David Kynaston
Austerity Britain

'You know we were offered the choice of a prefab?' a youngish working-class woman was overheard remarking to her female friend at the Modern Homes Exhibition at Dorland Hall in London in March 1946. 'Well, I wouldn't have it. They're nice inside but they look dreadful from the road. You don't like to feel ashamed every time you get near your own home.' The friend agreed: 'Those prefabs are awful-when you see a lot together they look like pigsties or hen-houses, I always think.'

Architects and other commentators were similarly dismissive—'fungus-like outcroppings of those tin huts called "pre-fabs"' was how one saw them-but all the evidence is that those who lived in them were highly appreciative of having a fitted bath, constant hot water and a built-in refrigerator. 'I think everyone really felt they liked being in the prefabs,' one 1946 investigator, Peter Hunot, found after talking to almost thirty of the families in Clarence Crescent, a London County Council (LCC) run estate of prefabs in Wandsworth. No one wanted to live in a flat, 'many expressing a dislike of them', while 'hours and days had been spent on many of the gardens', with each prefab (as with prefabs generally) having one. Perhaps inevitably, Hunot's overall worry was that 'this contentment seemed to be individualist', though on hearing one man say that he had been among other people in the army for five years and was now glad to be on his own for a bit, the Hampstead-dwelling investigator 'felt sympathetic and not so certain that the lack of community was a fatal deficiency'.

But of course, one word above all characterised life in immediate post-war Britain: austerity. Less than a fortnight after VJ Day, Panter-Downes outlined the grim implications of 'the sudden termination by the United States of Lend-Lease', the financial support that had got Britain through the war:
The factories, which people hoped would soon be changing over to the production of goods for the shabby, short-of-everythmg home consumers are instead to produce goods for export. The Government will have to face up to the job of convincing the country that controls and hardships are as necessarily a part of a bankrupt peace as they were of a desperate war. Every inch of useable English soil will still have to be made to grow food. People are suddenly realising that in the enormous economic blitz that has just begun, their problems may be as serious as the blitz they so recently scraped through.
Writing to her absent Fred at about the same time, Muriel Bowmer in Sheffield was already sounding a somewhat pessimistic note:
Everybody here aren't very thrilled by the news of the latest rationing hit, & also by the prospects of still more tightened belts. We did think that once Japan was beaten we should do away with queues, but it doesn't seem like it. Yesterday I queued 1/2 hour in Woolworths for some biscuits—& I was under cover. The fish problem seems to be a bit better here—it isn't quite so rotten although the queues are there still. As for me, I'm O.K. for coupons, as it happens, & well stocked for clothes also—so I shan't bother with much new this winter. I shall perhaps get a frock, & a new hat—I don't know yet. However once the new fashions start coming in there will be a new style of things I think...
Over the next few months there began to grow a pervasive sense of disenchantment that the fruits of peace were proving so unbountiful. 'No sooner did we awake from the six years nightmare of war and feel free to enjoy life once more, than the means to do so immediately became even scantier than they had been during the war,' Anthony Heap reflected in his end-of-1945 review. 'Housing, food, clothing fuel, beer, tobacco—all the ordinary comforts of life that we'd taken for granted before the war and naturally expected to become more plentiful again when it ended, became instead more and more scarce and difficult to come by.' He concluded, 'I can remember few years I've been happier to see the end of.'

In terms of everyday shortages, the greatest concern—and source of potential flashpoints—was undoubtedly food. This was clear as early as October 1945:, when an unofficial dock strike, lasting several weeks, proved signally unpopular. 'Dock Strike Threatens Rations' warned the front-page headline of the strongly anti-Labour Daily Express (the most widely read daily paper) just as the Ministry of Food was about to announce that if the strike continued it might become impossible to distribute the full bacon ration.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.