200million 

    Tens of thousands of pre-fab homes were built in the UK as an emergency measure after the Second World War, at a cost of £200million 

    It may seem strange by today’s standards but the prefabs quickly became synonymous with comfort and luxury.

    In fact, the war-time government was so proud of its new idea that it commissioned a prototype to appear at the Tate Gallery in London.

    More than 150,000 of these ‘palaces for the people’ were mass produced in sections at a factory and assembled on sites around the country

    But the Excalibur Estate in Catford, consisting of 187 homes and even a prefab church, remains the largest to survive, despite the original tenants being told it would survive for little more than a decade. 

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