1950’s Britain – Part Two

Traditional 1950s, British living room. Exhibit at Portsmouth City Museum. Not everyone in post-war austerity Britain could afford to have the latest modern design interiors that emerged during this decade.

THE HOME BEAUTIFUL – FIFTIES STYLE

The shortage of housing and available workforce to build it, reached crisis point at the start of the 1950s. Prefab housing was one solution to the problem, it was relatively cheap, easy to erect and required less manpower to construct than a brick-built house. Winston Churchill began working on a temporary housing programme as early as 1944, resulting in the passing of the 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act. The construction of prefabricated housing became a priority and £150 million was committed to the project. Factories that had once manufactured aircraft parts and armaments were now put to good use churning out prefabs.

I found an excellent short film by British Pathé, ‘A Home of the Future’ (1944). Essentially, a piece of government propaganda promoting the benefits of prefab living. However, the film features a middle-class housewife inspecting and giving her seal of approval to the interior of one of the show homes opened to the public on Millbank, London in 1944. The prototype is aptly named, ‘Churchill Villa’. To watch the film, CLICK HERE.

Prefabs were bungalow-style homes with mains electricity, bathroom (complete with heated towel rail), kitchen, lounge, bedrooms and a small garden plot. The kitchen was ultra-modern with a gas fridge and even an ironing board that folded out-from the wall. The prefabs were only ever intended to last for ten years and provide temporary accommodation while new, brick-build homes were constructed by local Councils. When it came time for people to finally move into their new, permanent homes, many did not want to leave their much-loved prefab. Some even remained for the duration of their lives, refusing to budge.

The prefabs, with their plain, simple aesthetic, were popular with large sections of the population. For those who had been living in slum conditions or bomb-damaged terraces, a newly fitted kitchen, indoor toilet, central heating and hot water must have seemed the height of luxury. The prefabs were dubbed by some the “People’s Palaces”. There were downsides to living in a prefab, the walls were thin, they were cold in winter despite the heating system and condensation became a particular bugbear.

My great-aunt’s ultra-modern living room. My great aunt married in 1955 and this was her first home. They were a stylish, young couple and wanted a home to match.

During the latter part of the decade private, modern-style, new builds were fashionable among the middle-classes. The average cost of this type of house would have been £2,000. For the average man earning £800 per annum the maximum mortgage that could be obtained was about £2,400. This new type of housing had fewer rooms than a traditional Victorian or Edwardian home which had been popular amongst the middle-classes in pre-war Briton.

With this new wave of young home-owners came the popular trend of DIY (do it yourself). The 1950’s is sometimes referred to as the ‘decade of DIY’. In 1955, Christine Veasey, the founder and Editor of Pins and Needles Plus Home-Making, a monthly DIY magazine for the up and coming DIY’ers declared that:

..everywhere you look, today, there is evidence of the tremendous “do it yourself” boom that has started to make Britain’s home-owners into a new generation of week-end carpenters and decorators…There isn’t a room in the house that will not offer us some chance for improvement at a modest outlay, so let’s become spare-time craftsmen in repairing, enlarging, modernising and cabinet-making.

People had already been conditioned to ‘Make-do and Mend’ during the war, therefore thrifty regeneration had become firmly embedded into the British psyche. DIY seemed the natural next step on the road to customizing the interiors of your home. DIY Magazines, home decor books, hardware stores and television programmes, such as ‘Barry Bucknell’s Do It Yourself’, were emerging left, right and centre. The colour palette of the 1950’s home went from monochromatic to polychromatic. The DIY boom gave rise to a number of inventions that are still with us today such as Polycell’s range of adhesive and filler products. In 1953 the Czech chemist Dr Saloman Neumann invented Polycell, a water-soluble wallpaper paste. In 1954 he developed Polyfilla, a cellulose-based plaster and wood filler. Dr Neumann went on to create in 1957 a wallpaper stripper, Polypeel and a brush cleaner Polyclens. Finally, in 1958 he brought-out a paint stripper, Polystrippa.

