Posted in Event, Exhibition, Fashion History, History, Motoring History, Museum, Review, Vintage

1950’s Britain – Part One

Coronation bobby pins from 1953 that I recently brought at a vintage fair.
Detail of 1953 coronation bobby pin.

In the last few months I have found myself attending a number of 1950s themed events and this has spurred me on to delve further into this incredible decade in British history. There has never been a better time to look again at 1950s Britain, a decade of choice, change and challenges. Interest in all aspects of fifties living is currently at an all time high. This is of course partly due to the fact that we are now only one week away from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and a four-day weekend. If you are attending or organising any vintage events to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, then I hope you are able to gain inspiration from my four articles.  For more information on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, please CLICK HERE .

Another royal treat which may be of particular interest to those fascinated with the life (and loves!) of Queen Victoria are her private diaries which are now available, for the first time, on-line. The complete collection of journals are kept in the Royal Archives. Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee and the digitisation of her journals seems a most fitting tribute to this extraordinary Queen.  The journals cover her childhood to her Diamond Jubilee and beyond. The date range is 1832-1901. A truly absorbing read. CLICK HERE and start browsing.

Me wearing vintage at MShed Bristol 2012.

I recently attended a 50s and 60s Vintage Weekend (24th-25th March) at the recently opened Mshed Museum in Bristol.  Mshed Museum is located on Bristol’s historic dockside in a former 1950s transit shed. The Museum tells the story of the history of Bristol and the people who helped create this splendid city.  The inspiration for the Vintage Weekend came from an exhibition then on at the Museum, ‘An Eye For Fashion: An Exhibition of British Fashion Photography by Norman Parkinson 1954-1964’ (21st January – 15th April). The exhibition was made-up of sixty original Norman Parkinson photographs featuring British fashion designers from 1954-1964. The photographs were on loan from the Angela Williams Archive Designers of British Fashion portfolio and on display in Bristol for the very first time.  Angela worked as Parkinson’s assistant during the 1960s. To compliment the photographs there was also a really lovely exhibition, ‘Bristol Fashion’, featuring 50s and 60s costumes from the Museum’s permanent collection. There were loads of vintage trade stalls too. The weather behaved itself and a fantastic time had by all.  My friend and I created our own 50s inspired outfits which went down a storm.  We were also lucky to meet the delightful Angela Williams in person. Angela passed some very favourable comments about our vintage attire. My friend and I even made it into an on-line article written by Alice Roberton for the ultimate style bible of modern-day vintage lovers, Homes & Antiques magazine. A lovely mention too for Come Step Back in Time. For article, please CLICK HERE.

My friend and I took to the historic dockside in Bristol to do a mini-fashion shoot inspired by the Norman Parkinson exhibition. Mixing fashion with an industrial background is a theme that appears in a number of photographs by Parkinson from this period.
Me on the balcony at MShed Museum. Leopard prints were all the rage in the 1950s so I decided to base my outfit around this theme. To create the look, I took an old Marks and Spencers faux-fur hat, cut-off the brim and fashioned a pillbox style hat. The brim I attached to the neck of an old black, button-through cardigan to create a stylish collar. I removed the original buttons and replaced with pearl-look ones. I borrowed a pair of white 1950s gloves from my mother-in-law. The stockings I wore were period accurate, although they tended to lose their shape as there was no Lycra in them. I wore a 1950s style girdle brought from London-based vintage shapewear specialists What Katie Did. The handbag is an original on loan from my dear friend Carolyn Hair.

The topics I will be covering in my homage to 1950s Britain include: homes; interior design; fashion and beauty; leisure activities; food and cookery as well as some of the more unusual aspects of fifties Britain that are often overlooked in articles written on the decade. I have also interviewed various members of my family about their experiences of growing-up in Britain during the 1950s. I am thankful to them for being so open and honest with their replies to my endless questions.

My mother has been an absolute hero and agreed to tackle the construction of an original 1952 blouse pattern by way of an experiment by the modern dressmaker.  The challenge was not as easy as one might expect.  I bring you her do’s and don’ts for anyone wishing to take on this challenge for themselves in a later article.

