What was life like in Southern England in 1953? The Second World War had ended eight years earlier but Britain had taken a long time to recover. The financial effort of fighting a huge war in Europe, Africa and the Far East (alone for nearly three years) had bankrupted the nation. It was massively in debt to the USA for the war materials it had purchased to keep its forces fighting. UK had to borrow more from the same source to pay for food and to rebuild its industries after the war. The debt was finally discharged in 2003.
The South West had suffered less than the main industrial areas. However a lot of the urban areas throughout the country had been laid waste by carpet bombing by the Luftwaffe. More than two million homes had been destroyed. Dozens of city centres had to be largely rebuilt. Hundreds of factories had been wiped off the face of the map. Even small cities like Exeter still had more than twenty “bomb sites” well into the fifties where a gap between buildings which were still standing was fenced off and filled with heaps of rubble covered in willowherb. It took more than twenty years for all these destroyed shops and flats to be rebuilt.
The essentials of life such as food and clothing were still in short supply. Some important items had continued to be rationed into the early fifties. I remember, as a child, that sweets were in short supply but there seemed to be no restriction on iced lollies. New toys were also starting to become available.
Factories took a long time to change from producing war materials to manufacturing household goods and products for export. Car production, which had stopped during the war, was slow to recover. Less than ten percent of the population owned a car in those days and most privately owned vehicles had been constructed pre-war. I can remember when our next door neighbour, who was some sort of a salesman, was provided with a new Standard Vanguard by his company (see photo). All the local kids regarded this bulbous, gleaming vehicle with awe.
There were very few of the household conveniences which we regard as essential to modern life. Only one home in five had a conventional telephone. Televisions were rare and those that existed had little black and white screens and had to be watched in the dark. Most kitchens didn’t have a refrigerators or an electric oven. Vacuum cleaners were mainly American imports and were rare. Portable radios did not exist.
Of course personal computers, mobile phones and microwave ovens were unknown.
Nevertheless there were many advantages to living in the country at that time. There was a degree of personal freedom which is unknown in the modern, heavily-regulated British society. The shortage of vehicles and greater reliance on public transport (particularly the railways which were cheap but inefficient in those days) meant that the roads were uncrowded and one could walk and cycle in safety. Also the national spirit throughout the country was much better than it is today. There was a camaraderie that resulted from fighting and winning a war together, and the new welfare state had promised good health, education and care for all.
Next week I will tell you some more about what it was like to live in South Devon in the early 1950’s.