In a series of chapters to be posted, this blog will tell the story of a childhood in South-East London in the years after the Second World War.
When I am on my way to home games at Charlton, I pass an extensive development of new flats between London Bridge and Deptford. On a number of balconies can be seen tricycles and other children’s toys. Their parents are probably relatively affluent, but their children have to live in a high rise environment and they may well be renting their homes. When I was growing up in the 1950s, although my father was a skilled worker earning £500 a year (£10,569 a year in 2012 prices) around the middle of the decade, and my mother did not work at all, they could afford a 1930s terraced house with a decent sized garden.
This contrast reflects a number of factors, not least the development of an ‘hourglass’ society in which the number of relatively well paid skilled manual jobs has declined. It also reflects the high cost of housing in the world city of London in which supply does not grow quickly enough to match demand and where many properties are bought by foreign investors and then left empty. Many Londoners can no longer afford to live in the city.
This book looks at the experience of growing up in the south-east London suburb of Plumstead Common, London SE18 in the 1950s with some reference to both the academic literature on the 1950s and that on suburbs. It is not meant to be an uncritical celebration of the past. It does not seek to present an overly nostalgic view of the 1950s, to recreate an imagined past, which is not to say that I had an unhappy childhood or there were no positives.
A friend of mine commented that nostalgia about the 1950s was all very well, but 'does not explain the desire to "escape" from the 1950s clearly felt by many folk.' Manchester University's Michael Moran has commented, 'It is salutary to recall what an appalling, repressed, monochrome world existed in Britain in the 1950s and how far we have come since then.' A more optimistic view is taken by Katherine Whitehorn (2008: 44): ‘There’s been a tendency to look on the fifties as simply a damp patch of ground between the battle ground of the forties and the fairground of the sixties; yet it was anything but. It is true that there were austerities, but we were used to them, and as they gradually ebbed away, we had the heady sense that everything was getting better.’ This was encapsulated by the 1950s exhibition staged by Compton Verney, Warwickshire in the summer of 2016 which emphasised the bright new designs of the era. 1950s exhibition
One person who E mailed me when I developed a web page on the experience of growing up in the 1950s commented, 'Our generation was the first to challenge parental precepts; we had disposable income thanks to the security provided by our fathers and we also benefitted from the '44 Education Act, school milk and the Welfare State. We also developed a rebellious streak as personified by the Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers; and later the Hippies. Whether we belonged to these groups or not, they had a major effect on societal thinking.' Another person commented, 'Life then was simpler, more uncluttered, more focused. We did not want as much. Our only aspiration was to get an education.'
Recalling what he terms a lower-middle-class-London suburban life in the 1950s, David Lodge writes, 'Its anxieties and privations made us temperamentally cautious, unassertive, grateful for small mercies and modest in our ambitions. We did not think that happiness, pleasure, abundance, constituted the natural order of things; they were to be earned by hard work (such as passing examinations) and even then it cost us some pains to enjoy them.' On the whole, life at the beginning of the 21st century is better than in the 1950s for the majority of people (although clearly there are exceptions such as the homeless and even the 'working poor'). However, for most people life is more varied and challenging, offers more opportunities and is generally less constrained about how one should live one's life. There is a greater tolerance of diversity and less pressure to conform to a uniform, ‘approved’ lifestyle.
The aftermath of war
It is important to remember how close the experience of war was in the 1950s. Many families had lost at least one family member, although ours was fortunate in that respect. The physical aftermath of the war was evident in the number of undeveloped bomb sites, or even damaged buildings. I remember travelling through the Barbican area of London and seeing a whole zone of the city completely levelled.
The other aftermath of war was rationing. I remember sweets still being on ration. The early 1950s were very much an age of austerity, although there was the hope of a better future, exemplified by the 1951 Festival of Britain. As the Compton Verney exhibition revealed, once Winston Churchill became prime minister he ordered the demolition of the symbol of the Festival, the Skylon. He thought that it represented a socialist statement rather than an aspiration for a better future. I can just remember going to the fun fair at Battersea that was part of the Festival. What distinguished the latter half of the 1950s from the first half was the growth of conspicuous consumption and in particular the availability of labour saving devices for the home.
House and home
By using Google Earth, it is easy to visit the ‘banjo’ cul-de-sac where I grew up and look at the front of my house in some detail. The top of the cul de sac led to extensive allotments which were also at the back of the house so it was a relatively quiet location. The allotments were later abandoned, but have never been built on. In 2016, I sponsored the creation of a 1950s allotment at the Compton Verney exhibition. The house was a terraced one, just six houses in the terrace, built in the late 1930s and my parents moved in when they married, along with my maternal grandmother. My father had been living on an early experiment in social housing, the Progress Estate at Eltham. My mother and her mother had been living in a rented Victorian house in nearby Plum Lane, where my grandfather had died not so long before.
