A 1950s Sunday afternoon.
Comics read. (Twice)
I’m so bored.
A 1950s Sunday afternoon.
Comics read. (Twice)
I’m so bored.
I didn’t always dislike Christmas.
As a child, I would ask to go to bed early on the 24th, so I could wake up and get all my presents when it was still dark. I am an only child, and though not spoiled, I was never short of a pile of presents from my mum and dad, as well as my extended family of uncles and aunts.
By the time my parents were awake, I had already read my Christmas Annuals books, and all of my toys and other gifts would have been opened and examined. Like most kids then, I dreaded receiving ‘sensible presents’, like clothing. But I will never complain about my childhood Christmases, as I can still remember the thrill of them. And I appreciated every gift, however small.
Then it was off to my maternal grandmother’s house, for a massive family Christmas lunch at 2 pm. Everyone would be there, and trestles would have been set up for a huge table top to rest on. Then every chair in the house, mismatched or not, would be crowded around so that everyone had a seat at the table. Before that happened, all the men would set off for the lunchtime drinking session in the nearby pub, while the women and older girls took on the mammoth task of preparing all the vegetables, and laying the table.
And all of this cooked in a single small gas oven, with a three-ring hob above.
The men would return just in time to sit and eat, still merry from too much beer and whisky. Then in the afternoon, they slept off the booze, while the exhausted women washed up and cleared away, ready to serve up the ‘Christmas Tea’. Assorted shellfish, bread and butter, lots of cakes, and anything sweet.
The evening would see a huge Christmas party. Crates of beer lined up in my grandmother’s parlour, the ‘good rug’ rolled up and stored away, and my aunt Edie exercising her skill on the piano as my dad and my uncle sang popular songs of the day, as well as wartime melodies. Everyone over the age of sixteen smoked, so the blue haze in the room would sting my young eyes as I sat enjoying the seasonal show.
When it got too late for me, I would sneak into my grandmother’s bedroom, and creep under the pile of coats laid on her bed. They included ancient furs that smelled of mothballs, and huge wool overcoats that had the aroma of tobacco.
I never really remembered my dad lifting me up to take me out to the car.
But I always woke up in my own bed on Boxing Day.
Weights and Measures.
I woke up quite late this morning, no idea why. But I was thinking about millimetres, for some reason.
Come to think of it, I remember the reason, as it had to do with it being spelt differently in America. (Millimeters)
By the time I started to see things in England described in litres, centimetres, or millimetres, I was already pretty old. This country still cannot seem to make its mind up about the metric system, even though we changed to decimal currency in 1971. Directions (and signs) are still given in miles, and most haberdashery shops will sell you cloth by the yard. When you go to buy carpet though, it is sold by the square metre, and I have to use Google to translate that into something I can understand.
Petrol is sold in litres, as is milk, wine, juice, and soft drinks. But I can still buy a ‘gallon’ bucket, or a ‘five-gallon’ container. Meat, cheese, and loose produce are now sold in kilos and grammes. That means little to me, so I translate that into pounds and ounces in my head. (A kilo is 2.2 pounds) I have no concept of how long one centimetre is, but an exact idea of the size of something that is a quarter of an inch long.
Clothing is another problem. I can still buy shoes in a size I recognise, but the length and waistband of trousers is show in centimetres. Before buying most clothing, I have to translate the number from inches, so I know what to order. When it comes to large items like cookers and washing machines, the dimensions are all stated in centimetres. But I have an extending tape rule that has feet and inches on one side, so I measure with that so I know something will fit.
It is not unlike having to use two different languages. Imagine ordering clothes in Italian, but having to read direction signs in German. Remember the old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? In my case, that is true.
Much of what I learned at school from 1957 is now obsolete. Telling younger people about such ‘ancient’ measurements usually brings on a smile, followed by a look of complete boredom. However, some of those old measurements still exist, in specialised forms. Take a ‘Furlong’ for instance. This originally derived from ancient farming measurements, and came from two words ‘Furrow long’. This was the ideal length to plough a furrow in a field for planting. At school, I had to learn that there were eight furlongs in a mile, so the length of one was 220 yards. You may think that this is of little use today. But did you know that every horse race in Britain is still measured in furlongs?
