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'You've Never Had It So Good!'
Recollections of Life in the 1950s
By Stephen F. Kelly
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Stephen F. Kelly
All rights reserved.
THE WAY WE WERE
What was Britain like in 1950? As the New Year broke, Labour was still in government, though only for a further year or so. Prime Minister Attlee and his leading Ministers, Nye Bevan, Ernie Bevin and Herbert Morrison, had all gown old and weary, worn down by the war years and a punishing period of frenetic activity in office after the war. Industries had been nationalised, a health service established and a new education system introduced. All that, plus a massive rebuilding of the nation after the Second World War, had left Labour exhausted. A General Election a few weeks later, in February 1950, would see Labour's massive majority begin to crumble, slashed from an overall majority of 145 to just five seats. Labour was a tired party and the country knew it. The writing was on the wall and before 1951 was out a Conservative government, under wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had been voted back into power with an overall majority of sixteen seats. The Conservatives would remain in office throughout the 1950s, steadily increasing their vote, and turning the 1950s into the Conservative years.
Yet despite six years of Labour government and a raft of radical changes, Britain was still much the same as it had been prior to the war. The old divisions remained: rich/poor, rural/urban, North/South. Indeed, it would not be until the 1960s that attitudes and divisions began to be seriously challenged. But for the main part, 1950 was much as it had always been.
The Church of England dominated religious life, homosexuality was outlawed, lesbianism simply did not exist (or so we were told), abortions were illegal, the police were respected and obeyed, we smoked like chimneys, industrial life was dirty and hard, sex was not to be enjoyed, and women did not work once they were married.
But one area of major change was the National Health Service. Introduced by Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan in 1948, it was to radicalise healthcare in Britain. The previous system of private healthcare had led to anomalies, with poorer members of society unable to afford even the most basic of medial treatment. But the new system promised free healthcare for everyone. The impact would be far-reaching and, along with such innovations as immunisation against fatal diseases, would lead to the eradication of certain deadly illnesses that had prevailed prior to the war. Infant mortality fell sharply and, correspondingly, life expectancy rose dramatically. In 1951, life expectancy for a man was just sixty-six years of age and seventy for a woman. By the end of the decade, however, the average man was living until sixty-eight and the average woman until seventy-three.
In the 1950s it seemed that fewer people died of cancer. Far more dangerous was tuberculosis, or TB as it was more commonly known. Anyone contacting TB was liable to die and the only cure was a long stay in hospital or an extended period of convalescence in a healthier climate, such as Switzerland, where the air was free of smoke and smog. TB sufferers were frequently shunned by those who knew of their illness, as anyone coming into contact with them only enhanced the possibility of contracting the deadly disease. Bronchial illnesses generally were a common problem, particularly in cold, damp, and industrial areas such as the North of England. Polio also began to emerge as a serious problem. It was not at all uncommon to see young people wearing callipers or limping. Many also died from the disease.
The 1950s were notorious for their fogs, often caused by pollution rather than meteorological events. In London, and many other major industrial cities, the smog would descend for days. Traffic would come to a halt, people would walk around with scarves over their mouths, or wearing facemasks, football matches would be cancelled, traffic would be slow and in London policemen often walked in front of buses in order to guide them along the road.
And there was conscription or national service, as it was more generally known. After the war the call-up continued, with all young men, apart from those in Northern Ireland, enlisted to serve for two years in the armed forces. The majority served in the army, some finding it a challenging and life-changing duty, while others hated every moment. For most it was the first time they had ever been away from home and there were always indelible memories, even if it was only of square-bashing or the sergeant's bellowing voice. In 1950 the Korean War had broken out, with many conscripted soldiers making the long voyage to Korea to fight alongside the Americans. Many died. And in 1956 conscripted soldiers were called once more to fight, this time in Egypt at Suez, in a conflict that was to prove as controversial as any that the British had been involved in up to that time. The Second World War may have ended, but war was never far away. Conscription thankfully came to an end with the last intake in 1960, and a generation of young men gave a deep sigh of relief.
Many of Britain's city centres remained dominated by back-to-back terraced housing, much of it built before the war. Amidst the city centre streets German bombs had left a landscape of craters and wasteland. Labour had set into motion a massive rebuilding programme that would continue under the Tories and well into the 1950s. But as they were rebuilt, the tendency was not to replace bombed terraced houses with more city centre housing but instead to begin a process of shifting the population to the suburbs. And where they did keep the population in cities, the new architectural fashion was for high-rise flats. At the time they seemed like luxury, a new beginning for working people. But in time they would prove to be otherwise and would soon become a blot on the social landscape of our cities. The camaraderie, which had been so prominent during the war, was quickly disappearing. People complained about the lack of good neighbourliness and increasing social alienation. Nobody seemed to care for their neighbours and friends as much as they did before the war.
