Sunday 16 March 2014

Excalibur Estate, Catford

It's Britain's largest surviving prefab estate - at least for the moment. The Excalibur Estate in Catford was always designated 'temporary housing', and has been under threat of demolition in recent years. However, many of its residents remain attached to their prefabricated homes, and unwilling to leave them. 

As World War II progressed, it was obvious to the government that one of their most urgent post-war tasks would be to replace the housing lost to bombing. With resources scarce after years of war, and homes needed as soon as possible, how could this be achieved? The answer was prefabrication: in the two years after the war ended, temporary housing was quickly erected, mostly by German and Italian prisoners of war. The timber frames and asbestos sheeting were produced by factories previously busy with war work.

The estate is made up only of houses: in the rush to accommodate families, no space or materials were spared to construct other amenities. The exception is the church at its edge, St Mark's, itself an unusual construction from the 1960s which feels entirely appropriate for its context.

Although designed to last for just ten years, the housing offered rare luxuries to its working-class occupiers: indoor toilets, bathrooms and refrigerators, as well as front and back gardens. It is unsurprising that many became fond of their detached, two-bedroom bungalows and stayed long beyond the expected decade: at least one resident has been here since his house was new nearly seventy years ago. Under the influence of their occupants, the homes have developed their own characters, adding to the estate's charms.

The affection is not universal, however. From the council's perspective, these homes will be difficult to maintain and bring up to modern standards, while they are exceptionally low-density (being detached bungalows with generous gardens) in an area with a high number of homeless families. For some residents, they are damp houses without double-glazing which would be better replaced by modern dwellings. 

Other residents are determined to keep their unusual homes. They point to the roomy and convenient layout, the peacefulness and community spirit of the estate with its quiet paths and friendly neighbours, and the social history that the Excalibur represents. The latter point has been taken up by the Twentieth Century Society  and by English Heritage, on whose recommendation six of the homes have been listed

The rest of the houses remain under threat. Some are already empty, their residents moved elsewhere, and part of the estate is now closed off by high fences and locked gates.

A visit to the estate poses all sorts of questions. It offers a vision of social housing which was designed to offer a high standard of living to its residents, very different to most of the developments springing up in London today. It is a piece of social history, too, as well as a living and functioning community; shouldn't we preserve this as diligently as we preserve more glamorous, less working-class buildings? Can six houses alone, devoid of the context of the surrounding estate, adequately represent that history? 

At the same time, these houses were not built to last indefinitely: can the costs involved in maintaining and improving them be justified? Indeed, can investment in such low-density housing be justified when the pressures on accommodation in London are so great? (Lewisham Council and L&Q housing association's proposals would see the number of homes on the land doubled.) What will be the quality of the new homes? The trouble is, if Lewisham Council have got the answers wrong then there will be no way to replace this unique estate.

If you would like to explore the Excalibur in person, a prefab museum is open until 1 April, the creation of photographer Elisabeth Blanchet who has been documenting life on this and other prefab estates. Housed in one of the prefabs are artefacts, information, films and artworks; it's also a social space, with memories shared and new information added (a few days before my visit, one of the residents had brought in wartime newspapers found under their lino). It's open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10-4.30 and Saturdays, 10-6, at 17 Meliot Road, SE6 1RY. The Londonphile has also visited.


Stephen Barker said...

Caroline a very interesting blog. as a growing up in Market Harborough in Leicestershire I was a friend to someone who lived in a prefab which had metal cladding. The prefabs were all a primrose yellow colour with red roofs. Later on the same building became a scout hut for the scout troop of which I was a member. So I have fond memories of that particular prefab.
The site on which they were built had in the late nineteenth century been a quarry for clay and a brickworks, cutting into the side of a hill. In the early 1900s the former brickworks were then laid out for a small housing estate with roads and individual plots to be sold at auction. The auction was not success with few plots bing bid for, the cost was to high for working class men who wanted their own home.It appears to have fallen victim to the slump in house building that started around 1900 and lasted up to WW1. Until the prefabs were built after WW11 the site reverted to grass, with one of the roads disappearing off OS maps and was used for grazing by a local coal merchant, as a lairage for livestock being transported by the nearby railway and the site for visiting circus.
The site is now a small estate of light industrial and commercial buildings devoid of any architectural interest. I would not be surprised if the land is not developed for housing as once intended and the businesses currently occupying the site do not move to sites on the edge of the town.

runner500 said...

An interesting post, it is well worth a visit - I went (and posted about it) earlier in the week. A much higher density of housing is sadly inevitable given the way in which housing associations are funded and London land values. In the short to medium term the development proposals seem to have stalled, the residents I talked to seemed rather in the dark about them, and the current round of housing association development funding would seem to need work on a phase to be completed by March 2015.

CarolineLD said...

Thank you, Stephen. The history of these prefab sites is also interesting, as you demonstrate - the Excalibur estate was built on parkland and the residents believe that the terms of the land transfer require it to be returned to parkland.

Runner500: the history of the proposals seems to be one of stalled plans over several decades, doesn't it. There is currently talk of a second ballot of residents. I enjoyed your blog post on the estate.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Excellent post, as usual. I remember these prefabs well because over 20 years ago I lived not far away from them. Even then, the estate was a distinct and self-contained community that was resisting redevelopment proposals - how these uncertainties linger.

Unknown said...

The Prefab Museum is now open until the end of May on Tues, Thurs and Sats and then on Saturdays only until the end of the Summer, except by appointment.