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Authors: Paul Feeney

A 1950s Childhood

BOOK: A 1950s Childhood
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A 1950s Childhood

From Tin Baths
to Bread and Dripping


In memory of my brother John (1946–2007)
and all the fun we had.

I would like to thank the following people and organisations for giving permission to reproduce photographs in this book: Page
(bottom): Gwen Lippingwell and Denise Baldwin. Pages
(top): Remington Images. Page
Remington Images and Maria Cowdell. All other pictures and illustrations are from the author’s collection. Every reasonable care has been taken to avoid any copyright infringements, but should any valid issue arise then I will look to correct it in subsequent editions.

You lift one eyelid and poke your nose out from the blanket to exhale your warm breath into the freezing bedroom air, watching it condense into tiny droplets and form a fog that flows across the room like smoke from a cigarette. The hot water bottle lost its heat hours ago and has already been pushed to the very bottom of the bed. Your nose now feels like ice and you dread the thought of sliding your leg out from the bedcovers onto the cold lino floor below. You struggle desperately to dislodge the sheets and blankets that your mum tucked in so tightly under the mattress when you went to bed last night, and at last you poke a toe out to test the cold bedroom air. Memories of cold draughty houses in wintertime with curtains hung behind the street door to reduce the flow of cold air. Woollen socks worn in bed, and thick, coarse, heavy overcoats used as top-up blankets to keep you warm. Frost that formed overnight on
the inside of bedroom windows, and the morning rush to get to the one heated room in the house, which was usually the kitchen or the living room.

Young girl dressed in a typical ’50s outfit. Behind her is a baby in a pram and some young boys playing on the pavement of a street in central London in 1952.

No self-respecting child would ever rise from its bed without the repeated call from parents to ‘get up’, but this is Christmas morning and the extreme cold is somehow stifled by the anticipation of delving into the stocking that is hanging on the end of the bed. It is a sign of the times that the meagre contents generate such excitement, but this is Christmas 1950 and the expectations of an unspoilt child are modest. An orange, a two-ounce bar of chocolate and some nuts come as a welcomed treat in these times of post-war austerity. Getting out of bed on Christmas morning is less of an ordeal than usual because all of the excitement and joy of Christmas Day awaits! Has Father Christmas been? Did he eat the mince pie and drink the glass of sherry that mum left in the fireplace for him? Has he left me a present? These are all very important questions for a child of any generation to ask, but much more so for a 1950s child that is likely to have seen little in the way of personal treats in the months leading up to Christmas. Children waking up on Christmas morning in 1950s Britain had experienced government-imposed rationing of food and clothes all their lives. To them it was quite normal to go without the sweets, biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks that would be taken for granted by future generations.

Everyone that grew up in the 1950s will have his or her own indelible memories of their childhood, but there were many common factors that would have touched and influenced every child from that seemingly gentle and innocent period. Cold rooms, tin baths, and outside toilets.
To a child, early day experiences are what life is expected to be, and the thought that things could get better is not even entertained. In towns and cities, the streets and local bomb ruin sites were often the only places for children to play and to expend their energy. It was a time when every street seemed to be full of children, with prams routinely parked outside houses to give the baby a good dose of fresh air. Residential streets were considered safe places for children to be left to play unaccompanied. Car ownership was still very low and most vehicles kept to the main roads. There was little need for motorists to use rat runs, and so side streets were generally traffic-free and without the danger or obstruction of parked cars. Most children were encouraged to be adventurous and they were expected to learn from their mistakes. Kids got dirty, fell out of trees, grazed their knees, and cut themselves. Most mothers kept a bottle of iodine in the house to disinfect the cuts and grazes of their wounded little soldiers. Head wounds might get some extra treatment, with a dose of smelling salts. Young boys commonly wore short trousers in the 1950s, and the telltale purple of the iodine was often to be seen on their knees. The sting from this chemical as it was applied was often worse than the pain of the accident itself. Once cleaned up and disinfected, the little soldier would be off to fight another battle. It was all part of growing up; there was very little mollycoddling of youngsters, it wasn’t considered to be helpful in their development.

Kids were not analysed or studied for their greater wellbeing. There were no such things as health and safety or children’s rights. Kids were taught discipline at home and at school, and corporal punishment was freely administered
for bad behaviour. A child’s role was quite simple: to eat, sleep, learn and play. When little Johnny got punished at school, he wouldn’t dare go home and tell his parents because he was likely to get another wallop from them for having misbehaved at school in the first place.

The nation was recovering from the ravages of the Second World War and the camaraderie of wartime was still evident throughout the country. People had great pride in, and loyalty to, their country and seemed to share a common purpose in life. Everyone knew their neighbours and had a sense of belonging. There seemed to be a genuine air of humility among people and although many found it hard to make ends meet, there was a clear spirit of generosity. People were happy to surround themselves with modest personal belongings, and young couples were content to furnish their homes with post-war utility furniture. It was a time of innocence; children only knew the simple things of life and there were none of the peer pressures that exist today. People were grateful for the comfort of having shoes on their feet and food in their bellies. There was little evidence of jealousy or desire for luxuries. What you didn’t have, you didn’t miss! People were trusting and they frequently left their street door on the latch or the door key hanging down behind the letterbox for their kids to come and go as they pleased.