I must also give special thanks to the wonderful curatorial team at St. Barbe Museum in Lymington, Hampshire. They have allowed me to share with you some really special 1950s items held in their collection, several of which were recently  put on display for their exhibition, ‘1950’s – Having it so Good’ (17th March-28th April).  A well-curated exhibition giving an insight into every aspect of life in 1950s Britain, topics included: Modern Society Comes of Age; At Home; Design in the Home; Car Ownership; Ceramics; Clothing and Fashion; Toys and Games; Music; The Festival of Britain; The Coronation; Immigration; Suez Crisis and The War. The exhibition also included material from the period donated by members of the public, a very nice touch indeed. The end result was an exhibition that was also a collaborative project with the local community in and around Lymington.

St. Barbe Museum are also holding a number of family friendly events to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, for further information on these, please CLICK HERE. There will also be an exhibition to accompany the events, showing how the people of Lymington have celebrated Coronations and Jubilees from Queen Victoria to the present day.  On display will be items not normally seen on display. The ‘Special Mini-Exhibition: A Royal Celebration’ opens on Saturday 2nd June and runs until Saturday 30thJune.

A selection of wartime ration books on display at Swanage Museum, Dorset.


1950s Britain was a decade of considerable change. The early years were pretty tough. Food rationing remained until 4th July 1954 and imported goods were very expensive. The average Briton could not afford any of life’s little luxuries. The supposed dawn of a new age precipitated a thirst for a better way of life and a new direction for Britain. The Nation’s increased optimism was to come extent, a little premature, as the threat of a Third World War loomed, instigated by the crisis in Korea. This dangerous political situation must have never been far from the minds of politicians and general public alike.

From the inside of my mother’s Royalty in Essex book. All schoolchildren in the UK received a special copy of a book to celebrate the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

On February 6th February 1952, King George VI died and his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, succeeded him to the throne. Although her coronation did not take place until 2nd June 1953. The new Queen and her husband offered the nation hope for a brighter future. The young couple was a breath of fresh air in the royal establishment. The new modern age needed a bright, young couple at its helm to steer the country into uncharted territories.  The nation came together in celebration of this momentous occasion and the coronation was the first major event to receive international television coverage.

My mother and aunt recalled that in 1953 all schoolchildren were presented with a souvenir book to mark the coronation.  The book’s contents varied from county to county but in each instance reflected that particular county’s royal connections as well its important historical landmarks. My mother and aunt were brought-up in Essex and they were given the book Royalty in Essex. After much rummaging in the attic, my mother managed to locate her copy.

Book given to all UK school children to mark the 1953 coronation. This book belongs to my mother.

By the end of the decade the average weekly wage had doubled and income tax rates fallen. Britons with disposable incomes burning a hole in their pockets were seduced by Americanisation and consumer culture. Mass consumption was born. Previously, every penny counted but now everyone could enjoy the benefits that came with greater financial freedom. Car ownership doubled during the decade and by 1959, one in three families owned a car. The road infrastructure underwent a major overhaul and Britain’s first motorway, the Preston By-Pass (now part of the M6 in Lancashire), opened in 1958.

My family and some of their friends on a beach in Hythe, Kent. 1956.

I asked my mother and aunt about what life was like growing-up in 1950’s Britain? My aunt recalls that for her it was: ‘..a very jolly, carefree time – which as children, all appeared to be, and we were indeed very happy. Our parents were very loving and caring and always endeavoured to protect us from the ‘outside world’ and we were very fortunate to have experienced a comfortable upbringing.’

Family outing to Wannock Tea Gardens, Polegate, Sussex. 1955.

The family photo albums from the period reflect this happy truth and include lots of snapshots taken on various days out. My mother and aunt were fortunate, my granddad owned a car which meant seaside holidays, picnics in parks and visits to places of interest were commonplace. In the early 1950’s, my granddad had a second-hand, dark, powder blue, Ford Consul MKI.

My aunt and uncle standing in front of granddad’s Ford Consul MKI. Galleywood Common. 1955.

Following receipt of a bonus from the company he worked for, in 1957 granddad purchased a new, grey Ford Consul 204E (MKII – 1956). Ford Zephyrs, Zodiacs and Consuls were very popular in Britain in the 1950’s, partly due to their American design influence. The Consul launched in February 1956 and for the next six years became popular with families, who were seeking a car with style, space and comfort. Consul’s had spacious interiors with six seats – created by the column interchange; there was also a large boot. The four-cylinder Consul had a cruising speed of 65 mph and the passenger comfort was good. All in all the Consul became the perfect classic, family car of the 1950s. Another popular car during the 50s was the British-made Morris Minor, marketed as a reasonably priced car for the masses, designed by Sir Alec Issigonis.

My granddad’s brand new Ford Consul 204E MKII. Brought in 1957.
My uncle beside the brand new family car in 1957.

