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.
Here is the first post
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. 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).