I also had to learn that one furlong was equal to 10 chains, with one chain being 22 yards. There was even a physical metal chain used to check this. If you think this is silly and outdated, then you should know that to this day, one chain is the distance between the wickets on every cricket pitch in the world.
Fluid capacities were important too. Not centilitres or millilitres, I had never heard of those. We had Gallons, Pints, Gills, Flagons, Bushels, Pecks, and Firkins. I knew the relevance and size of every one, by the age of eight. And not all of those have disappeared. Beer is still sold in pubs here in pints and half-pints.
I could go on and on, but I can see your eyes glazing over from here. A Hand was used as a defined measurement, stated at four inches. Who uses that these days? Every horse is still measured in hands, so it is widely used by horse breeders and trainers, stables, and jockeys. When I was young, an average weight of a grown man was said to be around 11 stone. So if someone was 30 stone, you knew that they were very big, and almost certainly obese. When I am weighed at the doctor’s now, they tell me my weight in kilos. For me to make any sense of that, I have to translate it to stones and pounds.
So the next time you are thinking about how long, wide, or heavy something is, just hope that someone doesn’t come along and change all the measurements to something you will never understand.
Children’s television shows of my youth often used puppet characters to entertain us. Despite being able to see the strings, and knowing full well that they were puppets, the wonder of watching them was not diminished in the least. We were too young to notice the strings anyway.
I was lucky that my parents could afford a television when I was very young, and one of my earliest memories is of watching Muffin The Mule.
This footage is quite poor, but it was shown in 1955!
My next favourite was Andy Pandy, along with his toy box friends.
My Mum told me that when he waved goodbye, I used to cry inconsolably. 🙂
Then came The Woodentops. Along with the family, we also had Spotty the dog.
This was state-of-the-art in the late 1950s.
The genre was revolutionised by Gerry and Syvia Anderson. They took puppet shows to a new level, replicating big screen entertainment. They used string puppets that also had electronic parts fitted, so that their mouths and other facial features could move in a realistic way. They even coined a term for this, ‘Supermarionation’.
They had started out following the trend of earlier programmes, and their first show, ‘Twizzle’ was very popular.
Their next offering was Torchy the battery boy.
This gave some hint to their futuristic ideas, with Torchy’s space rocket catching the mood of the time.
This was followed by their Wild West series, ‘Four Feather Falls’, a huge favourite at the time.
The theme song was even released as a record!
It never occurred to me to question the exaggerated size of the characters in relation to the buildings.
Long before they could be shown in colour, they embraced their vision of all-action shows for kids and the Andersons really took off, with their shows becoming household names, and shown at prime times too.
First came ‘Supercar!’
Then the amazing ‘Fireball XL-5’.
As colour TV sets started to become readily available, the next offering was the eye-popping ‘Stingray’. This was the first Supermarionation series to be filmed in colour.
It was set in a futuristic underwater city, ‘Marineville’, and ‘Stingray’ was a submarine.
In 1965, the pair embarked on their most ambitious project yet, ‘Thunderbirds’. I was 13 at the time, but still loved to watch it.
Telling the story of ‘International Rescue’, it introduced a family who used various ingenious methods to save lives and prevent disasters all around the world.
As they had done with ‘Stingray’, the Andersons caught on to the marketing possibilities. Toy figures and vehicles became the ‘must-haves’ for us kids in the 1960s.
By the time ‘Thunderbirds became internationally popular, that toy market was huge.
In 1967, they brought their final Supermarionation project to the TV screens, using advanced electronics to make the characters even more realistic.
Once again, demand for the toys associated with the series was out of control.
I was 15 by then, so not really watching stuff like this. But I saw it occasionally, if only to find it funny now that I was too old.
I had started to see the strings.
In the late 70s, I heard a song by Elvis Costello called ‘Watching The Detectives’. I thought the lyrics were great, and very clever.
“She’s filing her nails, while they’re dragging the lake”.
Still one of my favourite lines in a song, ever.
