The Prefab Museum
Booklet by artist Keara Stewart
I really like many things and these include the 1940’s, architecture, community spirit and south London. So when I discovered there was to be a temporary Prefab museum popping up within the Excalibur Estate in Catford, south east London, I knew it would be worth a visit. It’s somewhere I’ve been before, in the course of my job (working on an ambulance, you get to see a lot of neighbourhoods aside from your own) and I’d been interested for a while to learn more about this bizarre group of boxy mini houses just sitting in a little group in the middle of modern Catford, looking like a holiday village, except very very far from the sea. I didn’t know there was going to be a museum until a friend invited me to the launch, and I didn’t know the estate has been under threat of closure for a while or anything much about it’s place in the history books until I got there, and discovered there were cupcakes. So I ate cupcakes and wandered about the museum, which is actually housed INSIDE a prefab, one that someone lived in until late 2013. There was a portrait of her on the wall of what might have been the dining room, above the little gas fire. One of the estate residents appeared next to me and said ‘she’s gone to a home now. Very sad.’ ‘Does she know this is taking place?’ we asked, and he shook his head solemnly. ‘No, she wouldn’t know that.’
Being inside a prefabricated home from 1946 that was only meant to stand for 10 years and that helps to make up the largest still-standing group of prefabs in the UK, surrounded by the work of 10 artists, depicting residents of and scenes from this estate and several others around the country, as well as trinkets and pieces of furniture that have been donated by other residents on the estate – all of this sort of brings it home how this was…well, it was someone’s home.
And there are 187 houses on the estate (I was blown away when I learnt that. I thought it seemed much smaller), some now boarded up, and so that’s 187 homes, 187 families – that’s a whole community. Like the Heygate in SE17 it might soon be gone to make way for modern housing, because if there’s one thing Londoners can’t seem to get enough of, it’s modern housing (why on earth they haven’t cottoned on to the fact that life can be blimmin’ fantastic outside of the first four Zones I have no idea). And because of this, history and geography suffer, and in 10 years from now everywhere in London will look exactly the same. There will be no interesting architecture or funny looking bungalows that make you stop and look twice, and then think twice about the era from which they came. And then one day, there won’t be anyone left who even remembers what temporary post-war housing looked like, what it felt like to be inside one. And that will be very sad. So I was glad to be standing in one. Eating cake. I self-consciously took some photos, but it felt a little weird to be photographing someone’s house, even if she didn’t live there anymore.
Inside the house/museum
And besides, there were lots of people with big cameras knocking about, taking photos of everything. They spoke with clipped accents and wore boat shoes, and were easily distinctive from the local residents who had come down to have a look – because the local residents were there to walk round a house and celebrate something they were familiar with, and the photographers were there to have middle class conversations about social housing and the government, and other exhibitions they’d been to. And to view an exhibit. I didn’t know which of these categories I fell into (I grew up in Penge which is only round the corner and I’d worked in this neighbourhood but I got the impression that having to justify that to myself made me middle class and annoying) and I felt weird, so after looking round and admiring the whale-patterned splashback in the old bathroom, I stood mostly in the garden and admired all the space, and how easy it was to see the sky, and thought ‘it would be quite nice to live here’.
The back garden
An unusual feature
The curator of the museum is French photographer Elisabeth Blanchet, who has been all over the UK photographing prefab housing, because they fascinate her. She doesn’t claim to know the whereabouts of every one left in Britain however, and just inside the front doorway and to the right as you enter the house, a map of the British Isles is hung on the wall. There’s a plate of pins underneath it. We are invited to pin the map if we know the location of a prefab, and there are different colours according to whether it is still inhabited or whether we are unsure if it has been demolished. The thing is, so many have been demolished. The prefab, it turns out, is a piece of the past soon to be mown down altogether quite probably, and the photos, videos and pins in maps are all that will remain.