In 1951, Britain celebrated the forthcoming age with a Festival of Britain. The war had ended and there was a new optimism for the future. Houses, offices, workshops, factories were being rebuilt and beginning to thrive. Britain was on a new course. Events took place throughout the country but the main event was on the south bank of the Thames, just across from Westminster Bridge. A whole site was constructed, including a Festival Hall, which was later converted into a concert hall. A giant sculpture, known as Skylon, was also erected. The Festival was a vivid memory for many people in the 1950s and attracted more than ten million visitors. It was about art, architecture, medicine, science and the new world ahead. And further down the river, at Battersea Park, a massive funfair park was built purely for enjoyment. There were even sporting events around the country, with English football teams welcoming European teams as a gesture of friendship. The Festival was deemed a massive success and even today, sixty years on, its legacy remains in the Festival Hall as well as indelible in the memory. Not everyone was in favour, however, the chief critic being opposition leader Winston Churchill, who promptly had everything, apart from the Royal Festival Hall, torn down when he became Prime Minister.
The hit parade in 1950 was dominated by American artistes such as the Inkspots, Billy Eckstine, Doris Day, Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra. It was the era of the crooner and the Broadway musical. By the end of the decade, however, music would have changed dramatically as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley burst onto the scene with their loud, rhythmic music.
In sport Tottenham Hotspur had just won the football league title, while their north London rivals, Arsenal, had beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup final at Wembley. Over the next few years Manchester United would emerge as a major force in English football, alongside Wolves, while Everton and Liverpool would slip into the second division.
In cricket Lancashire and Surrey shared the title, with Surrey going on to become the dominant force in English cricket for much of the 1950s. The West Indian team arrived in England in 1950 as well and thrilled crowds up and down the country with their swashbuckling style that saw them defeat England 3-1 in their four test series. The three W's – Worrall, Weekes and Walcott – would forever live in the memory as elegant batsmen, while spinners Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine tore the English batsmen apart.
Our cities may have been changing but you could still walk down a high streets in any village or suburb and buy whatever you liked. There was never any need for a trip into the city or town centre to buy a suit, shoes, record or washing machine. You could buy it around the corner. There were no charity shops or fast food restaurants, and, of course, there were no supermarkets. People shopped each day at the local butcher, greengrocer or grocery shop. Produce was fresh and local, whilst buying anything out of season was unusual. Figs, pineapples, grapes and even bananas were a rarity, and, if available, they would be for only a brief period.
Meanwhile, back in rural England, life continued much the same as it always had. The village was the centre of activity with a church, pub, post office and a variety of shops to cater for every need. Much of village life revolved around the church, with the four seasons appropriately celebrated, while in the evening the pub was the hive of local activity, though not for women.
Life for women remained constrained and restricted. Only a third of women worked and, once married, they tended to leave work altogether and concentrate on home life. In some professions, such as teaching, women were forced to resign as soon as they became pregnant. Certainly once women had children they left the workplace. And for those who did work there was no such thing as equal pay and work was often menial, uninteresting and tiresome. Women rarely went to the pub or attended sporting events, which remained the preserve of men. A woman's life was not ideal; chained to the kitchen sink and pregnant was the way some described it.
Whether you lived in the town or country, however, you always felt safe. Crime was almost at an all-time low. In many areas, particularly in the country, doors were never locked and burglaries were unheard of. Muggings and street crimes were also rare. Murders were few and capital punishment still existed, at least until 1964, though Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, was sent to the gallows in 1955 amidst massive protests. The prisons seemed empty by today's standards. In the mid-1950s there were a mere 20,000 prisoners in Britain's gaols. Today there are over 85,000.
On the streets children would play free of traffic and wander off to parks or into the countryside without any parental control. Indeed, parents usually had little or no idea where their children were most of the day during the summer holidays. Nobody felt threatened.
They may have been much to commend life in 1950s Britain but there was also much to denounce. Attitudes were very different from those of today. In the 1950s we feared authority, the Soviet Union, the local priest, teachers, Teddy Boys, and even television. We were far more subservient. Divorce was still rare and abortions were illegal. Nonetheless they took place, sometimes helped by the local 'expert', as well as self-inflicted on many occasions. Contraception was poor, buying condoms a furtive and embarrassing experience. Single women had unwanted pregnancies and did not wish to marry, though many did. The alternative was a backstreet abortion. Many married women simply could not face the prospect of a further addition to an already overstretched household and, consequently, paid the necessary going rate for an abortion.
