In the 1950s you could buy a manor house for £8,000. Heroin was the drug of choice for a bad cough. And sex? Only if a chap could negotiate a fortified girdle! How a joyous new book on post-war Britain reveals the past really is another country
- In 1952 anyone looking for a country house would turn to pages of Country Life
- Heroin was the drug of choice for a bad cough – not made illegal until 1964
- In 10 years post-war, church membership’s grew unseen since the 18th century
- In Engel’s new book on post-war Britain, the past really is another country
In 1952, as now, anyone looking for — or even fantasising about — a substantial country house without being fixated on a particular location would turn to the pages of Country Life. In the week King George VI died, they would have found the following:
Attractive Late Georgian: 6 beds, 20 acres and cottage,£10,000.
16th-century country house, Suffolk, £9,250.
Bucks manor house and duck pond, £8,500.
Queen Anne house near Norwich, tennis court, bowling green, rose gardens, £7,500.
Even allowing for 70 years worth of inflation, these delightful-sounding old houses were indeed bargains: £7,500 in 1952 equals £200,000 in 2022, which would hardly buy a log cabin in any village in South-East England.
But few people then wanted an old country house, however charming. They were icy, draughty, run-down, expensive to maintain and considered a worse investment than the stock market.
Life in the Fifties: Suspenders, nylon stockings and smoking in bed
True, the British were used to discomfort. A reconnaissance visit to the Queen Anne house might involve an overnight stay in Norwich. The only hotels in the city with even three stars from the AA were the Maid’s Head and the Royal, both less than £1 a night for the best room.
In these two, all rooms had a basin with hot and cold water, which was a rare luxury, though the toilet or bathroom would entail a trudge down a frigid landing. The modern usage of en suite was as yet unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Meat was still rationed and Britain’s worldwide reputation for terrible cooking was at its absolute peak. But there was the odd green shoot, as demonstrated by the inaugural edition of the Good Food Guide, a slim volume dated 1951–52.
In some places, the food sounds positively appetising despite the difficulties: poached salmon with red wine sauce and red berry caviar (The Bell at Aston Clinton); ‘duckling which really is duckling and not an ancient drake’ (Dixon Arms at Chelford, Cheshire); and excellent trout ‘in grim and drab surroundings’ at the Windsor Hotel, Cardiff Docks.
There were even touches of exoticism. At the Ring O’ Bells, Chagford, Colonel Davies’s speciality was ‘a full-dress Indian curry’ — but, the Guide warned, ‘this must of course be ordered in advance’.
Well, of course. But it might not have been easy, although all rural telephone numbers and many urban ones were then simple enough to memorise.
In Shropshire you could phone Major Foster on Ryton 4 or Lieutenant-Colonel Head on Yockleton 3.
Legendary footballer Stanley Matthews, earned just £20 a week circa 1950
The roads were tortuous and the accident rate was high. The trains were clapped-out and slower than in the 1930s. In July 1952, the last London tram disappeared into the heavenly depot for a long sleep, hardly mourned. Within ten years they had all but vanished from everywhere in Britain except Blackpool seafront.
Villages began emptying as farm labourers left the land for the plentiful and more lucrative jobs in town.
They wanted the future they saw when they went to the cinema in vast numbers to see Hollywood films. They wanted warmth. They wanted cleanliness. They wanted food. They wanted ease.
After 1956, the main cost-of-living index was changed to reflect the changing realities: out went candles, rabbits and turnips; in came soda water, dog food, nylons and camera films.
The ultimate desire was, of course, a car: ownership doubled from about 15 per cent of households to 30 per cent over the decade.
By the mid-1950s, paint companies were offering over a thousand shades, but — except for the cars and the three-piece suites — the objects of desire in the 1950s tended to be white (washing machines, cookers, fridges), black (telephones), or black, white and grey, surrounded by walnut (TVs).
French historian Michel Pastoureau attributes this tradition of black-and-whiteness to the stern Protestantism of the early industrialists.
