Tag Archives: National Health Service

1947 – Ivan Petcher

1947 was a very important year for me because this was the year that my mum and dad met and began a romance that has led ultimately to this journal.

From the way dad used to talk about being a teenager I have always imagined the post war years to be an almost idyllic existence, Enid Blyton sort of days with long hot summers, blue skies, bike rides and picnics, where young people were polite and had good manners and didn’t spend their evenings hanging around Tesco Express with a bottle of cider, frightening the old folk and no one had heard of anti-social behaviour orders.

These were surely days of optimism with a country led by a Labour Government that had been elected in the summer of 1945 with a landslide majority and a promise to make everything better and which had embarked on a radical programme of nationalisation including coalmining, electricity supply and railways.  These were the days of the new National Health Service and the Welfare State all based on the optimistic principles of socialism.  And to add to all this good news the United States announced the Marshall Plan to pay for the reconstruction of Europe and that meant over three billion dollars was on the way to the United Kingdom to rebuild its cities and its economy.  This was the year of the inauguration of the United Nations which meant peace for ever more and the year that Princess Elizabeth married Prince Mountbatten.

The only thing that let 1947 down was the weather and the Britain experienced the worst winter of the century.  After the Second World War Britain was bombed out, bankrupt, exhausted and desperately short of fuel and the winter of 1947 sank the country to a new level of deprivation.

The winter began deceptively, with just a brief cold snap before Christmas 1946.  Snow lay thick on the ground when, in the middle of January, temperatures soared so high that it felt as if spring had arrived early.  The snow thawed so rapidly that it set off floods, just as hurricane-force winds brought down roofs, trees and even houses and the real winter arrived soon afterwards as the country was gripped in an Arctic freeze that lasted for two months, with snow whipped into monstrous drifts that buried roads and railways.

It became the coldest February ever recorded and there was virtually no sunshine for almost the whole month.  The freeze paralysed coalmines, with coal stocks often stuck at the collieries by railways and roads buried in snow.  A week after the freeze began the Government ordered electricity supplies to be cut to industry, and domestic electricity supplies to be turned off for five hours each day, to conserve coal stocks.  Television was closed down, radio output reduced, newspapers cut in size and magazines ordered to stop publishing.

Food supplies shrank alarmingly and rations were cut even lower than they had been during the war.  Farms were frozen or snowed under, and vegetables were in such short supply that pneumatic drills were used to dig up parsnips from frozen fields.  For the first time, potatoes were rationed after seventy-thousand tons were destroyed by the cold.  The Government tried a deeply unpopular campaign to encourage everyone to eat a cheap South African fish called snoek, and millions of tins of it were imported, but it tasted disgusting and was used eventually as cat food.

March turned out even worse than February and on the 5th there was the worst blizzard of the 20th  century.  Supplies of food shrank so low that in some places the police asked for authority to break open stranded lorries carrying food cargoes.  Eventually, on March 10th a thaw set in and triggered another spectacular disaster.  After weeks of deep frost, the ground was so hard that the melting snow ran off into raging torrents of floodwater and, to make things worse, a huge storm dropped heavy rain.  Indeed, it was the wettest March on record in England and Wales.

Less than two years after winning the war, the nation was left freezing cold, plunged into darkness and on the brink of starvation and for many people it showed that national planning and socialism did not work.  The Government was inevitably blamed for the disaster  and was turned out of office in a landslide defeat at the next general election in 1950.

Life was especially grim in the big cities and after the experience of the winter I suppose it was nice to have a holiday and that summer mum left London for a few days with a friend in Rushden in Northamptonshire and at some point during that week she met my dad.  He was sixteen but looked younger, he hadn’t finished growing so was still quite small, his nickname was Pid as in little piddy widdy, and he he had boyish face and an impish grin with piercing cobalt blue eyes and a distinctive hairstyle with a fringe that flopped over his forehead in a Hugh Grant sort of way.  He obviously made an immediate impact on the young girl visiting from London and they spent the rest of their lives together.

Not straight away of course because mum had to go back to London to finish school and here is something else that I find absolutely charming.  These were days before mobile phones and instant messenging, even before regular telephones so the only way they had of keeping in touch and keeping the romance going was by sending each other letters and photographs.  They kept this up for three years before dad was called up for national service in the RAF and he moved to London where he stayed until they married in 1953.

In 1948 dad left school and went to work for his father in the family business, a grocery store in Rushden, but they sold that sometime at the end of the decade and they all moved to Leicester and dad got his first proper job at Jessops.  I don’t know how much he earned, it couldn’t have been a lot, but from photoraphs it would seem that he spent quite a lot of it on clothes and he was always a smart, well turned out young man with an impressive wardrobe.

During the war most kinds of food came to be rationed, as were clothing and petrol.  Clothing was rationed on a points system.  Initially the allowance was for approximately one new outfit per year but as the war progressed the points were reduced to the point where the purchase of a coat constituted almost an entire year’s clothing.  By the end of the war the clothing ration was thirty-six points a year.   This didn’t go very far, it was two points for a pair of knickers, five points for a man’s shirt, five points for a pair of shoes, seven points for a dress and twenty-six points for a man’s suit.  Clothing rationing points could be used for wool, cotton and household textiles.  People had extra points for work clothes, such as overalls for factory work.  No points were required for second-hand clothing and fur coats, but their prices were fixed and before rationing lace and frills were popular on knickers but these were soon banned so material could be saved.

Rationing continued after the end of the war and in fact it became even stricter after the war ended.  Bread, which was not rationed during the war, was rationed beginning in 1946 and potato rationing began in 1947.  Sweet rationing didn’t end until February 1953, and sugar rationing ended in September of that year.  The final end of all rationing did not come until July 1954, after I was born, with the end of it on meat and bacon.

The picture at the top was taken in 1947 and his clothes look a bit shabby and worn through and they are in total contrast to the one below taken two years later on holiday in Skegness.  It’s a bit of a surprise because I don’t remember him being particularly interested in clothes and he would make most things last much longer than they could be reasonably expected to but for a couple of years in the late 1940s he obviously cared about his clothes and his appearance.  Or perhaps, judging by how much he had grown in two years, replacement clothes were a regular necessity during that time.

I like this picture, dad was eighteen and looks smart, self assured and full of confidence, mum was sixteen and looks really happy to be with this really special man.