Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Fashion History, Film, Historical Hair and Make-up, History, History of Medicine, Motoring History, Theatre History, TV Programme, Vintage, World War Two

Snapshot of 1965 Britain

Me talking to BBC Inside Out (South East) presenter Natalie Graham about the 50th Anniversary of Winston Churchill's funeral. On location at Hever Castle, Kent. January 2015. Broadcast BBC One, Monday 26th January.
Me talking to BBC Inside Out (South East) presenter Natalie Graham on location at Hever Castle, Kent. Broadcast BBC One, Monday 26th January, 2015. (16 mins 10 secs in).

I was recently interviewed by BBC Inside Out  (26.1.15 – 16 mins 10 secs in) for a segment to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Winston Churchill’s (1874-1965) death. Inside Out explored what Kent meant to Churchill as well as how he affected the lives of local people who worked for and met him. Churchill brought Chartwell, Westerham, Kent in 1922, the house became his lifelong family home.

Filmed on location at Hever Castle, Kent, I spoke to presenter Natalie Graham about society in 1965 Britain as well as Churchill’s painting legacy. We also discussed his friendship with John Jacob Astor V (1886-1971), 1st Baron Astor of Hever, a fellow politician, neighbour and owner of Hever Castle, one of the many Kent locations Churchill depicted in his art. Churchill encouraged Astor to paint, even giving him an easel as a gift. The easel, along with a paint-box and some of Astor’s artworks are on public display at Hever.

Occasionally with media interviews, one’s content is cut to the core and context of contribution gets lost in the editing suite. This article puts forward some of the fascinating points discussed during my original interview which sadly did not make it into the final edit.  These omitted observations provide us with a fascinating glimpse into what society was like in Britain 50 years ago. Churchill’s death marked the end of the old guard and a turning point in the social history of modern Britain.

  • ‘Churchill’s Funeral: World In Remembrance’ (1965) by British Pathe. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.

On 30th January, 1965,  Sir Winston Churchill’s  State Funeral took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Churchill was the only commoner of the twentieth century to be given a State Funeral. Fifty years ago, many thousands of people, from banker to hippie, lined the city streets on a freezing cold Saturday. Millions more watched the event at home on their black and white television.  Viewing this event as a grainy image would have only added to the general atmosphere of sombre reflection displayed by the viewing public.

In January 1965, there were 17.3 million televisions in private domestic households in Britain (Source: BARB), the same year approximately 16 million licences were issued. Television ownership had significantly increased since the previous televised civic event, the Queen’s Coronation on 2nd June, 1953. In that year, 13 million television licences had been issued.

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  • A family watch television in their sitting-room. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was estimated that 350 million people worldwide watched the live broadcast of Churchill’s funeral. In the United States, although there was live television coverage, it had no sound. Viewers had to wait for the videotape to be flown back to New York where it was immediately transmitted to the public in full.

Twenty-four hours before the funeral, London appeared rather subdued, although underground trains were still running, there were no visible signs of an impending civic event. Unlike today where barriers are erected, roads cordoned off and a heavy police presence is the norm. In January, 1965, everything continued as normal with only a few exceptions, flags were flown at half-mast and lights in Piccadilly Circus were turned out after the funeral, a similar gesture to when Churchill’s death had first been announced a week before.

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  • The window of Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly Circus, London, with the London Pavilion opposite, 20th April 1965. (Photo by Bert Hardy Advertising Archive/Getty Images)

After the service, Churchill’s coffin was taken by barge (the Havengore) along the Thames from Tower Pier to Festival Pier then onto Waterloo Station. The coffin continued its journey by train to Churchill’s final resting place, the Parish Church at Bladon, Oxfordshire. The interment was a private, family, affair.

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  • Churchill Funeral Train Memo. Pg 1, 1965. (Photo by National Railway Museum/SSPL/Getty Images)
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  • People watch from their garden at Winston Churchill’s funeral train. 1965. (Photo by Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images)

The carriage that transported Churchill to Oxfordshire was a 1931, Southern Railway luggage van (n. 2464). It is now on display in the National Railway Museum, York to mark this 50th Anniversary. What interests me most about this carriage is, like Churchill, it had a long service history. During World War Two it transported vegetables and newspapers across the country. At the end of its life, this humble work horse was redeployed to perform one more public duty, perhaps the most important in its history, to deliver Churchill to his final destination on life’s journey.

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  • Churchill’s coffin being loaded onto a train at Waterloo Station, London, before travelling to Blenheim Palace and Bladon after his State Funeral, London, 30th January 1965. The train was pulled by a Battle-of-Britain-Class locomotive named ‘Winston Churchill’. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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  • 28th January 1965: Two members of the Womens Voluntary Service serving free cups of tea to the crowds of people queuing to see Churchill lying in state at Westminster Hall in London. The sign reads: ‘You’ve got a long wait. Free Tea! Or give what you can’. (Photo by Philip Townsend/Express/Getty Images)

My stepfather, who was working in Westminster at the time, paid respects to Churchill at Westminster Hall during his lying in state period. Dad told me that he and his work colleagues were expected to visit Westminster Hall, it was their civic duty, despite the tedium of queuing for hours on end, “at least we were given free tea whilst we waited!”, he remarked.