Throughout the 1950s, homosexuality was outlawed with a threat of imprisonment. As a result it was swept underground. Nobody was openly gay, but there were clubs and pubs frequented by homosexuals and it was not difficult to discover where they were. The police often turned a blind eye to these establishments, although they were more likely to take action if gay men were to be found soliciting in public toilets. Any concept of lesbianism was just unimaginable.
For Michael McCutcheon, living on the border of Northern and Southern Ireland, life was considerably more primitive than on mainland Britain. There was no electricity, gas, newspapers, radio or television, and money was so tight that life on a farm had to be self-sufficient. You grew your own vegetables, reared your own animal stock and cut your own peat. It was the same in remote parts of Scotland.
For those coming to Britain in 1950 from America, life was a considerable cultural shock. There was no central heating, nor any of the white consumer goods such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners or steam irons that were commonplace in the United States. England seemed stark and primitive compared to the gloss, optimism and friendliness of America.
I came to England in 1959. I was American and my husband was English and, after he got his PhD, we came to Liverpool, where he had just got a job. One of his professors at home in America said, 'Esther, you're going to get chilblains.'
We came on the Furness Withy line and when we arrived and I saw the land, I just burst into tears. I don't know why – I love travelling but I burst into tears. We were met by my father-in-law, who took us to the Childwall Abbey Hotel, which was the most grotesque building I had ever seen. Living in the light and warmth and luxury of America had been so different. In this hotel we had this huge room, with this electric light hanging down from the ceiling with no shade on it. It was horrific. I remember about a month later, I began to rub my toes and, yes, I had chilblains.
I was very intolerant of the lack of refrigerators, central heating, washing machines and so on. There was no warmth in the house, we just had electric bars to keep us warm and an open fire, but I never got the hang of that. All in all I was quite miserable. It was cold in Boston but we had central heating, fur-lined boots and fur-lined coats. It was cold outside but warm inside. We never had vests until I came to England.
The cultural contrast was stark. We had friends in America and they would introduce us to one another. At the university in Liverpool nobody talked to us because my husband had a lowly post. People were just not friendly at first. I eventually got a job as a part-time librarian in the science department at Liverpool University. I remember the professor of the geology department. He came into the library to collect a book put aside and I asked him what his name was. Professors were on a higher plane and he was shocked that I did not know his name. In America we always called everyone by their first names, but not in England. Everyone was so much more aloof. I was aware of the poverty because we lived in a poor street in Liverpool. I remember the poor children, poorly dressed, running noses, always having colds. I was very aware of the poverty.
There was a very blonde-haired girl with plats at Daisy Hill School. She was German. We were pretty awful to this girl – I still feel ashamed. I think she may well have been a refugee. It would not have come from my family as my father had respect for Germans. He had gone to Germany after the war as an officer in the RAF. He had great sympathy, even though he had fought against them. He brought over a lot of Germans to work for him. I think that was because things were so bad in Germany after the war.
There was also a school nearby where I thought all the children were very beautiful – blonde-haired and blue-eyed. I didn't realise this was because they were albinos. Why they had a separate school I don't know.
We had so many bombsites in England, particularly in Bradford and Leeds. In Germany there were no bombsites. In the village we went to in Germany they were building their own houses, all under the Marshall Plan. It was astonishing that after so much bombing, places like Koblenz were totally rebuilt.
As a family we lived in a council house, which was pre-war built and had an outside toilet; it wasn't really very good. Five of us were living in it – me, my mum and dad, my nan and my Uncle Peter, my nan's son, who was more like a big brother to me. When he left home to get married my nan, who was the head of the household, decided we should move. 'It's time to get out of here, let's go to one of the new estates that are being built.' So we moved out to a place called Gillmoss. It was a lovely house. I remember running around it when we got there. I had never seen a bathroom like it; separate bathroom, toilet upstairs. It was a brand new house, really light and bright because the back faced south. We were really lucky as we had all this sunshine coming in all the time. The other house had been quite a dark house with small windows. I was brought up by my mum and my nan. They were very important to me right up until I left home.
Excerpted from 'You've Never Had It So Good!' by Stephen F. Kelly. Copyright © 2012 Stephen F. Kelly. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Neil Kinnock,
1. The Way We Were,
2. Family Life,
3. A 1950s Childhood,
4. Rock 'n' Roll Lives,
5. The Working Man (... and Woman),
6. The Box in the Corner,
7. Heaven and Hell,
8. A 'Success Story Nation',
About the Author,