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Memories of Prefabs on the Isle of Dogs

The recent post by George Donovan mentioned for a while he lived in a Prefab, I was made aware that not everyone knows about Prefabs, so I thought I would provide a short guide.

Prefabs (prefabricated houses) were a major part of a plan to address the United Kingdom’s post–Second World War housing shortage. The idea was to build 500,000 prefabricated houses, with a planned life of up to 10 years, within five years of the end of the Second World War. The plans changed because around one million new houses were built between 1945 and 1951 but only about 150,000 were prefab houses.

Stewart Street prefabs Stewart Street, Photo George Warren (Prefab Museum)

On the Isle of Dogs, a number of Prefabs were built to deal with the desperate shortage of housing on the Island. The main areas of prefabs on the Island were in North Millwall, around Stebondale St, and the Glengall and Samuda area.

George gives some insights into the joys and drawbacks of living in a Prefab.

Living in the pre-fab was quiet nice really, they were well designed and very functional. The kitchen’s had fitted units with a gas powered refrigerator made by The Press Steel Company of Oxford. They did have a couple of problems though that came to light on residence. One was that they housed rodents [Mice]. You could hear them scampering in between the walls. They may even have been there from the day of installation having nested whilst in storage. The remedy was two cats.

The other problem was flies. Now that was due mainly because of the derelict surroundings that were prevailing at the time. I found the solution to that too. Next door to the Police station on East India Dock Road at the top end of Chrisp Street-was this sort of ‘junk’ shop run by a man and his son named Wells. They got into selling ex WD army surplus stuff. I still have a Trenching Tool that I bought from them. You just walked into the shop and browsed around and I discovered these small canisters. They were shaped like a present day oxygen bottle about two and a half inches long. At its end there was this spur like nipple. I got to learn that they were issued to the army for use as personal hygiene. The contents were under pressure and you snapped the nipple off and sprayed [I suppose the contents were some form of DDT] under your arm pits etc:

So in the prefab, I would be the last to go to bed and I would use one of these in the kitchen to kill the flies. First one up in the morning would do the sweeping up.

I read some time back that there was a community living in South London still living in Prefabs and are fighting the council who want to demolish them. There is one as a museum piece at the BWM at Duxford, the same type that we lived in.

Debbie Levett, the Secretary for Friends of Island History Trust let me know recently that a number of members of the Trust have assisted Jane Hearn to record some of the history of the Islands prefabs. Jane is collating the history of the countries prefabs for the prefab museum website which is a fascinating look back to this post war phenomenon.

You can visit the Friends of Island History Trust website here and prefab museum website here


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