To tour the maze of 187 prefabs on the Excalibur Estate in Catford, south-east London, is to get a glimpse of the unique post-war attitude of make-do-and-mend. These humble, single-storey bungalows, with their hanging baskets and carefully tended gardens, were put up by German and Italian Prisoners of War from 1945 to 1946.
Excalibur is the biggest prefab community in Britain and six of these unique little homes were granted Grade II listing by English Heritage in 2009, but the rest have now been marked for demolition and the land will be developed by Lewisham Council. "It's depressing to watch the estate fall into disrepair, it's been left to rot," says 59-year-old Jim Blackender, who finally moved out of his prefab last year after giving up on his battle with the council. "People were happy here – but that's progress, I suppose," sighs Ted Carter, aged 79, a retired radio and TV engineer, as he surveys the garden of the prefab where he has lived for the past 30 years. It's homes such as these that the photographer Elisabeth Blanchet has spent 11 years documenting for her forthcoming exhibition on Britain's prefabs.
Prefabricated houses were put up across Britain as a temporary solution to the post-Second World War housing crisis and were meant to last no more than a decade. Yet for 70 years, thousands of families have continued to call them home. Dubbed 'palaces for the people', they offered not only cheap rent, but unheard-of luxury to men returning from the war and to their families, who had been bombed out of their homes during the Blitz and ended up in overcrowded houses with no electricity or plumbing.
Eddie O'Mahony, now aged 93, was one of the ﬁrst to move into his prefab on this estate. After returning from Singapore in 1946, he wasn't convinced by the prefab but Ellen, his young wife, who was used to outdoor toilets and no hot water, was delighted by its mod cons: a fitted kitchen, an indoor bathroom, a fireplace, a boiler and fitted cupboards. Eddie has cared lovingly for his home ever since and it has retained many of its original features. "The demolition is breaking my heart," he says. "Quite honestly, it will be the finish of me if I have to move. I don't like to think of them being pulled down." The process of 'decanting' has already started and 28 prefabs now stand empty, their gardens overgrown with weeds. "I close my eyes when I pass the ones that are boarded up," says Eddie, "I've loved this place from day one."
Factories no longer in use for war-time manufacture were turned over to the mass-production of parts that could be constructed into a house in less than a day, and prefabs sprang up all over the country, from Birmingham to Wales. Ex-residents form a rather starry line-up – Sir Michael Caine grew up in one in Elephant and Castle and Barbara Windsor spent her childhood in one in Stoke Newington.
The former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, who grew up in a prefab in Tredegar, south Wales, recalls: "It was a remarkable dwelling and a piece of wonderful engineering. We used to get visitors from all over the place just to come see this amazing house. The great thing about prefabs is that they face each other and you can't be isolated, unlike in a high-rise flat."
Today, many of the prefabs face a similar fate to those on the Excalibur Estate. The 49 prefabs in Killamarsh, near Sheffield, are slated for demolition this summer. Its residents are sad to see them go. "I wish they weren't coming down, quite frankly. Because there's no traffic here, you can hear bird song every morning, it's lovely," says 84-year-old Bernard Dye, a retired miner. His neighbour, Joyce Cramp, aged 82, agrees: "I did all me own decorating and all me own tiling, gradually you got things nice. I know I'll be upset to leave, because all my memories are here."
Prefabs: Palaces for the People, is at Photofusion, London SW9, 28 June to 2 August; photofusion.org