Island Prefabs

Built at the end of WWII in response to the housing crisis, and intended to be temporary, prefabricated houses – prefabs – were a familiar site on the Island until around 1970.

The whole of the west side of Stebondale St, close to where I lived, was made up of empty prefabs by 1970, and I – like many kids – enjoyed a summer holiday spent smashing them up. I can still remember the smell of the asphalt roofs, the musty and dusty interiors, the ease with which we broke holes in the walls (brittle stuff, that asbestos, and we had no idea how dangerous it was), the shattered sinks and toilet pots.

I don’t recall any adults telling us not to do what we were doing. Nobody ever complained. The police never turned up to chase us off (except perhaps when asbestos was thrown onto a bonfire, causing a satisfying explosive crack when it reached a high enough temperature). The prefabs were not fenced off or secured in any way. They were just another part of the huge playground of derelict buildings that was the Island.

But, once upon a time, these derelict buildings were much loved by hundreds of Island families.


The Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act of 1944 authorised the Government to spend up to £150 million on temporary houses.  This photo shows such construction in progress, before the end of the war, with Anderson Shelters visible in all rear gardens.


Prefab Construction

One of the designers for the Uni-Seco prefab, Dr Harold Rose..

The prefabricated panels were a sandwich with a wood-wool filling between sheets of corrugated asbestos-cement. The houses took eight unskilled men eight days to assemble. It sounds crude, but the construction industry learnt a lot about innovation and planning.   There was no alternative. There was no time to set up brick factories. I often ask myself why we don’t make similar buildings today for the homeless.

There were different configurations: side or front entrance, with or without entrance canopy, bathroom and kitchen at back or at side, and so on. The prefabs were delivered as flat kits to be assembled on site, save for the kitchen/bathroom unit which was ready assembled. 

Prefabs were largely popular with their new inhabitants, boasting modern conveniences such as fitted kitchens with refrigerators, a compact plan and a number of built-in shelves and cupboards for storage; they were detached dwellings on large plots offering spacious gardens and a ‘country cottage’ ideal to former residents of tenements and terraces – English Heritage

1945 kitchen

1945 Kitchen. Photo: English Heritage

1947 living room

1947 Living Room. Photo: English Heritage.

Built in drawers and cupboards for storage were standard, as was a „fitted‟ kitchen. Crude by today‟s standards but nevertheless they had a gas hob, oven and refrigerator as standard.

Another feature, provided before washing machines became universal, was the „copper‟. The „copper‟ was a large metal bowl under which a gas flame could be lit to heat water for washing clothes. Manual labour was then applied using a „washboard‟.

A table that folded back into the kitchen wall was also provided in some of the homes.

The main living area had a solid fuel fireplace and grate, with a back boiler for heating hot water which was then stored in a tank, in the airing cupboard. The tank also had an electric immersion heater for heating water when the fireplace was not in use.

The fireplace, in the main living area was the only source of heat provided in the house, consequently the other rooms could be very cold in winter, and damp was a problem.

On some types, ducting for hot air from the fireplace to the bedrooms was provided, but was not effective. On cold winters mornings, some families would light the gas oven and open the door to heat the kitchen, which became the main centre of activity.

– Epsom and Ewell History Explorer

Poplar Borough Council applied for 2000 of these prefabs and, in September 1944, constructed three different types in Glengall Grove for demonstration purposes. The selected prefab was of the Uni-Seco type, produced by the London-based Selection Engineering Company Ltd, and based on a military wartime office design.

The first family to move into one of the demonstration Uni-Seco prefabs in Glengall Grove were the Greens. The council started laying concrete bases for others before the end of the year.

The Green Family

Poplar Borough Council gave priority prefab residence to families made homeless by the war and living in unsatisfactory conditions. They set the rent at 9s 3d, increasing it to between 12s 3d and 12s 9d in 1953.

There were three areas of prefabs on the Island in 1950: in North Millwall, around Stebondale St, and – by far the largest – the Glengall/Samuda area.

North Millwall

Click for large version

Peter Wright spent a significant part of his childhood in a prefab in Tooke St, and remembers it fondly.

