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Heritage: Memories of post-war prefabs in Willesden

PUBLISHED: 12:12 17 July 2018 | UPDATED: 12:12 17 July 2018

Irene Ottaway's prefab had been the last one standing in Claremont Road. Picture: Irene Ottaway

Irene Ottaway's prefab had been the last one standing in Claremont Road. Picture: Irene Ottaway

Archant

You might still see them here and there – squat little houses with slightly pitched roofs and neat little gardens.

Irene Ottaway's prefab in Willesden. Picture: Irene OttawayIrene Ottaway's prefab in Willesden. Picture: Irene Ottaway

These bungalows are “prefabs”: temporary homes built in factories at the close of the Second World War.

They might seem modest to us now, but in the 1940s and 1950s – when people were still living in slums or were homeless thanks to the Blitz – they were very welcome indeed.

They had what many could only dream of: hot running water, an indoor toilet and even a gas-powered fridge.

Churchill himself saw them as a smart way to help the country get back on its feet.

A young Irene Ottaway. Picture: Irene OttawayA young Irene Ottaway. Picture: Irene Ottaway

He said in 1944: “Factories have been assigned, the necessary set-up is being made ready, materials are being earmarked as far as possible, the most convenient sites [for the prefabs] will be chosen, the whole business is to be treated as a military operation handled by the government with private industry harnessed to its service.

“And I have every hope and a firm resolve that several hundred thousand of our young men will be able to marry several hundred thousand of our young women and make their own four-year plan.”

These squat little homes were meant to last just a decade – a mere stopgap until more permanent homes could be built – but many of the prefabs are still standing, with residents often fighting to hold on to them.

There were several types and they were built up and down the country in factories that had been used to make aeroplanes.

Irene's family outside the prefab. Picture: Irene OttawayIrene's family outside the prefab. Picture: Irene Ottaway

Some arrived on cleared building sites flatpacked; others came in sections, ready to be quickly bolted together.

Some prefabs were gifted: Sweden sent over cosy wooden flatpacked homes and the US sent its own version: the UK100.

A whole estate of these popped up in Brent.

Irene Ottaway lived with her brother, sister and parents in an American prefab on an estate of more than 120 in Willesden from 1946 to 1968.

Irene Ottaway and her family outside the prefab in Claremont Road, Willesden. Picture: Irene OttawayIrene Ottaway and her family outside the prefab in Claremont Road, Willesden. Picture: Irene Ottaway

Their prefab was in Claremont Road and they moved in when she was about four years old.

“We lived at my nan’s house in Kilburn and when my dad came out of the army,” she said.

“Like lots of families there was nowhere to go.

“We loved it there.

“It was freezing cold in winter and hot in summer but you had your own garden all around.”

The prefab estate was a friendly place to grow up, with few cars and friendly neighbours who all had a similar experience of war-time deprivation.

“We had quite a lot of freedom,” recalls Irene.

“We just wandered all over the place.

“We even played on bombsites.

“On the whole, everybody knew each other so if it started to pour with rain you’d run and bring someone’s washing in so it wouldn’t get soaked.

“No one thought anything of it.”

The American prefabs were slightly smaller than the British types and didn’t have a fridge.

But families were still pleased to call them home.

“We had a lovely big kitchen – it was bigger than you’d get in most houses,” says Irene.

“Then there was a nice bathroom, two bedrooms and a big front room.

“But because there was three of us, two girls and a boy, my mum and dad slept in the front room – they had a put-you-up.

“When my sister and I came in late from a dance we had to creep through there but I’m sure my mum always knew!”

The prefabs started to come down in the 1960s as the economy recovered and local authorities were given increasing powers to clear land to build flats and houses.

“We were the last prefab standing,” says Irene.

“Can you imagine? All around us everything had been knocked down – only ours was left.

“We loved the prefab and on the day we moved out my mum swept the floors and left it all nice.”

Prefabs: A Social and Architectural History by Elisabeth Blanchet and the Kilburn Times’ own Sonia Zhuravlyova is out this week

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