The inter-war housing boom had first been directed at those in secure non-manual occupations such as teachers. However, this market quickly became saturated and builders started to look to the better paid working class occupations as potential purchasers. Indeed, an uncle lived on a large-scale development at Elm Park by Costains which was specifically targeted at this market. ‘From about 1932, with mortgage interest rates coming down, and building costs at their lowest since 1914, a fair number of houses appeared in the market in the price range £350-550 … opening up the possibility of house ownership … to the better-paid manual workers.’ (Jackson, 1973: 190). Whilst there has been some debate in the literature about who could afford to buy in suburbia, a case study of nearby Bexley ‘demonstrates that the affordable loans would have been available to skilled manual workers’. (Mace, 2013: 60). My father, a carriage and wagon fitter for the railways, obtained a mortgage from the Modern Permanent Building Society which was run by a local firm of solicitors and later absorbed into the Woolwich. In the 1950s the other people living in the road had better paid working class, although in some cases semi-skilled, occupations such as postal sorter, lorry driver and shop assistant.
As a terraced house, the house represented a lower cost solution as the market for the semi-detached houses became saturated. However, it was still important for private developers to distinguish their product from the ‘grimly uniform neo-Georgian facades of local authority estates.’ (Scott, 2013: 69). ‘One of the most visible differences between speculative and council houses was the ubiquitous front bay window.’ (Scott, 2013: 70). This was duly supplied, along with the French doors in the rear reception room to provide access to the garden. (Scott, 2013: 71). Tiling was placed on the wall underneath the upstairs bay and other features included a porch and ‘leaded lights’ in the front door.
It’s a surprise to see the front door of the house painted blue when we always maintained it in a red colour. A garage has been let into the large front garden. What I did not recall was how much fussy detail there was on the exterior of the house in terms of such features as tiling on the bays which must have been fiddly and quite expensive to apply. This reflected the fact that ‘private developers were at pains to separate their product from the stripped down neo-Georgian aesthetic of public housing.’ (Mace, 2013: 60).
The interior of the house has probably not changed very much. The front room or lounge, which was only used when we had ‘company’ (visitors), or where my grandmother was placed in her coffin before her funeral, is now used by a chiropodist who lives in the house for his practice. Family life was centred on the living room at the back of the house which was of a similar size to the lounge. Whereas the front room was heated when necessary by an electric fire, this room had a fireplace where lighting the fire involved much fussing around with a gas poker and sticks of woods and often necessitated holding a sheet of newspaper against the fireplace. There were often complaints about the quality of the coal and the presence of ‘slack’ in it. The chimney had to be swept regularly, which invariably left a film of dust over everything. Once this task was neglected and the chimney caught fire with a great roaring sound.
In the rest of the room was a dining table with chairs, a settee and, from around 1954, a 12 inch black and white television in one corner. There was a carpet, but it was not fitted, leaving the edges covered just in linoleum. There was also a sideboard for storing plates, glasses and table cloths. High quality glassware was displayed in a cabinet in the longue which I still have in my house today. A ‘serving hatch’ in the wall opened on to the kitchen, but this was rarely used in practice.
As was typical of houses of the period, the kitchen was a small galley like room and really totally inadequate, given that it also housed the copper and mangle for washing clothes. Washing was heated in the copper and the squeezed through the mangle. There was no fridge which meant that shopping had to be conducted on an almost daily basis. In modern homes, the kitchen-diner is often the focal point of the house and in a room on which much money is lavished on state of the art equipment. In part, this reflects a more diverse cuisine and a greater interest in innovative cooking, the first stirrings of which were being encountered in the 1950s.
Upstairs there was a large bedroom in the front of the house which could be heated in very cold weather by a gas fire. The back bedroom was also of a decent size and was occupied by my grandmother. The bathroom had a bath, wash basin and toilet, but no shower which was relatively rare in those days. Most people took a bath once a week which was a great ritual but did not involve the inconvenience encountered by many people who still had no bathroom.
The final room upstairs was the box like bedroom which I occupied and which was over the downstairs passageway. There was a large loft space above to which there was access, but it was never used for any purpose.