Many thousands of people also made the pilgrimage to London to pay their respects to a man who was so instrumental in freeing Europe from Nazi tyranny. In sixties Britain, a new generation of young people were now able to enjoy the benefits of living in a free and liberal society thanks to the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents during World War Two.

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  • Photograph taken during the British Transport Films production ‘London’s Millions’, made in 1965. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
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My mother, a baby boomer, came of age in 1965. She remembers her family, neighbours and friends all watching the funeral on a black and white Bush television that had been purchased for the occasion. A number of the shops in her home town closed their shutters and a few shopkeepers put black crepe ribbons around their windows. Some employers also gave their staff the morning off of work to watch the funeral.

My mother in 'swinging London' c.1965. ©Come Step Back In Time
My mother in ‘swinging London’ c.1965. ©Come Step Back In Time

My mother recalls several older members of her parents’ generation wearing a black armband as a mark of respect, a tradition that had pretty much fallen out of favour with the public since George VI’s death in 1952 when this practice was commonplace.

My mum and family in Cambridge c.1965. ©Come Step Back In Time
My mum and family in Cambridge c.1965. ©Come Step Back In Time

Like so many who watched Churchill’s funeral on that wintry day in 1965, my mother particularly remembers the image of cranes along the Thames lowering their arms as the coffin, on board the Havengore, passed by. Although, this scene was orchestrated and paid for by the state rather than being a spontaneous heartfelt gesture from the ‘working man’. The dock workers who operated the cranes were actually paid to perform this manoeuvre. Some refused to do it as a point of political and personal principle.

  • ‘A Year In Our Time’ (1965) by British Pathe. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.

Churchill’s death marked the end of the old order and everything it represented, particularly Victorian conservatism. 1965 was the year that modern Britain began. Educational reforms gathered pace, new secondary modern comprehensives were created to provide a fairer system of learning for all. In hindsight, some educationalists acknowledge that the comprehensive system didn’t really work, it simply created a greater social divide within the secondary sector.

Labour MP Roy Jenkins (1920-2003) became Home Secretary in 1965. Jenkins immediately began to push forward with new legislation such as the abolition in Britain of capital punishment and theatre censorship, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, relaxing divorce law, suspension of birching and the legalisation of abortion.

The contraceptive pill first came to Britain from the United States in 1961 but until 1964 it was only available to married women for the sole purpose of regulating menstrual problems. In 1964/65 right through until the early 1970s ‘the pill’ revolutionised women’s (and men’s!) sexual freedom thanks to restrictions being lifted on the medical conditions for which the pill could be prescribed. Women could now take charge of their family planning, putting childbearing ‘on hold’ in order to pursue careers and educational opportunities if they should so wish. It wasn’t until 1974 that, controversially, ‘the pill’ became available to all women, for free, at family planning clinics.

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  • ‘The Pill’, 1965. A photograph showing a factory line of women packing boxes containing the contraceptive pill, taken by Chris Barham in 1965 for the Daily Herald newspaper. 8 million birth control pills were produced weekly at G.D. Searle’s High Wycombe pharmaceutical firm. This particular brand has the trade name ‘Ovulen’. The contraceptive pill was first distributed in Europe in 1961- recommended solely for regulating menstrual disorders in married women. By the late 1960s, however, ‘the Pill’ had come to symbolise social change, sexual liberation and women’s fight for equal rights. This photograph has been selected from the Daily Herald Archive, a collection of over three million photographs. The archive holds work of international, national and local importance by both staff and agency photographers. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)
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  • November 1965: Chelsea fashion designer and make-up manufacturer Mary Quant. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
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  • 28th September 1965: US actress Raquel Welch in London, in front of a poster promoting her latest film ‘One Million Years BC’. (Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)

  • ‘Matchbox Cars’ (1965) by British Pathe. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.

  • The Beatles go to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs, London, 1965. Film by British Pathe. Uploaded onto You Tube 13.4.2014.

In popular and consumer culture, 1965 was a landmark year. The Beatles film Help! debuted in London and The Sound of Music , directed by Robert Wise, was released. Mary Quant introduced the miniskirt from her shop Bazaar on the Kings Road in Chelsea, London. Sony marketed their ‘CV-2000’, the first home video tape recorder. Children’s toy ‘Spirograph’, developed by British engineer, Denys Fisher (1918-2002), was first sold.

