A RURAL CHILDHOOD in the 1950s Celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee 1953

If you’re over 70 titled ‘Do You Remember’ If you’re under 70 titled ‘What Life Was Like’
1953 was not only the year of the Coronation but also the North Sea Flood Disaster, Everest being climbed for the first time and DNA being discovered but to a kid, most importantly, it was the year when war time sweet rationing ended.
IN THE HOME Few homes had central heating – wood or coal was burned on open fires or kitchen ranges of some kind, which you cooked on. In winter the bedroom windows got pretty fern-like patterns over them when they froze inside and you suffered with horrible, itchy chilblains on your toes! Even in 1953 a lot of people in the countryside didn’t have electricity although that, and mains water, reached Barton in the late 1940s. Before then it was oil lamps and water from a well. However, it was 1964 before main drainage was laid on. If you hadn’t had a septic tank installed then it was still trips to the ‘privvy’ down the garden and squares of newspaper and spiders. There was no nice, soft toilet paper either. Do you remember Izal? And of course the buckets or vaults needed to be emptied! A lot of farm cottages didn’t have proper bathrooms until the early 70s. ‘en suites’ were unheard of – the nearest you got was a potty under the bed. Few people had washing machines, everything was washed by hand. There was a ‘copper’ built of bricks out in the shed with a big bowl in the top and a place to light a fire underneath to heat the water. Sheets, shirts and nappies (there were no such things as disposable nappies in those days) were washed in this and put through a mangle to squeeze out the water (there were no spin driers either). A ‘Burco’ boiler might have replaced the copper when the electric was connected. In the home there was nothing plastic – bowls were enamel and light switches were bakelite. There were no such things as freezers or microwaves, a slab of marble in the pantry served as a fridge.
SHOPPING In 1953 there were no supermarkets with self-service, check outs and late night shopping. Many big shops closed at 5.30pm, at lunch time on a Wednesday and never opened on a Sunday. You couldn’t do a ‘one stop shop’ instead you needed to go separately to the chemist, greengrocer, butcher, baker and grocer. However deliveries were made and most villages had a little shop which sold most things. Dry goods were weighed and put in thick paper bags, often blue, and you got a penny or two if you took a bottle back.
FOOD Self sufficiency was the order of the day. Vegetables and fruit were grown. Geese ate grass so didn’t cost much to feed. Chicken were kept for eggs and fed on cooked-up potato peelings mixed with layer’s mash but when they got past their sell by date (unheard of then) if they were boiled long enough could provide a dinner or two. Many country people also kept a pig. Rabbits were probably the most economical. They ate all the vegetable and fruit peelings plus grass and dandelions, when their time was up they provided not only meat but also skins to make gloves and hats. I remember having a very nice pair of grey and white fur mittens. And they think recycling is a new concept! Talking about food, fish fingers and tea bags were new inventions. There were cafés, tea rooms and restaurants but not many pubs that served food and a take-away amounted to fish and chips. It was 1974 before Macdonald’s arrived. The trendiest place to go was a coffee bar with a juke box! Costa Coffee didn’t appear until 1971 and Starbucks much later.
MONEY You got paid in cash once a week and little piles of money were put aside to pay the bills. There were no such things as credit or debit cards but if you needed something expensive there was hire purchase, also known as ‘the never- never’ , where you repaid so much a week. The biggest ambition for most kids was to have a new bike. We were taught to save money which either went into a post office account or the building society. Premium Bonds didn’t appear until 1956.
CLOTHING Christmas was a time when you were given mostly what you needed, but not necessarily what you wanted. My birthday is on Christmas Day, I recall being given a pair of slippers – one for Christmas and the other for my birthday! The early ‘50s were an era of make do and mend when it came to clothing, nothing was wasted. I remember underwear made from parachute silk and a woman sitting in a shop window ‘invisibly’ mending nylon stockings for they were then a luxury. Boys wore short trousers until they were eleven or twelve and children’s shoes were practical. Do you remember having your feet x-rayed to make sure your new shoes were the right size? We wore plimsolls in the summer and at school, trainers didn’t come in until the late fifties when manmade fibres first appeared. What about those awful nylon shirts and sheets? Clothes were made at home and the whirr of a sewing machine and clicking of knitting needles were familiar sounds. How about those socks and fair isles jumpers made for father and son alike? But worst of all were the woolly swimsuits which sagged dangerously low when they were wet.
