From Homes fit for Heroes to council flats – and when prefabs appeared in HenleazeFrom Homes fit for Heroes to council flats 

by Harry Mottram

IF you go down to Badocks Wood in Henleaze and head up towards the Southmead Round Barrow you may notice small patches of a tarmac surface within the grass that surrounds it. For once this area of greenery and woodland was a busy housing estate of pre-fabricated homes put up to house those who lost their homes in the war. Until as late as the 1990s the estate road at Southmead Gardens was still shown on the A-to-Z maps, and the road was still complete with a bus stop despite the complete disappearance of the homes.

Pre-fabs were initiated by Winston Churchill in March 1944, under the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act after thousands of people in London and elsewhere were left homeless due to Blitz and later V1 rocket attacks. Most were made out of a reinforced concrete panels, set within a steel or aluminium frame (with the metals often taken from scrap wartime aircraft). There were a number of designs with one constructed by the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton known as the AIROH design. The name stood for the Aircraft Industries Research Organisation on Housing – not the snappiest of titles but with 675-square-foot and a fitted kitchen table, inside toilet and a bathroom they were very popular as instant homes. They could be put up in just hours and cost around £1,600. By the late 1940s more than 150,000 had been built across the UK with around 2,700 in Bristol with the largest number in Ashton Vale.

The idea was they would last 10 years when the occupants would either buy or rent another home or move into a council house or flat. However, because many people loved their pre-fabs thousands of the homes outlasted their use-by date and were still lived in more than half a century later. In 2014 the council finally replaced the last remaining pre-fabs with council houses which closed a chapter in their history – or so it was thought. Because once again pre-fabs –  now called ‘micro homes’ – are being built in the city. Tiny numbers have been planned for large back gardens in Knowle West – usually for the siblings of the owners of the main house – and with 16,000 people on the housing list it’s one small solution to the housing crisis. The bulk of the new homes, with some owned by the council, will be in high rise blocks with many going up in Bedminster over the next couple of years.

Under the 1919 Addison Act, the first council houses were built in the phrase of ‘homes fit for heroes’ following the horrors of the First World War when some homes were destroyed by German bombs but there was a consensus that returning troops should move into new homes.

In Bristol these were sometimes known at the early parlour semis which featured an extra room on the ground floor making them popular with tenants since parlours were seen a status symbol – the best room where guests could be entertained. Around 2,000 were built in Bristol by the architect Benjamin Wakefield. Usually semi-detached, they also had three bedrooms and included bay windows at the front and had generous sized gardens. Non-parlour versions were smaller with only a kitchen and living room downstairs while there were also short council terraced houses with several homes joined in a terrace usually without a parlour which kept costs down. Today even a home like this in the general Henleaze and Horfield areas can fetch around £350,000 or more – when they would have originally been rented out by the council for a few pounds a month.

In 1945 there was a renewed campaign to build more council houses with thousands more constructed across Bristol while the post war city saw new estates in Southmead, Hartcliffe, Kingswood and Sea Mills grow up plus council flats appearing in Ashton and Lawrence Hill.

Under the Conservative administration of the 1980s tenants had the right to buy which saw the decline in the numbers of homes owned by the council. It was followed by a period when no council homes were built in the city – although now in the 21st century it has come full circle with a huge programme of construction under way mostly south of the river.

There is an excellent booklet written by Tony Forbes and Eugene Byrne called Homes For Heroes 100, available in local libraries, which illustrates the history of council homes in the city.