It seems to me that life in the1950’s and early 1960’s was fairly routine, had a comforting sense of security that was permanently guaranteed with little suggestion that things were ever likely to change. Britain was booming, dad had a steady job, we lived in a nice house, the sun always shone at weekends and in this life the most constant of constants was my mum. She was there in the mornings to pack us off to school and there again in the afternoon to welcome us back home. Meals were always on the table at the same time every day, clothes were always washed and ironed and smelled fresh and the house was warm and comfortable.
My mum wasn’t any different from anyone else’s mum of course because this was the way things were. Mums didn’t go to work because they stopped at home and were full time housewives, there were no working family tax credits, there were no bleeding heart feminists. Men had the jobs and provided for the family, made all the big decisions and generally ruled the roost and women took care of all the domestic matters like cleaning, laundry, baking and haberdashery. This was the way of things, it had always been this way and it always would be and so it was until the 1960s when we started to let our hair grow, wear denim and generally start to challenge the post war basis of British society and way of life.
Looking back now I can only imagine that by today’s standards life for a housewife must have been bone crushingly boring, driven by routine with none of the modern distractions that we take for granted. No day time television or the shopping channel, only half an hour of ‘Watch with Mother’ around about lunch time, no telephones so no one to chat to except the next door neighbour, no car to nip to the shops and no shops to nip to anyway and no house full of modern appliances to make life easier around the home. I think there was a ‘Young Wives’ club which met during the day in each others houses on a rotating basis and later on Tupperware and Avon parties in the evening when we had to stay in our bedrooms but these didn’t strike me as being especially exciting.
Days had a reassuring routine about them where dad got up first and fixed the boiler and started the fire and then made the first pot of tea of the day. Loose leaves not bags of course because until 1964 with the introduction of the perforated bag less than three per cent of tea sold in Britain came in teabags and now it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without them. After tea in bed mum would get up, get our clothes ready and then prepare the breakfast, which was generally cereals in the summer and porridge oats in the winter, sometimes a boiled egg or just simply toast with a smear of tomato sauce or marmite for the brave. She would see dad off to work on his pushbike and then finish getting us ready and then shoo us off to school. These days children get driven to school or the Council pays for a taxi but we used to walk, it wasn’t very far and it was quite safe.
And then with the house to herself mum set about the chores. Monday was traditionally washing day but in the days before automatic washing machines this meant hand washing and firing up a gas boiler and two or three loads of washing to manage. No spin drier either so wet clothes had to be put through the mangle to get rid of the excess water and then without tumble driers, hung out on the line to dry. Getting clothes dry was fairly straightforward on fine days but was a real problem if it was raining or in the winter when linen and clothes were hung around the house and in front of the open fire in a race against time to get them aired.
Preparing food took up a lot of every day because there were no convenience meals and everything had to be prepared from scratch. There was complete certainty about the menu because we generally had the same thing at the same time on the same day every week, there were no foreign foods, no pasta or curries and rice was only ever used in puddings. The main meal of the week was Sunday dinner which was usually roast beef, pork or lamb (chicken was a rare treat and a turkey was only for Christmas) served with roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, which for some reason mum always called batter puddings, and strictly only seasonal vegetables because runner beans weren’t flown in from Kenya all year round as they are today.
We had never heard of chicken tandoori, paella or lasagne and the week had a predictable routine; Monday was the best of the left over meat served cold with potatoes and on Tuesday the tough bits were boiled up in a stew (we would call that bouef bourguignon now) and on Wednesday what was left was minced and cooked with onions and served with mash and in this way one good joint of meat provided four main meals with absolutely no waste. Thursday was my personal favourite, fried egg and chips and Friday was my nightmare day with liver or kidneys because I liked neither (and still don’t!) I complained so much about this that later I was allowed the concession of substituting sausage for liver but I was still obliged to have the gravy (which I didn’t care for much either) on the basis that ‘it was good for me!’ If we had been Catholics then we would have had fish I suppose but we didn’t have things out of the sea very often except for fish fingers.
On Saturday we would have something like a home made meat pie or pudding or very occasionally a special treat and dad would fetch fish and chips from the chip shop, wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper and covered in salt and vinegar. Later on I used to have chips on a Wednesday night as well when David Newman’s dad picked us up after wolf cubs and took us home in the back of his battered blue van which smelt permanently of stale batter.
After main course there was always a pudding which was usually something stodgy like a treacle pudding with golden syrup, spotted dick (suet pudding), bread and butter pudding or jam roll. There was always lots of jam in our house because my Nan worked at the Robertson’s factory in Catford in London and I think she was either paid in jars of jam or bought it at a discount, I never knew which.
Mum was in charge of shopping of course and had the housekeeping money to spend. This used to involve a lot of lists I seem to recall because there wasn’t a lot of money and she used to complain about ‘five week months’ when the money had to be stretched out further and with no credit cards she had to be careful to make it last between monthly pay days.
Shopping was completely different fifty years ago and wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today when one single car trip to Tesco is all that is needed. For a start we didn’t have a car so it really wasn’t possible to transport all of the weekly shopping home in one go. On market day mum would catch the Midland Red R76 into town to buy fresh vegetables and then later in the week she would go into town again to go to the butchers and the International Stores which until Fine Fare arrived was the only big food store in town. She had to go shopping twice a week for the simple reason that we didn’t have a fridge so keeping stuff fresh was a bit of a problem, especially in the Summer. If she forgot something or needed it urgently there was a village shop and a couple of times a week Mr Tuscon’s mobile shop passed by. The milk was delivered early in the morning by Anderson’s dairy and then the baker came by in the Sunblest van a couple of times a week.
During the day there was cleaning to do with an inefficient old fashioned vacuum cleaner that made a lot of noise and mostly rearranged the dust around the house rather than suck it up like a Dyson and then there was dusting and polishing to follow up. The kitchen sink was scrubbed with Ajax or Vim and in between cooking and baking the gas oven had to be cleaned down as well. There was a lot of baking because Mum used to make all of her own cakes and pastries; Christmas cakes, Birthday cakes, jam tarts, jam sponges and iced fairy cakes and then at the weekend fresh cream horns, puff pastry vanilla slices with raspberry jam (I said there was a lot of jam) and butter cream meringues for Sunday tea.
Cooking and cleaning were important jobs and so too were knitting and dress making because mum was also responsible for making sure we were all well turned out. For me one of the earliest efforts was a little suit made out of last year’s curtains and later on there were home made jumpers and cardigans, hats and scarves and for herself and my sister home made dresses and skirts. They weren’t especially fashionable of course but then we didn’t notice this in the days before children’s designer clothes.
Compared with today home life in the 1950s and 1960s was much simpler and I wouldn’t say this for sure but probably happier too because of it. These days we talk about children suffering from stress but there was no such thing when I was a lad and one of the main reasons for this was that inside the family home we had a happy, safe and comfortable life and while dad played his part in this of course (he did the decorating, looked after the garden and cleaned our shoes once a week) this was mainly down to Mum who made the house a home.