We-Never-Had-It-So-Good–Growing-up-in-the-1950s | Spring Chicken

We Never Had It So Good – Growing up in the 1950s

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?

Coal Fires

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?

Assorted Memories

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?

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5 Comments

  • It was lovely, we could walk anywhere in safety, knew everybody so always felt safe, and life was far more innocent then.

    • Good Morning Angela,

      Thank you for your comment, We would love to hear more about your memories of the 1950’s.

      Spring Chicken

    • I was born in April 1935, I had one brother who was 21 months old. (1 sister born in Feb 1937 & another in Oct 1938)
      & another brother borne just after the War in Jan 1946.
      We had a poor but happy childhood, Mum made most of our clothes. We ate what we grew in the allotment, any waste food was collected by a local Pig Farmer. Dustbins were collected weekly, (we didn’t have to put them out The dustman came up our back lane & down our garden path to collect them from where they always were by the coal house. Contrary to what I hear Codliver oil & Malt was very nice & sweet, like liquid toffee. (Cod Liver Oil on the other hand was a vile taste)
      Mum made her own sweets toffee and lemonade. It’s wasn’t too bad as we lived in a village (near Cheltenham) which escaped lightly compared to the big Towns where my husband came from (Portsmouth) We had 3 bed Council House & after the war had to give up one room for a Polish soldier who had fought for England so his wife & child could have somewhere to stay.

  • As I was born in Sep ’45 I feel fairly well qualified to talk about growing up in the ’50s and early ’60s!
    Although I was actually born in Glasgow, the first home I remember was when we moved to Kingairloch Estate in what was then NW Argyll in Aug ’48 when my father took up the post of Head Forester there, and we stayed there for the next 7 years. Everybody knew everybody (there were only 60 people on the entire estate of around 30 square miles), and it was a fabulous place to be a kid: it was coastal, had a lovely wee beach, and we could basically roam anywhere we wanted, and our parents didn’t mind as long as we were back for meals! No TV or suchlike back then: in fact the estate didn’t even have electricity until the early ’60s, but we’d never had it so we didn’t miss it.
    Dad got another similar but better paying job in the country of Angus in Sep ’55, so goodbye Kingairloch, hello Lintrathen. Because it didn’t matter where I went to school after leaving Kingairloch Primary, I’d have had to live away from home, so, with the best of intentions as a grandfather and an uncle had been there, I was uprooted from Kingairloch Primary School (with a total enrolment of 9) and plonked into Glasgow Academy (with a total enrolment of around 700, of which 40 were boarders, of which the fourth youngest was me just before my 10th birthday: if you want to discuss juvenile culture shock, I’m yer man!)where my class alone had three times as many kids as my last school had! And a strict uniform code, too: black shoes, grey long socks with the school colours round the top, grey shorts, belt in the school colours, grey shirt, school tie, school blazer and school cap: a bit of a change from the usual shirt, shorts and sandals of my previous school!
    It took my well-meaning parents two years to find out that there was a perfectly good secondary school (the rather oddly-named Webster’s Seminary, although as far as I know it had absolutely no religious connections) in the town of Kirriemuir, just 7 miles away from our new house, and the school bus would pick me up from our roadend at 0830 and return me at 1630 daily, so I moved to that school in Sep ’57 and stayed there for the next 6 years. Again, I found life in rural Lintrathen very pleasant, and, while the family certainly wasn’t flush with cash, I never recall us ever wanting for the necessities.
    For me, life at that time was a lot about spending time outside simply exploring the surrounding countryside (iPads, Xboxes, mobile phones, and computers were totally unknown back then!), and I have to say that by and large I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think Harold MacMillan was right!

  • How this has taken me back I was born in 1956 and I remember playing in the street it was such fun and never worrying about being run over by cars, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, pirates, playing with my dolls and dolls pram, my red scooter and trying to roller skate only hanging on to the wall I was never any good at this, my Dad made me some stilts which I became quite adapt at! I remember the cold winters and I had masses of blankets and an eiderdown and how the windows used to have ice on the inside and getting out of bed onto lino (no fitted carpets in those days) We used to have the radio on for Listen with Mother I think 1.30pm and at 1.45pm was the TV for Watch with Mother and on a Sunday (I think) was the Clithoro Kid and Children’s favourites. When I got older and married and had my own two girls I used to take such pride in washing their nappies exactly like has been described I didn’t get a washing machine until my youngest was 2 years old in 1986 but in answer to the question would I use disposables or terry nappies and I think I would probably still go for terry’s. In lots of ways things are a lot better today but not in so many other ways, you hardly ever see children out with their new toys bikes, dolls prams etc. on Christmas day supposedly they are playing on their social media gadgets not hardly looking up from the latest game etc. which I think is really sad, I am sure we had so much more fun.

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