diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Prefab Museum
17 Meliot Road, Catford, SE6 1RY

Housing was scarce after the war, and thousands of London's displaced population ended up living in temporary accommodation. Prefabs went up all over the edge of town, including an area of parkland on the high ground south of Catford. The LCC used German and Italian prisoners of war to undertake construction, and an estate of 187 two bedroom bungalows was completed in 1946. They were only expected to be temporary, and almost every other such prefab across the country is long gone. But the Excalibur Estate hangs on, against all the odds, after almost 70 years of service. And yesterday I popped in for a cup of tea and a Rich Tea biscuit.

You can tell that this estate is somewhere peculiar as you approach from Battersby Road. The surrounding houses are typical two-storey suburbia, but all that's visible over the boundary fence are the curving tops of lampposts. Nowhere on the Excalibur Estate has an upstairs, let alone an attic, so their flat roofs remain invisible until you turn the corner. Lines of squat homes then spread out round an offset grid, some on the main streets, others reached from perpendicular alleyways. Every prefab is identical, or at least was before the owners personalised each one. Some have pristine gardens, some are bedecked with hanging baskets, one has a St George's flag fluttering outside, and one's even been Mock-Tudored. Most residents are clearly very proud of where they live, because who gets a detached council house surrounded by their own garden nowadays?

But not all of the homes are in quite so good a state. Some are boarded up, others abandoned with front door wide open and refuse strewn across the lawn. The entire northeastern corner of the estate is sealed off, and has been for some time, as Lewisham Council attempts to end what they see as substandard squalour. These prefabs don't need modern standards - some leak, some contain asbestos - and plans are afoot for replacement. Along with developers L&Q they want to replace the Excalibur with 371 new houses and flats. Some of the new homes will be affordable, others rather less so, and the new community that grows up will be nothing like the old. Some residents can't wait to be rehoused, anywhere more modern than here, but many are keen to hang on in this special place they're proud to call home.

The Prefab Museum is the brainchild of Elisabeth Blanchet, a freelance photographer interested in documenting social conditions and communities. She's got together 13 artists and taken over a prefab in Meliot Road, filling it with photos and mementos donated by surviving residents. You'll spot the place easily enough if you visit by the flags and bunting hanging outside. Several leafy shrubs survive from the time of the former owner, including a camellia by the front gate that's in full bloom. And if the museum's open (that's Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 10am), you can step right inside.

The prefab at number 17 was bigger within than I was expecting. A hall runs down the centre of the building, almost precisely along the line of the Greenwich Meridian, leading to a toilet and small bathroom at the far end. To the left are the two bedrooms, currently devoid of beds, and with more cupboard space than I have here at home. And to the right is the living room, a surprisingly light space, plus a fairly basic kitchen round the corner. Number 17 has an extension out back - it would be wrong to call it a conservatory - with a somewhat flimsy-looking roof. And OK it's not the best preserved building, nor the most sturdy, and even a full interior makeover couldn't hide its age. But it's easy to see how someone might love this place more than a far-flung semi or a box in the sky.

There are photographs on most of the walls, many picturing residents in their homes or standing beaming outside the front door. The back bedroom has one photo of every prefab on the estate, packed in polystyrene ready to be given away to any former residents should they visit, which is a lovely touch. One wall here is given over to a looping video, featuring amongst others 93 year-old war veteran Eddie O'Mahoney who's lived on the estate since it was built. The living room has shelves of knick-knacks, plus newspapers from 1946 found underneath the lino, and books and mugs you can buy to support the survival campaign. The leader of that campaign - the Worried Tenants Group - was on hand yesterday to talk to visitors about the iniquities of various decisions and votes. And a teapot was on the go, as you'd expect somewhere so communal, so I helped myself.

I couldn't get into the front bedroom because a special event was underway. This was the Archive Tea Party, a cunning ploy to bring together several Excalibur residents to reminisce on camera. They had plates of cakes to keep them going, and a grand mix of ages doing the talking and listening. If the planned redevelopment finally happens then all that'll remain will be memories, plus a mere six prefabs that've been given Grade II listing by English Heritage. It's hard to imagine half a dozen survivors having much impact amongst a sea of modern homes, indeed it's the collective clustering that currently gives the place its edge. But six is better than nothing, I guess, as a very small reminder of an important period of Britain's housing history.

Departing the Prefab Museum, I wandered through the alleyways in the early spring sunshine, possibly for the last time. A Scottie dog peered out from one net-curtained window on Persant Road, and a resident rolled home in his mobility scooter with a bag of shopping balanced behind. The mothballed northeastern corner of the estate looked particularly sad, with great wooden barriers sealing off 34 already-doomed prefabs from their more fortunate counterparts. Nothing's moving fast here, the council thus far unsuccessful in obtaining planning permission for even partial demolition. They're frustrated because they want to increase housing stock in the borough, and this low-density, low-value estate could provide so much more. But Eddie still thanks the German POW who built his home, and would argue there's nowhere finer than Excalibur.

The Prefab Museum
» Facebook page (opening extended until May)
» The Prefab Museum - events and opening times
» ITN report

Who's visited?
The Independent, Municipal Dreams, Running Past, the Londonphile, Caroline's Miscellany, English Buildings, Ian Visits

Excalibur photos: 12 by me, 18 by doctorboogie, 33 images from the exhibition, tons from Flickr

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