TRANSPORT Bicycles were an important mode of transport because not many people had a car. In fact there were so few that kids spent hours collecting car numbers as they went past. Cars had a choke to start them which you pushed back in when the engine had warmed up. Some models still had a starting handle, not a bad thing as a last resort. Cars had no heaters – your huff froze on the inside of the window on a frosty morning. Windscreen wipers were primitive and a little orange arm flicked out to indicate if you were turning left or right. You used hand signals too, with your arm out the window. A circular motion meant you were turning left and up and down that you were slowing down – not that you would be going very fast anyway! The first Mini was launched in 1959 and cost £497!
Buses played an important part in getting from A to B. They had a driver and a conductor who took your fare. His job was unpleasant in winter for he stood at the back of the bus where you got on and there were no doors, just an open platform. Many more rural towns were then linked by railways and steam engines were still part of the rolling stock. Few people had ever been on a plane and space travel was a thing of fiction. The first vehicle to enter space and orbit the world was Sputnik 1, a Russian satellite launched in 1957.
SOCIETY Manners were a priority. We sat up to the table as a family to eat our meals and definitely no elbows on the table!! We were brought up to say ‘thank you’ for everything. It was fashionable to smoke and no-one was then aware of the dangers. If you went to the cinema you had difficulty in seeing the picture through the smoky fug. There was no contraceptive pill and to have a child out of wedlock was taboo. Couples in those days got married before they had kids although many a bride’s bouquet was used to camouflage a ‘bump’. Somehow the 1950s seemed to be a time when people felt safer. Young kids played on the streets or ran freely around the village with little to be afraid of so long as they didn’t get into too much mischief. If they did and the local bobby noticed, he was often about on his bike, they might get a clip round the ear. Worse still he might tell their mum or dad. Corporal punishment was an accepted form of discipline. We learnt quickly from having a few bumps, bruises and scrapes and experience taught us common sense.
SCHOOL There were four ways of getting to school – walking, biking, on a service bus or a train. There were no such things as taxis. Teaching was very formal. Discipline was strict – enforced at times with the use of the cane or a well aimed black board rubber. Teachers were addressed as Miss or Sir and, unlike today, could easily be told apart from the students. They stood at the front of the class with all the pupils facing them and wrote on a big blackboard with chalk. Biros were a new invention and their use was not encouraged so it was a fountain pen and ink – each desk had an inkwell. At mid-morning break every child was given a third of a pint of milk. Nearly all the kids had school dinners even though there was no choice. Desserts were often semolina or tapioca which was better known as ‘frog spawn’. As at home you were expected to eat what you were given. The school leaving age was 15 and only the very brightest children, who were positive they knew what profession they wanted to follow, went to university. The academically inclined continued to sixth form but the intention for most of us was to get a job and earn some money.
THE COUNTRYSIDE The countryside in the ‘50s was a place of work rather than leisure. Most people living in Barton would have been associated with the land in one way or another. Rows of sugar beet were thinned by men with hoes, hedges cut by hand and gangs of women worked on the land. Children on farms worked as well as played. They helped with the horses, cows, pigs, hens, sheep and even tractors which were a fraction of the size they are today. With no health and safety rules once a farm kid was long enough in the leg to drive a tractor they did. Cows had horns and were kept in stalls all winter but were turned out to grass from April until October. Taking them to and fro their pastures, often along lanes, was a job that farm kids often did. The arrival of electricity meant machines took over from hand milking and churns of milk were collected every morning from the farms. Bottled milk had a layer of cream which rose to the top. Bluetits, somehow, learned to peck through the foil tops to get at the cream. If you didn’t shake up the bottle it was very nice poured over your cornflakes but not so good for the ones who came after you! Wild flowers grew in the meadows and cornfields but this idyllic scene was marred when myxomatosis appeared decimating the rabbit population in the most obnoxious way. Big horses could still be found working on farms, ponies were still pulling carts and working down coal mines. Work could always be found for an extra pair of hands at hay making and harvest time. Hay was carted loose on wagons; silage was a new invention that hadn’t really caught on. One job for kids was that of ‘ho-gee’ boy, riding on the horse making sure it stopped and stood still while the crop was loaded onto the wagon. Combine harvesters were yet to arrive on farms. Instead a binder cut the corn and tied it into small bundles known as sheaves. They were then stooked up in groups of eight or so and left in the field to dry. When they were fetched in on wagons the sheaves, like the loose hay, were built into big stacks which were then thatched. Later in the year a great threshing machine arrived on the farm, powered either by a tractor, or more exciting still a huge steam engine, to thresh out the corn from the straw. One thing was for sure – children on farms never dared say they were bored for they were very soon found a job.