Children spent most of their lives outdoors, in all weathers. With children, time seems to pass slowly, and the long hot summer days of the ’50s seemed to go on forever. Every day was an adventure, with a new street, bomb ruin, field or wood to explore. These were the playgrounds for the 1950s child. New games were made up all the time, using anything that came to hand. Bits of old wood,
rope, chalk, sticks, rags, just about anything was adapted for playful use. You could play cowboys and indians or swashbuckling pirates using nothing but your imagination. Girls and boys played happily together but were divided when it came to some street games. Boys were expected to play rough and tumble games and to get their clothes dirty and shoes scuffed, but mums usually spent time grooming their daughters and they were expected to stay clean and be ladylike in their games. There was the occasional tomboy that would climb trees and fences with the boys, but generally girls stuck to their own preferred adventures and games. There was no set-rule that said boys shouldn’t use a skipping rope, but somehow they were all useless at skipping! Why was it that girls could skip for ages without getting tangled up in the rope but they couldn’t lasso a tree stump like a boy could? And why could a girl juggle two or three balls in the air or against a wall whilst singing a rhyme but couldn’t kick a ball for toffee or even hit a ball with a bat? So many imponderables!

All girls loved to dress-up in their mother’s clothes and proudly parade up and down the street in high-heeled shoes, routinely catching the bottom of mum’s best dress in the heel as they obliviously went on their way. Their faces pasted with powder and lipstick, they did look a picture! True to their nature, boys would play war games and mimic the scene of soldiers returning from war by marching up and down singing ‘We won the war in 1944’ (and you thought they only did that at your school!)

Queen Street, Cardiff, in the 1950s. Note the old pram and 1950s trucks.

Without the influence of television, there was no way for children in the early ’50s to compare different lifestyles around the country. They knew that some people had more
money than others and that some were very rich, like the Royal Family, who rode around in gold carriages wearing diamond tiaras, as they did when the royal procession went through the streets of London after the queen’s coronation. Royalty would sometimes visit local areas and out would come the Town Hall’s paintbrush. People joked that the royals must have thought that everything outside Buckingham Palace smelt of fresh paint! Some things haven’t changed that much since the 1950s. Kids were aware that there was a social class system, and most knew at least one local child who was too good to play with the
other kids. Rail travel was very popular in the 1940s and ’50s, and trains were often used for family outings to the country or seaside. Railway stations were a good place to see a mix of social classes in one location, but the harsh separation of rich and poor people into first-and third-class train compartments soon made you realise what social class you were in. It was a very humbling experience to travel in the crowded third-class section with the ‘riff-raff’ while the well-to-do enjoyed the luxury of first class. The absence of second-class train compartments was always a bit of a mystery to young enquiring minds, but it seems that second class was abolished on most trains early in the twentieth century and thereafter those trains only had first-and third-class compartments, that is until 1956 when third was re-named second. The change of name didn’t move you any higher up the social ladder but it made you feel that there was a bit less of a social gap.

Railway stations were cold, smelly and unwelcoming places, but there always seemed to be porters roaming around and it was possible to get help with lifting luggage on and off trains, particularly if you were travelling first class! The stations had big draughty waiting rooms with untended open fireplaces that usually only served to assist the cold draught on its way through the room. You would stare through the waiting-room window at the empty sweet dispensing machine on the platform and dream of the day when sweet rationing would finally end. Your dream was only broken by the choking smell of soot and smoke from the approaching steam locomotive. Some station platforms had a large machine where you could print your name onto a metal strip using an alphabet pointer and a handle
to print each letter. The fascination of this machine was such that kids would even buy a one-penny platform ticket just so they could go onto the platform and try it out. Such simple pleasures!

Pathé news, at the cinema, was a great source of education about life in other parts of the world, as were the Hollywood films, which portrayed everyone in America as having loads of money, and of course illustrated how the Americans won the war for us! It’s funny how children always enjoyed Pathé news and its wonderfully rousing theme music with the crowing cockerel. Cinemas would show two films, a feature and a B-movie, and between them they would show adverts and the Pathé newsreel with its dynamic voiceover narration. Cinema was always considered to be a proper night out and everyone would arrive early, often queuing outside for the one-and-nine-pennies, so that they would be sure to see the whole programme and not miss a minute – even standing for the National Anthem at the end. If you had the money then cinema was the best form of entertainment available to ordinary people. Whatever your way of life or dialect may have been, you were captivated by the wonderful magic of British and American films, and you will certainly remember those huge framed pictures of film stars that adorned the foyer walls and hung above the red-carpeted staircases in local cinemas everywhere.

BOOK: A 1950s Childhood
4.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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