Shoreditch Park Project

Exploring the recent history of a neighbourhood of factory built prefabricated homes, and the design of daily life in east London.

"It was ever so poor, when we was young. Very poor, wasn't it? Our mothers used to come out shopping every single day, because not like today, you can go in and fill your basket, you couldn't do that, your money didn't go to that. That money was every week lotted out each day, It was life."

"...its geographical location is accidentally based on what was dropped from above. It's not where you would put a park ideally..."

Dustin: So Elizabeth, how long have you been documenting prefab homes?

Elisabeth: Erm, almost 12 years, almost, yes, since I've been in this country, 12 years

D: And can you tell us a little bit about how you came to start documenting prefab homes

E: I was talking to a friend - I used to be a teacher at a French school - and I was talking to a friend, er, asking her, if she knew, um, of kind of, home parks, because I wanted to document people who live in mobile homes, if there were some quite close to central London. And she said to me well where I live down in Peckham, I have noticed some strange sort of houses, they look like mobile homes but I don't think they are, I don't know exactly what they are but the best thing is you come and have a look. So I went with her, and um, I saw my first prefab, English prefab, and I thought ooh yes, that's… So I just knocked on the door and there was a nice man opening the door, and I told him I was coming from Normandy and I was interested in his house, because to my knowledge there were not many left in Normandy where people were still living in, and er, he said "well, you know, my home is not the only one, there are still plenty in the UK", he let me in his prefab, we started having a cup of tea, and, because he liked the fact I was from Normandy, he had been in Normandy for D-Day, so we started to chat about Normandy, and he started to tell me that there were still hundreds of them in the UK, still very well lived in and loved. Because at the beginning I didn't really know where I was going, I just did it because I enjoyed it, first of all, like, talking to people and finding, you know, being into their home and they welcomed me. And people started to contact me because I put online a bit of the work I had done in London, so I thought yeah, I should go, and look at what is going on there, so I took some pictures, and then found out more, and the same with Redditch, in the Midlands, where someone called me once and said 'oh I've seen your work, you come and have look at our prefabs, we want to save them and maybe your work is going to help saving them' - so I thought oh, yep, there is something else there, they are under threat. They were supposed to last ten years, they lasted much longer, and now people want to keep them. So, I started to get interest in that, those campaigns to save prefabs. I kind of became a bit obsessed actually with recording them, knowing that they were going to disappear. Like in south, not in Catfor, but in Peckham, Dulwich and Nunhead, I photographed all of them, like, as if, you know, they're going to disappear, so I must keep track of them and photograph them before they go.

And then after that, my work starred to be in magazines like Time Out, focussing on the London prefabs, and um, I had an exhibition in 2006 in a gallery. And then I kind of stopped a bit, you know, for a few years, I didn't do many pictures of prefabs because I was working on other projects, And then in 2009 I started again, going down to Catford, take more pictures, um, really I wanted to see what was the situation there, if they had managed to save them so far. And at the time they were kind of rebuilding a big campaign to save them, til 2011 when they decided to do a ballot, to vote for or against the regeneration of the estate. And what happened, is um, 5?% of the people on the estate voted for regeneration, which means demolition actually, so that was the end of the fight of the people who wanted to save the prefabs in Catford. So I just, in 2012, I decided this is the time to do it now, like, record on film, still on stills, on photography, but as well to do a proper documentary about them because it's the end, this is the end of the last big estate - Catford is the biggest estate of prefabs in the UK - this one is going to disappear, up north there are a lot that are being demolished as well, at the same time, Newport doesn't exist any more, so I thought this is the time to do a documentary about the last kind of surviving pockets of lived in prefabs.

Elisabeth: I went through some photographs with my grandmother in Normandy, before she went to the ?? because I wanted her to tell me about her war memories, of D-Day, and how they lived all that, they survived all the occupation and everything. And the idea I had was to go though the pictures with her, the family pictures, and there is, there are no pictures during the war, they are before and after. And one of the first family album - the first family album I find - one of the first pictures is my father, as, like, maybe two years old, so maybe '46, in front of a prefab [laughs]. And I said to my grandmother, what is it , what is it behind? [laughs]. And she says to me, 'oh, it's a' - we call them baraquements in French - 'it's a baraque, you know we, the pharmacy' - they used to have a pharmacy, which was bombed during the war, all the high street shops, poom, bombed by the Americans, so they, the Americans gave them some prefabs. So all the main square of the town in Normandy was covered with prefabs for years, and my grandparents' pharmacy was in a prefab. [laughs]. And my father's picture in front of that prefab - and I said unbelievable, you wouldn't believe what I'm doing at the moment, I'm working on a project on prefabs. She said, really? [laughs]. And the other thing that is a really nice story about those prefabs in Normandy is that, er, the mayor of the city - the town, it's not a city - allocated the prefabs, we don't know exactly how, you know, like, maybe this guy is privileged to have one that is well located, and the other one - not very fair process, so my grandparents ended up having a prefab which was not very well located compared to the other, for business. So my grandmother, she has very strong voice and opinion and thing, so she just went to see him and said, 'where is the democracy in your process of allocating the prefabs, why do we get this one which is, you know, at the end of the row?' and er, she said I'm going to make a scandal, because I know how you do things! And the guy says oh, ok ok! [laughs] we're going to redo the process, you know you've got a hat, and you put numbers in the hat, and everybody is going to pick a number, and the number is where the prefab is allocated. A fair process. And er, he said to her, well, because you came and asked, you're gonna, you made people come around, and you're going to be the first one to pick up a number. So she does it, and she pick ups number one, which is the best located. [laughs]. So that's - our life has been like that, always been lucky.

Elisabeth: They appointed different companies to do them, the prefabs here. Er, but all of them had to have the same heart unit, you call it, so the same er fitted kitchen, the kitchen fitted the same way. And the other interesting thing is the, what they call the utility furniture. So it's the same - people had ration tickets, they were rationed for a long time after the war, they had tickets for food and they had tickets for furniture. So you got the same sort of furniture in prefabs - chairs, tables - someone called, the designer was called Gordon Russell, I think, it's called utility furniture. So I found it fascinating, it's very close to a sort of socialism, of communism, you know everybody's got kind of the same level, you know, you've got your tickets, you get the same food, you get the same, um, clothes, you get the same furniture. One very important thing, it created all those little prefabs put together created communities, and I've always been interested in communities, how they, where do they come from, why do they work as a community. And what happened is, you had people from similar backgrounds together, with young children, so the children played together, the parents, you know, socialised together, they've got similar houses, so they will try to do nice, their garden nice, so the neighbour is going to do the same, and they're going to grow some vegetables, and they're going to make like competition with their garden, get some [??]. So there's all this community thing which I found interesting, not only from the background for people were coming from, but also by the way um estates were designed, the layout of the estate is very interesting as well, er little paths, footpaths, so you had a feeling you were, on lot of estates, still now, there are a few surviving in the north, and you have the feeling you are in a holiday village

Elisabeth: Lord, Lord P[??] was the Minister of Works, I think, because there was a Ministry of Works dealing with those things at the time, and erm, he launched the prototypes called the P?? prototypes, after his name, at the date, yeah, in '45 I think?

First impression you've got, it's cosy, you've got a lot of light. You know, especially in this country where people were used to living in slums really. I heard stories like, there were seven in the same room, and you had outside toilets. And then suddenly they've got this kind of square, rectangle house, very well designed. They were nicknamed castles or palaces for working class people.