Britain in The 50s
Through the eyes of newsreel cameras and advertising of the time, we present an affectionate look at the way we were in the 1950's: the way we dressed, the way we laughed (and cried) - even the way we holidayed. In 1950, Britain was working hard to recover from the Second World War. Yet, as the decade went on and the economic conditions improved - prompting PM MacMillan to tell people of Britain "You never had it so good" - a cascade of wonderful gadgets found their way into British homes, and families began holidaying on the beaches and promenades.
By the end of the decade booming Britain was in overdrive with 5.5 million cars on the road, the opening of the M1 and the arrival of the first Mini. The teenager had also come of age with new dance crazes and flamboyant fashions interspersed with bizzare hairstyles - anything to make them stand out in the crowd!
This programme also focuses on the events that shook the world during the decade; the death of George VI in 1952 heralding a new Queen, Elizabeth II, and her Coronation in 1953; the conquering of Everest: the first four minute mile; the last woman to be hanged in Britain; and the tragic Munich air disaster.
A vanished Britain:
Imagine a country where doors are left unlocked, children play in the street and people really do look out for each other. Fantasy? No, Britain just 50 years ago
By David Kynaston
Updated: 09:52 GMT, 31 October 2009
To many people who grew up in the Britain of half a century ago, the Fifties are a clearly and dearly remembered age.
'We walked to school, had open fires and no central heating,' recalled a woman of that generation.
'We played in the street with our friends and were safe; we climbed trees, skinned our knees and ripped our clothes, got into fights and nobody sued anybody. Sweets were a treat, not part of lunch.
'We got a clip round the ear when we had been naughty, and Mum gave us a teaspoon of malt and cod liver oil before school.
'Nuclear family': 1950s Britain is dearly remembered by many who grew up in that era
Nuclear family: 1950s Britain is dearly remembered by many who grew up in that era
'We played cards and board games and talked to each other. We were allowed to answer the phone on our birthdays as a special treat. It was an innocent time, gone for ever.'
Aldershot housewife Jill Morgan spoke for the majority of contributors to a BBC history website in 2007 when she pleaded: 'Bring back the values of the Fifties!!!'
But the playwright David Hare, a man of the same vintage, could think of nothing worse.
'Society then was so oppressive and so false, particularly sexually. Neighbours had this prurience and primness and this awful kind of policing of each other's lives. Nobody these days could imagine how dull things were and how respectful people were and how dead they were from the neck up.'
A reprise of the Fifties, he maintained, 'would represent a return only to repression, to hypocrisy and to a kind of willed, pervasive dullness which is the negation of life'.
As we'll see in this series, which continues in next week's Mail, the debate goes on.
The Fifties were 'the best of times' according to writer Ian Jack as he recalled full employment, steady material progress and a widely shared sense of certainty about life. But they were 'the worst of times' to journalist Lynn Barber, when 'the most exciting event was the advent of the Birds Eye Roast Beef Frozen Dinner For One'.
Over the entire era still hung the spectre of World War II, which had been over for a decade - although a lot of people, looking around them at the state of the country 'were buggered if they knew who had won it'.
Meat, butter, cheese, sugar and sweets were still rationed in 1953, and blitzed inner cities remained, even if many of their inhabitants had been shipped out to suburbs and new towns. War films were the staple diet of the cinema -The Dam Busters, The Cruel Sea, Reach For The Sky.
War was central in children's lives and imaginations. Theatre director Richard Eyre recalled that all the games he played were war games. 'I fired sticks and mimicked the high stutter of machine guns in the woods, and dive-bombed my friends with ear-damaging howls and flung my body into the arc of heroic death.'
It was the same on the streets of actor Ricky Tomlinson's working-class neighbourhood in Liverpool. Most of the boys on his street had wooden Tommy guns or sometimes the real thing - a relic from the war with the firing pin removed.
Airfix Spitfires, sold by Woolworths for 2s, proved to be the toy firm's most popular model, while boys' comics were full of stories of 'Braddock, Ace Pilot', 'Sergeant Allen of the Fighting 15th' and 'The Eyes that Never Closed' (about hunting German U-boats).
