Monday 1 November 2021

I remember the 1950s

The early years: losing Little Granny; the 11+; Childwall Valley High School; convalescence; the end of rationing; National Service for young men; Coronation celebrations.

It is more than 18 months since I wrote my last blog post, remembering the 1940s, and in that time life has changed in ways that I could never have imagined. In February 2020 I was commenting in my diary on Storm Dennis and the fact that it was the wettest month on record; by the beginning of March we were all becoming aware that Covid 19 was taking hold, with 100,000 cases worldwide and in the UK 160 cases, with two deaths. By March 23rd, we were in lockdown and plans to celebrate our 60th Wedding Anniversary with 30 family and close friends had to be cancelled. By April 25th I had noted in my diary that the UK's death toll was over 20,000, not counting deaths in nursing homes and in the community. Everyone was optimistic that 'it would all be over by summer' - echoes of  'it will all be over by Christmas' at the beginning of WW1! We did have a brief respite in the summer, we were able to see our grandchildren in August 2020 - although with lots of restrictions still in place - but I don't think anyone could have foreseen that a over a year later, despite a very large proportion of the population having been 'double-jabbed', we would still be having daily updates of increasing numbers of positive cases, and a daily death toll reported in the news.

As recently we have experienced added problems in our daily lives - petrol stations without fuel because of a shortage of tanker drivers, empty shelves in supermarkets, gas and electricity prices going through the roof, it has been an interesting exercise to look back to the 1950s and remember how simple life was in those early post-war years.

The decade began sadly for the family. My Spanish grandmother - we called her Little Granny because she was only 4'7" tall - had been ill for some time. Towards the end of the month she was virtually in a coma and my mother had gone to stay in the Liverpool Corporation house where Granny lived with my aunt and her young family. Mum sat by her bedside for a week, hardly sleeping, but came back at tea-time on the Saturday to check that we were all OK at home. It was unheard of for working-class families to have telephones and the only people we knew who were 'connected' lived in the dairy at the top of our road. This family must have been sick and tired of running around the neighbourhood relaying urgent messages and sadly, when my mother had only been back in the house half-an-hour, it fell to them to knock on our door to tell us that Little Granny had died. I can only imagine how exhausted and heart-broken Mum must have felt as she left the house to catch the bus back to Page Moss knowing that if she had only stayed another hour she would have been with her mother when she died. Little Granny died on the 28th of January and, by one of those strange coincidences, that was also the date my mum died some 36 years later.

I  missed my granny; catching the bus with my mum on Saturdays, or oftener during school holidays, to spend a couple of hours with her.  I wasn't left with memories of days out - I don't remember Gran ever leaving the house except for my uncle's wedding in 1945 - there were no bedtime stories, or chatting together about nothing in particular. My memories are of sitting with my younger cousins as a language I didn't understand floated above my head - the Spanish language. Strange how blood ties can be so strong that you can love someone dearly without ever having had a straightforward conversation with them. Despite the fact that she'd lived in England 35 years by the time I was born, I never heard my granny speak English and my mother only ever spoke Spanish when she was with her mother and sister, never in our own home. My cousins were luckier, they must have absorbed so much of the language just by being with our granny every day.

The month after Little Granny died, I headed off to the local secondary school one Saturday morning to sit the 11+ examination. The school was a mile away and I only just got there in time. Why? Because I had to wait until my dad had gone to work. He'd decided some time before that he didn't want me to go to Grammar School, my sister had passed the 11+, and perhaps he was worried about going through the expense of a uniform etc a second time, you didn't need a uniform at Secondary school. However, my mother was determined I'd get the same chance, so it hinged on whether Dad went to work that Saturday morning and I could go without him knowing. I waited until I heard him leave the house and the sound of his motor-cycle faded into the distance then dashed downstairs, managed to eat some breakfast and set off at a run, with my pencil case and my registration form.

Of course,  Mum and I hadn't thought as far as wondering what would happen if I passed the exam! 

The news came in May that I was one of ten pupils from my school who had passed. We still didn't tell my dad. My school uniform had to be bought from Lewis's department store and over the coming weeks and months my mother scrimped and saved and bought it bit by bit, hiding it at the back of the wardrobe. She couldn't manage the price of a new gabardine or leather satchel so scoured the local paper for second-hand ones. Dad didn't find out I'd passed until the night before I was due to start school, by which time it was too late to do anything about it as I hadn't been registered with the local Secondary school. 


