Children's author Heather Maisner on her memories of a 'chaotic' childhood in a post-war 50s prefab home
PUBLISHED: 08:00 08 September 2018
Children's author Heather Maisner was just three when she moved into a prefab home in Homerton. She tells Emma Bartholomew about the fond memories she has of community life and a happy childhood there
Littered with bombsites and the crumbling remains of houses, Hackney in the 1950s was far removed from the bustling, trendy place it is today.
Food was still rationed and there were long queues for basic goods like crockery and carpets. Avocados, wine bars and cafés selling flat whites wouldn’t appear for several decades.
But children’s author Heather Maisner, who has 36 books to her name, has fond memories of life in a prefab home in Daubeney Road, and the warmth of the community despite the bleak post-Second World War landscape.
She was just three-years-old in 1950 when her family moved from the top-floor flat of a war-damaged house in Chardmore Road, Stoke Newington. Heather’s sister had been “nearly blinded” when a piece of concrete fell into her eye when opening a window, and her mother, now 99, asked the council to be relocated.
They were moved to the temporary homes made from concrete panels reinforced with steel and bolted together, which had been erected in Homerton to house families rendered homeless by the war. Their single-storey square house had a sitting room, kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a toilet at the end of a narrow hall – and Heather still has a plan she drew of it as a child.
“To my mother, the prefab was luxury,” she said. “The kitchen had all mod cons, including a built-in stove and a fridge, a washing machine with a mangle for draining. We had a garden of our own, with a lawn, flowerbeds, and a coal shed. In winter, we warmed the house with coal fires and small electric heaters.
“It is luxury to have your own house if you were in accommodation where every time you moved around people could hear you downstairs, and the neighbours weren’t fond of all the noise. I used to cry a lot apparently.”
For Heather too, the new home was like “heaven”. She would walk past the sweetshop each day on her way to Daubeney Primary school at the end of the road, and remembers large glass bottles filled with penny sherbets, gobstoppers and pink shrimps. The prefabs were surrounded by council flats and a bombsite, called “the dump”. Heather’s friends would knock on the door and ask her to come out and play or tap on her bedroom window and she would jump out to join them.
“The children of the prefabs, later to become the teenagers of the 60s, played out in the dirt, rubble and cracked pavements of the post-war streets,” she said. “We played jacks and hopscotch, rode scooters along the cracked pavements, jumped up and down on a pogo stick, and wriggled and twirled with our new hula hoops. Often we sneaked into Hackney Marshes, crawling beneath the locked iron gates, where we ran through the long grass, with the wind in our hair.”
The prefabs were built in a cluster, with their gardens backing onto one another.
“Mothers chatted over the garden fence, as they hung up the washing, and borrowed milk, tea and sugar from each other when the corner shop was shut,” said Heather whose latest book is Dinosaur Douglas and the Yucky Mucky Fingers.
When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1953, there was a street party with a fancy dress competition.
“One boy was so distressed, because he didn’t have a costume to wear, that he refused to leave his house,” remembers Heather. “Mum, a seamstress since the age of 12, quickly made him a jockey outfit, and the boy’s father, a painter by trade, was so grateful that, years later when we moved away, he decorated our new house for free.”
Heather remembers a “happy, chaotic childhood” with a lot of pets, including two budgerigars, a cat and Timmy, a puppy, bought at Brick Lane Market, and carried home by her father in a shoe box.
“Timmy was sold to us as a six-week old male but the milkman – a very important figure in our daily lives – discovered, he was, in fact, a three-day old female Collie,” said Heather. “Within a year, Timmy gave birth to nine puppies in the narrow hallway of the prefab. Eventually, our friendly milkman took the pups away to become trained dogs for the blind.”
After seven years the family moved on.
“Prefabs were temporary homes, built to last ten years, although many survived much longer, and a few still exist today,” said Heather. “I missed the Hackney of my childhood - that perfect combination of a friendly community with the freedom of the streets and the fields.”