The country was generally pious, or appeared to be. In the ten years after the war, church membership experienced a growth unseen since the 18th century.
Marriage rates were exceptionally high; divorce rates, after a post-war spike when men came home and sometimes found things had changed, were very low. Necessity often trumped romance at the altar: one estimate is that up to a third of all weddings were of the shotgun variety.
Adultery was common enough that Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a man known for his erratic pronouncements, suggested that it should be made a criminal offence. The Church Times gently pointed out that there might be a problem housing all the prisoners.
Sunday school membership was also on the rise, although it was said that the main reason many children were sent for this religious instruction was that it was the only time during the week when weary parents in small houses could make love uninterrupted.
Outside of such obligations, children had a freedom that might now appear quite extraordinary with sometimes catastrophic consequences reported phlegmatically in the Press.
Some cases were horrendous, such as a 13-year-old shot dead playing Cowboys and Indians. Some involved recklessness (an 11-year-old savaged at a Glasgow zoo after deciding to pat the leopards); some were examples of the stoicism that made Britain great (13-year-old Raymond Wilson of Hackney sat through lessons for two hours after a classmate shot him in the leg with a Luger).
And in February 1952, a fortnight after the Queen had acceded to the throne, eight-year-old Craig Mackie of Brixton, South London, climbed 40ft up a church tower before getting stuck. He was not pleased with himself: ‘I’ve been up much higher in trees,’ he said.
Relatively few young people had a room of their own, and certainly not one offering privacy. Even fewer had cars. Otherwise, as the historian of British sex Paul Ferris put it, there were ‘walls in back lanes for knee-tremblers, grass in parks and sofas for five minutes when a parent had gone to the shops’.
Another practical difficulty for the male was the nature of women’s underwear. ‘The nylon stocking was still suspended from a constricting girdle of unyielding firmness,’ wrote Peter Lewis in his history of the decade, ‘a fortification virtually impossible to bypass without active collusion and preferably plenty of time.’
Marriage rates were exceptionally high; divorce rates, after a post-war spike when men came home and sometimes found things had changed, were very low
For the more than 2.5 million men who passed through National Service, perhaps the greatest initial terror lay in the fear of being unveiled as the only virgin in the barrack room, not knowing that about three-quarters were thinking the same thing. Many were still virginal two years later. Girls knew they were a poor catch because the pay was pathetic.
Some were among the 1,100 British conscripts and regular soldiers killed during the Korean War, triggered in 1950 by a North Korean invasion of the non-Communist South.
By the time it ended in 1953, the Reds had replaced Jerry as the villains in the British imagination.
That same year, Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale, which featured the Russians as the enemy, set James Bond on the path to fame and one former head of MI6 recalled how he was a great aid to recruiting informants overseas. Presumably they thought the lifestyle was included.
Other young men for whom the war ended too quickly satisfied their lust for danger as test pilots, racing drivers and the crazed riders of the Manx TT course.
In racing, jockeys did not even wear head protectors until 1956. That did not save star jockey Emmanuel Mercer three years later, when he was thrown before the start and kicked in the head at Ascot. The news was announced to the crowd with a sentence that sums up the worst of the 1950s: ‘The stewards regret to announce the last race has been abandoned as E. Mercer has been killed.’
Note the the cold formality of the initial, and the fact that the stewards were expressing regret for the loss of the race, not the rider.
Life could be almost as dangerous in the home. Chip pans burned down houses; nighties caught light, often when girls looked in mirrors above open fires just before bedtime; and people smoked in bed, the post-coital fag being the most satisfying and the one most likely to provoke somnolence and thus incineration.
Indeed, people smoked everywhere, including the non-smoking portions of trains. The etiquette was that you could smoke in them if no one objected and the answer ‘Yes, I do mind’ was considered most unsporting.