Despite this shaky start, I enjoyed my time at Childwall Valley High School. There were problems of course. I recently unearthed the report for my first term, dated December 19th, 1950 and wish I'd kept all my school reports as that first one tells me things that I'd forgotten completely. My mum must have been pleased to read that I was making good progress, working well, and that my conduct was good and helpful, but the Headmistress's request 'Perhaps you will come and see me about Joan next term', would have made her even more anxious than usual. The reason for the Head's concern was that I had '27 Days Absent'.

I have no memory of why I'd missed over 5 weeks of schooling in my first term and had been absent for every exam except Art, but I assume it was for health reasons as the following January saw me being admitted to the Margaret Beavan Memorial Home in Wales - a convalescent home for children from Merseyside with health problems. I was there for a total of six weeks, a long time for a child when family wasn't allowed to visit. I can remember going to the washroom every Saturday morning just before the doctor arrived and washing my face in very cold water, then pinching my cheeks until they were red, in the vain hope that he would think I looked healthy enough to go home! My memory of those six weeks is very sketchy, I don't remember any of the other 'patients' - all girls. The boys' home was next door and I do remember that on a Saturday night we had a film show, projected onto a sheet/or screen in the hall, on the back of the front door, while the girls and boys, allowed to mix for this one night, sat in rows on the stairs, littlest ones at the front. We must have spent a lot of time outdoors, despite the weather, and I also vaguely remember a trip to Grych Castle where the Luton Girls Choir were giving a concert. 

Pensarn beach, I'm the girl on the front row wearing a hat and scarf!

When my mother did eventually go to a meeting with the Headmistress, she was told it might be better if I was sent to an 'open-air' school on the Wirral for children with chest problems. Obviously I would have had to live in and I was relieved when my mum refused to send me away from home. My health must have improved as the only other long spell of absence from school that I remember was when I had my tonsils removed. I was 12, spent a week in Whiston hospital and another week at home. I must confess though to 'pulling a sicky' on the day I knew we were going to dissect a frog in Biology!

In 1950 Harold Wilson became MP for Huyton, to my mother's delight, and throughout the early 1950s changes were happening to the rationing system that had been in place since 1940. By 1953, coupons were no longer needed for clothes, petrol, soap, tea, eggs, sugar and sweets, among other things. Meat, bacon and cheese were the last to come off ration in 1954. Fruit and vegetables had never been rationed but nevertheless were still in short supply, especially those which had to be imported.

In 1952 my 18-year-old brother was called up for National Service in the army. I still have a souvenir he sent for my 13th birthday in May of that year when he was doing his basic training.  He was soon sent overseas - to Egypt - and the family would send him whatever goodies we could get hold of in a biscuit tin begged from the local grocer. Fruit cake was a favourite as it travelled well. There was a reduced postage rate for those serving overseas. National Service was initially for 18 months when it was introduced in 1947, extended to two years in 1950 due to the Korean War. The pay was a fraction of what the young men had been earning when they were called up, 28 shillings a week in 1948. Eighteen-year-olds, perhaps still on an apprentice's pay, would not be as affected as those who had deferred call-up until they were 21, when they would have been on a 'man's wage'. The basic pay had risen to 38 shillings a week by 1960, this was the equivalent of £50 in today's money. My brother signed on for an extra year as the pay and training was much better. There were exemptions from National Service for those in essential industries such as coal mining, farming, and the Merchant Navy.


A souvenir from REM. I've kept it in the envelope it was sent in, since 1952

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was an occasion of great  celebration through the UK - I can remember the day in school when we were all presented with a Coronation mug and an ice cream! I still have my mug, together with other souvenirs of the day. 


School Coronation celebrations

There was no street party where we lived, but I was invited to a small party at a neighbour's, with my friend Pat and the two little girls who lived next door and, like many others, we'd decorated the front window of our house with photos, bunting, etc. It was a big thrill when we could eventually go to the local cinema to watch a film of the whole Coronation ceremony - in black and white of course.


Me with Linda, who, years later, would be my bridesmaid.