The back garden was laid to lawn with flower beds along the side. At the end of the garden were a few fruit trees. A back gate opened on to a back passageway where the dustbins were kept. Vegetables were not grown in the garden, as we had an allotment garden at the top of the adjacent cul de sac where we also had fruit bushes.
A distinctive suburb
London suburbs vary in their composition, but this was not one of the complete suburbs built from scratch on farmland like Queensbury in North London studied by Mace (2013). Plumstead was not a place where there was ‘no there, there’. Victorian housing started at the bottom of our cul-de-sac and extended all the way down to the River Thames, having been built to accommodate workers at the Woolwich Arsenal (where my maternal grandfather had worked). This was of variable quality. Some of the houses were quite large and of good quality, e.g., those on Plumstead Common Road. Others were modest versions of the Victorian villa and there was also slum housing that was eventually demolished.
Further up Shooters Hill was an area of more expensive housing erected by John Laing and Company and always referred to as the ‘Laing’s Estate’. A relative by marriage who was a teacher lived there, as did the headmistress of my primary school. Parts of it had some excellent views over London up towards Tower Bridge, but although the houses were superior to ours, the treatment of this site was not that special. It was as high as Hampstead, but this was South London rather than the more prestigious north and it did not become another Hampstead.
In some respects the area was quite cut off. The underground network did not then extend into South-East London at all and the Southern Electric trains at Woolwich Arsenal were some way away. There was a good London Transport bus service along Plumstead Common Road, but that was ten minutes walk away. South-East London had a certain distinctiveness, marked by its own version of the London accent which I was always able to identify in later life. It was some time before I realised that it was the London accent with an underlay of the old rural Kent accent.
There is ‘a very long and continuing critique of suburbia that sees it as inherently problematic’. (Mace, 2013: 5). The critique runs along the lines that suburbs, particularly those of the inter-war period, offer a repetitive monotony that is not aesthetically pleasing. For gentrifiers it has little appeal: ‘the inter-war suburban semi-detached house would not communicate the same cultural kudos, it simply doesn’t have the same cultural power as its Victorian predecessors.’ (Mace, 2013: 166). There was also an argument that the inhabitants of suburbs were too preoccupied with status differences and with consumer durables as a means of demonstrating them. For the new suburban working class, ‘respectability generally involved adopting, or at least projecting to the outside world, a broader, coordinated material ‘lifestyle’ that encompassed all aspects of observed consumption – creating consumption communities, tied together not by background, workplace or religion, but by shared material values.’ (Scott, 2013: 138).
Suburban life could be dull and relatively conformist in the 1950s, but this was to some extent offset by the fact that London was a capital city of what was then seen as a major world power. Life in the suburb might be limiting if secure, but there was also an awareness of a bigger, more cosmopolitan and racially diverse world within touching distance and that was important for me in shaping my later life.
Jackson, A.A. (1973) Semi-Detached London (London: George Allen and Unwin).
Mace, A. (2013) City Suburbs: Placing suburbia in a post-suburban world (Abingdon: Routledge).
Scott, P. (2013) The Making of the Modern British Home (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Whitehorn, K. (2008) Selective Memory (London: Virago).
Chapter 2: Family
As I have noted already, I lived with my parents and my grandmother. My father's family had Scottish origins. He was born in North Woolwich and lost his mother when he was about twelve years old from the 'Spanish' influenza outbreak at the end of the First World War. His eldest sister looked after the bereaved family of five children. They were allocated a house on the new 'Progress' estate at Eltham built by the Co-op. My father left school at fourteen and obtained an apprenticeship with the Great Eastern Railway as a carriage and wagon fitter. This eventually gave him a steady if not spectacular income as a skilled worker. As he was in a reserved occupation, he did not fight in the war.
My father's journey to work involved an early start to get a bus to Woolwich, across the foot tunnel under the Thames and then a train from North Woolwich to Stratford. When I was very young, he was home at 6.30 Mondays to Wednesday and 6 on Thursdays and Fridays. In those days you had to work Saturday mornings as well, but this was then cut back to every other Saturday and eventually phased out in the early 1960s.
My grandfather Thomas May (first left) with colleagues at Woolwich Arsenal
My mother's family moved to Plumstead during the First World War so that my grandfather could take up a post as clerk of works at Woolwich Arsenal. He died relatively young in 1934. I suspect that carcinogenic substances he encountered in his work at the Arsenal may have played a part.
My mother trained as a hairdresser and worked at a salon in The Hollow, Plumstead Common where she made some lifelong friends. She stopped work when she got married, as was not unusual in those days, and never worked again, even in a part-time capacity.
