THE 1950s

Joe in his mother's arms

Joe in his mother’s arms

I was born in 1949, which means the 1950s define the first ten years of my life. People tend to take a very narrow view of history, thinking in terms of what was new in a period to define it. In the 50s this would be the Festival of Britain, Teddy Boys, modern architecture, two-tone cars and coffee bars. While these things certainly existed, they did not impinge very much on my life. We had no television (in common with most people). We had a radio, but it didn’t work very well, and was hardly ever used, or at least not for anything I was interested in. The modern world therefore had little to say to me.  There were, however, still lots of Victorians about; for instance my grandmother had been a grown woman at the time of the old Queen’s death. And they spoke to me much more than the wireless did. But what I remember most as the sounds of my childhood are not the evanescence of the radio announcer, or the voices of my elders. In fact it was not the voices of people at all. It was the loose connecting rod of the late night goods train as I lay in bed and it struggled up the gradient to Chapel Hill, or the timeless cry of the lark in the blue sky over Outney Common.

We lived in a rented two bedroomed bungalow. It was pretty basic. It had mains electricity, but only one available electricity socket in the living room. There was one bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling of each room (five in all) and that was all. There was running cold water, from one tap in the kitchen, but no bathroom. When I was born, or possibly just before, we had been put on mains water. Before that all the water had from a well by way of a pump. You had to go outdoors to use the lavatory, which had for illumination an oil lamp, which you had to light before using the facilities after dark. The facilities consisted of a bucket and a box of newspapers which you used to cover your deposit until the bucket was full. It took about a week, when it was my father’s task to dig a hole any empty it. Most of our neighbours were similarly equipped, except a few who enjoyed the luxury of a septic tank. Beneath the tap we had a Belfast sink but we could never fill it up because our drainage was just as basic. The dirty water went into s small brick lined tank which when full had to be emptied by a bucket and spread on  the garden. Eventually this task was somewhat eased when my father bought a pump with a petrol motor, removing the need for a back-breaking bucket.  Between 1949 and 1959 we acquired a refrigerator which meant goodbye to the perforated zinc meat safe outside the pantry window (which unfortunately faced south). An electric boiler with mangle attached meant there was no more use for the copper and associated chimney, but they remained of course, though unused. The water in the boiler had no access to any drain and would therefore be thrown directly on the garden, without visiting the tank first.

Outdoors there was a dog kennel, a chicken run, two children’s playhouses (Rosebud, and Lilac Cottage), which had belonged to my two elder sisters, an increasingly rickety wooden garage and some and fruit bushes and apple trees. It being on a corner plot the back garden was actually quite small, so we didn’t grow vegetables. My father was constitutionally unsuited to the regular temper of vegetable gardening in any case, and he said that the space available was required for the more urgent task of digging the weekly hole. Sometimes we ran out of space and disturbed the soil before the old contents had fully rotted.

My memories of the time before I went to school are few but strong. For instance, I recall lying on the hearth rug and realizing with suddenness and clarity that I was me. It was the dawning of consciousness and it made a deep impression on me. I also remember the 2nd June 1953, when I was four. It was of course Coronation Day which I remember only for the embarrassment of a misunderstanding. We had decorated the font of the house, or rather the trees in the front garden with chains of patriotic union jacks. I announced that I was going out to see the queen, who having been married was going to drive past our house. Because, I argued, why else had we put up those flags, if it was not for her to see?

My first attendance at school must have been three months later. It was at Stafford House, the infant department of Norwich High School (for girls). At the time they took boys for the first two years. There were about four boys and we were heavily outnumbered. I did not thrive. I remember the break time milk, served up in pastel blue or green mugs. I was offered my milk cold or hot. The hot milk always smelt so good, but always, when I tasted it, it was a big disappointment. After Stafford House I was never offered the choice- it was was always cold straight out of the third of a pint bottles, supplied free by a generous government.. One or two things stand out in a general uncomprehending daze; I did not make a good start to my schooling. I recall the percussion band, where the more forceful children seized the big bass drum, and the smaller tenor drums. I was left with the triangle. I remember a big tray in which we built a garden of papier-mache and toilet rolls, gaudily daubed with poster paint. I remember playing doctors and nurses outside in the playhouse. Otherwise I remember very little apart from a severe scolding for running across the Newmarket Road when I saw my mother waiting after school; a scolding that I now realize should more properly have been delivered to whoever was supposed to have been in charge of me; most probably the one doing the scolding.

Having been given a picture of apparent deprivation in the previous paragraphs, with stories of an inadequate two-bedroomed rented bungalow, and basic hygiene arrangements, it is something of a surprise to turn to a picture of private schooling and privilege. During this first year of school my two sisters were also at Norwich High School, my eldest sister shortly to depart for four years at Oxford. To try to make some sense of things I must try and tell you something of my father.

My two sisters had been born before the war, but I was later post-war afterthought. Consequently I was the child of relatively old parents both being nearly 40 at the time of my birth. It was a hectic time for my father, who was an optician. The nature of the upheaval was of course the creation of the National Health Service just six months before, on the 15th July, 1948.  At the start of the Health Service everything was free. This lack of prescription charges applied not just to pharmaceuticals but to dental charges as well. Crucially for our story it extended even to the supply of glasses. For my father, always a maker of things, this provided a glorious opportunity. To start with he confined his activities to the basement workshop underneath is rented shop in Orford Place (now occupied by Pizza Hut). Here the boys – Pat Dunham and Jimmy (actually Noel) Wickham toiled below stairs while he tested eyes above.  Here they made frames and fitted lenses both for my father’s firm and, increasingly for other opticians who were similarly experiencing unprecedented demand for glasses.




One response

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