In September last year, as part of a blog on the archaeology and oral history of Wanstead Flats in World War 11, we reproduced some memories captured by the excellent Eastside Community Heritage project of life in the prefabs on the Flats, from the early 1940s until late 1950's (see here) and details of other war-related installations that stood on the Flats.
This blog should be read in conjunction with that earlier one, and provides more local memories of World War 11 on Wanstead Flats.
|1950's street map, showing location|
of prefabs, just off Capel Road
The City of London has published its own oral history of residents' recollections of Epping Forest, more generally, in which former Newham residents told their tales of life in the prefabs, of POWs and other war activity on the Flats. See footnote for details. We are grateful to the Corporation, to Ms Holtom, the editor, and in particular to those sharing their memories for the ability to paint a slightly fuller picture of the time.
As we have mentioned previously (here), prefabs were erected on the Flats, by East Ham council, on land facing the Golden Fleece, towards the end of the second world war. They were built, often with German prisoner labour, to house bombed out East Enders (see photo). They were mainly removed in 1957.
Their exact location is indicated on the street map extract (above). Interesting to note that all the prefab streets were called "gardens", testifying to the allure these homes had as residences for people bombed out of more densely and less open space areas in the East End.
Elizabeth Hughes, recalled prefab life:
We were allocated a prefab on Wanstead Flats. We moved in on 4 November 1946 and our rent was 18s a week. There were 200 of us living in prefabs on the Flats. I lived in one near the 'sand hills' as they called them, although a lot of the sand was used for sand bags.
My address was 56 Allanbrooke Gardens. All the streets, or 'banjos' as they were called, were named after World War Two military generals.
We had everything we needed in the prefabs, and the council continued to add bits on to them, while we lived there. Everything was electric which was good except it took ages to get going. It also meant we were badly affected by power cuts. We were given one bag of coal a week, which just drove up the chimney in no time..
During the 'freeze up' of winter 1947 our prefabs were terribly cold and used to ice up inside. .. At that time there was road building going on. The German Prisoners of War were helping with this - and there were piles of fence poles stacked up for fencing. ... We stole some for fires. ... Despite the difficulties I think we were happy in our prefabs.
|Prefabs on Wanstead Flats in 1950s|
The prefabs lasted until 1960, and Mrs Hughes remembers the camaraderie of living on the 'banjos'.
You could leave your keys under the mat without a worry ... My husband organised the coronation celebrations in 1953. Prince Philip once visited the area to open some playing fields ... There were also cows on the Flats every year and sometimes Gypsies with their horses. It was like living in the countryside and my daughters loved it. There was a pond right in front of our place and my youngest spent her days playing there.
Walter Barber remembered living on the Flats:
Our prefab was in the American style and it was even complete with a refrigerator, which the English prefabs did not have. ... We kept chickens and rabbits and grew vegetables in the back garden.
They took part of Wanstead Flats to build the prefab estate. It was opposite the Golden Fleece public house - between Whitta Road and The Chase. ... There must have been 350 prefabs there, they were all detached. All the prefabs were on their own concrete base, so they were all individually placed.
The last two families including the Barbers, left the prefabs in Dec 1960.
Walter recalled the Prisoner of War camp:
It spread from the boating lake over by Dames Road to Centre Road. Centre Road was blocked off to normal traffic and that was the entrance to it. All traffic had to go round Dames Road, Lakehouse Road to get to Wanstead (is that the reason for the 308 route?).
|Some Wanstead Flats' prefab residents|
(Source: Echoes of Epping Forest)
Most of the prisoners were in huts, there were some tents over there and, when there was a raid on, the prisoners were all cheering the bombers on, you know! Some of the prisoners were marched to do jobs.
What they did I don't really know, but you could see them under escort being marched along Capel Road, to various places where a bomb had dropped and they cleared the debris and things like that.
|RAF photo of Wanstead Flats, Aug 1944.|
To right of pond are huts and tents, used to house PoWs
It (the POW camp) was behind barbed wire with high fences and we used to go and make faces at the prisoners and they retaliated by cheering the bombers on when there was a raid! It was all good fun really, you know there were no hostilities. We didn't treat them as hostile, they were prisoners in another country.
Beryl King recollected the POWs:
The camp was quite an attraction to these girls ... I think they (the prisoners) were mainly Italians. .. Our own men of our own age were all away and I know two girls who actually married Prisoners of War, after all they're human beings, just the same as us.
|"Italian" POW goalpost, still secured|
on the Flats, until the mid 1990s
Peter Reeve recalled Allied Troops being stationed on the Flats:
Towards the end of the war, just before D-Day a lot of Americans were stationed there in tented accommodation, just before the D-day landings and they used to get their gum out ("have you got any gum, chum?") and they used to roam around. Apparently they were good lads in the pub, they would always buy drinks because the Americans were flush with money, and that was another aspect the Flats were used for.
They were more the Aldersbrook Road end, there was another entrance at the Aldersbrook Road end into the encampment, so the Americans went in that end and the prisoners went in at the Forest Gate end.
Bill Embling told of the Anti-aircraft guns:
During the war there were V1 and V2 machines located on Wanstead Flats. We called these 'Chicago pianos' and they were a series of rocket launchers which went off in rapid succession. During the day they were hidden in the bushes, and were brought out at night, to be operated.
|Ack-Ack guns, of kind deployed on Wanstead Flats,|
as anti-aircraft deployment in WW2
Allan Hughes spoke of other war-related activities:
The main idea of the barrage balloons was it held up the wire which stopped low flying aircraft with precision bombing and also to stop the strafing (machine guns shot with precision from low flying aircraft), which was a hobby of the German pilots.
|Barrage balloons on the Flats|
If they had run out of bombs, they used to come in low and machine gun everything in sight. The barrage balloons prevented that by having wires up that would ensnare the airplanes.
Also, criss-crossed over the Flats were ditches about 3 feet deep to stop planes landing on there, and the soil from the ditches was in big Swiss rolls along the edge of the ditches, so it sort of created a ditch and an obstacle above the ground to prevent the landing. The Swiss roll bits of earth were a joy to us youngsters to jump from one to another!
Another use that the Flats went to was that sand was evacuated from the ponds and this was used for sandbags. The sand hill ponds had big mountains of sand around them, they were a real lot higher than they are nowadays. Just down from Wrigley Road there was a big pit dug and that was used to fill the sand bags and they were distributed six to a road just in case you had a fire, or an incendiary device dropped on you.
These sand hills were used for despatch rider training. They used to ride up and down over the steep side and over the top and they used to spend hours doing it as part of their preliminary training.
There was a bandstand up on the corner of Capel Road and Centre Road and all the wood from the bombed out houses was put in there and people could go and take it for fuel or repairs to bombed houses and children used to delight in brining a few bits of wood home to put on the fire to eke the coal ration out.
Echoes of Epping Forest - Oral history of the 20th century Forest, edited by Rachel Holtom, published by City of London , 2004. Copies available from Epping Forest Information Centre, High Beach, Loughton, IG10 4AF.