My grandmother was born in 1875 and was in her mid-twenties when Queen Victoria and in some ways she was an embodiment of Victorian values. She didn't like me playing out in the street with other children as she did not think this was respectable.
However, she was also very interested in football. Admittedly, this was partly for gambling purposes with the Racing and Football Outlook carefully studied each week. However, she was also fascinated by issues of promotion and relegation and spent much time discussing these with me. What interested her were the factors underlying success and failure. This gave me an interest I was to pursue systematically later in life.
The wider family
Lakedale Road, Plumstead, then a busy local shopping centre.
However, my wider family were also important. My mother's sister, Doris, had married a newsagent who had a shop in Lakedale Road, Plumstead. Late on Sunday morning my father and I would walk down the hill to Uncle Sid's shop to collect the papers. Against the background of the hissing gas lamps, my father and my uncle, joined by the occasional customer, would discuss politics and football. All the Sunday papers were available, and my uncle urged me on the importance of 'reading between the lines'. In this way, a lifelong interest in politics was developed.
In the garden of my uncle's shop in Lakedale Road, aged two or three.
My uncle was an intelligent man. He had started life taking an engineering course at Woolwich Polytechnic, but had to abandon it to go and work in his father's shop which was 'his livelihood'. The most fulfilling part of his life was when he was assigned to RAF ground crew during the war and was able to use and develop his engineering skills maintaining planes. Late in his life he told me that he felt it had been a wasted life 'chained to the shop counter'. His generation did not have the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills in higher education.
My aunt and uncle enjoyed a slightly more affluent lifestyle in Belvedere
Initially Doris and Sid have lived over the shop. However, after the war they were able to afford a semi-detached house in Belvedere which was then officially in Kent. Green London Country buses went past the window. They had a large garden with a steep slope at the back and meandering paths which I enjoyed following as a child. I have one or two of their garden ornaments in my garden today. Childless, and running their own business, they were more affluent than we were which was a cause of some slight resentment on my mother's part.
My father's oldest brother, Walter, had a junior management position. He was a home movie enthusiast and my cousin has showed me some of these, reminding me that he was a rather dapper, suave individual. He used to go on cruises with his wife and friends long before this was a widespread practice. He made various toys for me such as bus (large enough to sit and ride on) with working lights. He was also someone with a considerable intellectual curiosity.
Visiting him in East Ham and my father's eldest sister and her husband involved a trip across the river, using the Woolwich Free Ferry. In those days, it was still operated by paddle steamers. These were replaced by diesel boats and these in turn are going to be replaced soon. At peak times, three boats operated, which required a bit of juggling at the landing places, but there were generally just two operating when we travelled at the weekend. You can read more about the Free Ferry here: Woolwich Ferry
We then had to catch a bus and this involved crossing the docks which were then busy with traffic. We were often held up by a 'bridger' as a large boat went across in front of us, providing a link with more exotic parts of the world.
There was also a contact with a wider and more exciting world. Somewhat unusually, our house was named after a state of the union (Virginia). From time to time, letters would arrive from our relatives in the southern states where some of them were involved in courthouse politics. Most exciting of all, one of them might come to Britain, and we would be swept off to a Park Lane hotel for a meal. Naturally, I was fascinated by this country, glimpsed through movies, where people seemed to be so rich and where every other person seemed to be a gangster.
Chapter 3: Holidays
These were an important part of our life and provided a welcome interruption to routine.
Days or afternoons out were themselves enjoyable. One was to ride on the trams (I still have my Last Tram week ticket) to Well Hall Pleausance at Eltham, a pleasant set of gardens with ponds full of fish which fascinated a small boy. When I was last there, the ponds were empty, but the gardens were re-opened after a major restoration in December 2002. Before re-opening them, it had been necessary to install a security system following vandalism. There have been repairs to the Tudor moat, garden walls, water features and fountains, and the park has a new sunken garden and a rockery.
As my father worked for British Railways one of the perks of the job was privilege travel at reduced or no fares. As far as I recall, these included two family tickets that could be used anywhere in the country (or abroad), and six that could be used in what was then the Eastern Region.
One day trip was to go to Fenchurch Street and get the train to Chalkwell, then walk through the gardens to Southend Pier and take a ride on the electric railway out to end of the pier and enjoy the various amusements.
