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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

Remembering Alice French nee Holland 1925-2014

Mum at about 60 Raes wedding

Alice French

Recently I was contacted by Lee Adams who is the  daughter of Alice French nee Holland, unfortunately Alice had recently passed away after spending her whole life living on the Island.

The following piece , written by Lee is a great illustration how people like Alice spent their life on the Island but managed to have extraordinary lives.

Alice French has recently died after living all her life on the Isle of Dogs.

Alice was the eldest daughter of Chris and Liz Holland , nee Seymour , and had a brother Chris who lives in Billericay and another bother Kenny who died when a young child.

Alice had fond memories of her childhood, despite having a stern grandfather Philip Seymour; she had many funny tales of buying alcohol for her grandmothers and what life was like then , for instance having no running water except in the cellar . She had to work for her mum, as a child selling clothes from a cart and also collecting money from people, which she hated . This was because the family were hard up, her dad worked as a Corn Porter in the dock and was subject to the call on process, often times were hard and he had no work, he was a shop steward in the dock union .Liz began to sell things from her house and eventually ran little shops.

Alice went to Glengall Road School but left when she was fourteen, working in factories, she then joined the Port of London Authority and worked in the dock offices at Millwall as an admin officer –she very much enjoyed this work and was involved politically at this time being a member of the Communist Party .

Alice volunteered for the ATS during the second world, her service took her to Dresden in Germany after the bombing where she saw terrible things, she was a driver and also tracked down missing service personal. We believe she got a medal for bravery but Mum would never talk about it, though she said she threw the medal in the river being disgusted by war.

Mum and Dad at lazedown very happy

Alice with Geoff

Alice met Geoff French a mechanical design engineer in the North Pole pub   and they married in 1949.


The North Pole (recently sadly closed, due to be demolished)

Alice went to work with her mother Liz in their shop Holland’s Stores in Castalia Square where she worked for many years eventually taking over the shop with her brother Chris, they also had another shop in Millwall for a time.

mike seaborne_w600_h400

Alice with her brother Chris at the shop in Castalia Square (Photo Mike Seaborne)

Alice and Geoff had three children: Lee, Jeff and Rae and settled in Stebondale St after the war in a prefab by the park. It was idyllic really despite the bomb sites, we played in the street and the park safely, and went to the wonderful Cubitt Town Primary school up the road run by Miss Delamare.

Tragically Geoff died suddenly in 1967 at the age of 41 leaving Alice to bring us up alone, She never looked at another man and we guess never really got over dads death, she always worked very hard and instilled this strong work ethic into us her children; she was very independent and strong minded

Alice was a very kind and generous person, a good friend and neighbour and wonderful mother .She enjoyed going out to visit places, exhibitions and her children when they left home , she loved having her grandchildren-8 of them- to stay and taking them out , and in her last few years she loved to spend time with her great-grandchildren Jude and Coco.

In later years she suffered first a stroke and then a heart attack but continued to live at home in East Ferry Rd with help from carers and family. Even when she was wheelchair bound and not that well She enjoyed going out to Greenwich and having meals out .

Alice lived a good life ,she was very attached to the Island and to all the people she had known there and had many fond memories.

If anyone remembers Alice , or us do get in touch

Via Leeadams6952@gmail.com