Catford’s Camelot



The Excalibur Estate is threatened with demolition, but unlike an Arthurian legend there are no Knights of the Round Table galloping to this fair maiden’s rescue.

[I]n a part of Catford that few cabbies would know, or travel to, against the odds, there is the last surviving estate in London of post-war prefabricated houses (‘prefabs’), some 187 two-bed roomed homes with St. Mark’s a prefabricated church, which were built for bombed out Londoners and given road names such as Pelinore or Mordred by someone in the planning department all those years ago with a liking for Arthurian tales.

After the Second World War 150,000 prefabs were built across Britain. Created to accommodate homeless families with young children, these ‘palaces for the people’ as they were called at the time were synonymous not only of comfort and luxury but also a feeling – not lost on the demobbed armed forces – of freedom. The Excalibur Estate in Catford South East London is still one of Britain’s largest estates of prefabs. Erected in 1946-47 by German and Italian prisoners of war, who were in no hurry to return home to war ravished Europe, these detached houses with their own gardens, bathroom and the luxury of a separate indoor toilet were the solution to the chronic housing stock shortage that existed after the end of the Second World War.

Plonked on top of pre-plumbed concrete slabs, these homes could be built in a day, and were only expected to last between 10 and 15 years, by which time the Brutalist tower block of the 60s were expected to accommodate these once homeless families.

By the Seventies the Brave New World of modernist architecture was starting to crumble, along with some of the buildings. Many people found that they hated living in high-rise blocks, no matter how much the council and social planners told them how lucky they were.

Tower blocks and even whole estates were demolished while the remaining prefabs, and the residents, with their little gardens stayed put. They remained as an uncomfortable reminder to planners that modernisers don’t always have all the answers and homes need to be more than boxes stacked one upon another, when the only way to see the sky is to walk to the local municipal park.

With 12 acres of valuable land the property developers are now showing an unhealthy interest in the Excalibur Estate and are proposing to squeeze 400 new homes onto the plot.

After years of neglect by Lewisham Borough Council, who own all but 29 of them, these houses are deemed unfit for human habitation and in the lingo that only local authorities can dream up “these houses are subject to a Sustainable Community Strategy”, demolition to you and me.

Only six have been granted protection from destruction, but these survivors should prove to be a nice little earner for their owners, filmmakers love them, Only Fools and Horses and BBC’s How We Built Britain have featured them.

The Twentieth Century Society (where were they when Centre Point’s fountains were removed?) wants to preserve as much as possible for students to study the design and the estate’s demography, while the pressure group The Worried Tenant’s Group, just want to live there in peace.

The Excalibur Estate’s prefabs might not be the prettiest of dwellings, nor situated among leafy north London’s liberal elite in Barnsbury, but they are a remaining example of how we built homes ‘Fit for Heroes’.

6 thoughts on “Catford’s Camelot”

  1. I think for many people, prefabs were the nicest and most modern homes they had ever lived in. It is unsurprising, then, that after many years of living in them, accumulating memories, the occupants were loath to move.
    Planners seem surprised that people living in what they, the planners, consider substandard housing are resistant to being moved out and provided with “improved” accommodation. They shouldn’t be. Home is more than bricks and mortar or slabs of concrete. It is also the comfort of your own place, adapted to your own preferences, filled with your own possessions, and enlivened by years of memories.
    I used to pass a row of prefabs on the way to school and remember how neat and clean their occupants kept them and their little gardens with flowers and rows of vegetables. Half close your eyes and you could imagine they were farm labourers’ cottages from a Constable painting, not “temporary” shelters intended not to survive the decade.
    When I went back on a visit and saw that they had gone, their absence left a strange feeling of emptiness. I wondered where their by now elderly occupants had gone and how they had faced up to the challenge of creating new homes for themselves all over again.
    If we had faith in planners, we might be more willing to swallow the bitter pill of losing our homes on the promise of receiving better ones but planners have consistently shown themselves unworthy of such faith, getting it wrong again and again. What is best for people is not always (in fact, is rarely) the most economically efficient solution or the one that is preferred by commercial interests.
    When it comes to public housing, the one talent that architects have demonstrated is the ability to create modern slums.


    1. That is a good parallel comparing prefabs with the labourer’s cottages still found in rural Suffolk. The difference being those same labourer’s cottages probably now provide second holiday homes for the very people who wish to eradicate this little community.


  2. I’ve never been there but on photos those houses with nice gardens look like little peaceful heaven. I hope residents will win fight with Lewisham Borough Council cos do we really need another ugly estate full of little dark flats ?!


    1. I think they might lose this one, not enough of the Guardianestas seem to want to defend this little but of south London, and I come from norf of the River and think they should be preserved. Haven’t they built enough souless flats in the area?


  3. My cousin lived in one of those ‘pre-fabs’ in Stoke Newington Church Street,, She was forced out (much to her displeasure) around 1960 and moved to a new house in Debden. A much inferior building she believed.
    An unhappy ending,,,, In 1980 she and her husband a tall guy, 6’1″, aged 46 that we all called ‘Joe Palooka’ were moving to a house they had bought in Portsmouth. As they were loading the removal van, Joe dropped dead with a heart attack. My cousin had to rush out and buy a coffin and she moved with him stacked amongst the furniture. Not the happiest day ! !


    1. That tale is even sadder than this post about pulling them down.
      On a brighter note I had added the page “Taxi tales” to this blog and have taken the liberty to include some of your own. If you have any more they would be welcome.


What do you have to say for yourself?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s