When Bill Haley and His Comets travelled to Britain in February 1957, they came by boat, sailing from New York to Southampton before taking the country by storm with their hit Rock Around The Clock, the title track from their movie of the same name. The music was dismissed by Sir Malcolm Sargent, then permanent master of the revels at the Last Night of the Proms, as ‘primitive tomtom thumping’.
But it found expressive appreciation from an unexpected source. The Queen asked for a copy of the film to be sent to Balmoral. Later, the title track was played at the Duke of Kent’s 21 birthday party in Buckinghamshire, where, a reporter noted, Her Majesty stayed until 3.12am.
As the film spread from the West End to the suburbs and then to the provinces, the idea grew among teenagers that they should get up and jive to the music, a forbidden practice even in some dance halls.
Then came word of another American phenomenon, one who blazed much brighter and longer than Bill Haley. He even came to the notice of the senior mistress at a North London comprehensive school, who walked into the staffroom and announced sternly: ‘I must speak to a boy called EP because he’s carved his name on every desk in the school.’
In another London school, a young Roger Daltrey asked one of his teachers what he thought of Elvis. ‘Disgusting,’ was the reply.
As teenage culture erupted in Britain, it was possible to glimpse the beginnings of something that would create ongoing moral panics on a much greater scale.
In 1956, Farnham magistrates heard the case against a 21-year-old soldier caught smoking ‘Indian hemp’, aka cannabis. The soldier was discharged after being told by the chairman of the bench to give up ‘this messy Eastern habit’.
At that stage, he could lawfully have switched to another drug: heroin, which was not made illegal in the UK until 1964. In 1955 the law was due to be changed, but The Times ran a leader arguing that it should remain legal.
It pointed out that Britain had a total of 47 heroin addicts and that ‘there is no efficient substitute for heroin in relieving pain in the terminal stages of cancer in some patients or for relieving certain forms of chronic cough’.
By late 1957, seven in eight households were still without a fridge, four-fifths had no phone and three-quarters no washing machine. About one in 50 had central heating. But more than half now had a television and most of them were watching ITV rather than the BBC.
The stars of the commercial breaks were the jingles. One jingle-writer alone, called Johnny Johnston, was said to be responsible for the chords, and sometimes the words, of 4,500 of them:
‘Now hands that do dishes can feel soft as your face, with mild green Fairy Liquid.’
‘A million housewives every day pick up a can of beans and say: Beanz meanz Heinz.’
Names fade from the mind, faces fade, but those jingles never fade.
By the end of the Fifties the new medium’s tentacles had reached into every corner of British life. And the mighty cinema industry was under threat: 26 million filmgoers a week in 1952 had dwindled to 11 million by 1959.
In 1956, the Rank Organisation, the UK’s leading film company, began closing cinemas en masse. By 1959 it was starting to convert its Odeons and Gaumonts into bowling alleys and bingo halls.
Football’s crowds also shrank during the Fifties: average attendances in the top division, the First, dropped from a peak of nearly 39,000 in 1949 to under 32,000. The clubs were primarily local, mainly run by muck-and-brass businessmen.
However, legends like Stanley Matthews earned a maximum of £20 a week, a figure somewhat above the average man’s wages — but not by much.
For the average man, and the rest of Britain, the world did not feel exactly safe. The launch of the first Sputnik in 1957 created unease — especially in the U.S., fearful that the Soviets were ahead in both exploration of space and weaponry for use on Earth.
In Britain, intellectual opinion inclined to the view that nuclear bombs should be abolished; and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament began annual marches between the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston, Berkshire, and Trafalgar Square. Its aims were never achieved but the UK managed to feel secure and satisfied, bordering on smug. The Tory victory in the 1959 election indicated that.
And in that last long lovely summer of the Fifties, there were moments when it seemed life might go on every bit as placidly for ever. It was an illusion, of course.
- Adapted from The Reign — Life In Elizabeth’s Britain. Part I: The Way It Was, 1952–79, by Matthew Engel, published by Atlantic Books at £25. © Matthew Engel 2022. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 22/10/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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