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  • Sony CV-2000 half-inch reel-to-reel videotape recorder. In 1965, Sony launched a domestic videorecorder, the CV2000, which would record a 30 minute monochrome 405-line tv programme on a reel of tape. It was very expensive (several thousand pounds in today’s terms) and complicated to use so it never caught on for home use. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images).
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  • Pattern drawn by a member of the Science Museum Workshop staff using a Spirograph, a popular graphic toy that can be used to draw combinations of curves. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
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  • 1965: A high street supermarket with shelves laden with tinned food. (Photo by Jackson/Central Press/Getty Image.

The 1960s was when supermarkets first appeared on British high streets. Customer self-service replacing shopkeepers in taupe overcoats (a la Arkwright) who individually selected and wrapped your purchases for you.  Asda opened its first supermarket in Castleford, Yorkshire in 1965. Some might say that the supermarket concept, which began in this decade, altered the retail landscape of our high streets forever.

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  • New range of central heating boilers, 1965. In a studio photograph, a model adjusts her new Autostat 502 model central heating boiler from the Victory range of gas-fired domestic heating boilers. (Photo by Paul Walters Worldwide Photography Ltd./Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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  • c.1965: A housewife places a plate on the ledge between the kitchen and the dining room while her husband sits at a table in the dining room, England. The woman stands behind a stove. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Popular restaurant group PizzaExpress, founded by Peter Boizot, opened its first restaurant in London’s Wardour Street in 1965. Boizot was inspired by a trip to Italy and brought back to London a pizza oven from Naples and a chef from Sicily. Also this year, Kentucky Fried Chicken opened an outlet in Preston’s Fishergate, the first American fast food chain to open in Britain.

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  • Standing outside the fish and chip shop in two items from the Lee Cecil ‘Jetsetters’ collection are Jackie Bowyer, left, and Judy Gomm, right. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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  • The scene outside Wandsworth prison the day after Ronald Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers, escaped with three other prisoners. Biggs made his escape by jumping through a hole in the roof of the furniture van shown here, onto mattresses, and then out of the back of the van into a waiting car. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images).

On 7th January, 1965, identical twin brothers, Ronnie and Reggie Kray (1933-1995 & 2000) are arrested on suspicion of running a protection racket in London. On 8th July, Great Train Robber, Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Biggs (1929-2013), escaped from Wandsworth Prison having only served 15 months of his 30 year sentence. Biggs scaled the prison wall with a rope ladder and dropped down into a waiting removal van. He fled to Brussels by boat, then on to Paris where he had plastic surgery and obtained new identity papers. The following year Biggs arrived in Australia where he lived until 1970 when he fled once more, this time to Brazil, a country which did not have an extradition treaty with Britain. He didn’t return to Britain until 2001 where he was re-arrested and imprisoned but released on compassionate grounds, 6th August, 2009.

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  • A search is carried out on Saddleworth Moor for missing children Keith Bennett (top right), Pauline Reade (bottom left) and John Kilbride (bottom right), October 1965. All three were the victims of Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Moors murderers, Ian Brady (1938- ) and Myra Hindley (1942-2002) carried out their gruesome crimes between July, 1963 and October, 1965. Their victims were five children aged between 10 and 17 – Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Ann Downey and Edward Evans—at least four of whom were sexually assaulted. The pair were arrested on the morning of 7th October, 1965.  Their trial was held over 14 days beginning on 19th April 1966, in front of Mr Justice Fenton Atkinson.

On 8th November, 1965, The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended capital punishment for murder in England, Scotland and Wales, for five years in the first instance, replacing it with a mandatory sentence for life imprisonment. When sentencing Brady and Hindley in 1966, the judge passed the only sentence that the law allowed: life imprisonment, the public were outraged.

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  • 23rd December 1965: Blue Peter presenters Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton with the programme’s dog, Honey. Blue Peter is a BBC children’s TV programme. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

  • ‘Pop Goes The Fashion’ (1965) British Pathe film. Uploaded to You Tube, 13.4.2014.
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  • People/ Fashion, Couple walk hand in hand, the lady wearing white striped jacket and navy blue skirt, and the man a smart suit, Trafalgar Square, London, 1965 (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
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  • Entertainment, Personalities, London, 29th June 1965, Five hopeful young women about to start rehearsals for West End roles in ‘Passion Flower Hotel’, L-R: Karin Fernald, Jean Muir, Jane Birkin, Francesca Annis and Pauline Collins (Photo by Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
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  • 14th February 1965: Pop singer, pirate radio station operator and would-be member of parliament, Screaming Lord Sutch (David Sutch) dancing at the Black Cat Club in Woolwich. (Photo by Pace/Getty Images)
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  • 7th October 1965: Actress Britt Ekland sitting on the Mini her husband Peter Sellers (1925 – 1980) bought for her birthday, at the Radford Motor Company showroom, Hammersmith, London. (Photo by David Cairns/Express/Getty Images)

  • ‘Diane Westbury is Miss Great Britain’ (1965) film by British Pathe. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.

  • ‘Avengers Fashion Show in 1965 – “Dressed To Kill”‘ by British Pathe. Uploaded by Vintage Fashions Channel, You Tube, 9.9.2011.
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.