Wartime values were still very strong. Respectability, conformity, restraint and trust were what underpinned the Fifties.
WHEN THE 11-PLUS RULED YOUR LIFE
With comprehensive schools virtually unheard of, the defining life event for most Fifties schoolchildren was the 11-plus exam to decide whether they would go to a grammar school, which took the pick of the bunch academically, or a secondary modern.
Sometimes, the successful working-class child was self-motivating. 'I didn't want to become one of the hapless ones who worked in a car factory or drove a lorry,' is how actor Terence Stamp explained what got him to grammar school.
But more often the push was external, either a teacher or a parent, usually the mother.
The Daily Mail's Lynda Lee-Potter, daughter of a Lancashire miner-turned painter/decorator married to a shoe-shop assistant, remembered how she and her parents talked of little else for a year before.
'I practised writing what we called "stories" and we did extra sums after school. My mother had an agile mathematical brain and we did mental arithmetic together.
'The dress I was to wear on exam day was washed and immaculately pressed weeks in advance. On the evening before, she filled the tin bath with hot water in front of the fire so that I didn't have to use the tiny, freezing bathroom.
'On the Saturday morning, neither of us could eat, but we had a cup of hot, sweet tea. "Give it all you've got, love," she said, and there were tears in her eyes. I was desperate to do my best and make my mother happy. She did so much for me and passing the scholarship was the one thing I could do for her.
'In the exam room, I sat down and looked at the title of the composition, which was where my greatest hopes of success rested. I still remember my feelings of hopelessness when I saw the dreary, uninspiring title - "Write a composition on the difference between an apple and an orange."
'I was heartbroken and I walked home convinced I'd failed. My mother put her arms round me and we cried in despair together. Three months later, we got the letter telling me I'd passed. It was the happiest day of my mother's life.'
There had been a degree of democratisation in the war as soldiers and civilians of all classes shared its dangers and privations.
But, in the aftermath, deference still ran deep in British society - whether towards traditional institutions, senior people in hierarchical organisations, prominent local figures (the teacher, the bank manager, the GP), older people generally or the better educated.
In the ultra-hierarchical City of London, it was still 'Mr this' and 'Mr that' in most offices. 'You may call me Ernest,' a merchant banker at Warburgs announced to a recent recruit, and the proverbial pin was heard to drop when the young man dared to do so.
When a Sunday newspaper asked readers in 1954 what sort of school the five-year-old Prince Charles should go to, a quarter declared it was none of their business or the paper's. 'Trust the Queen and Prince Philip,' implored one reader from Glebe Gardens, New Malden.
It was hard for anyone in this era to avoid - or evade - the culture of respectability and conformity. In his study at public school, the records of choice of John Ravenscroft (later Peel, the Radio 1 DJ) were Handel's Zadok The Priest from the Coronation of George VI and a recording of the King's Christmas broadcast in which he quoted from the poem At The Gate Of The Year.
The normally truculent Kingsley Amis was happy to take his editor's advice and tone down explicit references to sex in his 1955 novel That Uncertain Feeling, a sequel to Lucky Jim, for fear that libraries might ban it. ('A quick in and out' was one of the casualties.)
Few patrolled the boundaries of respectability more assiduously than 'Biddy' Johnson, all-powerful editor of Woman's Weekly. It it, she serialised Mills & Boon doctor /nurse romances, but neither thelanguage or the drink were permitted to be strong. Were the heroines even allowed to go to a pub, an exasperated author once asked, and decided it would be safer if his couple met in a milk bar.
The BBC - slow-moving, highly bureaucratic and with no appetite for taking risks or giving offence - was the embodiment of respectability. 'I want you to see yourself as an officer in a rather good regiment,' was how Robin Day was welcomed to the Radio Talks department in 1954. News bulletins remained pillars of grammatical rectitude.
Throughout society, there was a strong conformist ethos. 'The most important thing in life was to blend in and get on with everybody,' plumber's son Alan Titchmarsh reflected about his Ilkley childhood.
The novelist Barry Unsworth recalled similar feelings in Stockton-on-Tees. 'To carry an umbrella or ask for wine in a pub was to put your virility in question. Suede shoes were for "lounge-lizards". Beards were out of the question.'