Our prefab was built on the bombsite that resulted when a massive parachute mine dropped on Tooke St on 7th September 1940, destroying The Islanders Pub and surrounding houses. Four prefabs were built in Tooke St….ours being no. 4,  next to no.2 just behind Betts Butchers and 2 more on the other side of the road next to where the pub stood.

The side of no. 4 Tooke St was never built on so we had a large area to the side of us, albeit filled with bomb rubble, discarded gas masks, air raid wardens helmets etc.

The move was carried out using one of Ike Emms barrows with the last load carrying the coal from our old shed in the garden behind the dock fence of Alpha Grove to the new garden of the prefab, neatly piled behind an old upturned Anderson shelter corrugated panel.

Coming from an old upstairs dingy roomed Victorian Terraced house to a fairly new prefab in 1955 ….a nice sized bedroom, bathroom and toilet was quite something. Light, airy and fresh new home…..gone were the dark passages, staircases, and the old tin bath. In through your own front door, and a nice wide garden.

Our sideways facing front door led to a nice open hallway with a toilet and bathroom leading off it….a sharp right doorway led to the square nice sized front room with plenty of light coming in from the front wrap around two sided front windows, a neat fireplace with a half round marble hearth and micre panelled hinged fireguard doors. The ample kitchen coming off the living room complete with small gas fridge and foldaway dining table was accessed off the front room through a characteristic glass partition, a door at the other end of the kitchen led to the side of the house.

Dad took pride in our new home and immediately spruced up its appearance with a coat of paint all around. I suppose our prefab would comfortably house a family of say 2 to 3 children…we managed quite well with us four kids in the second bedroom but had to lose space to a large 78 rpm record collection and the family piano.

4 Tooke St, Photos: Peter Wright

There are no known photos of the prefabs in Mellish Street (someone, somewhere out there must have one….), but the prefabs at the corner of Mellish Street and Westferry Road are clearly visible in this aerial photo:

c1950. Westferry Road from bottom left to top right.

The same prefabs featured in a short scene in the 1960s film ‘Saturday Night Out’, significant parts of which were filmed in the area:


Prefabs at the junction of Mellish St and Westferry Rd.

Stebondale St / Manchester Rd

Click for large version

The following aerial photo shows the northern part of the area covered by the map:


Post-war Stebondale St, at the junction with Glengarnock Ave (the ‘S’ sign is pointing the way to the air raid shelter under the arches in Millwall Park):

stebondale (2)

Photo: Island History Trust.

1966 (Island History Trust)

View from Manchester Rd (approx. at location of later Galleon House) over wasteland to the prefabs on Glengarnock Ave. Also visible are the back of the houses on Parsonage St, and the mudchute on the horizon:


Photo: Montage of photos courtesy of Coleman family.

Glengarnock Avenue (Photo: Rump Family)

Manchester Road, opposite Christ Church (Island History Trust)

Manchester Road, outside Christ Church (Photo: Elsey Family)

Rear of Manchester Road prefabs, seen from playground of Cubitt Town School in Saunder’s Ness Road (Island History Trust)

Manchester Road, outside Christ Church (Island History Trust?)

A rare colour image of prefabs – a screenshot taken from a Price Family cine film showing the prefabs in Manchester Road near Christ Church.


Click for large version

This was by far the largest area of prefabs on the Island (and perhaps in the UK as far as Uni-Seco prefabs are concerned). This photo, taken from Glengall School and looking over Glengall Grove towards West India Docks, shows perhaps half of the area, giving a good idea of its size.

Late 1940s

Here is the entire area in an aerial photo:

1940s. Click for large version.

36 Glengall Grove (Photo: Tina Edmonds Moore?)

Glengall Grove (Photo: Tina Edmonds Moore)

Galbraith Street in background (Photo: George Warren)

Boys playing cricket in Atworth Street looking towards Strattondale Street. On the right is the WWII first aid post. (Photo: George Warren)

Marshfield Street (Photo: Maureen Jackson Webb)

1945 Galbraith St 15062993952

Emily Stevens (nee Barry) and her husband Arthur Stevens outside their newly built prefab. Like a lot of other people they had been bombed out and had lost everything. Photo courtesy of their granddaughter Karen Amber.

Photo: George Warren

Atworth St, looking towards Strattondale St. (Photo: George Warren)

East Ferry Road (Island History Trust)

East Ferry Road, at the corner with Glengall Grove

The prefabs between Manchester Road, bottom left to (almost) top right, and Stewart Street. c1960


Stewart St. Photo: Christopher Dunchow


In 1952 the first of the Borough’s prefabs was demolished. Although the Borough intended to demolish them all as soon as possible, and rehouse tenants in new homes, economic challenges led to a slowdown in council house building, and by 1965 there were still 323 prefabs in the borough.

However, the prefabs proved themselves not all able to withstand the ravages of time. Peter Wright reports:

Towards the end of our time there in 1964 the walls became damp, so much that outside vegetation had reached the inside walls and was sprouting up behind the wallpaper.

Stories of the damp, rat-infested prefabs in Stebondale Street appeared in the East London Advertiser in the late 1960s, and action to demolish the prefabs in Poplar was increased.

c1971. Demolition had started in Stebondale Street (sorry about the quality)

stebondale-prefab 15041722836

Children leaving a derelict prefab on Stebondale St.

Rear of Manchester Road prefabs. Photo taken from Stewart Street. The base of an already-demolished prefab is visible on the right. (Island History Trust)

Manchester Road from Salford House. Site of demolished prefabs.

Site of demolished prefabs. Looking over Manchester Road towards St. Luke’s School (or Cubitt Town School, I’m not sure if the schools had already moved by the time of this photo).

Site of demolished prefabs in Stebondale Street (Photo: Pat Jarvis)

The last prefab in Poplar was demolished in 1977, 33 years after the construction of the first ‘temporary’ home.

Some of the prefab sites today….


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13 Responses to Island Prefabs

  1. jan says:

    My aunt, uncle and cousin, Pauline, lived in the prefab on the corner of Seysell Street and Stebondale Street. Pauline and I spent many happy hours in the garden, playing chase games which involved running around the prefab. I also remember being impressed that they had a fridge. Quite rare in the early to mid fifties!

  2. Christine Coleman says:

    I loved this report on the prefabs it brought back many happy memories for me. We moved into a hutment, nowhere near as posh as a prefab, there were only two of them in Plevna Street, opposite the ‘real ‘ prefabs. The Rayner family lived next door, we didn’t have a bathroom and we still had outside toilets. The front doors were to the side and opened into the lounge that was partitioned off for the kitchen area ( but no doorway, just the wall stopped halfway across) at the back of the lounge and the kitchen were the two bedrooms. They came down in 1951 and we moved, along with the Rayners, to Cressall House which seemed like paradise to us. I remember the Saturday morning when we moved out of the hutment, some men had actually bought it and were dismantling it while we were still in bed!!
    It wasn’t the best of homes but we all loved living there, maybe it was the garden or the shops close by…….this was before Castalia Square existed, but all my memories are fond ones.

  3. island prefabs says:

    Hi I read your comment re prefabs. I was a daughter of one of the families that moved into the prefabs in 1945 in Plevna street. My family along with others that was were bombed with the last miss but one missile not quite sure if it was a rocket but I do remember clearly that it was my 15th birthday. We had been living in Glengall Road School for about 6 weeks as the house was to badly damaged to live in.
    I lived in the prefab with my Mother Father and 2 brothers until I married and got a flat in Ontario house Prestons Road.
    After the birth of my first child the prefab next door but one to where my Mum still lived became empty I applied for it to be rehoused and was lucky enough to get it it was shear luxury with bathroom inside toilet/ cooker/ fridge and built in cupboards. I lived there until the prefabs were due to come down and we were moved to Salford House where I still live.
    I am sure our paths must have crossed at some time and like you have many happy memories.. Mrs Rose Wood Nee Marsh

  4. John Barclay says:

    Hi~I enjoyed very much your article and comments section about the Island’s prefabs,and managed to find the one our parents and us two brothers moved into,about 1949/50 (from the house inside of Island Gardens~which was gradually tumbling over,westbound). I dont remember the number or name of the street where the -wonderful- prefab stood,but it was in a turning known as the “banjo”…right across the street from Glengall Grove School,where Manchester Road met up.
    What a treat it was to be in such a FLASH house,along with a fridge..of all things. Good,good memories of that era. Thank you so much. John Barclay

    • Christine Coleman says:

      I remember the Banjo, I too have no recollection of it’s correct name, I don’t think anyone ever used it. I had a friend that lived there, Christine Nesbitt, also Flo Plaicey lived there with her kids, June and Terry ( Kipper to everyone except his mum).

      • You’ll find the banjo in the middle of this 1949 map extract:
        I know people in Hesperus Crescent had the same name for a part of their street which had the same shape.

      • Harry Sprackling says:

        Hallo Christine. Your memory is still holding good. We were neighbours of Flo, June and Terry Placey (Kipper). Terry had a good party trick. Every fortnight when Ron the coalman arrived with his horse and cart Terry would get a piece of coal, about the size of an orange, and proceed to chew and eat the coal just like an apple. He did this on a regular basis so he must have enjoyed the taste. His sister June ( real good looking girl) use to like to sit on the crossbar of my old bike and we would whizz around the banjo.

        Once a week the winkle man would push his wheelbarrow from Poplar to Millwall loaded with shrimps,mussels whelks and others and would arrive at the Banjo at about 12nn. In the winter it was a real treat to taste his seafood. In the summer it was not so good as refrigeration was not possible on a wheelbarrow.

        We lived at 32B and our neighbours to the right were Dickie and Dolly Alderman who became the licensees of the George pub. Flos neighbour was the Ivels (Smerdons) who became the licensee of the Cubitt Arms pub.

  5. Harry Sprackling says:

    Hallo Christine. My name is Harry (Nobby) Sprackling and along with my mother and father Harry & Phyllis and younger brother Ken we moved into 32B “The Banjo” in 1945.The official address being 32b Glengall Grove but to all and sundry “The Banjo” It was without doubt a fantastic home after all the dirt and poverty of where we had been. My parents told me we were offered this prefab as my father was a stevedore and he was urgently needed to get our exports out to the rest of the world.
    Your memory is still intact as our neighbours were Flo Plaicey and June and Terry. Young Terry (Kipper) had an unusual taste in food. He took large pieces of coal straight from Ron the Coalmans wagon and then ate it. He said he liked the taste. He seemed to enjoy the coal very much. Not for me I preferred some winkles from the man who came to the Banjo on Sundays pushing his old wheelbarrow full of seafood (no refrigeration in them days) I remember June very well as I had a secret “crush” on her. She was a little older then me but she liked to sit on the crossbar of my old bike while we whizzed around the Banjo.
    The best thing about the Banjo was.. it was so easy to get to Glengall School where I attended for 5 enjoyable years. During the last 12 months I became the bellringer and boiler stoker with a wage of 2/6d per week plus all the extra milk I could drink.
    After 5 years as a Stevedore in the docks we moved to Essex and in 1978 we left and arrived here in Melbourne where we have lived for almost 40 years. My family ancestors arrived on the Island in the 1800s and most had left by 2000. Many great memories.

    • Christine Coleman says:

      Hi Harry,
      So the ‘Banjo’ didn’t have a name at all, it just came under Glengall Grove, no wonder no-one could remember it’s name. I too went to Glengall infants school for a time but our hutment in Plevna Street was taken under the slum clearance scheme and we were given a brand new flat in Cressall House. Wonder of wonders, we had an inside bathroom and toilet, we couldn’t believe our luck. Nevertheless I loved our time in the hutment and now 65 years on I still remember it with great affection.
      You, like so many other Islanders, have chosen to live in another country and all power to you, but I bet that you still refer to the Island as home! We have lived in many different places but our roots are still in E.14.
      A Happy New Year to all the wandering Islanders, you made it the place it was and it will never be forgotten by us ‘oldies’

  6. Peter Short says:

    Lived in a “prefab” at 19 Plevna St on the islang, and had a big garden.

  7. Pingback: A Short History of Mellish Street | Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

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  9. Peter Still says:

    I’m curious about the pre-war prefab-like dwellings that can be seen in some of the maps and photos. they are shown on the map of “north Millwall”on this page on the north side of Maria Street and east side of Alpha Grove. The St Huberts House page has an aerial photo in which they look like large pigstyes but zooming in you can see washing on the lines! As a kid I used to play on the bombsite in Maria St marked “ruin” but don’t remember what was on the other side of the road.

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