In 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously declared, “most of our people have never had it so good,” but was that true for children? Well, 1953 brought the end of sweet rationing, so things were looking good, but what other lasting memories do you have of growing up in 1950s Britain?
Playing in the Street
What games do you remember playing in the street; marbles, hopscotch, skipping, British bulldogs, conkers, or climbing trees and doing handstands – skirts tucked into knickers! Play was often rougher, clothes got dirty, and skinned knees stained purple with iodine were a common sight.
There were no electronic gadgets and computer games, and there were very few cars around, so children made their own entertainment in the streets outside their homes. Less than 15 per cent of British households had a car in 1950, but if your family had one, it may have been an Austin A35 or a Ford Prefect 100E.
Most people travelled by bus or by bicycle, making the streets far safer places to play than they are today – no parked cars causing obstructions, and no distracted drivers using mobile phones.
Sense of Belonging
Did you know your neighbours in the 50s? Britain had been through the war and there was a real sense of community and belonging in most neighbourhoods – but there were exceptions.
While many look back with pride on the camaraderie that developed through surviving the tough times and the sense of community it generated, others remember 1950s Britain as a very unwelcoming place.
Establishments offering board and lodgings very often displayed signs in their windows saying, no blacks, no dogs, and no Irish.
Bobbies on the Beat
Parents watching out for everyone else’s children was a good thing for parents, but not always so great for the children. Did someone else’s mum or dad ever give you a clip round the ear for doing something you shouldn’t have been doing?
If it wasn’t someone else’s mum or dad, it would be the local bobby. Local bobbies really were local and they were visible on their beat.
They knew who you were and where you lived, and so did the local park keeper. Any nonsense in the street or the park would be reported straight back to your parents – after another clip around the ear of course. Children certainly had a healthy respect for elders and authority figures back then, but was it simply physical abuse?
No TV, No Central Heating
Very few homes had a TV in the 1950s, so vegging-out all day in front of the TV wasn’t an option. If you had siblings, you probably shared a bedroom with at least one of them, so quiet time alone was rarely possible, and homes didn’t have central heating, making most bedrooms chilly places to be, unless you were under the bed covers.
There were no duvets in the 50s – how many heavy blankets did you sleep under? Statistics show that only 3-million homes in Britain had a TV – black and white, of course – in 1954, but 10 years later in 1964, the number had jumped to 13-million.
If your family was lucky enough to have one, what programmes do you remember watching… Muffin the Mule, the Woodentops, Andy Pandy, the Flowerpot Men, or maybe Blue Peter and Champion the Wonder Horse?
A coal fire in the living room was generally the only heat source in the whole house. The further a room was from the fire, the colder it would be. Heavy curtains often hung behind doors to help keep out the draughts, but it was not unusual to find frost forming on the inside of windows during the winter.
Houses were cold, but the outside loo was an even colder experience, and not every home had a bathroom, so children would have a wash in the tub in front of the fire once a week (usually Sunday) whether they needed it or not! If you had siblings, you had to share the bath water, so were you first or last to get in?
Those who reminisce over days gone by when there were fewer cars polluting the air might need to remember just how many people smoked in the ’50s.
Ashtrays appeared in just about every room in the house and the air would be thick with tobacco smoke, and then in 1952, fog combined with smoke from coal fires led to the great smog that shrouded London, causing the death of around 12,000 people. Not everyone had a car in the early 50s, but everyone burned coal.
School Milk, Cod Liver Oil and Gobstoppers
Love it or hate it, children in the 50s were given a bottle of milk to drink every day at school. The silver foil tops were pierced with a straw and you had to drink it because it was “good for you”. Other daily delights were a spoonful of malt and cod liver oil, but the taste could be taken away with a trip to the sweet shop.
The wooden counter would be laden with boxes containing ha’penny chews, gobstoppers, barley twists, lucky bags, Spangles, aniseed balls that cut the roof of your mouth… ah, the endless selection. Pocket money went a long way back then, and it would all be spent on sweets and comics.
How much did you get, and what sweet treats were your favourites?
Other assorted memories of growing up in the 50s include:
- Saturday morning cinema; The Lone Ranger and Buster Keaton, and standing up for the national anthem
- Spam sandwiches
- The door key hanging on a string inside the letterbox
- The smell of Omo washing powder
- Ticking clocks in every room
- Bread and dripping
- Knitted swimsuits, and travelling to the seaside in a third-class train compartment
- The potty under the bed
- Gramophone records, skiffle music, and the arrival of rock and roll
Do you look back on your 50s childhood with fondness, or do you shudder?