Prefabs in peril: Britain's largest remaining estate of the postwar homes is under threat

They were built to last only 10 years. Seven decades on, the 187 homes of Britain's largest remaining prefab estate stand strong. But now the local council is set on demolition – so one photographer has given the residents the least their extraordinary homes deserve: a museum

Eddie and Max fought on opposite sides during the Second World War but you could say they share a house. Eddie, a 94-year-old Englishman, lives in it. But 70 years ago it was Max, a German POW at the time, who put the place together, along with the 186 other prefabricated homes – or "prefabs" – that make up the Excalibur Estate in south London. For a while in 2008 Eddie and Max corresponded, but they lost touch – until on Eddie's birthday last year, a photographer found a way for Eddie to send Max another note. The letter read, simply: "Thank you for the home."

"It was a nice thing. He is always telling me the Germans did a good job", says that photographer, Elisabeth Blanchet, who speeds through the story in English that lilts to a French cadence.

She thinks Eddie has a point. For 12 years, Blanchet has travelled to prefab estates around Britain, taking pictures of the modular homes and their owners. There aren't many left: 160,000 were thrown up in a hurry after the Blitz, and expected to last a decade. Long past that lifespan, a sword now hangs over the Excalibur. Lewisham Council plans to demolish the prefabs and build new homes. Eddie and a few neighbours cling on. After five years of struggle to preserve their way of life, there is at last cause for celebration; a prefab museum, curated by Blanchet, opened yesterday.

The homes aren't so fine as they were in 1946, when the Excalibur was finished. On those left derelict, paintwork has peeled, litter settled in grass. Some lampposts don't work at night. But those still occupied remain spruce, and, says Blanchet, are "almost like an ideal home from a child's drawing. I like their simple design," she adds, "the almost-flat roofs, the corner window, the little garden. There's a feeling of cosiness."

Born in 1970 in Normandy – in a town house – Blanchet moved to England for work, and found her outsider status encouraged tightknit communities to loosen up in front of the camera. "Being from another nationality, people will let you more into their home. They can't see from my accent if I'm posh or not," she says. "Also, it's a bit exotic: why does a French person have so much interest in prefabs?"

 

The answer involves the people who inhabit the Excalibur as much as the houses they live in. Subjects have become friends. "A lot of residents are really nice and don't want to leave, so it's natural to be on their side," says Blanchet.

A bitter aside from former resident Jim Blackender, who campaigned without success against the Excalibur's redevelopment in 2010, gave Blanchet further motivation."'He told me, 'There is no museum for the poor, nor for the working class.' That idea got into my head."

At the dawn of Blanchet's quest to record life in Britain's prefabs – a journey which has led her from Derbyshire to Stornoway, Chesterfield to Newport – she was the only person taking an interest. Today, English Heritage is involved, and six Excalibur homes have received Grade-II listings, so will sit – squat and cheerful – next to any new apartment blocks that spring up.

Once again, London is cramping from a shortage of homes. Prefabs hog too much land to help. But they can put the current crisis in context. Blanchet has invited schools to the museum so that pupils can see that – once upon a time, in social housing – "you could live all your life in a place that looks like a holiday village".

Naturally, a prefab will house the exhibition itself. Residents have offered Blanchet trinkets and memorabilia to display alongside her photographs, and there will be work from nine other artists. Like the prefabs, the museum is slated to last just a short while. But doggedness got these homes, and Blanchet, this far, and she hopes it will take them further still. "Prefabs were meant to be temporary," she says. "But they survived. So I hope my temporary museum will too."

The Prefab Museum is at 17 Meliot Road, London SE6, to 1 April

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Life and Style
healthMeet the volunteer users helping to see if the banned drug can help cure depression and addiction
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Life and Style
tech
News
i100
News
Foo Fighters lead man Dave Grohl talks about the band's forthcoming HBO documentary series
people
News
i100
Property search
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Mail Machine Operative

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Day In a Page

Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The officials are caught in the web of US legal imperialism - where double standards don't get in the way

Caught in the web of legal imperialism

The Fifa officials ensnared by America's extraterritorial authority are only the latest examples of this fearsome power, says Rupert Cornwell
Bruce Robinson: Creator of Withnail and I on his new book about Jack the Ripper

'Jack the Ripper has accrued a heroic aura. But I'm going after the bastard'

The deaths of London prostitutes are commonly pinned on a toff in a top hat. But Bruce Robinson, creator of Withnail and I, has a new theory about the killer's identity
Simon Stephens interview: The playwright on red-blooded rehearsals, disappointing his children - and why plays are like turtles

Simon Stephens interview

The playwright on red-blooded rehearsals, disappointing his children - and why plays are like turtles
Holidaying with a bike nut: Cycling obsessive Rob Penn convinces his wife to saddle up

Holidaying with a bike nut

Cycling obsessive Rob Penn convinces his wife to saddle up
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef pays homage to South-east Asia's palate-refreshing desserts

Bill Granger's fruity Asian desserts

Our chef's refreshing desserts are a perfect ending to a spicy, soy-rich meal
Fifa presidential election: What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison