Prefabricated housing enthusiast Elisabeth Blanchet reveals how her hobby helped her smash the glass ceiling and joined the exclusive Dull Men’s Club…
I’d always harboured a secret wish to be a pin-up girl but I realised early on that I probably didn’t have the attributes or the connections within the modelling industry. So I gave up the idea and got into prefabricated housing instead. I never thought it would end up with me being recognised as one of Britain’s dullest women.
It all happened by accident, really, soon after I arrived in London in 2001. As a photographer I’ve always been interested in capturing communities and people who live in different habitats. I had started a project on Gypsies and was wandering a lot on travellers’ sites in south-east London when a friend of mine told me about ‘a kind of mobile home’ near where she lived in Peckham.
I checked it out and identified the lovely bungalow as a post-war prefab. We had loads where I come from in Normandy, but I was surprised this one was still standing and occupied. I knocked on the door, and an old man opened it. I told him I was interested in his house; he noticed my accent and asked where I was from. I replied and he smiled – he had taken part in D-Day. I was invited in and bombarded with prefab information, tea and biscuits.
That’s how I discovered the Temporary Housing Programme, which saw the government use prefabs after WWII to house ex-servicemen and people whose homes had been bombed. More than 156,000 were erected all over the UK in 1946, thousands of them in London. They were supposed to last ten to 15 years but a few thousand are still up – and very much loved by their residents 70 years later.
After that first prefab visit, I soon understood I had discovered a secret national treasure. The last prefabs were being demolished and nothing was being done to record the residents’ memories or to photograph the buildings. So I set about photographing all the examples I could find.
That’s how I became a prefab anorak. I really loved them: their design, the fact they were detached and surrounded by large gardens, their modernity (unlike many houses of the era they had hot water, fitted kitchens and inside toilets) and the sense of community they helped create. And my love for them has never ceased. I started publishing prefab features, including one in Time Out in 2004. I had my prefab work exhibited, wrote a book called ‘Prefab Homes’ and started to organise prefab tours in south London. Finally, in 2014, I created The Prefab Museum in an original post-war prefab in Catford.
There’s been tragedy as well as triumph. The museum burned down in an arson attack after seven months, but it has risen like a phoenix. With Heritage Lottery Fund support, we created the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which is touring the country until November 2017.
Then last year I met Leland Carlson, leader of the Dull Men’s Club. I was writing a piece about his club, which since 1985 has celebrated the ordinary, simple and mundane pleasures of life: roundabouts, luggage carousels, staplers and so on. Naturally, I talked about prefabs.
I must have sounded very dull indeed, because over lunch Leland said that after 31 years running the all-male club, he was thinking of opening it up to women – even featuring them in the hallowed Dull Men’s Club calendar. And to my delight, he asked me to be Miss May. I’m the only woman from the capital featured, and I’m proud to be officially recognised as London’s dullest woman. Sometimes dreams do come true!