 There are two children whose names I don't remember, I'm on the back row with Pat, the neighbour's children John and Pauline are on the middle row, and June (who would also later be my bridesmaid) and Linda on the front row. The grown-ups joined in that evening for a few drinks and a sing-song!


 I'm on the front row, far left.

The middle years: leaving school; starting work.

The statutory school leaving age for grammar schools was 16 at the time but I left a year early. I can remember that my mother had to go to an interview with the Headmistress to ask for permission to take me out of school - there were only two of us out of the whole year who left at 15. In a way I was relieved to be leaving, although I would miss the friends I'd made. I still have a small autograph book signed by all my classmates and some of the teachers. 

Two weeks later I was no longer a skinny little schoolkid but a 'working girl' contributing to the household expenses, although I wouldn't have been contributing much as my wage was only £2.12s.6d a week and I had to pay bus fares out of that. I looked much younger than 15 and used to get really annoyed when the bus conductor asked me 'Do you want a scholar's love?' But oh, the thrill of discarding my thick, brown lisle uniform stockings and wearing nylons! The only snag (!) was their tendency to ladder very easily, but we were still in the age of 'make do and mend' and the local dry cleaners would repair a ladder for sixpence.

I loved the experience of travelling into town every day to my job as a typist - I've written about that job in an earlier blog, how I was 'plonked' in front of a typewriter on my first day and told to learn how to type. I started night school the following month and was soon a quick, accurate typist, passing all the RSA examinations with distinction. It was a friendly atmosphere in the office despite there being a wide age range. It didn't strike me as odd at the time that all the older women were single, in the 1950s it was still expected that once married, a woman would become a full time 'housewife' - there had been only one married teacher in the all female staff at my grammar school. However, many working class women did have part-time jobs, usually low paid, I can remember my mother working for a time as an office cleaner - 6am to 8am, then 6pm to 8pm, to fit in with family commitments. Like many others, she also did seasonal work, potato- or pea-picking, back-breaking jobs, usually for a couple of weeks in the summer. Some men resented their wives going out to work, seeing it as a reflection on their ability to provide for the family, but for some families the extra income, however meagre, was very necessary.

The middle years: leisure time with friends; dancing; the cinema; music; fashion; the radio.

So, how did young people enjoy themselves in the 1950s? You couldn't meet up in pubs - the legal drinking age was 21 - but coffee bars were becoming popular, I'd go to one in Wavertree Road called Capaldi's, with a girl from work who lived nearby. And dancing, whether it was ballroom or rock-and-roll it seems that every teenager in the 1950s went dancing - it's where most of our generation met our future partners. The Locarno was the place to go on a Saturday night, the Grafton nearby was a little more 'up market' at the time, there was a pianist who kept his top hat on the piano, and if memory serves me right, there was a little dog sitting in it!  I believe the Grafton's reputation changed over coming decades, when it became known as 'granny-grabbing' night! 

I loved the fashions of the 1950s. We mostly wore straight skirts, mid-calf length, and blouses to work, but after clothes rationing ended materials also emerged as big, bold and beautiful. One of my favourites was a skirt, almost circular, made of kingfisher blue felt. Taffeta skirts were also great for dancing in, especially when worn with a frilly, net underskirt that had been dipped in sugar-water. Tops in fluorescent colours were also popular, I wore a 'shocking pink' one and my friend Jean, who had auburn hair, wore lime green - we even had matching socks! Everyone seemed to 'dress-up' to go out in those days, men of all ages would change from their working gear and put on a suit, shirt and tie to go to the football on a Saturday afternoon. Young men would also put on a suit to go dancing or to the cinema, while girls would put on their best frock, usually matched with white stilettos and a white handbag, and often with little white gloves! It was also the era of teddy boys in their outfits of long jackets with velvet collars, winkle-picker shoes, etc. They had a reputation for fighting and causing damage, but I never saw any bother in the places I went to.

Going to 'the pictures' was also a popular, and cheap, pastime, there were always long queues outside the cinemas in Lime Street, often entertained by buskers.

