A 1950s English Childhood
NIght of a Thousand Stars
My father is ninety years old and frail. I have recently started to feel an urgent need to gather information from him. We settle down in his sitting room for our daily morning routine of milky coffee, a chocolate biscuit, and a chat.
‘Tell me about the day I was born’.
‘The day you were born?’
He is surprised. This is a departure from my usual encouragement to reminisce about the war years and a question I have never asked before.
‘Yes. What was it like?’
‘You were born exactly a week after Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece. The winter weather in 1947 was bleak and it felt like the coldest night of the year. I skidded across the back yard to grab my bike and fetch Nurse Elliot’.
I picture a youthful version of father, trousers wrapped at the ankle into bike clips, large capable hands swaddled in hand-knitted grey gloves, woollen scarf swaddling his neck, slithering and sliding across the icy darkness of my grandmother’s yard towards the crumbling brick stable. I see him cycling furiously and precariously to summon the midwife, the light from his flickering headlamp weaving along the unlit lane.
‘There was a thick frost, a hoar frost. It was like a crust of diamonds sparkling on the lane and the trees. And the sky was clear; thousands of stars’.
Dad is lyrical when he talks of the countryside of his youth, now part of an urban sprawl that has grown up around him as he has grown old. There is a faraway look in his eyes as he ruminates. Dad can barely remember what he had for lunch yesterday but I see that images of the night that I was born are as fresh as on the night that it happened.
‘We’d converted the front sitting room into a makeshift maternity room for your mother. By the time the midwife had telephoned for the doctor and he had driven from his dinner party in one of the villages you had arrived. He turned up in a dinner jacket and bow tie, moaning and groaning about the state of the roads, and how cold it was in his car. So we stuck him in front of the fire and gave him a piece of Christmas cake and a tot of rum.’
So there you have it. I was swaddled in the carefully preserved lacy woollen shawl that now lies at the bottom of my blanket chest, snug in the crook of my mother’s arm. Whilst the doctor, delivered to the brown cracked leather armchair that stood by a glowing coal fire, was punished for his ill-humour with a premature slice of my grandmother’s Christmas cake; washed down with a glass of rum to wet my head/warm the cockles of his heart/take away the taste of the cake.
Memories are Made of This
I was born in 1947 and grew up in a small market town in the East Midlands area of England. My early childhood was during the years of post-war austerity. It was a time of make- do-and- mend. Luckily, mine was a resourceful family My mother knew how to turn the collar and cuffs of my father’s shirts when they became frayed, unravel a hand-knitted sweater and re-knit it into a new garment, how darn socks, and how to mend a sheet by cutting down the middle when the fabric had become wafer thin and turning the outside edge to the inside to sew a seam that would create a sheet that would serve for a few more years.
Our home was very close to the countryside and my father’s family was close to the soil, with a history of pig farming and market gardening. So, although I was a town girl, my early childhood had many aspects that were rural. My family kept pigs and grew vegetables on an allotment for many years.
A lot of my memories are associated with foods and treats that marked the cycle of the seasons and the festivals in the Church of England calendar. Harvest Festival was held when the crops had been safely gathered in. This was the time of year when we would eat pies made from apples grown in our garden and blackberries gathered from the hedgerows. Easter and Christmas were marked in time-honoured tradition with traditional foods that were not eaten at other times of the years.On Christmas Day we were served roast goose, Christmas pudding into which lucky silver threepenny coins had been tucked, Christmas cake, mince pies, and English trifle. A roast chicken was a luxury item reserved for Easter Sunday when we were also given (after sugar rationing had ended) chocolate Easter eggs to follow the toasted hot cross buns that we had eaten on Good Friday. Beef, nowadays an expensive luxury in the UK, was on the menu every Sunday. Simnel cake was a teatime treat on Mothering Sunday. Pancakes sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar were for Shrove Tuesday.
Living with the In-Laws
In the years after the end of the Second World War housing was in short supply so extended families often had no choice other than to live together in crowded conditions. My mother hated living with her mother-in-law and when I was still a babe in arms, though old enough to remember the incident of our departure, we abruptly went to live with her parents in the nearby city, in a busy and happy environment.
Post-War Housing in England
Many properties in England had been destroyed during the war and as approximately five million servicemen and women were gradually demobilised and returned to civilian life the urgent need for more housing increased . Our small town had mercifully been virtually untouched by bombs; only the Ransome and Marles factory had been targeted. But the government’s drive to build new homes provided opportunities for the construction of Council owned housing estates and clearance of sub-standard slum dwellings. As the streets of semi-detached homes with large gardens, indoor toilets and hot running water were built the rows of two-up two-down, back- to-back Victorian terraces were gradually demolished.
In 1951 my parents finally got a home of their own in Newark.The house was so newly built that construction work was still in progress on the estate and the roads had not yet been made. We were fortunate to be allocated a house as there was a long waiting list. Our family was prioritised in the points system because Dad worked in an industry categorised as making an essential contribution to post-war recovery and had been making a daily bus journey of over twenty miles to his workplace.
The house seemed very spacious to me and it echoed slightly; partly because the downstairs rooms had uncarpeted tiled floors and partly because we had brought only a few pieces of furniture with us. For some time our sitting room was sparsely furnished with two easy chairs, a little wooden stool for me, and a wireless on a small side table. I had a bedroom to myself for the first time.
