Electric light fittings and a built-in medicine cabinet were among the undreamt-of luxuries that lured people into the new homes built after the First World War, write PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD

The years immediately following the carnage and upheavals of the 1914-18 war confirmed the need for major political and economic changes at both national and local level.

Among the people who governed the country at that time, there was a very real fear of Bolshevism taking over. This concern led to action on local government and stimulated private builders (up to that point a depressed industry) to construct modern houses for purchase.

The concept of owner-occupier' for people on modest incomes was a new one. Nearly all the housing built in Victorian and Edwardian times was for rent. People with money to invest, no matter how small the sum, generally opted to put it into bricks and mortar rather than stocks and shares. As private landlords, they were not too concerned with maintaining or improving their property hence the very poor state of much rented housing.

The post-First World War generation wanted something different from the traditional housing of earlier times which, for the better off in particular, required too many domestic staff who were now in short supply. This led to a greater demand for labour-saving gadgets. Just as significant was that smaller families were becoming the order of the day.

It was against this background that flats increased in popularity. The concept, of course, was not new. Tenement buildings such as the Peabody estates had proved their worth in central London and elsewhere and, although far from ideal, were a huge improvement on the squalid back-to-back housing with its one WC and water tap to six families.

Compared to the popular semi-detached house, modern flats required less space to build, were simpler to decorate and maintain, had no garden to worry about and could incorporate unheard-of luxuries like a separate bathroom and WC. They were also labour and space-saving some of it by getting rid of outmoded concepts like the front room' or parlour, used only on Sundays or when visitors arrived. A particularly interesting variation were flats above a terrace of shops which replaced many of the old Victorian corner shops.

Advertisements of the time indicate the beginning of the modern consumer society. The new buildings' specifications included tiled fireplaces; kitchen cabinets; an Ideal' boiler; a gas copper; a deep porcelain sink; a built-in medicine cabinet; a linen cupboard; a separate WC, and electric light fittings.

Adding to the labour-saving potential of the household would have been the ready availability of the electric (or gas) smoothing iron to replace the iron heated on the coal-fired kitchen range; the vacuum cleaner to replace the mops, dusters and brooms of yesteryear; the gas fire cooker and the gas or electric refrigerator. Finchley Council, incidentally, offered a free fridge to anyone who signed up to buy their electricity.