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
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
'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.
1950s Britain is dearly remembered by many who grew up in that era
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.'
Jill Morgan spoke for the majority of contributors to a BBC history
website in 2007 when she pleaded: 'Bring back the values of the
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
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'.
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
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
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.
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
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
'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,
'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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
It was, in short, a
different world - whose trusting best was evoked by a
premium-collecting Prudential insurance agent in Lincolnshire during
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
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
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.'
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
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
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
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
'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?'
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
LEST WE FORGET. . .
IN THE HOME...
Duraglit, Brasso, Brillo, Lifebuoy, Silvikrin, Ammi-dent, Delrosa
Rose Hip Syrup, Mr Therm, Toni Perms.
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
ON THE ROAD...
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...
Navy Cut, Senior Service, cigarette boxes, Dagenham Girl Pipers.
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
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?