The Consul proved to be a bit of an embarrassment to my aunt though. None of her classmates’ parents owned such a ‘flashy car’ and she hated being picked-up from Junior School in it. The embarrassment was so profound that she begged her parents to allow her to change schools so that she could travel back and forth on the school bus. Her parents ignored the pleadings.

Family picnic on Galleywood Common. 1957. My granddad’s pride and joy, the Ford Consul can be seen in the background. My grandma wearing her high heels for the occasion of a picnic always amuses my aunt.
My family at Pevensey Castle, East Sussex. 1955.


In 1951, the South Bank of the Thames underwent a massive programme of urban regeneration to make way for the forthcoming Festival of Britain. The Festival was in part intended as a nod to the Great Exhibition of 1851, a fact that was pretty much lost in all the hoopla surrounding the event. Between its opening in May and closure in September, 8.5 million people visited the Festival. The festival director, Gerald Barry, declared the event would be a “tonic to the nation”.

All over Britain, cities and towns held their own Festival of Britain celebrations. This is the programme produced by Southampton city and shows the Festival’s red, white and blue emblem designed by Abram Games. This object is on display at Tudor House and Gardens Museum in Southampton, Hampshire.

The patriotic colours red, white and blue shown in the Festival’s motif designed by Abram Games were with a mind to catch the Festival mood. It was supposed to represent the bright new mood of optimism of Britain in 1951. The nation was given a ‘face-lift’ and there was a general ‘tidying-up’ of towns, cities and villages. War damaged buildings were restored and rubble posthumously swept from the highways, byways and high streets. The government wanted to give the rest of the world the appearance of a whole nation pulling together and recovering from adversity.

The New Towns Act had been passed in 1948, resulting in the construction of some 2,500 schools and ten New Towns within the following decade. Some of these New Towns included Stevenage, Harlow, Basildon and Crawley. However, the Festival’s own Live Architecture Exhibition at the Lansbury Site was very poorly attended, one example of how the minds of the public were diverted to the jamboree on the South Bank.  Out of the 8.5 million Festival visitors, only 86,646 attended the Live Architecture Exhibition. All the exhibits at the Live Architecture Exhibition were constructed out of materials and layouts that were the result of scientific discoveries.

Post-war land space was scarce so architects designed Tower Blocks that were functional and of simple design. This hailed the start of the ‘New Brutalism’ architectural movement of the 1950’s.  The first New Brutalist building was the Secondary School at Hunstanton (1949-54). The movement was spearheaded by two, young architects, Peter and Alison Smithson.

The Festival offered an opportunity to showcase the best of British modern design. Robin and Lucienne Day, Sir Terence Conran and Ernest Race were a few of the high-profile designers involved in the event. Ernest Race’s Antelope chair, with its rust-proofed and stove-enamelled frame, plywood seat bent into shape by steam and pressure became a design icon of the Festival. The chair had ‘molecular’ style feet, picking-up the science theme evident right across all of the exhibits and room displays. Race’s chair was mass-produced in its thousands and seen by the public everywhere at the event.

Ernest Race’s Antelope Chair designed for The Festival of Britain. This chair was produced in 1950. It is on display at Portsmouth City Museum.

The concrete plant-pots seen all over the site were designed by Maria Shepherd and became very popular in the 1960s. The Royal Festival Hall, designed by Leslie Martin and her team, was built to replace the bombed Queen’s Hall. In the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, room-settings showed furniture with braced legs, cane work, aluminium lattices, Cotswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blonde wood and lily-of-the-valley splays of light bulbs.

Despite large visitor numbers to the South Bank, criticism was levied on the Labour government for organising such an extravagant event in tough economic times. Perhaps one of the many reasons why Labour lost the 1951 General Election. One of the most enduring symbols of the 1951 Festival of Britain was the Skylon. Designed by Hidalgo Moya, Philip Powell and Felix Samuely Bank.  The structure loomed large over the South Bank. Some commentators joked that it was like austerity Britain and had, “no visible means of support”.

Skylon’s post-Festival fate has long been subject to debate. However, after the Festival, the newly elected Conservative government thought the Labour commissioned structure to be a symbol of socialism. After a great deal of wrangling, Winston Churchill ordered it to be scrapped in 1952. It was not thrown into the Thames, which had been suggested by some but was turned into scrap metal and sold. A prudent measure, considering the shortage of these materials in Britain at the time.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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