MEMORIES OF THE 1950s
by Jennifer Ball
This article was originally published in the April 2014 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Caught like bees in amber we gaze at the camera for this family photograph taken in the Summer of 1951. I know the date without looking at the reverse because I am wearing the blue dress my mother bought me with a Co-op cheque from the store in Morden and I wore it on a school visit to the Festival of Britain which opened in May that year. The other give away is the ankle socks which I doubt I ever wore after I left school at the end of July becoming fifteen the following week.
My mother Connie (nee Sole) is in the back row of the photograph, her brother Bill Sole is next in line with his other sister Vic on his right. At the end of the row is Bill's wife Julie who is standing next to their son, my cousin Bill Sole with his sister Coral immediately in front of them. I am on the left of the middle row with my brother David in the middle of the front row. Cousins Sylvia and Corinne Kimp, Aunt Vic and Uncle Ernie's children complete the front row. The lady in the middle row is my 'Aunt Ethel' (in fact a half cousin of Connie, Bill and Vic) whose partner Bill Bond is on the left of the back row. This Bill had a car and would often turn up with Ethel on Saturday Summer evenings to whisk my mother, brother and myself off to see Ethel's sister Connie down in Brighton.
The camera was wielded by my Uncle Ernie who as usual filled the role of official photographer. The picture was taken in the back garden of Bill and Julie's house in Headstone Lane Harrow. It remains an iconic image for me because the 1950's were a special decade of which so little remains. I started my first job in the city in Holborn in a building opposite Gamages. I could stand on the roof and look across to St. Pauls Cathedral with almost nothing in between because the area had been so badly bombed during the war which had only finished six years previously. Many things were still on ration. The economy needed to be rebuilt, money was tight but the Festival of Britain did give us a glimpse of the future. Life began to have more colour, furniture and dress designs changed too. Lots of us made our own dresses and the styles many with their full circular skirts worn over stiff petticoats and simple high heels have never been prettier. Nylons were ten shillings a pair (50p. in today’s money) and if they laddered you could take them into a dry cleaners and pay 1/3d (7p.) per ladder to get them repaired. After a couple of years I went to work in the offices of Harrods which were up on the fifth floor. I was regarded as a bit of a traitor as Uncle Ernie was a buyer in Selfridges and Ethel worked in the Silver Department. As one of the 5000 staff members at Harrods you used the staff entrance, did not use the lifts or the stairs but only the escalators. It was here I purchased my first record and took advantage of my staff discount. It was a 78rpm of course of Elton Hayes singing Whistle My Love from the film Robin Hood. I went on to enjoy Frankie Laine and Johnny Ray but my main adherence was to Eddie Fisher. Anyway we listened the pop music with friends and on Radio Luxembourg.
Radio was a source of much pleasure and we enjoyed programmes like Rays a Laugh with Ted Ray, Educating Archie and Sunday mornings would not have been complete without Two Way Family Favourites with Cliff Mitchelmore and his wife Jean Metcalf playing records requests to and from the troops in Germany. Television (black and white) became more popular with the Coronation of the Queen in 1953 although many people remained without sets until the 1960's. Cinemas are nowhere near as enjoyable now as then. A continuous programme, we had two films, a newsreel, a cartoon, an organ rising from its pit during the interval and usherettes and commissionaires hung with medals controlling the queues outside.
My idea of Aladdin's cave is a library and because I loved reading this took me on to the theatre where I could see plays by J. B Priestley and Emlyn Williams performed as well as musicals such as South Pacific, Call Me Madam, My Fair Lady, Daddy Longlegs, The Water Gypsies, Paint Your Wagon and so much more. Living on the outskirts of London was something I always appreciated.
Wages then are unbelievable by today’s standards. Ten pounds a week was average for a male office worker but ten pounds bought so much more. Not many people had cars but petrol was 4/2d per gallon. (21p.) Bread was 1/3d (6p.) per loaf, a half shoulder of lamb 4/6d (23p). A new Bentley cost around £4000 but the average house cost under £3000. If you wanted something you could not afford you had to save up for it or consider hire purchase. When I started work I badly wanted a Rayleigh Sports cycle. The cost was £12 and I paid for it by weekly payments of half a crown (13p.) As a woman my mother was not allowed to sign the hire purchase forms so the man next door stood guarantor. Mortgages were taken out but you needed a 10% deposit and a wife's wages were not taken into account. However because of the acute housing shortage by the end of the decade more and more people took the plunge and started to buy homes of their own. This was hard for the older generation to accept because they regarded a mortgage as getting into debt whereas for the young it made more sense than paying an even bigger amount in rent each week.
In the fifties boys of eighteen were required to do National Service for two years unless they were apprenticed when it could be put off until twenty one. My cousin Bill went of to join the army in 1952 and spent most of the next two years in Egypt. Like most lads he enjoyed the experience but others were not so lucky. There were various wars to be fought and some found themselves serving in Korea, Kenya, Cyprus and Suez. Not all returned home. My brother David being born in1940 was one of the first to be exempt from the call up.
One became of age at twenty one and could marry without parental consent and vote. An Astronomer Royal said at the time all talk of space travel was nonsense. Buses still had conductors or conductresses. Not many of us in those days had telephones because no one we knew had one. The red telephone box was a familiar sight and you often had to wait to use one, Dreams of winning a fortune were allied to the football pools and did not exceed £75,000 whereas today the Euro Lottery can raise the dreams to £108,000000. Polio and tuberculosis were still around. The birth pill became available at the end of the decade.
I can only skim this decade that remains special to me. Others who will remember it will have their own memories. I married in 1957. My cousin Corinne was a bridesmaid. Cousin Coral married in America and remained there to live and bring up a family. Like many other couples at the time my husband and I lived with parents while we saved for a deposit on a home of our own and moved fifty miles away to do so in 1959. We have just celebrated our 57th anniversary. To return to the photograph I, my brother and cousins are now part of the older generation with three others following behind. Would I turn the clock back? Of course not. Life moves on and so do we but memories remain to be enjoyed as does my photograph album.