In 1924, the Electrical Association for Women was established by Mrs Matthews and Dame Caroline Haslett of the Women’s Engineering Society.  The aim of the Association being to foster women’s interest in the domestic consumption of electricity. The bewildering array of electrical kitchen gadgets available in the fifties, meant there was a real need for an organisation that could help demystify their existence and promote safe usage. The Association came to an end in the UK in 1987.  In Christine Veasey’s Pins and Needs Treasure Book of Home-Making (1955) there is an entire chapter on electric lighting, repairs and safety.  A particular problem during the decade would have been radio-interference. She advises:

..buzzes, bangs and crackles on your loud-speaker, snowstorms and spots chasing across your TV screen are probably due to radio-interference.  It can be caused by certain types of electric motors in vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, sewing and washing machines, mixers, etc., and by faulty thermostats on electric irons and blankets…If your neighbours complain and the cause is traced to your house you must by law have it put right either by repair or by fitting a “radio-interference” suppressor.

Formica, the heat-resistant plastic covering that rejuvenated worktops and tables was invented in 1912 and subsequently introduced to Britain in 1947.  It was easy-to-clean, hygienic, stain resistant and provided the homeowner with ‘wipe-over’ luxury. Even your dining table could be covered with a wood grain design which Formica boasted would result in the finish outliving the table.  Formica came in a wide-range of bright colours. Formica was not only used as a heat-resistant covering it was also used in the production of heated hostess trolleys, teasmades, steam irons, heated trays and kettles.

In the 1958, April edition of Southern Gateway, the wonders of plastic were praised:

…the contents of the average kitchen have been quite revolutionised by plastics. The modern refrigerator is full of polystyrene mouldings and parts right down to the ice-cube trays. Washing machines have many plastic parts, and are finished off with tough, colourful plastic paints…..many foodstuffs and vegetables are now packed in plastic film. Polythene bags and wrappers abound and are invaluable…I think it is quite clear that plastics have virtually taken over in the home. We have to realise that the family has been joined by Polystyrene, Polyethylene, Polyvinyl-chloride, Polyester, and many others. They are all glamourous, colourful and tough. Plastics make a major contribution towards better living and an easier time for the housewife.

G-Plan dining set from 1950s featured in a room display designed and styled by Kiera Buckley-Jones for Homes and Antiques magazine. The room display formed part of the Museum of 51 exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, London in 2011.

In 1953, the G-Plan furniture range launched, produced by the High Wycombe firm E. Gomme Ltd. The range was designed by Donald Gomme, the grandson of the company’s founder Ebenezer Gomme. Ebenezer, began making furniture in the 1880s from his home in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. Following a move to Totteridge Road, High Wycombe, Ebenezer set-up a chair workshop behind the family home. In 1898, he went into partnership with his brother-in-law, Jim Pierce and in 1909 they opened a factory on Leigh Street, High Wycombe. Before the Second World War, the company had 800 employees and established itself as one of the biggest furniture makers in the country. During the Second World War, two of E.Gomme Ltd’s top designers, Mr Barnes and Edwin Clinch, were on the board set-up by the Government to design the Utility Line of furniture. The name G-Plan is derived from a shortened form of the tag-line created for the range by advertising executive, Doris Gundry (of J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency): ‘the Gomme Plan, a Plan for living.’

G.Plan’s Librenza room divider. Part of the Museum of 51 living room displays by Homes and Antiques magazine.

G-Plan was extremely popular in 1950’s Britain for a number of reasons:

  1. it was made of light oak, stylish and reflected modern design principles;
  2. the first range of furniture that could be brought piece-by-piece, thus enabling the budget conscious customer to save-up for each item but knowing that even if it took a while between each purchase, all the items would still go together;
  3. E. Gomme Ltd rolled-out an aggressive advertising campaign aimed directly at the public consumer and not just the retailer. This was an unusual strategy for goods in the early 1950’s;
  4. The customer could view the furniture in situ in staged room settings at the showroom. The room settings also included suggested items of accessory.

All of the above points resulted in such a high demand being created for G-Plan furniture, that an eighteen month delivery wait came into force. In 1954, a showroom for G-Plan opened in London. The G-Plan Gallery was located in Vogue House, St. George Street London. In 1954 E.Gomme Ltd took over two other furniture factories in High Wycombe, Birch’s and Castle Brothers.