After work, and at weekends, we would go to friends' houses and listen to records. There were booths in the record shops where you could put on headphones and listen to the latest releases before deciding to buy. The top stars who were appearing at the Liverpool Empire would sometimes visit the record shops and autograph their latest single, EP or LP. My sister has a Frankie Laine LP signed by him in Lewis's department store, and I have a photograph of Lonnie Donnegan signed when he appeared in a record shop in Dale Street. You could also get signed photos of the stars by joining their fan club. In 1955, we still had a piano at home - I'd had lessons at 2/6d a time with a local Welsh lady for a couple of years, and I loved to buy sheet music and try my hand at the latest tunes. One of my favourites was Unchained Melody, originally sung by Al Hibler but reaching No.1 with Jimmy Young. Radio Luxembourg was very popular with the younger generation, but not so with parents, who thought it had a bad influence on the young! It was banned in our house - until my dad discovered that one of his favourite singers, Jo Stafford, had a half-hour show on a Sunday night. Families often spent evenings and weekends listening to the radio together; Family Favourites, the Billy Cotton Band Show, Workers' Playtime, and on a Saturday night the very scary Appointment with Fear - introduced by Valentine Dyall as The Man in Black. Looking back, one of the strangest programmes was Educating Archie - Archie was a ventriloquist's dummy, on the radio! 

Bill Hayley and His Comets came to Liverpool in 1957, but not to the Empire. He appeared live on the stage at the Odeon Cinema, at the corner of Lime Street and London Road. I was in the audience, near the front in the 15 shilling seats. It was a very lively night with people dancing in the aisles. 

1957 to 1959: A wedding; the Cavern; Liverpool's lost transport systems - and an engagement.

In 1957, the young ones in our office found a new way to spend our lunch hour other than window-shopping down Church Street or eating our sandwiches on the grass at the Pier Head - a jazz club, with lunch hour sessions, opened in Matthew Street. A couple of years later the Cavern would become famous as a venue for rock and roll musicians and, of course, for the Beatles.


  Friends from the office 

In July 1957, I was a bridesmaid at my sister's wedding, which meant that when she left home I had a bed to myself for the first time since I was a very small child! 

St Michael's Church, Huyton, I'm on my sister's left and on her right is her best friend, who the following year would marry our brother and become a much-loved sister-in-law.

Despite the novelty of having a bed to myself, I missed my sister, as she went to live in Kendal, her new husband's home town. Although less than 70 miles away, and now an easy hour's drive up the M6 motorway, back then it was an epic journey involving a coach from Skelhorne Street, changing at Preston, then a bus to Kendal town centre. It took hours! 

Liverpool's Overhead Railway - the Dockers' Umbrella - closed that year and working close by, just off Castle Street, I watched its demolition over the next couple of years. I'm glad that one of the carriages of this iconic transport system has been restored and preserved at The Museum of Liverpool; sitting in that carriage I can remember a school trip on the railway. As with the Docks, the Houses in our school were named after famous Liverpool men - Sandon, Huskisson, Gladstone and Langton. Also that year Liverpool's tram system closed, special tickets were issued for 'the last tram' and I still have mine.

November 1957 was a turning point for me. My friend Jean, the friend who had left school the same day as me, had tickets for a dance at Holt High School and I was to meet her at the entrance to the school. I can remember exactly what I was wearing that night. I had a new poplin raincoat in pink with a white faux fur lining, it had a matching beret and as it was a chilly night I wore a white angora wool scarf. I'd bought the coat in C & A's, it cost £7, much more than a week's wage, even though I was now earning more, so my brother lent me the money and I paid him back at £1 a week. Underneath I was wearing my kingfisher blue felt skirt with a sleeveless yellow top - very colourful! As I was getting off the bus at the nearest stop to the school, a boy came down from the upper deck and got off at the same stop - and I realised I'd seen him before. The previous New Year's Eve I'd been to a dance at Brooklands dance school in Huyton with a friend, Edie, from next door and I'd danced with this boy. Unfortunately, we'd been told to be home by midnight and, just like Cinderella, I'd left before the last waltz. I could tell that he'd recognised me too, but he was with friends and as I crossed the road to the Holt, they all went into the Five Ways pub on the opposite corner. It was easier for boys to pass for 21. 

Jean was very late and as she had the tickets I was on the point of going back home when she eventually turned up. We had only been in the hall a couple of minutes when the boy from the bus came in with his friends. So many 'what ifs', he should have gone to night school that night but decided instead to go for a drink with his friends and then to the dance; I was within five minutes of giving up on my friend and going home! On such small things a future life is decided. We danced together all night then Jim took me home on the last bus, even though it meant he had to walk three miles back to his own home afterwards. We've been together ever since.

