At the end of last September I went back to the Excalibur Estate, one of the last surviving post-war prefab estate in the UK. It was one of those Indian summer days with a cloudless blue sky.
I hadn’t been to the Excalibur Estate for a few years and despite the incredibly nice weather, it was one of the saddest visit I had ever made there. One part of the estate had become a dump.
I was told later that morning that there had been a raid a few weeks before. What was left of the abandoned and derelict prefabs had been vandalized.
One of them used to be my friend Ted’s home. It had been empty since he passed away in 2016. It used to be a very special place, full of old radios he repaired and collected. I didn’t want to step in. I was too upset by how it had been ripped apart. Even his little workshop in the shed was a mess.
Thanks to my dear friend Mickaël who spotted it, I managed to get his home’s plaque which was hanging on the wall by the main door. To me it’s a trophy neither the local authorities nor the vandals will ever get.
A the end of Ted’s street, there is a wall – another one… It seems to be a trendy thing to build at the moment – and behind it the « new Excalibur » and its shiny propaganda on a billboard.
This is regeneration for you : where there used to be 187 post-war prefabs, Lewisham Council has planned to build more than 350 dwellings, a mix of affordable houses and flats… with only 16 aimed at being social houses – prefabs were part of a social housing scheme -. A regeneration planned by people who don’t care about residents, who use a strategy of fatigue and division to get what they want: the land.
Yes, land is money, especially 30 minutes away from London Bridge and Charing Cross. Nothing seems to stop the local authorities to achieve their goal: they use obscure sub-contracts so they can escape responsibility when it suits. They take advantage of the isolation and weakness of certain old residents, they « decant » the estate without any respect for people who sometimes have been living in their prefab almost all their life. Instead of preserving a unique estate, they are destroying it.
But there is a pocket of resistance, an Asterix Village with lovely but determined old ladies who won’t let go of the home of their life. Margaret, Christine, Linda and a few others. I met them again on that September day.
I hadn’t seen them since the time of the Prefab Museum, a museum I had set up on the estate with the support of the Arts Council England. It opened in an empty prefab in March 2014. Its aim was to celebrate post-war prefabs and prefab life. It was supposed to be a temporary museum and to last one month but the adventure was very successful. We had visitors from all over the world and it had also become a sort of little community hub on the estate with very extensive opening hours…
The initiative was obviously making some people happy and also must have caused mixed feelings of hatred and jealousy as one sad morning of October 2014, the Prefab Museum at 17 Meliot Road burnt. The police concluded it was arson but didn’t pursue their investigation. « We have other priorities. The police force is needed on the streets ». OK.
At the time nobody on the estate would talk about the fire. There was a sort of Omerta on the incident. But last September, Margaret, Linda and Christine freely talked about it : « Yes it was criminal. What a shame »! They even mentioned the name of the suspect, who would still on the estate in one of the 16 social housing dwellings. Very lucky man to be among the 16 chosen ones.
Years have passed and Linda, Margaret and Christine are among the last residents standing. They live in one part of the estate which still looks like it used to in the good old days of street parties and of a true sense of community. And they are determined to keep this vibe intact, whatever it takes. It’s a bit as if they were defending their village like Asterix, Obelix and their mates against the Lewisham Council villains. Talking from behind the fence of her lovely prefab garden, Margaret tells me: « They won’t have it, they won’t have my prefab »! And I am sure she means it.
At the end of the Asterix patch still stands, untouched, Eddie O’Mahony’s prefab. He passed away in January 2015. Back in 1946 he was one of the first residents of the estate and never left it. He even bought his prefab in 1991. It had become his little castle « he wouldn’t have swapped for Buckingham Palace even if it included the Queen », he used to say. For decades, Eddie fought hand in hand with other residents to save the estate. How ironic to see his prefab still standing and almost teasing the local authorities and the greedy property developers. But for how long? Well Asterix, Obelix and their friends have been fighting for years and never surrendered!
More to watch: The Sad End of the Excalibur Estate