By 1958, E. Gomme Ltd and the G-Plan furniture range had reached its peak of popularity. In the Southern Gateway magazine, March 1958, a report was printed on G-Plan. The writer noted that the 1958 range represented a shift towards a more sophisticated, contemporary and smarter style. The report continues: ‘The aim is to create furniture which is not only decorative, but eminently practical and suited to the current way of living.’

Interestingly, the piece of furniture cited as being the best illustration of this, is G-Plan’s contemporary four-poster bed, inspired by the past but an entirely modern interpretation. The report comments that:

It’s proportions enable it to fit as happily into a small bedroom as into a large one; in addition it has such characteristically present day advantages as drapes which are easily detachable and washable, and built-in diffused lighting which obviates the necessity for a bedside lamp.The four pillars were slim and made out of brass and a colourful chintz frieze with flower design surrounded the canopy and bed itself. The bed came in two sizes, 3ft or 5ft.

The report also mentions that E.Gomme Ltd’s announcement that:

…in spite of the rising costs of raw materials and wages in the furniture trade, not only have they been able to keep the prices of their furniture steady but in a few cases they have been able to reduce them. The firm believe that the upholstered prices are remarkable value for money in view of the unusually high standard of materials and craftsmanship employed in making them.

Other interesting items of furniture from the 1958 G-Plan range included the ‘K’ang sofa’. Inspired by the ancient Chinese, the sofa could accommodate a small group of people in an intimate atmosphere for example around an open-hearth. The idea being that if you teamed together two of these sofas you could seat six or eight people at any one time, thus challenging the traditional lounge seating arrangement created by the three-piece suite. Nylon was introduced into the G-Plan range for the first time in 1958.

The G-Plan Gallery for that year was decorated predominately in black and white, offset by: ‘Siamese pinks, peacocks, flamingos, biscuits, nasturtiums and a whole gamut of greens from eau-de-nil to lichen. In complement to these colours the wallpaper of the Gallery features large floral designs often on a plaster white ground.’

HMV television. Model 1811. 1949-50. On display at the Sammy Miller Museum, New Milton, Hampshire.

TV from the Museum of 51 living room.

The growing number of households owning a television and/or Hi-Fi equipment by the end of the 1950s, is also reflected in E. Gomme Ltd’s G-Plan furniture ranges around this time. G-Plan responded to their customer’s growing consumer needs by offering them furniture designed with a complete speaker enclosure, acoustically engineered by Goodmans. The Campaign Chest from 1958, in walnut brown and black lacquer was a particularly ingenious mutli-use item of furniture, it could be a dressing-chest, studio chest and seat, a stand for a tv set. The long low table could be used to hold a Hi-Fi cabinet or cocktail cupboard.

1950s TV from the room display at Portsmouth City Museum.

The annual Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition attracted curious onlookers and design savvy home-owners in equal proportion. In the 1950’s visitor figures were high. The exhibition was in its Golden Jubilee year in 1958, the first exhibition having been held in the spring of 1908 in which Lord Northcliffe launched the event at Olympia, London. In 1958, the exhibition was a lavish affair. At the west end of the main hall there was a representation of the Palace of Fontainebleau, complete with a boulevard of green carpet lined by 25 ft high trees and a horseshoe staircase leading to the terrace of the Palace. One of the terrace rooms in the Palace was designed by Cecil Beaton in an Edwardian style, another by Sir Hugh Casson – the music room – an all-white interior, finger-tip control panel swivel-fixed to a couch and all upholstered in scarlet. The music room had been designed to show how to create the best possible conditions for undisturbed music listening. The finger-tip control panel enabled the listener to also adjust the room’s lighting. The Palace was a marriage of old and new in terms of design and style. The ultra-modern music room contrasted with the side galleries that contained historic furniture from a number of National Trust properties. In 1958 there was also a Gallery of Furniture and Décor, consisting of fourteen rooms, eight of which were contemporary in style and the rest from different periods, including: a Swedish farmhouse of 1790; a traditional Japanese kitchen and a modern Paris flat. Contemporary interior designer Mrs Gerald Legge designed a bedroom in flame and aquamarine punctuated with bright gold furniture.

