Remembrance of Things Past

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

[47] ‘The Past is a Foreign Country: They do Things Differently There’


The Go-between,’ by L. P Hartley, was published in 1953. Wikipedia describes it as the reminiscences of a man in his sixties looking back on his childhood with nostalgia. (Sound familiar?) It opens with the line, The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So much of what I see in my nostalgic reminiscences seems to be associated with changes in culture, beliefs and attitudes. What I want to illustrate here is that we cannot judge how people behaved in the past by the standards of today (just as we cannot judge other countries by the standards we have today in our economically advanced and stable society.)

It was going to be a short blog with just four examples – but I have expanded it a bit more.

Animals in General

When I grew up, apart from a few pet dogs and cats, we hardly ever saw any animals. (I have a vague memory that the house next door to our first house had chickens kept for their eggs.) We didn’t think much about them. There were some anthropomorphic idealisations in many children’s books such as those by Beatrix Potter.

We knew nothing about wild animals and nothing about how farm animals were treated. I think people at the time had little concern for the welfare of animals anywhere. The expression, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ covered much.

It was long before the current ban on whaling (which came in the mid-80s); and far before the very recent UK ban on fox-hunting. Big game hunting in Africa was then much more widely practised and more accepted.

It was also well before most of the ‘green’ political issues and the awareness of endangered species. The WWF was not founded until 1961. (The WWT was started as the Severn Wildfowl Trust in 1946. My local birding ‘patch’ was created in the year I was born!)

Farm Animals

This is going to be a bit of a ‘there and back’ comment. We were not worried about battery hens or factory farming methods. And we were not concerned about ‘organic’ food. But then factory farming methods had not started and food production was more or less organic anyway.

We have to remember that, without the Internet, we were not aware of farming methods at all – except for those in the country who could see cattle, sheep and other animals in open fields. See [11] Newspapers and [13] Secrecy

[I may look at farming in more detail in another post.]


I would like to say that less people were vegetarian, especially those who chose to be vegetarian for animal welfare reasons. Again, this is difficult because it was less relevant. People did not eat out much, nor did we buy pre-packed microwave meals where the list of contents might have shown whether it was suitable for vegetarians.

When restaurants (and pubs converted to restaurants) did start becoming more popular and more widespread, there was at first no effort to satisfy the small minority of those not eating meat products. It is only recently that menus almost always have a vegetarian option – and every item on a restaurant or café menu is now marked with its suitability.

The same is true of food available in supermarkets and food labelling. Catering for vegetarians is significant everywhere – a relatively recent trend.

African_Elephant_With_Big_Tusks_600 Giraffe_Ithala_KZN_South_Africa_Luca_Galuzzi_2004


I come now to the first of my four points! Zoos.

With only very primitive television, before the Internet, without significant foreign travel, the only way we ever saw the wild animals of Africa was to visit zoos. (OK, there were some pictures in books.)

I remember Regents Park Zoo in London. (Still there but now called ZSL London) I went there shortly after the aviary designed by Lord Snowdon (shown below) was opened in 1964.


In those days, you expected most of the large wild mammals to be on view in zoos. You would see African elephants, giraffe, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, gnus, lions, tigers, polar bears and many more.

You can still go to a zoo but we now know more about the how the animals are affected by their conditions. There is a much wider popular view that wild animals should not be kept in restrictive conditions. Zoos are less popular and do not normally include the larger mammals – especially elephants and polar bears. To many people nowadays, zoos are not acceptable in any form.

[The elephant and giraffes above were not photographed in zoos.]


After reading about David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest in [31] TV Heroes you will be wondering about Komodo dragons. You can still see them at ZSL London.

Wildlife Parks

I have to put in a little diversion here. The twelfth Duke of Bedford died in 1953, leaving his son, the next Duke, with a responsibility for paying heavy death duties. [US: Inheritance tax] To raise the money, Woburn Abbey was opened to the public, starting a trend followed my many other stately homes.

In 1970, they added to this Woburn Safari Park, a large enclosed park with many large African animals. This is open to the public who can drive through it, enclosed in the safety of their vehicles. Many other stately homes have copied this. Unlike zoos, they can provide space for wild animals to roam freely without the restrictive condition of zoos. They include elephants, giraffes, rhinoceros, camels, tigers and lions, and many others. In some ways, for the general public, these have replaced the functions of zoos – they provide a more acceptable environment.



I don’t remember actually going to a circus as a child but Billy Smart’s Circus appeared several time on television. They were some of the programmes I enjoyed watching. Circuses used to include acrobats, trapeze artists and clowns but they also included many acts based on trained wild animals. There were always performing horses, sometimes combined with acrobats on horseback, and  they also always included elephants and lion tamers.

As for zoos, most people were not then concerned about the welfare of the animals and, as for almost everything, we had no idea how they were treated. We did not know how they were kept or how they were trained. I don’t claim to have any better knowledge now, but it is not generally considered acceptable now for circuses to have trained wild animals – except for horses.

[I hope that readers can understand that the picture of performing elephants is for illustration only. I decided not to show any circus lions.]


[This section relates is some ways to [43] Cigarettes, Tea, Minstrels – and Marmalade, a post that was also about different standards in the past.]

