Working Class Life in the 1940s & 50s
When I look back on my childhood the late 1940s and into the 1950s it seems almost like it happened in another world. In a way it did because so many things have changed since then.
If it were possible for someone to visit 2018 from that time, today would have seemed like another planet,. rather than another time.
I grew up in a working class district of the city of Nottingham called the Meadows. The area was built on what formally had been pasture land and meadows in around the 1840s. But by the 1940s with street after street the area had precious little of its green open spaces left.
The only green I can remember was the local Recreation Park. The park had a children’s play area with swings, a see-saw and a roundabout. It also had two public tennis courts, crown bowling green and a large field. The field was used for Cricket or Football depending on the season.
The housing in the Meadows was predominantly brick built terraced housing. Most of the houses were two up two down.with the front door opening straight onto the street. and the back door opening onto a back yard that had a coal-house and an outside toilet.
How did those women managed to bring up families with all that entails in conditions far less than ideal.
Our homes had no inside toilets and no bathrooms. We had no fridges, washing machines or tumble dryers. We did not have hot water on tap. How they managed will be a mystery to those who only know of a life with all those things as necessities.
But women, did bring up children in such harsh circumstances. I know first hand because my mum was one of those fantastic women. Not only did they manage in those conditions they did a superb job.
They did such a good job that most of us grew up and have very strong and positive memories of our childhood.
As a child growing up in the Meadows each the day of the week seemed to have its own structure. You could tell what day it was by what you were eating and what activities happened on that day.
I remember that the weekends were especially busy. Every Saturday morning I would run errands for an old lady. She would give me a shopping list with a purse and some money. I would go to the local Co-Op and get her weekly shopping for her.
In those days the prices stayed the same from one week to the next. So you knew pretty much exactly what the shopping bill would come to if you ordered the same things.
I would also run to the corner shop for any bits that she needed during the week. The old lady lived with her unmarried son in a house on the next terrace. Her back yard backed onto ours, and I used to climb over our back wall to get to her house.
The old lady's son would give me 6d on a Saturday morning for doing his mum's errands.
My mum use to work in a shop on the main road, I think it was called the Home and Colonial.
Mum had one of those brains that could out add a calculator. When she went shopping she would be adding things up as she went. Woe betides the shop assistant that rung up mum’s shopping and got it wrong. Mum would know to the penny what the total was.
The tills in the places that my mum worked in back then didn’t do the adding up for you. The shop assistant had to be able to do that. Some use to write down on a piece of paper the cost of each item as you ordered it.
Then when you had finished they would add the items up. But my mum did not need to do that as she could do it in her head as she served you.
My mum was like a calculator, her mental arithmetic skills were awesome. Mum's skill at adding up in her head came in useful in the women's darts team where she would do much of the scoring.
A dart board has numbers 1 to 20 with an area that doubles the number and another that triples the number. You had to be able to quickly work out the score from the three darts thrown. Scores such as treble 19 plus double 17 and treble 14 and add them all together to get the total.
Mum could tell you the score as soon as the darts hit the dart board. She also was good at working out the odds for my dad when he wanted a flutter on the horses.
Mum was usually at work on a Saturday so often it was my job to go to the butchers Saturday morning. The Butchers was across the road from from where my mum was working.
I went to pick the joint of meat for our Sunday dinner. Our order was regular so all I had to say was what kind of meat we wanted that week.
Most working class families back then had a roast dinner on a Sunday. We would always have a roast joint of meat on a Sunday but I never can remember having a roast outside of a Sunday.
In the 1940’s coal was king. Most houses back then had coal fires. Even the larger homes in the more well off districts had coal fires.
Some people used gas for heating. Gas at that time was made from coal. But gas was not usually the main source of heat in most homes.
Gas cookers were by far the most popular form of cooking. But the old fashioned coal fired ranges were still plentiful. Electricity was beginning to be used as a form of heating but it was expensive.
If you had an electric cooker you were thought to be very modern. But most of my mum’s generation thought that electric cookers didn’t cook your food as well as a gas cooker did.
The by product of the production of coal gas was coke which was a smokeless fuel. Street lights by this time were usually powered by electricity. Electricity at that time was produced mainly by coal fuelled power stations.
Some streets and homes still were gas lit. I know that one of my uncles in Birkenhead still had gas light in his home as late as the 1950’s.
Chickens and Turkeys
Strange as it may seem today we only saw Chicken and Turkey at Christmas. Poultry back then was not intensively produced in battery farms. They were free range which made them expensive to rear.
Poultry of any kind was expensive. Most working class families only bought a bird on special occasions. which for our family was Christmas dinner when we had a turkey.
Saturday morning my mum would send me to the butcher. I would tell the butcher that my mum wants a piece of pork, beef or lamb about this big. My mum would show me with her hands how big she wanted the piece of meat.
I would say to the butcher"My mum says I’m to tell you that Jean wants a bit of beef this big." Showing him with my hands the size of the joint that my mum wanted.
More often than not we had beef. The fat and juices that remained after the meat had been roasted in the oven would be poured into a small basin. When it cooled it set.
This dripping as we called it was delicious. We would spread it on bread with a little salt on it. Bread and dripping was something I loved to eat.
The butcher would always give you some extra fat to put on the top of your roast. This was so you would have more dripping after the roast had been cooked. Bread and dripping was often given to the family for tea on Monday.
In working class England tea was the early evening meal. For most people with young children teatime was around five o’clock in the afternoon.
At teatime the meal usually consisted of sandwiches of some sort. Dinner time in working class areas was usually at mid day.
Only the more well off would have their dinner in the evening.
Poverty and Rationing
In many ways though we were poor we as children never knew that we were. Everyone we knew lived in homes like our own and had a life style that was basically the same as ours.
Poverty is usually experienced as a relative thing. So if everyone around you is in the same state as you are you don't feel like you are doing without. Nor do you feel underprivileged.
Speak to anyone who was brought up in our neighbourhood around the same time as I was. Almost everyone of them will tell you that their childhood was in the main a very happy one.
As children we were unaware that we were poor or that we lived in what some would call a slum. We just thought we were ordinary and that is how it was for everyone. We didn't have things like the TV to tell us how well others were living.
Another thing that caused people to not feel hard done by rationing. The fact that many items in the late 40’s and early 50’s were still on ration was a great equalizer.
Rationing meant that couldn’t buy more than your share of the rationed items. Even if you had a little more money than someone else you still couldn't buy more than your ration. You had to have the right coupons to buy items like sugar, sweets, tea, cheese eggs etc
More about rationing and poverty and its effects on the working class will be in part two of this hub. I hope that you have enjoyed this small look back to a bygone era in the life of a working class family in the UK.