Part 1 : The Catford Excalibur Estate, the largest surviving post-war prefabs estate in the UK
The Excalibur Prefabs Estate in Catford, South East London, is Britain’s largest and last surviving post-war prefab estate. It consists of 186 council and privately owned pre-fabricated homes built by Italian and German prisoners of war between 1945 and 1946 to house returning servicemen and their families. For many years, a long and bitter battle between the residents and Lewisham Council has continued over the future of the estate. The Council would like to develop the 12 acre site, replacing the prefabs with up to 400 new homes. Some residents continue to fight against the move . So far, only 6 of the prefabs are listed by the English Heritage and therefore saved from demolition. The other 180 ones are to be pulled down in 5 phases within the next few years, with phase 1 supposed to start in October 2012.
The estate is the biggest surviving remnant of an ambitious project which saw 160,000 prefabs hurriedly erected across the country during an acute housing shortage. They were then called ‘palaces for the people’. Designed by the Ministry of Works, they had two bedrooms and were built round a central core of a kitchen, toilet and bathroom. The fitted kitchen had a fridge and cooker, running hot water, a wash boiler, and there was built-in storage, electric lighting and sockets. For many, this was a huge leap in quality of life and even luxury. Prefabs did not look like inter-war British houses, but more like American houses with a garden and more space and privacy than traditional attached brick houses. Prefab estates around the country were designed with a sense of community, sometimes around a green and connected by footpaths, giving them the feel of holiday villages.
Apart from slight modifications, the Catford Estate remains virtually unchanged. Some residents have added new doors and windows, painted walls and put in new windows. Some have even given their home mock-Tudor makeovers, or added fake beams to the outside. Its sense of community, a rare thing in today’s society, is in danger. The estate, described by conservationists as a unique slice of 20th-century social history, is set to be replaced by modern housing in the next few years. The planned redevelopment, formally approved by Lewisham Council in 2011, will destroy a key piece of history from the aftermath of the Second World War.
Entering the community
I have always been interested in and curious about people who live in different habitats to us – the so-called ‘settled community’ living in flats and traditional brick houses – especially if they live just next door. So, when I moved to London in 2001 and noticed some post-war prefabs in South London which were still inhabited, I couldn’t help go and knock at a door.
Prefabs had a pejorative connotation in France and people stopped living in them back in the 80s. They certainly didn’t cherish them, unlike the people who I have met here in the UK. So, when I knocked on that first prefab door in Peckham, an old man offered me a cup of tea and started telling me about the history of post-war prefabs: how they were supposed to last just 10 years, but did much longer as people liked them, as well as the lifestyle they created; families who lived in prefabs were from the same working-class background and of similar ages. The old man told me that there were still plenty more such homes, a few miles south in Catford. That’s how I discovered the Excalibur Prefabs Estate and started my project on prefabs. The idea was to photograph the dwellers inside and outside their prefabs. I met wonderful people, mainly in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s. One resident of the Excalibur Estate, Eddy, had been living there since his prefab was built in 1946. “I wouldn’t swap the place for Buckingham Palace, even if it included the Queen!” he told me.
In 2003, I was part of a BBC Inside Out programme on prefabs, the director used me as a character walking in the estate and talking to some residents about my photos and what they meant to them. I also photographed other prefabs estates in the UK – in Newport, Redditch and Chesterfield.
My archive on prefabs has been growing through the years, but unfortunately lots of the houses have been pulled down since I started (in Newport and most in Peckham).
I worked with historian Greg Stevenson and contributed photographs to his book Palaces For The People : Prefabs in Post War Britain. I also had a solo exhibition on prefabs at the Dissenters’ Gallery in Kensal Green, London. My work has also been regularly featured in the press, particularly in Time Out.
The next step
In 11 years, I have never stopped taking pictures of prefabs, not only in London but also all over the UK. Over the years, I have built up a consequent and unique archive as well as long-term relationships with some prefabs' residents. But I consider this photographic project unfinished and deserving more than a series of photos. With the sad news of the estate soon to be demolished, I think it’s time to record the last testimonies, do the last photos and videos of how it looks before it’s gone forever.
To mark the end of an era, I would like to make a documentary using a combination of my own photographs, archive images and films, interview and film the last residents of the Catford estate before they have to move, as well as record stories of people who used to live in prefabs and are now in brick houses or flats, talk to the Council, to find out what is going to happen to the prefabs residents, what they are going to offer them, and to the English Heritage and other experts on housing and architecture. And also, document the demolition process. I have also planned to document life in neighbourhoods where new sorts of prefabs were recently erected and talk to new prefabricated homes experts.
Through the stories of prefabs' residents, enthusiasts and less enthusiasts, I am going to try to find answers to a question I have kept on asking myself since I have known the existence of post-war prefabs: “Why do people love them so much?” Of course, I am also planning to record testimonies from people who hate them as they can also be synonymous with damp, poverty and underclasses.
The aim and outlets for this project
- To record a piece of British history that is about to disappear: this will be of benefit to those whose lives are affected by the changes (it might offer them some closure) and also of educational value to those interested in London’s heritage as well as local communities such as nearby schools.
- To find out what new prefabricated homes are now, who are the people in new prefabs and what is their attachment to them.
- To exhibit my work and take it on tour around the UK. This project about the Catford Estate is the first part of a larger documentary about the last remaining lived-in “pockets” of post-war prefabs in the UK. I am planning to travel to different places and do the same kind of work I am going to achieve in Catford as well as exhibiting and projecting what I have done in the previous estate as well as archive and personal materials I have been given. I have noticed, through my different prefabs' trips that residents are always curious of the history and the stories of other prefabs estates. The aim is also to encourage them to take part in the project by sharing their own stories and archive and thus, make it richer and richer, build a memory and help create a travelling exhibition.
Along the way, my plan is to work closely with local communities and organisations to develop partnerships which would help organise meetings, joint work on the exhibition.
The final product is the film “The prefabs tour of the UK”. It will be divided into chapters. This project on the Excalibur Estate is one of them - the other ones concern other “prefabs pockets” in the UK such as Reddictch, Newport, Chesterfield... - . It will take the shape of a film and of a web-documentary which will give the opportunity to viewers to go deeper into the subject should they wish to. For example some of them could be particularly interested in Ed's story (the oldest resident on the Estate) and watch his full interview.
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