By 1944, 1 million British homes had been damaged or destroyed by German bombing. Lewisham alone had lost over 1600 dwellings in the first wave of the Blitz in 1940 and would suffer heavily again as the V1s and V2s rained over London in June 1944. There are those in the Excalibur Estate in the borough who feel they are the victims of enemy action once more.
Back in 1944, Churchill gave his ‘word that the soldiers, when they return from the war and those who have been bombed out …shall be restored to homes of their own at the earliest possible moment.’
To fulfil this pledge, the 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act was passed, earmarking £150m for an emergency programme of temporary housing. Aircraft factories which, in these closing days of the European war, might move to peacetime production were tasked with the construction of prefabricated homes.
The first prototype was proudly displayed at the Tate Gallery that same year and in the four that followed 156,623 of these ‘palaces of the people’ – there was no irony in that term as we shall see – were erected across the country. They were planned as temporary housing, to last ten years at the most.
In the event, over 10,000 prefab homes remained in use in London as late as 1975. Now only some 250 remain and the largest concentration – for the time being – is in the Excalibur Estate.
The Estate was built on 12 acres of the Forster Memorial Park – an important open space for the LCC’s interwar Downham Estate – which had been transformed into allotments for the wartime Dig for Victory campaign. (The romantic Arthurian street names of the Excalibur echo those of Downham.)
A total of 187 homes were built by German and Italian prisoners of war between 1945 and 1946. (The pre-fab St Mark’s Church was built in the 1950s to replace the wooden hut which had been used for services previously.) All the post-war prefabs followed a strict and nationwide Ministry of Works template – single-storey, detached bungalow homes, built around a central core of kitchen, toilet and bathroom with a living room and two bedrooms.
Those on the Excalibur, manufactured by Selection Engineering Company Ltd, were of the Uni-Seco design – one of the four major types built. Kitchen/bathroom units were pre-assembled. The rest arrived in flat kits of resin-bonded plywood or light timber framing clad in flat asbestos cement sheeting with a wood wool core. To assemble the pieces, loose timber tongue strips were inserted between components to form the joints and filled with mastic and covered with asbestos cement. Internal walls were of the same construction, with plaster board ceilings nailed to roof beams. (1)
If all this sounds distinctly workaday, even a little Heath Robinson, think again – as Eddie O’Mahony did. In 1946, recently demobilised, Eddie, his wife and two children were living in a bomb-hit home. They wanted a house but, offered one of Excalibur’s prefabs, they were persuaded to give it a look: (2)
We opened the door and my wife said, ‘What a lovely big hall! We can get the pram in here’. There was a toilet and a bathroom. I’d been used to a toilet in the garden. The kitchen had an Electrolux refrigerator, a New World gas stove, plenty of cupboards. There was a nice garden. It was like coming into a fortune. My wife said, ‘Start measuring for the lino.’
Fitted kitchens, running hot water, built-in storage and electric lighting and sockets, a detached home of some 600 square feet with gardens – this was good quality accommodation with mod cons that, as Eddie said, ‘ordinary people didn’t have’ back then. The only, near-universal, complaint was that the homes could get cold in the winter.
It’s true that few would find the outward appearance of the homes impressive though English Heritage notes their ‘modernist’ look – a contrast to the ‘Neo-Georgian’ favoured in much social housing of the day. But the Estate’s network of footpaths and intimacy of scale gives it a homely and, to some, ‘holiday village’ feel.
And long-term residents describe a close-knit community, brought together both by the Estate’s design and their recent shared histories: (3)
We had all walks of life here, as people were bombed out, so you had school teachers, park keepers and there was even a solicitor. Everyone got on with each other.
But this was, of course, temporary housing –a short-term solution to a housing crisis. Somehow the Excalibur survived and its residents liked it. Twenty-nine of the homes have been purchased under Right to Buy; the rest are still rented from Lewisham council.
But in 2005 the Council determined that the cost of bringing the Estate up to the new Decent Homes Standard would be prohibitive. Subject to a tenants’ ballot, the Council proposed demolition and redevelopment.
Working with its preferred partner, London & Quadrant, the Council began negotiations with residents in 2007 but met with significant opposition. Tenants acknowledged the need for updating and refurbishment but were critical of the council neglect which, they felt, had led to current problems.
Many had spent their own money on their homes: (4)
I have spent thousands on this place. People ask why I bother, since I’m a council tenant, but I’m proud of this place. It’s like a country village in the summer. No one overlooks you and there’s no trouble. I call this a working-class Blackheath
While, to its residents, the Estate was home, to heritage specialists and architectural groups such as the Twentieth Century Society it possessed unique historical value. These interests coalesced and won a partial victory in March 2009 when six homes on Persant Road – the least altered of the prefabs – were Grade II listed.
Defenders of the Exacalibur campaigned for the Estate as a whole to be listed. In February 2010, a letter, said to be signed by 93 per cent of residents, was sent to the Council with this request. (5)
On the other side stood the Council and Mayor of Lewisham Steve Bullock: (6)
The listing by English Heritage was perverse…These are temporary prefabricated buildings, not architectural gems…The residents of this estate have pleaded with me and other councillors to get them out of their cold, damp, asbestos-ridden homes…I promised them I would help and that is what I have been endeavouring to do.