Fashion and beauty also featured prominently at the 1958 exhibition. There was a Fashion Theatre sponsored by Woman. During each week of the exhibition, the Fashion Theatre showcased clothes made out of natural fibres, each week a different natural fibre was chosen. Make-up manufacturer Max Factor sponsored a Palace of Beauty with numerous make-up demonstrations and competitions. There was also a Do-It-Yourself Theatre, a TV feature, an Avenue of Carpets, Household Services and Domestic Labour Saving Sections. The exhibition continued as The Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition until 2009. It is now known as the Ideal Home Show and is now a much more scaled down version of its former self.

For a delightful, light-hearted look at the 1958 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, take a look at this short British Pathé film taken at the event. I think the commentator’s remarks sum-up the Exhibition brilliantly: “Mix the things you can afford with the things you can’t, so that you will be dazzled, without being depressed.” For film, CLICK HERE.

A few more British Pathé, home interior gems:

Bailey’s Maestro caravan. 1955. This was on display at MShed Museum, Bristol’s recent vintage weekend. The caravan is part of the Museum’s permanent collection.

AN ENGLISHMAN’S HOME IS NOT HIS CASTLE BUT HIS CARAVAN

Caravanning was a leisure activity that increased in popularity by the end of the 1950s due to the growing level of car ownership and mass-consumption juggernaut. At the 1958 exhibition, a twin maisonette caravan went on display. The post-war housing shortage also fuelled demand for caravans as permanent homes.

Bristol based caravan firm, F. G. Bailey Ltd (now trading as Bailey Caravans), formed in 1948 and is one of the longest established, UK caravan manufacturers. Its founder, Martin Bailey, had worked as a sheet metal worker during War with the Bristol Aircraft Co. After the War, he became a cabinet-maker, producing utility furniture; the transition into caravan building seemed the right next step. It took him six months, working single-handedly, to build his first caravan which he sold at Ashton Gate Market for £200. He soon launched his first caravan, the Maison, a 20 ft long by 7ft 6 inches wide mobile structure suitable for both holiday and domestic use.

Interior of Bailey’s Maestro Caravan, 1955.

He followed this in 1951 with the Bailey Maestro, designed for all-year round living. As the decade progressed, production increased and the cost of materials became cheaper. The 1955 model of the Bailey Maestro that you see here cost a relatively cheap £288 (ex works), thanks to a government reduction in Purchase Tax. It was 14ft long by 6ft 6 inches wide with an all aluminium exterior and fully insulated. The interior boasted a large food cupboard, kitchen unit, one double and two single beds, large opening windows, stable door style entrance and a large Perspex roof light. The dinette tables and benches convert into a double bed, there is a two-ring gas cooker, gas lighting and a chemical toilet but no fridge, oven or electricity. The Maestro’s body is wooden-framed with hardboard panelling inside, Isoflex insulating material was used between the two skins. The roof was painted canvas, a common technique at the time. In the same year Bailey also launched the Maison 18, more suitable for static holidays or private let. The Maison 18 was an 18 ft luxury, four-berth caravan. The interior had a large end kitchen, full-size gas cooker, toilet and hand basin, two wardrobes, sideboard, four large shelves, large kitchen sink and drainer. The cost of this luxury model was £399 (ex works).

Another very successful caravan manufacturer that benefited from the surge in popularity of caravanning in the 1950s was Bluebird Caravans based in Parkstone, Dorset. The MD of Bluebird, Mr William Knott (sometimes referred to as Bill Knott), enjoyed all the trappings of his new-found wealth. Mr Knott had started his business in 1935 and managed to keep much of his retail prices relatively low due to his skill at buying bulk raw materials at competitive prices. In 1959, nearly three-quarters of the caravans that his firm made were intended for the residential as opposed to the touring market. However, in 1959 Bluebird launched their first motor homes, a popular addition to the Bluebird range. In July 1963, Sprite caravans merged with Bluebird to become Caravans International (CI). This new company concentrated on producing holiday homes and mobile homes. I found another British Pathé gem, ‘Caravan Man’ (1959), featuring William Knott. To view the film, CLICK HERE.

At this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (22nd-26th May), garden designer Jo Thompson created a display on behalf of the UK Caravan Club to celebrate its 105th anniversary.  What do you think the centrepiece of the garden was? Yes, you guessed it correctly a 1955, aluminium caravan, called Doris.  The garden is called ‘Celebration of Caravanning’ and won a Silver Gilt Medal. CLICK HERE for more information on this exhibit.