At the time, it got me thinking about all the detective shows I had watched. But I didn’t have the Internet then of course.
Detective/Police shows are one of the first genres I remember being interested in. And they were very popular, almost right from the start of television. One of the first I can recall dates back to 1957. Called ‘Sabre of London’, it was about a British man, Mark Sabre, working as a police detective in America. The second series featured Sabre now working in London, and later as a private eye. It extended location filming as far as Europe, or in studios representing European locations. I can’t be sure about that. The 30-minute episodes were rather exciting to me, as a six to eight-year old boy.
This is a whole episode, but it gives you the idea soon after starting.
By 1962, we had Roger Moore starring as Simon Templar, in ‘The Saint’. Suave, debonair, and in exotic locations, this private detective always got the girl, and solved the cases too.
Four years later, and the BBC had developed the popular cop show ‘Z-Cars’ into a full detective series, called ‘Softly Softly’. No-nonsense coppers, gruff accents, and no attractive stars. This was the first time such shows attempted to show the realistic side of policing.
A popular US import in 1967 was the show starring Raymond Burr, in a wheelchair. In ‘Ironside’, he played a consultant detective for the San Franciso Police. Paralysed from the waist down after being shot on duty, he solved his cases with the help of some sidekicks, and travelled around in a van converted to take his wheelchair.
1971, and larger than life actor William Conrad came to our TV screens, as the American cop, ‘Cannon’. Conrad had usually played a screen villain up to that time, and in this Quinn-Martin production, he played a cop who had retried from his job in the police to chase the money as a well-paid private investigator. It introduced the concept, new to me then, of famous ‘guest stars’, usually well known actors, or up and coming hopefuls who would go on to become household names. Unfortunately, it also taught me the golden rule of such dramas.
“The Guest Star Did It!”
Around the same time, pudgy-nosed film star Karl Malden, and new boy Michael Douglas arrived on British TV screens in the police detective series, ‘The Street Of San Francisco.’ Another Quinn-Martin production, this was filmed on location in that city, and ran for a staggering 121 episodes, indicating how popular it was.
Next to grace the TV screen in my house was the iconic ‘Kojak’, played to perfection by Telly Savalas. This epitomised the 1970s approach to modern police dramas. Filmed partly on location in New York City, and in other places purporting to be that city, the lollipop-sucking Theo Kojak was the king of his beat. He gave us a catchphrase that many people still remember to this day.
“Who loves ya, baby?”
I could go on and on. The popularity of the detective show endured, with series as diverse as ‘Colombo’, ‘Murder She Wrote’, and many more. It continues to this day; grittier, often more gruesome, and much more violent. Now we have Idris Elba as ‘Luther’, a revitalised Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and evil adversaries who are as popular as the detectives themselves. Sixty-two years after ‘Sabre of London’, I am still ‘Watching The Detectives’.
Let me know your personal favourites, in the comments.
Shopping in London in the 1950s was very different to the experience today. Most districts had shopping streets, or markets. Each shop would usually sell one specific item, such as meat in a butchers, or toys in a toy shop. There were no shopping malls, and the biggest department stores were considered to be too expensive for most working-class people.
Here is a selection of photos that show what shopping was like in my childhood.
Pie and Mash.
Meat pies served with mashed potatoes, and Eels sold stewed, or jellied.
This was a staple food of working-class people in many districts, and you could either eat inside, or take the food home.
In my childhood, TV sets had tiny screens, and were notoriously unreliable in operation.
Yet they were so expensive, it was not unusual for just one house in a street to own one, and everyone else pop in to watch it.
Outside of the more exclusive big stores in the West End, local department stores served other areas.
This was Jones and Higgins in Peckham, the nearest department store to where we lived.
I was born and brought up in a borough of London called Bermondsey. Although it has since been amalgamated into the much larger London borough of Southwark, it still retains its own identity with the people who live there. It is adjacent to the south bank of the River Thames, and close to the iconic Tower Bridge.
In recent years, the area has undergone some ‘regeneration’, and become a relatively fashionable place to live. But during my youth in the 1950s, it was an industrial area of central London, and everyone who lived there came from working class families on low incomes.