Dress code was crucial, however uncomfortable it might be to wear. At the Westminster Bank, a man who wore a shirt with a soft collar instead of a stiff white one was marked down as lacking ambition and unworthy of promotion.
On the Stock Exchange, one broker recalled everyone going to work in bowler hat, short black jacket and striped trousers. If he'd worn a striped shirt, people in his office would have asked why he was still in his pyjamas.
Growing up in Bristol, Derek Robinson recalled a 'uniform' of either sports jacket and flannels or singlebreasted suit. Being measured for a first suit at Burtons remained a classic male rite of passage for the 'trainee adults' that British youth generally was in those days.
Mary Quant, just out of art college in the mid-Fifties, looked with dismay at what most women wore - 'The un-sexiness, the lack of gaiety, the formal stuffiness. I wanted clothes that were much more for being young and alive in.'
But restraint and uniformity were the order of the day, as the Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri noted during a 1955 visit to England.
'I heard no sound,' he said as he watched crowds streaming quietly and in an orderly fashion along Oxford Street. He met 'the same silence' in pubs, restaurants and buses - a silence, a 'dreariness of public behaviour', utterly different from what he was used to in India. And when the English did speak, they were no less reserved, he found, with 'their habit of tacitness, which they call understatement'.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that Britain in the Fifties was invariably a land of carefully calibrated politeness. There were pointers to a more casual and selfish future in the emotive issue of bus queues.
A newspaper correspondent recalled 'their neat and orderly double-file formation during the war'. But not any more. 'Today they straggle and lack not only their former parade-ground precision, but also bonhomie.' A clergyman complained of queuejumpers sidling on board 'with great skill and an appearance of disinterestedness'.
Yet, helped by informally policed public spaces - by bus conductors, by park-keepers, by lavatory attendants - and by a police force that was largely admired, this was for the most part an era of trust.
'I liked my half-hour's walk through the quiet suburban streets,' children's author Jacqueline Wilson recalls about being a six-year-old in Kingston-upon-Thames, adding that it wasn't unusual for children of her age to walk to school by themselves.
Ken Blackmore, who grew up in a Cheshire village, remembers not only the front door of his home being left unlocked, but bikes generally being left untouched or unchained at the bus stop or the railway station.
It was not until about 1957 that British motorcycles were even fitted with locks or keys. John Humbach parked his 500cc Triumph outside his London house. 'I never had a chain and padlock and never knew anyone who had. The bike was never stolen and I was never worried it might be.'
That these were more lawabiding times than now is not a nostalgic fantasy. The fundamental fact was that, following a sharp upward spike in the post-war years, crime declined markedly during the first half of the Fifties. The numbers started to move up from 1955, but were strikingly low.
Notifiable offences recorded by the police were a little over half a million in 1957. Forty years later, they were almost 4.5 million. Violent crimes against the person numbered under 11,000 in 1957, and 250,000 in 1997.
It was, in short, a different world - whose trusting best was evoked by a premium-collecting Prudential insurance agent in Lincolnshire during the Fifties.
There were homes he went to in his bright yellow Austin Seven where the occupants were out at work and the key was under a brick or on a nail in the shed. 'I would let myself in and find the books and the payment which had been left out for me.
'Many times I would find also a hastily scribbled note: "Please take an extra sixpence and post these letters" and "Tell the doctor Johnnie is not so well."'
Yet, as easy-going and trusting as people were in such matters, Fifties Britain was also authoritarian, illiberal and puritanical.
School life set the tone. A tearful Jacqueline Aitken (later Wilson) was forced to eat up the fatty meat at her school dinners before going to throw up in the smelly lavatories. At his public school, comedian Peter Cook was tormented and beaten by an imperious, cricketplaying prefect called Ted Dexter, who went on to captain England.
In theory, education was becoming less Victorian. By 1957, the Ministry of Education was beginning to see its role as turning out well-rounded individuals. But on the ground, especially in secondary schools, what went on was very traditional and almost militaristic in tone.
Mick Jagger thought there was too much pen-pushing and homework at his grammar school. 'And too much petty discipline. Petty rules about uniforms and stuff.'