DAYS OUT/HOLIDAYS Wages were low, long hours worked and paid holiday entitlement was only two weeks a year so holidays, as we know them, were pretty much out of the question, unless perhaps you went to stay with a relative. Butlin’s holiday camps were just beginning to open and offered workers an affordable holiday but it was complicated to travel very far using only public transport. Days out were few and far between and for children the highlight of the summer holidays was the annual Sunday School outing to the seaside. In fact it was a contributing factor as to why Sunday schools were so well attended in those days! No doubt everyone has memories of gritty sandwiches and elderly men laid back in deck chairs with a handkerchief knotted in each corner to protect their bald heads from the sun – that’s if it wasn’t blowing and raining! If you were very lucky you might have a trip to the zoo. In 1950 Brumas made headlines as the first polar bear cub to be raised in the UK.
ENTERTAINMENT There were no such things as CD or DVD players, wi fi or hi fi, i pods or i players.
Can you imagine life without a television set. Well, not many people had a TV before 1953 although it’s estimated that one million sets were bought to watch the Coronation. These were tiny little things with a twelve inch screen, only in black and white and BBC was the only channel. ITV wasn’t launched until 1955. Transmitting times were limited to a few hours each day. Panorama made its debut in 1953. Billy Cotton’s Band Show entertained us and for young kids there was Watch with Mother, Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben and Muffin the Mule. TV in the 50s was not full of the violence, sex and swearing that it is today. Radio played a huge part in people’s lives with programmes such as Mrs Dale’s Diary, Workers Playtime, Forces Favourites, the Goons and Dick Barton, special agent. There was also Women’s Hour and the Archers, which are still running, and of course Radio Luxembourg. Then there were records. Brittle, fragile, things that scratched easily so you heard a click each time they revolved. From 12 inch 78rpms with a single track they progressed to vinyl 45 EPs and 33 LPs. Now that was progress to have more than one track on a record! The New Musical Express paper kept us in touch with the pop scene and Top of the Pops was launched on TV in 1953. Featured that year were Perry Como with ‘Don’t let the stars get in your eyes’, Guy Mitchell’s ‘She wears red feathers’, Lita Rosa’s ‘ How much is that doggy in the window?’ and Frankie Lane was in the charts for 18 weeks with ‘I Believe’. The cinema, or flicks, too provided entertainment and there was a wealth of war and cowboy films. The Cruel Sea was released in 1953; others that came out that year included ‘Invader from Mars’, ‘Shane’, ‘ From Here to Eternity’,’ Genevieve’, and ‘Calamity Jane’ . On Saturday mornings there were special children’s film shows.
In the 1950s families made much of their own entertainment. A lot of homes had a piano and the family would gather round for a sing-song. Sheet music sold well in those days. Villages held regular social evenings when everyone mucked in and did a turn. There were also dominoes and whist drives and the pub was the social hub of any village. Reading was popular and books like Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ or ‘The Adventures of Noddy ‘ kept kids amused. There were comics as well – remember Beano? And what about the Eagle with Dan Dare – Pilot of the future? Fiction that was to become fact within our lifetimes!
Like generations before us we had soft toys, dolls, string puppets and card games but the model soldiers, animals, cowboys and indians we played with were made out of lead!!! However did we survive that? Gardens weren’t filled with gigantic plastic contraptions – there weren’t any such things. Instead we made mud pies and swung on ropes.
GADGETS There were very few gadgets to keep us occupied. Phones were old fashioned. You dialled O for the operator to connect you with the number you wanted. Few people had one. Red phone boxes like Barton’s, where you put in money then pressed buttons A or B, were very well used. There were no such things as mobile phones. Cameras used film which you had developed at the chemist and all the pictures were in black and white. It was the 1960s before colour film became widely available. There were no calculators; they weren’t used generally until 1975 so we used fingers and mental arithmetic to work things out. There were no computers. How on earth did the country run without them? In the ‘50s a mouse was a pesky, small animal and Amazon was somewhere in South America. Tell me, how are us oldies supposed to remember all the passwords we need to register? It wasn’t quite so bad when it was just a simple word but now we’re asked to incorporate numbers, capital letters and symbols!!
END Life was so much less complicated 70 years ago, so much simpler and gentler. There wasn’t the envy or greed there is today, no-one had much anyway. In our youth we seemed to enjoy a freedom denied to youngsters today. Don’t you sometimes wish you could turn the clock back? Well think again. If it wasn’t for modern medicines and treatments such as replacement hips and knees, stents and pacemakers, our villages would be seriously congested with mobility scooters and some of us wouldn’t even be here!!

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