Some of the typical local houses I used to walk past as a child.
The empty space is where the house was hit by a bomb, during WW2. You can see the wooden supports holding up another bomb-damaged house on the right.
There were many popular pubs in the area. This one still stands. The Gregorian Arms was well-known as a venue to watch Drag artists when I was a boy, and my Dad would occasionally sing at the piano there too.
London in the 1950s
I often think about my childhood in London, and today was no exception. So with the help of some images found online, I would like to give you some idea of how very different the city was, more than sixty years ago.
I have been getting on with some housework this week, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when I woke up with that on my mind this morning.
Most people just do housework without thinking about it. Others know it should be done, but don’t bother with any, until they can’t stand the sight of their own surroundings. It’s a mundane subject for a blog post, I know. But bear with me, as it had a huge impact on my life, resulting indirectly in the failure of two marriages, and the loss of a huge amount of money too.
I was brought up in a very different time to what we have grown used to in the 21st century. From my earliest memories and life experience, I soon became aware that only women did housework. And they did a lot of it. Washing by hand, boiling the clothes in a huge pot on the stove, then scrubbing at them using a serrated metal board. Taking the wet washing across to a mangle, and turning the handle constantly, to wring all the water out before pegging up the items on an outside line. They scrubbed or polished front steps of houses, and struggled with ancient, ineffective vacuum cleaners to remove bits from the floor. Carpets were taken outside to have the dust beaten from them, using specially-shaped devices made just for that purpose.
They swept using stiff brooms, then swept again using soft brooms. When the washing was dry, they ironed it, using feeble irons plugged into light fittings, laying the clothes flat on any handy table. There were no proprietary branded spray cleaners, polish came from a tin, and it was hard like soap. Baths and toilets were scrubbed with scourers until they gleamed, and windows washed with a combination of water and vinegar, then polished later using newspaper. It seemed that almost every woman I ever saw, of any age, was wearing either an apron or a housecoat, and doing some chore or other. And when all that was over, all they had to look forward to in the evening was getting a meal on the table, and washing up afterwards.
Men and housework were two things never mentioned in the same sentence. Men just didn’t do it, full stop. Furthermore, they were not expected to, and many women would send them out of the house, to get them out from under their feet as they carried on cleaning. Sons living at home were not expected to do much more than to occasionally help carry in some heavy shopping bags. Husbands were expected to do ‘Man jobs’. This involved anything to do with ladders, general repairs, clearing drains, changing light bulbs, and fixing electrical items. If anyone was lucky enough to have a garden, the man would be expected to mow the lawn, and grow any vegetable there was room for.
So I got to get married at the age of 25 without ever having had to do so much as iron a shirt, turn on a washing machine, or run a hoover around the carpet. I didn’t see anything bad about that. After all, I was a product of my environment and upbringing, and I genuinely knew no better. I didn’t even consider it. It never once entered my head. And I am not talking about ‘the old days’ here, oh no. This was the late 1970s. Eight years later, when I was 33 years old, my first wife approached me and told me she wanted us to separate. I was naturally shocked and upset, especially when she told me that one of the reasons was because I had never done any housework. I had to admit to that charge, even though I found it unusual that any woman would even want me to clean the house, or iron my own shirts.
With the benefit of hindsight, I confess to being very stupid. But I suppose you ‘had to be there’, to understand where I had come from. Society and married life were changing, and I was failing to keep up.
I learned my hard lesson though. By the time I got married for the second time, in 1989, I was a housework demon. If I used a cup to drink some coffee, I went straight into the kitchen to wash it, dry it, and put it away. The same with my meals. Knife and fork down, food eaten, washing up done immediately. If I noticed a mark on the coffee table, I would get the spray polish, and give it the once-over. I was so clean and tidy, you could have eaten your dinner off the floor of my small house, with no need for a plate. Mirrors shone, furniture oozed the smell of polish, and carpets were spotless. And how I could iron. In one session, I would happily iron all thirty uniform shirts required for a month at work, as well as anything else on the ironing pile. Everything had its place, and it was all put in it.