Brooke Bond PG Tips tea (now just sold as PG Tips) has been a long established, popular brand of tea. From 1956, they had an extended series of television adverts using chimpanzees dressed in human clothes in comic situations relating to tea drinking. They used the voices of celebrities such as Peter Sellers and Bob Monkhouse. (The chimpanzees were from Twycross Zoo.) The adverts may have helped PG Tips to rise to the most popular British tea by 1958.

After complaints from animal rights organisations, the adverts were stopped, but they came back 18 months later when sales figures fell, continuing until 2002. (A bit like The Black and White Minstrel Show.) As for the Robertson’s Golly, PG Tips chimps had associated memorabilia for sale.

[It was also fashionable for zoos to provide a Chimpanzee Tea Time, where the animals were dressed up and given afternoon tea on a daily basis. I can find several references for this abroad but not in Britain. I am sure it was done at a zoo in England, probably London Zoo. With changing attitudes, it is not done now.]

Of course, our attitudes to other people have also changed. I cannot cover everything here – this post will not consider political correctness, feminism, racism or sexuality but I have two specific area I will consider to illustrate how our standards have changed.

Capital Punishment

In the UK, we used to execute people routinely as a punishment for murder. In Britain the method used was hanging. It was generally accepted. Many people thought that it was necessary to act as a deterrent. (There were no Human Rights considerations to prevent it.)

In 1957, after some controversial cases, the Homicide Act restricted it to six categories of murder: in the course of theft; by shooting or explosion; while resisting arrest or escaping; killing a police officer; a prisoner killing a prison officer; or a second offence.

The main political parties were not in favour of abolition but in 1965, they allowed a free vote on a private member’s bill, which was successful. Capital punishment for murder was suspended for five years. In 1969, the Home Secretary James Callaghan made the effect permanent. (Legislation for Northern Ireland was separate.)

Subsequent parliaments debated restoration until 1997, and the penalty remained for some other obscure crimes: treason; piracy with violence; espionage; and causing a fire in a naval dockyard – these were all eventually abolished.

[Worldwide, few countries retain the death penalty. Some others have not used it for many years, or retain it for special circumstances such as wars. In the USA, it operates on a State by State basis]


Corporal Punishment

The picture above shows Jimmy Edwards in a television programme, Whack-O! from the late fifties, set in a Public School and heavily featuring corporal punishment – caning. (Non-UK readers should understand that what used to be called Public Schools were private, fee-paying schools. They now call themselves Independent Schools.)

[Whack-O! will be included in some more TV reminiscences in due course.]

We had corporal punishment in schools, usually a cane similar to the one shown. I imagine that its use was very varied, perhaps being heavier in the old-style Public Schools. It was certainly much less used than it had been in the past. At our school (which I will come to in a later blog) it would be one or two strokes – on the hand – and it was very rarely used. (You will have to read the later blog for my experiences.)

Primary Schools generally used the threat of a slipper instead of a cane. Its use was much, much rarer.

Like nuclear weapons, it was seen as a deterrent rather than a punishment. We feared its use as the ultimate punishment, a fear which was associated with the punishment book that went with it.

Punishment books in the State Records office.

(Of course I didn’t live in Western Australia. Pictures are just for illustration.)

We knew that a caning would have an entry in this book and the assumption was that this might lead to a bad school reference when we left. References were essential to get employment or for University.

With changes in attitudes and public opinion, corporal punishment in schools has gradually reduced and individual schools stopped it. In 1987 it became illegal in all state-run schools in the UK. Similar legislation for Independent Schools came about ten years later, with separate laws for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. (As for capital punishment, rules worldwide, and in States of the US vary, but the trend is towards its abolition.)

The same trend has been followed with any form of corporal punishment of children at home. It is now illegal to hit a child in many countries, mostly in Europe and South America. In the UK, the law is more complex. Its criminal law generally prohibited common assault and battery, but as a defence, parents were assumed to be able to strike their children as reasonable punishment. The Children Act of 2004 removed this defence for anything that produces wounding or actual bodily harm or would be considered cruelty to persons under sixteen.

(Where so much of what goes on in families is invisible to the outside world, I cannot comment on the extent of parents smacking their children, either then or now. I don’t remember any form of physical punishments in our family but just occasionally Dad could tell us off in a way that implied it might be coming. I think this threat of potential physical admonishments gave us a respect for our parents and for teachers and policemen.)

To me, this post has been more about the eighties and nineties than the fifties and sixties. So, back then, we kept animals in zoos and trained them in circuses: we executed criminals for murder: we caned pupils in schools and smacked naughty children at home. But don’t judge us by today’s standards. In earlier centuries we practised bear-baiting and cockfighting; we beheaded criminals and burned people at the stake; and you could be hanged or deported to Australia for stealing a sheep!


On a lighter note, I will end on the film of the Go-Between, even though it was released in 1971. It starred Alan Bates and Julie Christie. She was one of my favourites! I saw her earlier as Lara in Doctor Zhivago.

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

5 thoughts on “[47] ‘The Past is a Foreign Country: They do Things Differently There’

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