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Reading: The 1950s
By Stuart Hylton
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Stuart Hylton
All rights reserved.
1950: Out of Austerity
Reading was still struggling with the aftermath of war as the second half of the twentieth century dawned. The damage caused by bombing in the very heart of the town centre was yet to be repaired. Power cuts brought all-too-frequent reminders of the blackout and many goods were still on ration.
Reading people marked the arrival of the 1950s in all sorts of ways. The dance halls and churches were equally full. Railwaymen saw in the New Year by sounding their locomotive whistles. In the week between Christmas and New Year, one of their passengers, a drunken reveller on the London to Penzance train, chose to step out at Reading for a spot of fresh air to clear his head. Unfortunately for him, the train did not stop at Reading and he did not survive to see the 1950s. At the other end of the mortal coil, Mrs Annie Gains of Whitley saw in the new decade by giving birth to a son in the back seat of a taxi, en route to the Grove Maternity Home in Emmer Green.
Although the nation was still living in the shadow of the war, signs of a new way of life were beginning to emerge. Helicopters, the newspapers announced, were going to be the transport of the future and they demanded to know what the town was doing to prepare for this. Rooftop landing pads were urgently needed. Car ownership was spreading, though new cars were still often difficult to obtain. In the second-hand market, £99 would buy a 1933 Morris Minor two-seater saloon, while a brand new Humber Pullman limousine (the stretched limo of its day) cost £1,350 plus purchase tax (or roughly twice the cost of a two-bedroom cottage in Caversham).
Perhaps even more significantly, a new form of home entertainment was starting to come into its own. The advertisements spoke very highly of it:
Whatever the family choice of entertainment, you will find it in TELEVISION. It has brought a new meaning into home life and thousands who used to seek their entertainment outside, now find their television set a source of untold pleasures at home. Why not learn more about it?
Home trials were available, before you decided to make the sizeable investment of £54 or more in a set of your own. A major irritation was cars without suppressors, which affected reception. As the television-viewing public grew in number, there was hope that the fitting of suppressors to cars would be made compulsory.
For those who could not afford a television, there was something else to watch – a self-service launderette.
It is the first in Berkshire and follows a pattern which has made launderettes top favourites for household washing in America and with British housewives in many towns. Standing in the garden of an eighteenth-century cottage, Reading's most original laundry is light, airy and decorated throughout in blue and white. ... Customers bring all their family wash, from blankets to handkerchiefs, receive a cupful of special soap powder and are allotted to a machine. Mrs M. Jones, the trained attendant, shows newcomers how to pack the soiled clothes into the electric washing machine. The glass door is closed; a small dial is set and the customer sits back to watch operations. ... even men can manage their own washing under this system, which has clear advantages in hygiene – each person's laundry is washed separately under their own supervision.
For most people, the radio and the cinema remained the main sources of entertainment. Radio stars were household names and a variety bill made up of 'Stars of Radio' appeared at the Palace Theatre in the spring of 1950. It was headed by a ventriloquist, Peter Brough (and his better-known dummy, Archie Andrews). In case anyone else finds it odd that a ventriloquist should make his name on the radio, the bill also included a troupe of dancers and a duo mysteriously described as 'Thrills on wheels', neither of which sound like an obvious act for that medium. It seems only the radio juggler was missing.
At the cinema, the Central and Granby cinemas experimented with midnight matinées, and many people queued in the rain to see Little Women or the Alfred Hitchcock film Under Capricorn. The bus company laid on special late-night buses for the filmgoers. They bought a combined cinema and bus ticket on the way in and, while they watched the film, the bus company worked out how many buses would be needed afterwards and called them up. The British film, The Blue Lamp, which gave birth to the character of Dixon of Dock Green, was attracting a great deal of interest in 1950. A special showing was organised at the Odeon for the Chief Constable and many of his staff. Chief Constable Lawrence said afterwards, 'It is an extremely important film, from the official police point-of-view.'
The first postwar Labour Government was coming towards its end and the hostility between Reading's Labour MP, Ian Mikardo, and the local press was growing more fierce by the week. This editorial from January 1950 is typical:
The Socialist party knows that, in the coming General Election, whatever the hoardings may flaunt, they are on trial, and have to face a barrage of unpleasant facts which, over the past five years, have proved how much easier it is to promise than to perform. In 1945 they were suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to translate into reality the blueprints of the dreamers and the pseudo-philosophers who, for half a century, had asked only to be allowed to put their theories to the test. And what a dismal failure this translation has been! Instead of devoting their energies to restoring the war-wracked nation to at least some of its former prosperity, the Government at once plunged into the task of implementing their ideals in the face of every economic warning from more sober and expert guides; proceeded to placate by class legislation those who had put them into power; and to pass over the real government of the country into other hands.