Bringing someone into that world, in this case a new wife, was possibly always going to end in disaster, I should have seen that. My regime was set in stone, and carried out with military precision. She did her best to adapt, taking over the chore of ironing, thereby saving me a lot of time. But other obsessive aspects of my housework routine were less attractive to her after a long day at work, or during the precious two days off at the weekend. I carried on though, refusing to slip back to my former ways. And as I did so, I grew to resent her lack of involvement in the process. Eventually, I decided to split up with her, and one of the reasons I gave was that she didn’t do enough to help around the house. My life had turned full circle.
Many years later, I am 66 years old, and living in the countryside. I am no longer physically capable of keeping up such a manic routine of housework, and less bothered about what is considered to be acceptably tidy. I still get down on my hands and knees to clean the stone tiles on the kitchen floor, but it’s more of a struggle, and takes me a lot longer than I would like. Once it’s done, I have little enthusiasm for more, at least until tomorrow. I don’t wear many clothes that need ironing these days, and I don’t polish a surface every time I see a mark. Ollie makes small messes with his biscuits or stuffed toys, and I am content to leave them until the next time I have the vacuum cleaner out.
I went from nothing to everything, then back to something else in between.
For most people, it’s the weekend. Time for shopping, routine chores, perhaps a lie-in, after a busy week at work. For me, it’s just another day of the week now, one when shops will be more crowded, car park spaces harder to find, and staying at home is definitely the best option.
In the past, Saturday was the best day of the week, as far as I was concerned. My parents were usually at home, and my comics were delivered early on Saturdays too. I could read them in bed, delaying having to get ready to accompany my Mum to the shops. Men didn’t go shopping in my youth. That was something wives did, as a rule. The interiors of the cooked meat and cheese shop, the butcher’s shop, or the genial greengrocer’s display, such things were unknown to male shoppers. Their retail experience only extended to visiting the tobacconist, getting a suit measured, or popping into the barber’s for a haircut. And shopping involved walking, not driving. If a certain shop was too far, then we had to catch a bus to it.
Mostly, we walked to local shops, most only a few streets away. The owners of those shops were familiar. We knew their names, and the names of their children too. They might be invited to a family party, and shoppers would enquire about the health of their relatives. If something new was available, they would suggest my Mum might like to try it, and if she didn’t have the right change, or was short by a few pence, she could drop it in later, no questions asked. I walked around with my Mum, listening to the shop-keepers say things like, “He’s getting big”, or “What happened to his curly hair?” I stood patiently, as she gossiped for ages. They talked about local young men, away in foreign countries on National Service. They discussed people who had just had surgery, speculating on how they might, or might not, recover.
The climax of such Saturday shopping expeditions would be a visit to the bustling street market in Southwark Park Road, known as ‘the Blue’. Shouting stall-holders offering supposed bargains, people crowding around their gaudy displays, and the smells of everything from the jellied eel stall, to the overwhelming odour of frying from the fish and chip shop. After my duties as companion and bag-carrier, I would be rewarded with a doughnut from Edwardes bakery shop. This was usually a simple one, but would occasionally be a cream-filled split. I didn’t know the cream wasn’t real cream of course, and I didn’t care.
The string shopping bags would cut into my hands, causing me to keep swapping them from one side to the other, in the hope that would make some difference. I had to keep putting them down too, to pull up my long knee-socks, as they never wanted to stay up on their own, despite the elastic round the tops. When we eventually got home, lunch would be ham rolls, with fresh fragrant bread rolls bought at the same time as the doughnuts. My Dad would be watching TV, always sport, and I would be allowed to go out and play, if the weather was good. Otherwise, I would go to my room, re-read those comics, then take down a book, perhaps my World Atlas.
Saturday night was a big night for my family. The adults would all be getting ready to meet at the local pub, wearing their best clothes, and smelling of after-shave and perfume. I would have to go to my grandmother’s house, where all my cousins would congregate, awaiting the return of their parents from the pub. They came back happy and laughing, smelling of beer and cigarette smoke. Sometimes, I would already be asleep, and would have to be woken up to go home to my own bed.
Saturday was a long day back then.