So here we are at the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II, who inherited the throne before her 25th birthday after her father the former Prince Albert, who reigned as George VI, died in his sleep from a heart attack. The occasion has been celebrated by most newspapers, with coverage bordering on the fawning, and some harking back to the 1950s.
Gawd Bless 'Er!
Indeed, the forthrightly monarchist Daily Mail has brought its online readers a distinctly rose tinted look into the past, showing a world moving “at an entirely different pace”. Readers are told that “crime levels were a tenth of today’s”, that well worn standby of the Dacre press. Much crime in the 1950s went unnoticed and unrecorded. And many folk had nothing worth nicking.
Moreover, there was no “war on drugs”, so the country’s hundred or so heroin addicts could get their supplies legally, without fear of adulteration or dirty needles. But for some reason, the Mail misses that in its walk down its own leafy, warm, summery and extremely well behaved Memory Lane, where everyone knows their place, and towns and villages are filled with Their Kind Of People.
But what were the 50s really like? If you were in a salaried occupation, you might be able to get a mortgage. Most of the workforce were not, and very few bought their own homes, and then only through the existence of friendly societies and Co-Ops. Buying on credit – “hire purchase” as it was known, as opposed to the Stateside “instalment plan” – was in its infancy.
But that was for a limited range of household goods, including furniture and what we would call “white goods”. Everything else you paid for in cash. No such thing as Plastic cards. There was a waiting list for a land line telephone. Until 1955 there was only one TV channel, and after that there were only two. And until July 1954 some foodstuffs were still subject to rationing. Automatic washing machines did not exist.
Most households did not have refrigeration, so were dependent on daily shopping. Supermarkets were a thing of the future. Shops did not open on Sundays, and one day midweek was “early closing”. Pubs closed at 2200 hours, maybe 2230 on weekends. Few people had access to a car. There were no motorways. Foreign travel was virtually unheard of. Rail travel was slow, unpunctual, and dirty.
Most houses were heated only by open fires. Air quality in towns and cities was generally appalling. Life expectancy was poor compared to today. Diet was also generally poor. But, there being no internet or other quick fact checking mechanism, newspapers could get away with publishing slanted and selective copy, so long as they avoided those who could afford to take them to the cleaners.
Small wonder the Daily Mail so loves the memory of the fifties.