Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[13] Secrecy


A couple of blogs ago, I started to talk about information, mainly from the point of view of news. Newspapers and other sources told us a little about what was happening in the world at large – only a little. News was slow to arrive, very incomplete and far from accurate.

Now I want to look at information relating to our lives, our own personal circumstances, our interactions with shops, businesses and those in authority. I have re-written this section a few times but it still doesn’t look very exciting. Inevitably, it is going to come out looking like a list of organisations that did not provide any useful information. They didn’t want to tell us anything and, to be honest, we were not inclined to ask.

We are concerned now with direct communication – talking to us, or perhaps by letter or telephone. (As I said before, forget about the telephone as a source of information. I just put it there for completeness. There were some formally written letters.) We can start from the assumption that others told us only what they wanted us to know, and kept everything else secret.

I try to be positive but here it helps here to consider some legislation we did not have then. There was nothing like the Freedom of Information Act and no Human Rights Act. I will come later to some others. We did not have legislation to encourage the provision of information.

The Establishment

It would be wrong to say that those in authority – the whole of what we then called the Establishment – were not willing to provide information to the public. They just were not in the habit of doing it. Attitudes to life then were what, by modern standards, we would see as a culture of secrecy.

Who do I mean by the Establishment? In a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it was perhaps partly about class. You can start by putting the whole of government into the Establishment. That’s both central government and local government.

People outside government did not have a clue how it worked. (Many don’t know now but if you want to know you can find out.) Those outside politics knew little of the workings of parliament. There were parts of some speeches in parliament reported in the newspapers but there was no television or radio from within parliament.

I will look at two important aspects of government that affected everyone, in a little more detail.

Health, Medicine, Doctors and Hospitals

If you saw the doctor about anything, he saw his job as making you better, which did not include talking to you. He presumably knew what he was doing, why he was doing it and how his treatments might work – but none of this was anything to do with you. Maybe doctors thought that knowing about your illness was not good for you.


He would probably give you a (free) prescription to take to a chemist. (Doctors’ writing was notoriously illegible. You wouldn’t have a clue what it was for. Fortunately, the chemists were quite good at reading them.) The doctor would not, necessarily, tell you what the prescribed medicine was, or how it might work, or what was wrong with you. (If you were under twenty-one, he would probably only talk to your parents, if at all.) He most certainly would not think of saying anything about possible side effects associated with the medicine.

Both with General Practice and at hospitals, there were probably many things that went wrong in diagnosis and treatment, some of which came from doctors being wrong. The medical profession looked after their own interests, as well as the interests of their patients. It controlled the registration and discipline of doctors through the General Medical Council. If anything went wrong in a hospital, You had no chance of even an explanation. You had no way of finding out what had happened or who was responsible. The tacit assumption was that all doctors were perfect.


It was the same with education. Everyone assumed that teachers and schools were perfect. There were no SATs and no league tables of performance, so we worked on the assumption that every school and every teacher used the best teaching methods and produced the best possible results from their pupils. There was no way of questioning this and parents never thought of questioning it. Equally, there was never any questioning of methods of discipline by teachers within schools. If a teacher thought you child needed punishment, he would be punished as deemed appropriate. There was no way you could disagree.

Parents did at least get a school report on each child twice a year, showing the child’s performance within the class in all subjects from end-of-term examinations. That was about it.

More Government

Unlike today, government included many nationalized industries which have since been privatised into commercial companies – the post office (which used to include television, radio and telephones); gas and electricity; train transport; water supply and even coal. We knew nothing of how these worked. We accepted prices without question.

Together with the assumption that the government was always right, there was perhaps also the assumption that every government employee was always a good employee. The Civil Service was a job for life. I spent most of my working life as a civil servant – until about the 80s, I never heard of anyone losing their job or being considered unsuitable.


You can add to the list of effectively secret organisations all the professions and anything loosely described as a profession. Apart from doctors and teachers, there were lawyers, judges, priests, bankers, estate agents … Almost everybody in their work situation kept the details of their work secret from the public. Internal discipline within professions was a matter for them to control in secret.

As an example, we might have wondered about bank charges, which just appeared every three months on bank statements. How were they worked out? No one ever asked. (It was done by the branch manager looking at your statements for the three months and taking a wild guess, probably the same as last quarter if nothing had changed much.)


Commerce and Industry

Businesses and shops were just as keen to maintain security, particularly keeping information secret from their competitors. We now have masses of information, especially for food products, either enforced by legislation – or agreed by industry as an alternative to legislation. (Now is not the time to consider the EU or what it has brought for us.)

We have clearly printed labels showing: country of origin; food contents; additives and E numbers; calorific values; carbohydrate and fat content; salt levels; allergy information; organic and genetically modified food content; washing instructions for clothes; and now even recycling and disposal instructions. No surprises for you here – we had none of this in the fifties. (Did we want to know any of it? Probably not.)


The point of this rather boring exposition about our lack of information is to illustrate how attitudes were different fifty years ago. I have decided not to delve into why attitudes have changed subsequently. (I reserve my right to change my mind later. It’s a mix of many inter-related subjects – information, religion, law, police, education.)

My early impressions were that people respected and trusted authority and the professions almost without question. They were largely ignorant of how public institutions worked but they assumed that they were run professionally and ethically by reliable citizens. As we have seen, this applied to government in general, police, teachers, priests, judges, doctors and nurses. Very little information came out of the professions about their structure and methods, or about individuals. The internal workings of these organizations were not questioned and, for the most part, people did not want to know how they worked. We assumed that they did not make mistakes. Nobody thought of taking a doctor or lawyer or teacher to court to seek compensation and there was no way to do this. The modern obsession with compensation claims was then only rampant in the USA.

Moral Values and Beliefs.

Religion, always the established Church of England, was a much more integral part of school education then.  We were taught the stories of the Old Testament as if they were History, both in school and at church – and, of course, if a teacher or priest said anything was true, then we tended to believe it and would not think of questioning it. The education system perpetuated standard middle class values and ideas and broadly Victorian ethics and religion.

My views may be based on a certain amount of guesswork. I believe that people were more honest, and that they respected the law more. Perhaps they feared the law more. They also had more respect for other people in general and in particular for those in authority. Family values and religion were more significant. Some of this may have been a post-war effect. In comparison with today, it was also noticeable that little information was provided about sex, and sexual awareness amongst youngsters was minimal. There was nothing remotely resembling sex education.

This is a near as I can get to a general introduction so next time I will have to think of something more specific as a subject …

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

14 thoughts on “[13] Secrecy

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