At Colston's School in Bristol, an independent, the list of strictly enforced rules seemed endless: 'Boys will raise their caps on meeting masters, masters' wives or ladies of the staff. No boy may have his hands in his pockets.
Private wireless sets and gramophones are forbidden. Association football is forbidden. No boy may keep in his possession a sum of money larger than two shillings.
'Only English comics are permitted. All American publications of this kind are banned. Cheap novelettes and such like reading matter are forbidden, but this prohibition does not extend to Penguins and reputable publications of the same kind.'
Discipline was invariably strict, as a series of ordinary women recalled in a Mass-Observation survey. At her girls' convent school, Dorothy Stephenson was once made to kneel for three hours on the hall floor for not having a white collar. 'I didn't have one because we couldn't afford it.'
Pamela Sinclair recalled that boys were regularly caned and girls rapped on the knuckles with a ruler at her junior school. 'Things were learnt by rote and the weekly times-tables test was a nightmare. No one questioned authority then, but it didn't mean we weren't resentful at times.'
At Rosalind Delmar's school, pupils were caned for being inside the buildings at playtime. 'Which teacher used a cane and which a rubber strap, if you could make it sting less by pulling your hand back at the moment of contact or spitting on your hand before - these were all subjects of endless discussion.'
Derek Robinson remembered how his PT master beat boys on the backside with a large wallmap of the world, rolled around the strip of wood from which it normally hung.
'He was short and stout, and the map was long, so he had to stand well back in orderto make his swing. When he got his follow-through right, he could knock a boy clean off his feet.'
Few people disagreed with corporal punishment. A poll in 1952 found that nine out of ten teachers wanted it retained. Oddly, the victims agreed. In a survey, schoolboys were just as unanimously in favour. It was swift and brief in its execution, whereas alternative punishments, such as withdrawing privileges, were seen as generating greater resentment.
Still, its frequency was starting to diminish as the Fifties went on, and this caused alarm. 'These days, masters dare not touch little Willie or mistresses cane little Mary,' complained Dr N. S. Sherrard, of Beccles, in July 1954, in an address to parents at a Suffolk secondary school. Since teachers couldn't bash the children, 'you must do it yourself in the home.'
Some of them needed no encouragement. 'From as young as I can remember, we were all beaten, bullied and victimised by our father,' recalled John Davies about his childhood in South Wales.
'For playing out in the garden without permission, he lined us up and hit out with a leather strap he had specially made. We would regularly be black and blue. He would fly into a rage at the slightest thing - dinners would end up all over the walls and we'd all get beaten.'
With his boot, the stepfather of Christine Keeler crushed the life out of a warm, living field mouse she brought home one day. Jacqueline Wilson's father Harry was not violent, but still inflicted terrible, unpredictable rages on his family.
Even the most mild-mannered tended to be remote figures, incapable of physical intimacy. 'Ours had been a typical Fifties relationship,' journalist Angela Phillips wrote in 2005 after her father's death. 'We were affectionate and respectful but - I realised as I held his hand in his final days - we had barely touched since I was a baby.
'There was no snuggling into the parental bed, no curling up on a lap and falling asleep in front of the TV. At adolescence even the good-night kiss had to stop. Distance was maintained.'
Yet things were changing. Taken as a whole, Fifties parents were significantly less old-school than the previous generation and markedly more indulgent and permissive. Post-war fathers were more willing to play with their children, take them out at weekends and make toys for them.
The idea of the 'good parent', inclined to put the needs of their children first, was taking hold. It was not uncommon for a young mother to speak of her father's strictness in her childhood and to add: 'But fathers mustn't be like that today, must they?'
A continuing attachment to the need for discipline in the home was combined with a growing distaste (apart from aminority) for punishment which went beyond a spank.
In the Fifties, parenthood was on the cusp of change. This revolution came at a price. The growing pressure to do something for the kiddies meant in practice long hours of overtime for breadwinners who, as a result, saw less of their children than they might have wished.
For mothers, it brought anxiety about the best way to bring up children - which was probably exacerbated rather than relieved by the burgeoning advice from so-called experts like Dr Spock.