We saw each other three or four nights a week. Even though Jim was on a small wage as an apprentice, and as in all working families, contributed something to the household budget, we were still able to visit the cinema and go dancing regularly, although one of our first visits to the cinema was almost the last! We had queued up in Lime Street to see The King and I - Yul Brynner being a hero of mine. In those days the doorman would let a couple of people in to stand at the back of the cinema until seats became vacant and that was what happened to us. As we stood there, with me engrossed in the film, Jim whispered 'Are you enjoying it?' My reply: 'Oh yes, this is the 17th time I've seen it'! Fortunately he later saw the funny side of it. Saturday night was always the night for dancing - favourite venues were The Locarno; Signal House, just off Queen's Drive; and the Harlequin Club, above Burton's Tailors on the corner of Church Street. Among the few mementoes of my youth I still have my membership card for the Harlequin.

I've always considered myself very lucky that Jim's parents welcomed me into their family and treated me like a daughter. Most Sundays I went to their house for tea - ham salad followed by a selection of Sayer's cakes - and in the summer of 1958 I went on my first family holiday with Jim, his parents and his older brother and his wife. We were booked into three chalets in Butlins, Filey. I shared with his mum, his brother and sister-in-law were in the middle chalet and Jim and his dad shared the end one so absolutely no chance of sneaking around in the night - not that we would have done, of course! Chalets were very basic in those days, no washing facilities or toilet, just two wooden beds and somewhere to store your clothes, 

We had a glorious week, and there was one very special day. Anyone familiar with the Butlins holiday camps of that era will remember that activities revolved around competitions; knobbly knees for men, glamourous grannies for example. This particular day the family were on their way to watch a competition down at the swimming pool when Jim's dad held me back saying 'Let them go on, there's another one I want you to see first, go and get your glad rags on'. Soon he was walking me into the ballroom where a redcoat was handing out numbers and before I knew what was happening I was carrying a card bearing the number 13 and standing in a line of girls and women of varying ages parading around the room! I had no idea what was going on, and having very little self-confidence I was in a panic. 


Without telling me, Jim's dad had entered me in the Miss She competition!

It is only recently that I have discovered the background to the Miss She competitions at Butlins. Apparently it was a 'Day Wear' competition sponsored by the She magazine for 30 years and Filey alone had 10,000 entries a year. I'm not sure about how it worked but I suppose the winners of the weekly heats of each camp eventually competed nationally. I've read that many entrants took it extremely seriously, shopping for special outfits and competing at multiple locations. On the other hand there must have been many young girls who entered on the spur of the moment - although not many 18 year olds who had been unwittingly dragged along by their future father-in-law.



 My expression says 'How did I get here?'

The winner wore an off-the shoulder dress, with a fur stole and elbow-length gloves, not the kind of 'day wear' familiar to me or the young girl who came second. At the time I didn't even know there were prizes, obviously the winner would go through to the next heats, I don't know what the second prize was, but a week after I arrived home I received a large cardboard box containing a year's supply of shampoo - unexpected and very welcome. 

Jim's dad was as pleased as punch - although being very prejudiced he thought I should have won - but the rest of the family, especially Jim, couldn't believe what they'd missed. I think his dad knew that if the whole family had been there it would have unnerved me. I found it embarrassing enough that the photographs were put up on notice boards all around the holiday camp and complete strangers would come up to me and say 'Well done'!


And this is how the afternoon ended!

We were engaged on the 20th December, 1958. Jim finished serving his apprenticeship in the summer of 1959 and I changed my job for one nearer home with better pay as we saved to pay for our forthcoming wedding, which was planned for March 1960. We still managed to have fun though, films, dancing and nights out with friends. It surprises me now just how far money stretched back then.


 Jim carried this photo around in his wallet for years!

And so ended the decade. Slum-housing still existed in pockets of the city but it was slowly being cleared and new council estates had sprung up on the outskirts, although my parents never got to the top of the housing list and lived in their rented two-up, two-down with an outside toilet until the 1980s.  Jobs were plentiful and pay was improving. What would the 1960s bring? In our case, marriage; followed by Jim's National Service; and living with his parents while we saved a deposit for a home of our own before starting a family.