From austerity to prosperity in the 40s and 50s

Re-building Bolton in the post-war years

Continuing our 100 years of social housing series, we turn our attention to the 1940s and 50s – looking at how the Second World War shaped housebuilding and brought about social change in Britain.

In May 1940, Britain’s new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, formed the Wartime Coalition by inviting the Labour Party to join with the Conservatives. Inevitably, with this cross-party alliance and a war to fight, the state became much more involved in people’s lives.

In Bolton, people had to get used to the rationing of food, clothing, pharmaceuticals and even coal. But there was a sense of everyone pulling together, with many people welcoming government intervention and wanting it to go further.

As the Blitz intensified in London and other strategic cities, Bolton was not entirely immune. In October 1941, a bomb flattened Ardwick Street and Punch Street, and another landed next to the Odeon cinema while people watched a film. As people took cover in air raid shelters they could hear German bombers overhead, pounding Manchester.

Punch Street in Bolton was bombed during the war.

By the end of the eight-month bombardment, it is estimated that the country lost around 40,000 civilians and more than 2 million homes.

In 1944, the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act was passed to address the housing crisis. The government’s solution to building thousands of homes quickly and cheaply was the prefab. They were only intended to last 10 years, but many stood until the late 70s.

In Bolton, the council set about building prefabs across the borough. These homes took just two hours to build on ready-made concrete foundations. The last prefabs to be demolished were on Eldon Street as the area made way for a newly built estate.

The last of Tonge Moor’s Eastfield Estate prefabs being demolished in 1965

From 1947, another type of home was pioneered, made from pre-cast reinforced concrete (PRC) with a lifespan of 60 years. Again, Bolton followed the national trend and built these homes from 1947 until 1976.

Around 3,000 council homes were built in Bolton during the 40s, with the biggest number being in Breightmet.

The 600-year-old Breightmet Hall was bought by the council and demolished to make way for new homes.

The Breightmet Hall estate is extended during the 1940s.

The post-war era paved the way for massive social change, brought about by both government policy and the war itself. A Labour victory at the polls in 1945 led to a series of reforms that became the Welfare State. The reforms were designed to look after people ‘from the cradle to the grave’. The National Insurance Act 1946 gave the elderly a pension while those who were unemployed got financial support. In July 1948, the National Health Service was launched.

Meanwhile, women who had been drafted in to help with the war effort – working in munitions factories, becoming engineers and flying planes – had got used to a degree of financial independence and wanted their own careers. Because of the labour shortage, the government urged women to stay in employment and encouraged the migration of workers from former British colonies.

The 1950s – the dawn of the high-rise

At the beginning of 1950, Britain’s landscape included vacant bomb sites, unrepaired houses, temporary prefabs and gardens turned into allotments. Low unemployment meant that people were better fed and, with the NHS in full swing, their health needs were taken care of.

But six years of war had left a financial legacy (it took 61 years to pay back the war debt to the US and Canada). This led to high taxation and meant that many Britons had little disposable income. Class divisions were reflected in where people lived, how they dressed and where their children were educated.

The 50s was also a time of technological change. For those who could afford it, fridge freezers and washing machines were making domestic life much easier, while more people were buying cars and televisions. In June 1953, people across Bolton gathered in sitting rooms to watch the Queen’s Coronation. And in 1952, the first passenger jet took off from Heathrow airport.

In 1953 a second phase of building extended the Johnson Fold estate and included some PRC homes being produced in the factory and assembled on site.

Architects drawings show elevations and floor plans for new homes at Johnson Fold.

Slum clearance, which had been postponed in 1939, restarted in 1954. In Bolton, the focus was on the School Hill area.

School Hill before the slum clearance.

By 1954 there was still a shortage of manpower and materials, and an urgent solution for urban areas was needed. The government’s answer was to build up. The Housing Act of 1954 encouraged high-rise building with grant subsidies increasing with storey height. Bolton Council built its first multi-storey block of flats in 1958 – Hargreaves House which still stands today.

From the records that remain, around 6,000 homes were built in Bolton during the 50s.

Hargreaves House on Ormrod Street was the council’s first high-rise building.

By the end of the 1950s, years of austerity were gradually turning into affluence. Full employment brought greater prosperity and with it came a modern consumer society. Across the country, more than two million homes were built in this decade and two-thirds of these were local authority housing, including large-scale new estates.

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