That anxiety would increase with the rebellious streak that was becoming more evident in Britain's 'trainee adults'. They were turning into what we would now recognise as 'teenagers'. Their moral welfare became a pressing concern - not least in the context of the disturbingly expanding wage packets of those who had left school and were working.
In the early Fifties, the anti-social antics of 'cosh boys' and 'Teddy boys' led commentators to worry that a lack of parental control, caused by mistaken kindness and the fallacies of modern psychiatry, was turning out a generation of delinquents.
There were calls for strong action - the birch, at the very least - after a widely publicised fight took place in Kent in which gangs of 'sinister' Teds in stovepipe trousers and velvet-coloured jackets fought a battle with wooden stakes and sand-filled socks
A stalwart of the Boys' Brigade warned that dangerously soft attitudes in society were whittling away all personal responsibility for wrongdoing. 'The child comes to regard himself not as sinful, but just as "a psychological case".'
LEST WE FORGET. . .
IN THE HOME...
Dabitoff, Windolene, Duraglit, Brasso, Brillo, Lifebuoy, Silvikrin, Ammi-dent, Delrosa Rose Hip Syrup, Mr Therm, Toni Perms.
Hairnets, head-scarves, Ladybird T-shirts, rompers, knicker elastic, cycle clips, brogues, Start-rite (that rear view of two small children setting out on life's path), Moss Bros, crests on blazers, ties as ID.
ON THE ROAD...
AA patrolmen, driving gloves, Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford, Sunbeam Talbot, indicator wings, sidecars, Raleigh, Sturmey-Archer.
IN THE PLAYROOM...
I Spy, Hornby Dublo, Tri-ang, Dinky, Meccano, Scalextric, Subbuteo, Sarah Jane dolls, Plasticine, Magic Robot, cap guns.
HAVING A PUFF...
Capstans, Player's Navy Cut, Senior Service, cigarette boxes, Dagenham Girl Pipers.
Saturday-morning cinema, Uncle Mac, Nellie the Elephant, The Laughing Policeman.
Napkin rings, butter knives, volauvents, Brown Windsor soup, sponge cakes, Garibaldis (squashed flies), Carnation, Edam, eat up your greens, Sun-Pat, Marmite sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, semolina, sucking oranges through sugar cubes, Tizer, Dandelion & Burdock, Tom Thumb drops, Sherbet Fountains, Spangles, Trebor, blackjacks, fruit salads, aniseed balls, pineapple chunks, flying saucers, traffic-light lollipops, gobstoppers. The agonising dilemma at the ice-cream van: a big one for 6d or two small ones for 3d each?
The arrival of rock 'n' roll with Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock in 1955 opened the floodgates to more adult anxiety, which rose even higher the following year after Elvis Presley entered the British Top 20 chart (itself a Fifties invention) for the first time.
While on leave from National Service, Bill Perks (later Wyman) bought a 78rpm shellac record of Heartbreak Hotel and played it with the windows open 'until it wore out'. John Lennon must have been doing something similar because his Aunt Mimi told him that Elvis was fine, 'but I don't want him for breakfast, dinner and tea'.
But the rock craze was here to stay, and with airplay limited on the starchy BBC, largely disseminated from big, coin-operated U.S. jukeboxes in that other new phenomenon of the Fifties, the coffee bar.
All this put pressure on the conventional activities of young people. Scout leaders worried about the large number of boys who left its ranks in their teens, particularly those of 'a lower calibre who will not knuckle down to discipline or accept the demands made on them'.
The same exodus took place in youth clubs. 'Packed it in when I started courting,' said a 16-year-old boy. 'Started going out with boy,' was the reason given by a 15-year-old girl. The most frequent reason, however, was simply 'boring'.
The change in young people's interests was shown when pop singer Frankie Vaughan, a supporter of youth clubs, toured many of them in 1955, judging talent contests. An observer noted with disquiet that the youngsters seemed to prefer mobbing their idol to putting on a show of their own. The girls simply wanted to kiss him.
But it was the condition of those in their later teens that concerned others in authority. Eighteen-yearolds called up for National Service, said an official report, were increasingly 'of poor physique and poor education, lacking religious knowledge, self-confidence, initiative and sense of responsibility'. Where would it all end?