A favourite Saturday or Sunday trip was to Frinton and Walton. This involved going to London Bridge, getting a bus to Liverpool Street and then catching the train to Frinton. There was an hourly Clacton interval service that divided into portions for Clacton and Walton at Thorpe-le-Soken, but very often we got one of the supplementary summer services to Clacton and got off at Thorpe-le-Soken. This was a country junction station some way from the village and seemed to be plagued by wasps. A class N7/0-6-2 tank engine would take the three coach shuttle train for Walton away from Thorpe on a steep gradient. After calling at Kirby Cross, the train would arrive at Frinton. This was then a passing point for trains, but is now single track.
Frinton was a very exclusive resort first developed in the Edwardian era ('Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the incontinent') with the main entry being by a level crossing over the railway. There was an uproar when the gates were replaced by barriers in 2009.; Connaught Avenue, named after the Duke of Connaught (the third son of Queen Victoria who died aged 91 in 1942) was once known as the 'Bond Street of East Anglia'. A ban on public houses was lifted in 2000. We always followed the same routine, first going to the Copper Kettle Café (now an up market fish and chip shop, eventually allowed in Frinton) then we would call in at Woolworths towards the bottom of the street.
The sea now beckoned and we would walk across the Greensward and down the cliffs to the gently sloping sandy beach. Uniformed beach inspectors ensured that public decency and order was maintained. The promenade was lined by beach huts which are still there today.
In mid-afternoon we would walk towards Walton-on-the-Naze. At one end of Frinton were some beautiful 1930s houses which were said to be homes for film stars. Oliver Hill was appointed as the architect for this scheme in 1934. A handful of houses were built in a rigorous modern idiom, but in others the impact was toned down by the application of pitched, green-tiled roofs.
Each year more of the cliff had crumbled away between the two towns. Houses were sometimes seen tumbling down the cliff. The erosion in this area has now been halted by coastal protection works, but in an earlier period (1929) the railway had to be relocated. The Naze continues to be eroded: Falling into the sea
One of the big attractions at Walton was the pier, the second longest in England at 793 metres. A little two foot gauge train hauled by a petrol driven engine with a steam outline went out to the pier head. According to Keith Turner, Pier Railways and Tramways of the British Isles it had a half mile length and was 'Simply laid with light, flat-bottomed rails bolted to wooden sleepers laid directly on the decking'. The open coaches had tramway-type cross-bench reversible seats. There were extensive amusements at the landward end of the pier: I particularly enjoyed the ghost train.
We would then walk into town and buy shrimps or crab. We would try and catch the interval service and at Thorpe run across the platform to the buffet car where we would have toasted tea cakes. The engine was invariably a Britannia, a powerful and majestic engine, possibly too powerful for its task. It also ran for insufficient years to provide an economic return Electrification was completed in 1963.
In times past there would have been a little train in silhouette moving along Walton Pier.
I greatly enjoyed a return to Walton and Frinton in the summer of 2017. The pier survived storm damage in 1978 and there were ongoing repair works. The railway closed in the late 1970s, but we enjoyed the walk out to the pier head. All the old fashioned rides were there, now with an historic value.
On the cliffs at Frinton in 2017 with Victoria and Clarissa
I think the last time I was at Frinton was in the 1960s. In those days you could see Radio Caroline offshore whereas now wind turbines can be seen in the distance out at sea. If I had been told then that I would be back in 2017 with two charming teenage granddaughters, I would have been very surprised.
Frinton is less exclusive than it was, with closed nail bars in Connaught Avenue. We drove to the beautiful 1930s houses and they had a 'wow' factor for the granddaughters. The tall 1960s blocks of flats did rather spoil the look of the Greensward.
What surprised us was that house prices were significantly lower than in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. However, there is not much employment in the vicinity and many of the houses are too large for retired people wanting to downsize.
Our summer holidays were usually taken in Cornwall where we would rent a cottage in various parts of the county, although I remember that one year we stayed in a converted bus at Bude. I remember enjoying the sandy beaches. It must have rained sometimes, but I don't recall it happening that often.
Tighbeg looks as good as I remember it.
For a couple of years we took our summer holiday in Scotland and went to Cornwall at Easter. This involved a trip on the sleeper and waking up among the Scottish mountains and lochs. One year we stayed in a guest house in Fort William and took the train to Mallaig and the ferry across to Skye. On another occasion we rented a remote cottage on a loch near Oban, now advertised as a luxury property and 'one of the ultimate secluded Highland hideaways'. It was used in the filming of Ring of Bright Water. We took a sea trip to Staff and Iona, but became fogbound so we never made either destination and had to stay on the ship overnight in Oban.
Another destination was a farm on the edge of Exmoor near Lynton and Lynmouth. This involved plenty of walking, but the healthy farmhouse food made up for it.