My friend Tim photographing the ceiling
The Prefabricated Home was a post-war idea that meant, essentially, people wouldn’t be left homeless. So many homes had been destroyed during the Blitz. In Lewisham alone, 1500 were destroyed during the first year of the war. Across Britain throughout the next few years it was a similar story – the level of destruction became such that in 1944, the Housing (Temporary Accomodation) Act was passed, and close to 160,000 prefab homes were thrown up in a tearing hurry all over the UK to answer the housing problem as quickly as possible. The Excalibur Estate was begun in 1946 by POW from Italy and Germany. It was named for the roads surrounding it, which had names taken from Arthurian legend, such as Pelinore, Mordred and Meliot. Why? Who knows. This article states that the streets were named in a competition by local residents. However, Wikepedia states the origin of the names are unknown. Regardless, the estate became home to a lot of people who had either lost their homes during the war, or who had fought in it.
Each house was 55 square feet in size, with two reception rooms, an indoor lavatory and a kitchen. They had flat roofs, front and back gardens and although they were pretty basic, features like the indoor lavitory made them desirable. Despite only being expected to stand for a decade, the estate is still going strong many decades later, despite Lewisham Council trying pretty hard to get rid of it. As was the case in the 1940s, London is facing a housing problem once again. Not because war decimated our city but because, simply put, there’s just too blimmin many of us. The prefabs are taking up too much room and so they must go. (Oh and there’s something about not meeting modern housing standards too). One end of the estate is already boarded up, which is sad. There’s a church at that end – it’s the only amenity to be built on the estate (the local shops & train station are a 15 minute walk away, in neighbouring Bellingham) and it was built in the same style as the prefabs – except with a curved tin roof instead of a flat one. It now stands alone – the prefabs next to it are hidden from view by high black hoardings. That end is deserted.
The other end is full of life. Children play in gardens, neighbours talk to each other and men tinker with car engines in the street. Many of the houses have no vehicular access – a lot of the estate is accessed via alleyways with high hedges either side – so the few streets that criss cross the estate are filled up with parked cars. We took a walk round it after we left the museum. It helped that it was a sunny, warm day – the first truly springlike day of the year. The estate looked marvellous. I mean, obviously old fashioned and run down, because houses will look run down if they are of a temporary nature and were built 70 years ago, it’s just what happens, but marvellous nonetheless. Many were decorated so as to stand out from the rest. Some were painted pink, orange, blue. Some has weather vains and bird houses and mini windmills or herbaceous borders filled with gnomes and other garden ornaments. We passed by a mock-Tudor prefab and another that had a wraparound, covered porch – Texas ranch style. Due to the one-storey nature of the neighbourhood, there was a vast expanse of sky on show. There was a tall palm tree in one garden. It felt like we were on holiday. On holiday in another era, a time when people still spoke to each other over the garden fence. One resident chased us down the road so he could tell us that he’d found some papers under his floorboards from 1945 – flyers and articles from newspapers from around the time the war ended. He sounded very proud. We were surrounded by history. I mean, technically, we’re always surrounded by history but we were sort of more aware of it right then.
A Tudor style prefab
I should end this by saying that opinion on the estate is apparently quite divided between those that want to stay in their homes and preserve the prefabs, and those that want to leave, to relocate, to find better housing. Because actually, some of them find life in a prefab quite hard. Someone was telling us how cold they were in the winter and how hot in the summer. For example. From a housing point of view, a prefab might not be very easy to deal with, it might not even be safe to live in after all this time. BUT. They’re still a piece of history. In the flesh. And I think they’re pretty. Obviously Elisabeth Blanchet did too.
More by Keara Stewart
In 2005, English Heritage got involved and a handful of the prefabs were awarded Grade II Listed status, meaning they can’t be torn down. A decision is yet to be made about the others. There is an argument for preserving the entire estate as opposed to just a few houses. There’s also an argument for turning the estate back into parkland (it was parkland to begin with), but what will really happen to it, or how long it will take, is uncertain.
Another urban cemetery, or soon to be.
Head down to the museum at 17 Meliot Road London SE6 on a Saturday, a Tuesday or a Thursday until 1 April.
All photos by Christina Owen copyright March 2014
Except for: flyer by Elisabeth Blanchet