Mikardo, for his part, took the paper to task for sending their fashion, rather than their political, correspondent to one of his speeches, since he spent all his time reporting what Mikardo was wearing and nothing about what he had said – and even managed to get the details of his attire wrong! Maybe it was this that led the paper to involve its ultimate weapon – the Women's Page – in the election. They sent their reporter to spend an afternoon canvassing with the wife of one of the candidates (the Conservative, naturally).
As the elections approached, the paper campaigned furiously for a change of MP. For this election, Reading had been split into two seats and Mikardo was standing for Reading South. In their pen portraits of the rival candidates, the paper made not the slightest pretence at impartiality. Of Mikardo, they said, 'No other candidate arouses more feeling among friend or foe' and, referring to his previous career in the private sector, suggested that 'It is typical of Mikardo that, while he condemns capitalism and free enterprise, he is quite prepared to make a good living helping capitalism and free enterprise.' By contrast, his Conservative opponent, David Rissik, was portrayed in near-saintly terms. He was a war hero who 'didn't just fight in the jungle; he knew what he was fighting for'.
The campaign drew a variety of well-known speakers to the town. Herbert Morrison put the Labour case at a public meeting, while Quentin Hogg came to Reading for the Conservatives and threatened to slap a writ on a man who was heckling him! The Liberals were also campaigning, though one gets the impression that their hearts were not really in it. They were being criticised in the press for splitting the anti-Labour vote and their electoral slogan 'For a liberal government vote Liberal' did not immediately seize the public imagination for some reason. Their candidate for Reading North, Michael Derrick, addressed what was not surprisingly described as 'a small audience' at Kendrick School on the uplifting theme of 'If we fail, we shall try again'. Small wonder, perhaps, that they only got just over 3,000 votes in each of the Reading constituencies.
The country returned the Labour government for a second term, but with the slimmest of majorities, and Reading elected two Labour MPs, Mikardo and Kim Mackay ('a disastrous choice' the paper called it). Characteristically, Mikardo could not resist a piece of sarcasm at the Chronicle's expense in the light of his victory:
I am thankful for the service they have rendered to the Labour cause during the election campaign. People are not dumb and they are not taken in by such vituperation and, far from supporting the cause they are urged to, they oppose it. There were hundreds of 'floating voters' who voted for us on the basis of what the senile old gentleman who writes the leaders for the Berkshire Chronicle said. I do sincerely want to thank him for putting some doubtful voters into our camp which we should not otherwise have had.
When, later that year, Mikardo was rushed to hospital with a gall bladder problem, the editorial columns were strangely silent in their wishes for a speedy recovery.
One of the commonest criticisms of the government was that it was imposing its ideology on aspects of life where it was not needed. There were editorial calls for housing to be removed from the realm of party politics (that is, Labour party politics) so that free enterprise could rapidly reduce waiting lists, and the prospective Conservative candidate for Reading South made the following attack at a local by-election meeting:
National policies have been forced into local government. That has been the work of the Socialists. In our view, local government must be 100% local, and one of our first objectives when we are returned will be to see that our local councils get back the powers that have been stripped from them.
Local councils in the 1990s are still waiting for a government of any persuasion that will do this.
Housing remained a major problem for many people in Reading. In July 1950 the 1,000th postwar house was handed over to its new tenants at Halls Road in Tilehurst. Mr and Mrs Slater, the happy occupants, had been waiting five years for it and there were still more than 4,000 families like them on the town's waiting lists. Many solutions (other than private enterprise) were offered to the housing problem. Some saw industrialised building methods as the answer and 128 concrete houses were built in Whitley at a cost of £158,544 5s 8d. These, the public were told, kept the costs down without spoiling the beauty of the surrounding area (in this case, Whitley Wood Road). Wokingham Rural District Council believed terraced houses were one possible answer. As one of the councillors noted, during a fact-finding mission to look at this form of building:
They can be things of beauty and frightfully economical as well. In the past, we have made the mistake of putting people into houses they cannot afford. We do not want any more of this nonsense of two lavatories, one upstairs and one downstairs. I hope this council is going to turn its back on semi-detached houses with rents of 30s a week.
The courts continued to offer up their selection of life's rich tapestry. A man was arrested under a 600-year-old piece of legislation for masquerading as a woman at the Rex cinema 'in a manner likely to cause a breach of the peace' (presumably as opposed to masquerading as a woman in any other way). No details were given to an eager public, except that he was bound over to keep the peace in the sum of £100. In another case, an 81-year-old man who had spent a total of fifty-six years in prison had another four added to his total, for a case of housebreaking.
