Prefab Days update: the green thing

When I wrote Prefab Days, little did I suspect how much interest it would stir up, notably among former residents of the Pilgrims Way estate in Kingsbury NW9. The original post was written for a museum housed in a prefabricated building, and I had to work to a word limit. One of the memories which I chose to leave out of the article concerned a cast-iron object in the street, just outside our back garden, known locally as “The Green Thing”.

Perhaps a subconscious motive for leaving the green thing out of my story was that, as I recall, my sister and I were forbidden to go anywhere near it, even though it held a magnetic attraction for other kids as the place to hang out. I am pretty sure this ban was just one outcome of our Dad’s horror of playing in the street. However I may have defied the edict on at least one occasion because I remember an event which took place right next to the green thing, which I mentioned in “Prefab Days”:

“When we moved in, work on the infrastructure was still going on, mainly finishing the roadway and footpaths. The labour force was a couple of German prisoners of war, supposedly supervised by British soldiers. We kids were strictly instructed not to fraternise with them, but of course we did, as the squaddies seemed to be notable by their absence. One of the POWs smuggled toys to us somehow, and I remember with affection the tiny metal tractor that came my way.” I am sure this happened next to the green thing, where there was a pile of sand, presumably used officially for laying paving slabs and unofficially as a sandpit for local kids less constrained than us.           

A year or so after I published the original post, Vic Burton, now a valued commenter on this blog, reminded me of the green thing and its lasting significance to kids on the estate. My sister has also mentioned it since, so I have had it in mind for an update for some time. I guess it must have had more of an impact on other kids than on us, even though it was always part of our landscape, only yards from our side garden fence. With hindsight I think the parental ban was just one outcome of my Dad’s general aversion to the idea of his kids playing in the street, probably influenced by the general assumption that the green thing was an electricity junction box of some sort and therefore possibly a hazard.

Well it turns out that the green thing was indeed full of electricity, distributing mains voltage to all the prefabs on our all-electric estate. But as far as I know, nobody was electrocuted, nor had their lives adversely affected by playing around it. Rather I suspect it was unintentionally beneficial as a hang-out for street-wise kids; for some of them it remains symbolic of a carefree post-war childhood.

Paul Kennedy also remembers the green thing. Never mind its nostalgic impact, he has tracked down exactly what it was, thanks to John East, an electrician with Eastern Electricity. It seems clear that it was indeed an electrical distribution box, known in the trade as a Feeder Pillar. John has identified its manufacturer and purpose: “They (feeder pillars,) came in various sizes and dimensions, and were manufactured by LUCY of Oxford, an electrical castings company still in business today.  They were used to sub-divide the distribution of electricity.” John has kindly given his permission to publish his findings, contained in a copyrighted document, which anyone interested can download here as a .pdf, on condition that no money should be involved.

John’s sketch map shows the location of the Pilgrims Way feeder pillar exactly where it was, adjacent to number 36, our home from 1947 to 1957. Proof enough for me.

I thought I would see if I could find any images resembling the green thing as I remember it, and I think I have found one. It’s on an intriguing web page about “Lucy Boxes”, published by the Black Country Living Museum in Tipton Road, Dudley. There are photos of an amazing variety of green things on this page, and on a subsequent page, but the only one that comes anywhere my mental image of our one is identified as a GPO (Post Office) telephone line distribution box. Perhaps these Lucy boxes could be used either for mains power or telephone cables. I doubt there were any phones on the estate at that time apart from one public call box, but mains electricity was its life blood.

Whatever its function, as far as I remember, one of the attractions of our green thing was  the prospect of climbing up and sitting on top of it, no mean feat if these images are anything to go by. Obviously I never achieved this distinction but I think braver, taller, more athletic and less confined kids probably did.

On reflection, given the possible electrical hazard and the likelihood of falling off, perhaps my Dad had the right idea after all.

Thanks to Vic Burton, Paul Kennedy and John East.

(The prefab in this clip seems to be the same type as installed in Pilgrims Way – the “Airoh”. The electrical connection is mentioned in the commentary, and there’s a brief glimpse of the mains cables being connected.)

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