Fascinated by the pre-fab: a look at Britain’s war housing

The Prefab Museum Pic: Takeshi Kosaka

The Prefab Museum Pic: Takeshi Kosaka

The Excalibur Estate in Catford is the largest surviving prefab housing estate with 186 bungalows, that is until later this year when Lewisham Council is set to bulldoze all but six to make way for 371 new properties.

Before the council move in, photographer Elisabeth Blanchet has opened “The Prefab Museum” an exhibition of photographs, residents’ interviews and memorabilia in a prefab on the estate – all of which Blanchet has amassed over the past 12 years.

The bungalows, which were built by German and Italian prisoners of war, were intended as a short-term housing solution to the post war housing crisis.

Winston Churchill had 156,623 produced between 1945 and 1949, and they were dubbed “palaces for the people”.

To this day, many people across the UK still take up residence in these “temporary” fixtures, and some have even received grade II listed status.

Photographer Elisabeth Blanchet talking about her work Pic: Takeshi Kosaka

Photographer Elisabeth Blanchet talking about her work Pic: Takeshi Kosaka

Blanchet, who came to London from France in 2002, is fascinated by social conditions and communities.

On encountering the war time houses, she wondered about the residents: “Why do they still live there 60 years later?”

So she decided to knock on their doors and was pleased to find that residents were willing to share their stories.

The first person she met, landed in Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and this was the start of her journey, visiting prefabs across the UK.

On the Excalibur Estate it was not only the design of prefab, but also the layout of the estate and gardens which were of interest to Blanchet.

She became aware of the strong sense of community present on the estate:  “In modern vertical flats where people live on top of one another, it’s not often that the residents see their neighbours. In a horizontal prefab estate like Catford, you’ll see the girls that live next door passing four times a day.”

Residents also share a similar background, all in their 20’s, working class with one or two children.

The toilet and kitchen facilities were cutting-edge at the time and Blanchet says: “We can find some factors why they have created a unique community and preserved prefabs”.

The Prefab Museum exhibits the history of residents and community. On a weekday afternoon, you’ll find many people visiting the museum, and Blanchet welcoming them all.

People look nostalgically at the photographs and sometimes let out a sigh of “brilliant” or “fantastic”.

In her photographic career, Blanchet has also taken many photographs of Gypsy travelers. In both prefab and trailer communities, residents have created a special bond and share many common traits.

Through her photographs, she aims to explore emotions, attachment, memory and nostalgia, and to evoke emotion through the finder of the camera.

When you see Blanchet’s work, you feel as though you are looking at the object through the camera with her, taking you to a vivid memory of the past.

The museum on Meliot Road attracted over 700 visitors in the first two weeks, and has now been extended for two months until May 31st.

So go and view this slice of 20th century history before it disappears forever.


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