The built landscape of the British Welfare State was constructed in the three decades after the Second World War, when new forms of housing, the use of industrialised techniques, the New Towns, schools and hospitals, refineries, power stations, cultural monuments and motorways all contributed to a historically distinct built environment. In each case the site of production was also the site of specific social and industrial relations. However accounts of this era of building are missing a key source, the voices of the actual site workers and their trade unions.
This project set out to rectify this by tracing over 50 building workers who had been employed during the 1950s and 60s. The research focused on five case studies: the Barbican, City of London built in successive stages from 1963 onwards, Stevenage New Town, the first of the post-war New Towns, the South Bank Arts complex comprising the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery built in the mid 1960s, the M1 motorway started in 1958, and Sizewell A nuclear power station built between 1961-66. These sites were all high profile, publically funded schemes employing large numbers of workers over several years and which, between them, profile the main developments and changes in the construction industry over this period.
The oral histories of the men who worked on these sites are key to this research both as an invaluable record of working life in a harsh industry and for the insights they provide to many under-researched aspects of this period. Their words illuminate changes in building methods and technologies, trade union organization, training, and new wage and employment systems, in particular bonus systems and labour-only subcontracting. The interviews reveal the hazards endemic in the industry before Health and Safety legislation, the use of blacklisting and the human cost of this practice on the families of building workers, and the role of the Communist Party in organizing site workers. The men interviewed also told us of the strength of building site camaraderie and mutual support, their commitment to work in the face of very difficult site conditions and, for many, their pride in contributing to the rebuilding of Britain.
The project was based at the University of Westminster in the Centre for the Study of the Production of the Built Environment (ProBE) and ran from July 2010 to July 2012. It was funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust.