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Post-war homelessness: Makeshift homes between 1945 and the early 1950s

Published: 18 November 2021

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many people were left homeless. Photographs from the Daily Herald Archive show some examples of the temporary solutions that resulted from this housing shortage.

The Second World War significantly impacted the housing available to British civilians in several different ways. Many houses had been bombed, which left people homeless; the birth rate increased significantly; and many who lost loved ones could no longer afford to run their household alone.

It is estimated that around 750,000 new homes were needed to tackle the problem, and the government could not keep up with the demand.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

The images in this selection were all taken from the archive.

Solutions to the post-war housing shortage

The Labour Party won the 1945 general election with a landslide victory, with a big focus on housing in their manifesto. Aneurin Bevan was the Minister of Health at the time and was tasked with the new housing programme.

The initial response to the housing problem was to make quick, short-term repairs to existing properties as well as factory-built temporary housing bungalows (or ‘prefabs’). Prefabricated housing could be built rapidly; it took less than one week to erect on site.

The New Towns Act of 1946 aimed to tackle overcrowded city centres, and new towns were built with a variety of housing types to further address the housing shortage. (Pre-cast reinforced concrete (PRC) homes, which required less skilled labour, were constructed from concrete panels and steel frames. The assembly was quick, and they were expected to last a lot longer than other temporary housing (at least 60 years!).

Although the temporary housing from the government worked for the majority, many who remained on council housing waiting lists took housing solutions into their own hands.

Some stayed in tents or contacted farmers who could provide shelter in barns, pigsties or other buildings on their land. Some families, such as the Hughes family in Kidderminster, even took to living in caves!

However, many chose to seek out other ways of living that might be a little longer term, even if only temporary.

Solutions - gallery

Caravans

Caravans were a popular choice of temporary housing because they were built ‘fit for purpose’ and ready to move into. However, due to the long waiting times for housing, caravans became a more permanent housing solution than expected.

The government used a limited number of caravan parks to temporarily house people. But many of them were taken over by the homeless of their own accord.

Caravans - gallery

Carriages and buses

Neglected or cheap disused vehicles, such as railway carriages or trolley buses, were used as homes. They were weatherproof and comfortable, and much cheaper than running a conventional, built home.

In some cases location problems arose, as they were classed as a vehicle and had to be moved. In the case of a trolley bus belonging to the Stewards in East Sussex, the couple added a thatched roof. This caused debate on the planning committee as to whether this was now a permanent dwelling or ‘cottage’.

Similarly, the Horton brothers in Devon disguised their railway carriage home with a straw roof so that they could live comfortably on the land.

Army bases and air raid shelters

After the war ended, many army bases were left abandoned or unmanned; these too were seized by homeless families to create temporary homes. The huts were extremely minimalist, and cooking and washing facilities were communal, but the communities living on the bases were often very supportive of each other.

Gladstone Park Army Camp in London was a well reported case. Basic furniture was taken to the seized huts and partitions were added inside to create bedrooms. For some families, these small buildings were more spacious than the cramped conditions they lived in previously.

Post-war, air raid shelters were also used as temporary accommodation by the homeless—but only as a short-term solution.

Army bases - gallery

Squatting in hotels and flats

For many homeless families, their best option was to live in existing housing—even if this meant squatting in vacant or abandoned flats and hotels.

News of families squatting at the Abbey Lodge Hotel, London and the London County Council Rest Centre were well reported at the time. Many were evicted, or at least were told to leave. Those that did not comply were often arrested and jailed; in some cases, civilians welcomed a jail cell, giving them a roof over their heads and free meals.

For the duration of their days squatting in flats, many families tried to limit police access. It was typical for families to barricade their doors, and travel from room to room on the exterior of the building via narrow window ledges.

Police also guarded entrances, preventing well-wishers from supplying food, water, bedding and other essentials to occupants.

Squatting - gallery

Demonstrations

Demonstrations and marches were held to protest against the housing crisis, usually in favour of the squatters seeking refuge. For example, the communist MP Harry Pollitt spoke to large crowds in Upper St Martins Lane in 1946, in the hopes of making changes and attracting attention.

Petitions were signed in support of squatters and the gatherings gained them allies, who showed them sympathy and support.

Demos - gallery

Over time, the housing situation began to change again. In 1957, the Rent Act was put in place by the Conservative government. In its simplest form, it removed statutory restrictions on private accommodation, in the hopes that landlords would invest in and increase availability of privately rented properties.

It changed the methods of calculating rent payable by tenants based upon rateable value and ‘rent limits’ were introduced based on various factors. The aim of this was to further deal with the housing shortages, and find permanent homes for those squatting, living on the streets or on waiting lists.

Further reading