By June 2010, it looked as though a majority agreed. In a ballot organised by Lewisham Council, 56 per cent of residents voted for redevelopment and 44 per cent opposed. To critics, the result smacked of Council bullying – the veiled threat that a ‘No’ vote would lead to a policy of neglect and a restricted choice of alternative accommodation if and when the time came.
Even without the negative spin, it’s fair to say that this vote – like all ballots on ‘regeneration’ – wasn’t a free choice but a choice between unsatisfactory alternatives and, for many, an attempt to minimise the disruption that such proposals inevitably bring.
In April 2011 Lewisham Council gave final approval for demolition (save for the six listed properties) and the Greater London Authority approved the planning application for the scheme in June. By the end of the year – ‘a very successful year!’ according to the L&Q team working on the redevelopment – 11 tenants had been rehoused. (7)
As of June 2013, 28 of the prefabs were standing empty. Currently, as some tenants resist being moved, a court case looms, no rebuilding has begun and the scheme as a whole isn’t slated to be completed until 2020.
It will comprise 371 houses and flats – in the modern way, ‘a mixture of affordable homes and additional flats and houses for sale, shared ownership and equity ownership’, and, of course, a much higher density development.
Meanwhile, the redevelopment process itself and the uncertainty it has engendered has had a desperately sad effect on the Estate: (8)
The Excalibur has a strange feel today. The community spirit has gone, there is a feeling of animosity, people look at each other through scowling eyes. The estate has split into two irrevocable camps, with very different ideas of that they want. The idea of saving their homes with a pot of paint and green fingers has begun to disappear. Many residents’ homes have become dilapidated and their gardens overgrown. For the nigh on half wanting to stay they have battened down the hatches, there is a fierce resolve to defend their homes from disagreeing neighbours, rising local crime and a council wanting to demolish their homes.
While some of the residents have dug their heels in, others are keen for the saga to be resolved and others still want to move into what should, frankly, be better quality accommodation.
Visit it while you can and make your own mind up about the pros and cons of redevelopment. It’s hard to resist the story of the ‘little man’ (and woman) standing up for their home against bureaucracy and the state (and both the Telegraph and the Mail have featured sympathetic coverage of the saga). And it’s undeniable that the Excalibur Estate has worked when much larger and more exciting schemes have failed.
But while there’s less romance to the planners’ arguments, their case does, nevertheless, have some merit: (9)
The proposed development would provide much needed housing and affordable accommodation and would substantially improve the living conditions of the current occupiers, whilst achieving a density which utilises the sizeable piece of land more efficiently and in line with current local and national policies and guidance.
The story of Britain’s post-war prefabs is celebrated in a temporary exhibition, curated by Elisabeth Blanchet, at 17 Meliot Road on the Estate until the end of May, 2014. It records the homes of the Excalibur and others, scattered around the country – from the Isle of Lewis to Bristol and the south-west and points in-between. The largest number – around 700 – survive in the Bristol area, 300 remain in Newport, South Wales. Thirteen have been listed along Wake Green Road in Moseley, Birmingham. (10)
Neil Kinnock was brought up in a prefab home and can have the last word:
It was a remarkable dwelling and a piece of wonderful engineering. In order to move in, my parents had to buy new furniture and a lasting impression was cleanliness and newness. And in a sense the prefabs have never lost that feeling. With our inside bathroom and our inside toilet, and our fitted kitchen with our refrigerator, this was 1948, a fitted electric stove, fold-down table, it was a place of wonder. We used to get visitors from all over the place just to come see this amazing house.
(1) Details taken from the English Heritage listing
(2) Quoted in Ros Anderson, ‘This is my home, my little castle‘, The Guardian, 28 December 2012
(3) Quoted in Sonia Zhuravlyova, ‘Lasting memories’, Inside Housing, 21 June 2013
(4) Quoted in Robert Hardman, ‘Absolutely Prefabulous: Residents of Britain’s last prefab estate battle to save homes that were built to last only ten years’, Daily Mail, 15 January 2011
(5) As stated in the website of Jim Blackender, a leader of the residents’ campaign to preserve the Estate.
(6) Quoted in Will Storr, ‘Bulldozers home in on historic prefab estate’, Daily Telegraph, 19 August 2011
(7) Newsletter for the residents of the Excalibur Estate, December 2011
(8) Nick Davis, The Last Days of Excalibur, 2011
(9) Lewisham Council Planning Committee, Report on the Excalibur Estate Regeneration Area, London SE6, 21 April 2011
(10) Elisabeth Blanchet, Prefabs: Palaces for the People Education Pack. The quotation which follows from Neil Kinnock in conversation with Elizabeth Blanchet is taken from the same source.
Elisabeth Blanchet has been the major chronicler of Britain’s prefabs so follow the link above for more information and images. The temporary museum has a Facebook page.
Nick Davis’ Prefab Archive is another wonderful source on the Excalibur and Wake Green Estates.
Go to Jim Blackender’s blog for the perspective of a resident fighting to save the Estate.