The house was heated by fireplaces in the sitting room and the front bedroom and a small electric fire in the dining room. The fire in the front bedroom was lit only on Christmas morning or when somebody was sick. The first floor rooms were sometimes so cold in the winter time that ice would form on the inside of the windows during the night. I often washed my face in icy water in the morning and at bedtime I was tightly tucked under several blankets with a hot water bottle to warm my feet. Dad would come and sit by my bed for the ritual recitation of a prayer asking God to keep us safe during the night, followed by a list of the family members who I would like Him to bless. (The country had only recently emerged from six years of war, during which time there was a pretty good chance that a family would be wiped out by a bomb during the night, so requests for divine intervention were probably embedded in culture).
New council houses were coveted by families who had not yet been re-housed. A regular Sunday afternoon activity for families on the waiting list was a stroll around the estate. On one occasion a family of four crossed our unfenced front garden and peered through our window to watch us sitting by the fire enjoying afternoon tea!
The house was much nicer than where we had lived previously but I think my mother must have been very lonely at first. She had moved from a bustling city to the outskirts of a small quiet market town, a young woman, isolated from her close-knit parents, brother and four sisters. Bus fares were expensive and money was tight. We made the journey, which involved two buses,and a long walk, to visit my grandparents and aunts and uncles infrequently. But a relationship, albeit tense, was re-established with Dad’s nearby mother and sister. He and I were fairly regular casual visitors to their home – but the only times we visited and ate there as a family were at Christmas.
My Grandmother Had Victorian Values
I’ll be honest. I was a bit scared of my father's mother. She was a stern, harsh woman, with sharp angles and a black hat. We were required to address her as Nanny. She practised favouritism and conducted aggressive campaigns against people who crossed her – principally my mother. But I loved Nanny’s house. After an uneasy truce had been established between the womenfolk, it became my home-from-home: because four little cousins lived there.
Tuberculosis Was Widespread in the 1950s
Sometime in the nineteen-fifties the girls’ parents were incarcerated in a distant isolation hospital for almost two years whilst attempts were made to save their lives; cures for TB at that time being crude interventions that sometimes involved extensive surgery and a lengthy recuperation. The girls were left in the care of Nanny. Mum and Dad became substitutes for their parents, so we were at the house almost every day for one reason or another.
An Absent Mother
Drawn toward the attic, which was out of bounds but too tantalising to resist, my cousin Valerie and I would often tip toe up the stairs when the adults were preoccupied. The first-floor landing was eerily dim and the heavy varnished door that we passed on the passage to the narrow attic stairs was always closed. It was easy to conjure up images of ghosts on that landing.
‘Why is that door always closed?’ I whispered, imagining horrors that might be lurking on the other side.
‘It’s my Mummy’s room.’ Her eyes filled with tears. I knew that Valerie was very sad and pining for her mother. She had started to wet the bed, a sin for which I had seen my fearful grandmother deliver a sharp slap. I wrapped my arm around her thin little shoulders to hug her and share her misery. The absence of a mother was dreadful, beyond imagination. I didn’t know the word compassion but I know now that is what I felt that day on the landing.
On Holiday at Great Yarmouth in the 1950s
Whilst my Aunt was in the isolation hospital Mum and Dad occasionally took the four cousins on holiday with us. In 1954 we stayed at a boarding house in Great Yarmouth - Mum, Dad, Uncle Joe, Uncle Donald, and six children. It was only when we were leaving that Mum became aware that she had been a subject of speculation and gossip among the other guests. A 27-years old woman with three men and six children!
Life in a House WIthout Electricity or Flushing Toilets
From an early age, I felt a sense of history, of permanence, and of timelessness when I was at the house in Crown Street. It intrigued me because it was so different from my own home in a newly built Council house. When I was a young child there was neither electricity nor running water upstairs at Crown Street. When I sometimes stayed overnight at the house I was presented at bedtime with candles (exciting) and chamber pots (disgusting). I would lie between two little cousins, enveloped in the goose-feather mattress that Nanny herself had made in the ‘olden days’ and listen to the comforting tick and the regular chime of the grandfather clock in the downstairs passage.
The Kitchen Was the Hub of the House
A large black-leaded cooking range in the kitchen made that it was the cosiest room in the house, sometimes so warm that the top half of the door into the yard was thrown open. The scrubbed pine table was the hub of activity, the place where we all gathered. It was here that Victorian flat irons were heated in rotation on the range for ironing the weekly wash, the meals were prepared and eaten, and gossip was exchanged.
It was also the place where the children were given their weekly bath. A tin bath was dragged up from the cellar and placed in front of the range where it was filled with hot soapy water. The children to be bathed one after another. I can only recall one occasion when I was subjected to this indignity. I believe that tin baths were normally lined with linen to make them more comfortable bathing places but on this occasion, it hadn’t happened: the rough metal made me shudder when it made contact with my bottom as I was lifted into the water. I was a very little girl but I vividly remember wondering if it was the same bath in which Nanny salted her bacon!
Soldiers had been billeted in the house during the war and the habit of cramming people into a small space had stuck. There were two, and occasionally three, Irish lodgers so someone or other seemed always to be peeling the mountains of potatoes that were heaped on their plates at dinner time; though we rarely saw the men who when they weren’t eating their meals in the kitchen kept to their own rooms.
Nanny kept a bucket under the Belfast sink. Vegetable peelings and other scraps of food were consigned to the bucket to make pigswill for feeding to the animals that she raised on her nearby allotment. My father was sometimes called upon to cure a side of a pig in a bath of saltpetre down in the cellar. When it had cured for the correct period it was hung by a big hook from a wooden beam. When some bacon was wanted at breakfast time an adult would sharpen an enormous knife and go down to the cellar to take thick slices from it.
There were lots of interesting and ancient artefacts in the cellar,and I never missed an opportunity to explore them. I recall an iron press in which Nanny would sometimes, especially before Christmas, press an ox tongue, which was a popular delicacy with many people in those days.
© 2016 Glenis Rix