The Prefab Museum adventure started 10 months ago, when Elisabeth Blanchet (above, with Eddie), a London-based French photographer, telephoned to say that the Excalibur Prefab Estate in Catford, Lewisham, was lending her an empty prefab so she could create a museum to celebrate life in the prefabs.
The prefabs, built from 1946 to alleviate the post-Second World War housing shortage in the UK, were safe and warm homes for thousands of bombed-out families, and many still have fond memories of living in these one-storey 'temporary' bungalows, or growing up in them.
Fewer and fewer remain with every year and the Excalibur Estate, the biggest in the UK, has entered its first stage of demolition. The time to have a museum in an actual prefab was then or never. Everyone was thrilled.
Elisabeth, who has been photographing prefabs up and down the country for the past decade, was the leading force behind the museum, exhibiting her own photographs and films as well as the work of other artists, whose curiosity and imagination were also piqued by these quirky homes and communities.
The empty prefab was lent to Elisabeth for one month. It quickly filled up with prints, photographs, maps, hand-drawn pictures, vintage china, curious neighbours dropping by, quickly settling down for a cup of tea and a chat to reminisce about life on the prefab estate.
Ted, who's lived in his prefab a few roads away for the past 30 years, lent the museum a 1950s radio that still worked. Its crackle provided a welcoming soundtrack for the visitors and volunteers who helped to staff the museum. The living room was the focal point, with comfy chairs and old furniture. The two empty bedrooms served as gallery spaces, but soon every bit of wall space was covered.
The word spread, and people came from far and wide with donations and memories. A map hanging up in the hallway quickly filled up with multi-coloured pins, where visitors marked the location of their own prefabs. The guest book was bulging. "Fantastic exhibition! I lived in a prefab in Edinburgh from 1946-1960," wrote Rob Collins. "Good luck in your efforts and thanks for the wonderful memory."
"Thank you for taking the time to put on this exhibition. It brings back many happy memories. It has been a very emotional experience - the layout is similar to my granddad's prefab. The smell is the same!" added Matthew Adlington.
Visitor numbers passed 5000. Lewisham Council became interested in the museum. The tenancy was extended until 2017. Elisabeth and the volunteers threw tea parties, held talks, a film night. There was a feeling of hope and excitement by the kind of energy that was flowing through this little corner of London, even though it was unlikely we could stave off the approaching demolition.
But somehow, it was too good to last. A fire in the museum forced Elisabeth to shut its doors. A dispute between Lewisham Council and the Tenant Management Organisation that runs the Excalibur Estate put Elisabeth's work to a stop. She felt that her presence and work was no longer welcome on the estate. The fire was reclassified as arson by the police, but that's where the investigation ended. After getting the all clear from a health and safety test, Elisabeth packed up what she could salvage from the museum.
The prefab had become a focal point for a community whose life was winding down. People had come to reminisce, architecture students, history enthusiasts and journalists had come to examine the structure and learn how people once lived.
Buoyed by its popularity, Elisabeth says: "We are looking for a new home for the Prefab Museum, ideally in a post-war prefab, any ideas are welcome! Please get in touch".
Elisabeth Blanchet is launching her book, Prefab Homes, at Islington Town Hall on Wednesday 17 December at 8pm. Everyone is welcome to attend.