The motoring offences at one quarter sessions were of more than usual interest, as the defendant in a case of driving without due care and attention was a 20-year-old racing motorist named Stirling Moss. It was alleged that he took a corner at excess speed, with his tyres squealing. At his appeal, his defence counsel described the £10 fine, the endorsement of his licence and a month's suspension as 'a slur on a racing motorist', but the appeal was unsuccessful. (We will never know whether the arresting officer was the first to ask the immortal question 'And who do you think you are, then, Stirling Moss?')
One of the oddest cases of the year involved a motorist charged with two counts of dangerous driving. Despite narrowly missing a man in an invalid chair, hitting a car and a motor-cycle and turning his car on its side, his plea that he was suffering from the effects of sunstroke at the time was enough to get him acquitted.
One important question settled by the courts was the value of a wife. A man from Ringwood Road made a claim for £50 against the co-respondent in his divorce case for the loss of his wife. The learned judge's summing up included the following remarks:
It is all too common for a co-respondent who has broken up a man's home to evade the consequences of his wrongdoing by what some people might call a mean trick, saying 'The woman I took away from you was not worth very much anyway, and you are not entitled to anything for having lost her.'
The judge took the view that £50 damages was very reasonable, and threw in the custody of their child for good measure.
Two men engaged in a potentially hazardous form of theft, appearing before the courts for stealing a quantity of lead from the Atomic Energy Establishment at Harwell. Anyone seeking to copy their crime in future would have less travelling to do, as it was announced early in 1950 that Reading was to get its own Atomic Energy Establishment, on the former wartime bomber airfield at Aldermaston. The government took pains to ensure the public that 'precautions will be taken to ensure that no harmful effect to the neighbourhood will arise from the works to be carried out at this new establishment'. Then as now, the authorities were not forthcoming when asked to be more specific about security.
Opinion was sharply divided between those who wanted to keep the picturesque village as it was and those who saw jobs and business opportunities. Plans were subsequently announced to build 500 homes to house the workers at the Establishment, in Newbury and Basingstoke, as well as in Aldermaston itself. The authorities in Reading were afraid that all this building would draw essential labour away from the house- and school-building programmes in Reading itself – both The Hill and Geoffrey Field Schools were getting seriously behind schedule. The council set up a group to monitor the effects of construction work at Aldermaston. Their fears proved to be well-founded. By 1951 the lure of free transport to Harwell and Aldermaston and payment for the time spent travelling proved too much for many people working in Reading, and the council had over a hundred vacancies for building tradesmen.
The Chronicle seemed to align itself with the modernisers:
One only has to think of the power grids that cross the land, the perfection of the internal combustion engine, of radio and radar, and the miracle of speed in the air, to realise that no part of the countryside is now remote or free from incursion and no rural settlement able to concern itself only with its traditional activities.
The bureaucracy that had burgeoned in the war years showed few signs of abating. There were complaints that the housing programme was being held back by the need to get government approval for every tender. A Mr Talfourd-Cook had more direct experience of government bureaucracy in action. Having taken his suits to the cleaners, when he returned to collect them, he found that government-appointed bailiffs had taken over the shop as a result of the owner's tax arrears. They refused to hand over his suits, even in return for payment of the cleaning bills, and he subsequently had to buy his own clothes back at a sale of goods, at a cost of £13 15s. Mr Talfourd-Cook took the matter up directly with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and eventually received a refund and a letter of apology from Stafford Cripps.
Nationalisation had been one of the big issues for the election and the papers carried extensive advertising, singing the praises of a private-sector steel industry. The paper itself (an opponent of nationalisation) missed no opportunity to attack state-run enterprises. Even a report that the Gas Board offices in Friar Street were having electric light installed led them to attack state control for doing away with competition. If the editor was trying to be ironic, the joke was not obvious even all these years later.
Even with the election won, Ian Mikardo showed that he had lost none of his powers to fuel controversy. In an article in Tribune, he suggested that people who lived in areas like Amity Road and voted Conservative were snobs, who felt they really belonged in Caversham Heights. This caused a huge outcry among working-class Conservative voters in Reading (aided not a little by the local press). Mikardo's response was to go down to Amity Road with a loudspeaker van and address the locals. Numbers of them took him (rather firmly, no doubt) into their homes, to prove that they were not the slum-dwellers that he had described in his article.
Excerpted from Reading: The 1950s by Stuart Hylton. Copyright © 2013 Stuart Hylton. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction and Acknowledgements,
1. 1950: Out of Austerity,
2. 1951: Festival Time,
3. 1952: The King Dies,
4. 1953: Coronation,
5. 1954: Teddy Boys and Tragedy,
6. 1955: Smog and ITV,
7. 1956: Rock Around the Clock,
8. 1957: Space, and Room to Live,
9. 1958: Banning the Bomb, and the Smoke,
10. 1959: Minis and Mikardo,