Remembrance of Things Past

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

[97] Upstairs and Downstairs

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Somehow I have been through nearly a hundred posts without looking in detail at the houses we lived in. You already know something about them. They were cold because we had no loft insulation no double glazing, no cavity wall insulation and nothing like modern central heating. In winter we managed with just coal fires – perhaps augmented by small electric or gas fires and paraffin heaters.

[If you haven’t read them all there are lots of links in this post to earlier blogs.]

Houses were designed for typical families who lived how we used to live – nuclear families with parents and children. So typically you had a kitchen, a living room, a dining room and three or four bedrooms with bathroom facilities. We have already looked at kitchens. (If you had a washing machine it went in the kitchen. There were no utility rooms.)

Just as we didn’t have fitted kitchens you will note in what follows that very little was fitted. By modern standards it was all a bit primitive.


[The picture above is a modern reproduction, which illustrates several areas. It’s a typical dining table and chairs to the right with the back of a living room settee on the left. The floor covering is just lino with carpets.]

Living Room

Rooms were separate so it was definitely a living room only. The fashion for open-plan housing came later. Typically the living room had just a three piece suite – two armchairs and a two-seater settee. (There are many words for this – couch, divan, chesterfield (US) and others – probably others in dialects through the country – but to us it has always been a settee.) It might have had a wooden bookcase, probably more common than book shelves.


Central to the living room was the open fireplace with a simple tiled surround. The mantel piece would have a large central clock (the only timepiece in the house) and there would be a mirror over this.

Of course somewhere from the late fifties onwards there was always the possibility of a television – a tiny black-and white set.

Dining Room

People used the dining room because they always ate all meals together as a family. (Sometimes they may have used the kitchen table.) The standard dining room suite was a dining table, perhaps four or six chairs and a sideboard, probably all dark wood such as mahogany. Our sideboard was a large piece of furniture that held some of the cutlery, crockery and kitchenware that would now be kept in the kitchen.



As well as a bed the bedroom would have one or two wardrobes, perhaps a chest of drawers and a dressing table – again typically dark brown mahogany or perhaps a lighter brown walnut. There were no fitted bedroom cupboards and certainly no en-suite bathroom facilities.

Because we had no central heating the beds kept us warm at night. We had sheets and lots of blankets. No one had heard of duvets. (They came into fashion in the seventies. Note that in some countries the word doona is sometimes used for duvet.) In winter there was probable a thick quilt or eiderdown on top.

Bathrooms and Toilets

You will note the separation because the bathroom just contained a bath, a wash basin and, perhaps, a free standing cupboard. Nothing was boxed in as we have today so that all the plumbing pipes were visible.

The toilet had a little room to itself – without facilities for washing hands. The two were next to each other upstairs. Bathrooms always had a bath – showers were much less common. (If you have read about Boar Close and the Cathedral Estate you will remember that it was more common to have an outside toilet. Building regulations have changed and all new houses now have at least one downstairs toilet with its hand basin.)

[Terminology may vary. In the US the room containing just a toilet may be called a powder room or half bathroom. What we call a bath is called a bathtub or just tub.]



Everything about houses was relatively Spartan. Floors in general – including kitchens and bathrooms, were covered with lino, which was cold to walk on. It was a bit like modern vinyl flooring but a cheaper equivalent.

For the main rooms, there would be carpets covering just a rectangular area in the middle. Fitted carpets were unknown, coming in gradually from the sixties. Wooden laminate floor coverings did not appear until the nineties.


Underneath there were floorboards. The wood was far too rough to be walked on. Stair carpets were not fitted either. They went up the middle of the stairs leaving bare or painted floorboards to either side on the parts where nobody walked.

Walls and Windows

In the fifties it was very unusual to see painted walls. We all had wallpaper. I think it may have had something to do with the quality of plastered walls. When painted walls came into fashion in the sixties it was recommended to do them by first pitting up lining paper to create a suitable flat surface.


Walls tended to have a picture rail – a strip of wood about thirty or forty centimetres from the ceiling. You could put metal clips on the rail to hang pictures. I don’t think we had many pictures but we did have mirrors.

Windows were draughty with no double glazing. We always had net curtains as well as proper curtains. I think this was the fashion of the times.

Decorating, Plumbing and Electricity

There is a bit of overlap here with blogs past and blogs yet to come but these were jobs to be left to skilled workers and many such workers earned their living from basic household maintenance such as painting and wallpapering; fixing cisterns and leaking taps; and rewiring houses. This does not mean that such labourers were easy to find and it paid to know your own local plumber or decorator. (We knew a local handyman by name but we still had to wait months for a dripping tap to be mended.)

Plumbing used metal pipes which were much more difficult to fit. Modern plastic fittings are self-sealing, drip-free and easy to cut to size with a hand saw. Metal pipes were large and heavy and the plumber sometimes used a blow-torch to bend pipes. Internal washers, which prevented drips, did not last for ever and needed professional replacement.


Taps (US: Faucets) came in just one style and were not mixer taps. This should not be a surprise as we had virtually no choice about things then.


Electricity supply was also managed without plastics. There were no plastic cables. They were wrapped in tightly coiled fabric. (Nothing like the picture above, which is modern.)


Room lights were different and were almost all ceiling lights, perhaps with one standard lamp. We didn’t have wall fitted lights. I am not convinced by the picture above. Any search for ‘fifties’ seems to produce a lot of modern equivalents styled according to the sixties, when things were beginning to change. (Of course in the fifties we did not have plastic cables as shown.)


The picture above shows a modern three pin plug with its internal fuse. In the fifties there were older standards, two pin for 2 amp connections and three pin. They did not have their own internal fuse. Every new appliance came without a plug so you had to buy one and connect it yourself. I think standardization, with equipment coming already with its own plug, did not come until well after the sixties. Now they may even be so hard-wired that you cannot change them. (There were no trip switches either. When a fuse went, we had to repair it in the fuse box under the stairs with fuse wire!)

It’s been a bit of a rambling blog. (Yes, I know, they all are!) Lots more to come.



Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

One thought on “[97] Upstairs and Downstairs

  1. I must object to your use of the term labourers when referring to plumbers etc. Along with other members of the building trade, they were skilled workers who had learned their trade over several years.
    I enjoyed reading this blog as I was born in the early fifties & our house was very traditional. Just one point – a separate bathroom & toilet was not common in Scotland. I only saw a house like this when I vivited relations in England.

    Liked by 1 person

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