Remembrance of Things Past

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


[113] All Manner of Things Shall be Well

I am coming near to the end and I want to do a broad summary. It will be a bit rambling, without any pictures and full of sweeping generalizations. I have put in lots of links so you can find out more details.


I don’t want to give you pages and pages of Terms and Conditions as we seem to get nowadays but I just want to make it plain that these are my views. For the Fifties they are the memories of a young boy brought up in a large family in Ilford with no knowledge of life outside my family and school. Even in the Sixties I knew little outside my small world. News and information from television and newspapers was far more restricted than today


We had virtually nothing of modern technology. There were fixed line Telephones, which we hardly ever used – more or less just for occasional local calls. Our house had Electricity but we didn’t have many uses for it. We had an electric iron and very, very occasionally in winter an electric fire might be used. Basically electricity was for lights. All the things you now think of as automatic just didn’t happen. We survived without Computers.

If you wanted to write anything you used a pen or pencil. Offices used Typewriters, which were only used by typists and Newspapers were produced by a complex, cumbersome labour-intensive process taking several hours.

For Photographs we had cameras and photographic film. You might take 36 shots in a week’s holiday and then wait a week for a single tiny print of each one. We did have Cinemas producing films but people did not make their own moving pictures.

(Perhaps the most automation we ever had was in traffic lights. They were very simple with no fancy stuff like lanes or filter lights or pedestrian signals. Some of them were able to detect when traffic arrived to hasten on the next change.)

Standards and Authority

Attitudes were more Formal and Standards were different especially our views about women, children, ethnic minorities, animals and sexuality. (‘Ethnic minorities’ is a modern term. We didn’t have them. There was some open racism towards ‘black’ people – and Irish!)

We respected the Authorities even though we had no knowledge of how they worked. (There was no Internet!) We trusted and believed doctors, teachers, policeman and generally vicars. If we didn’t there was no way we could question what they said or did. If something went wrong we accepted it – we didn’t think of suing anyone for damages.

Most people more or less accepted the Church and there were many more believers and regular churchgoers. The Church played a significant part in our education and our attitudes to Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Sundays. St. Andrews Church at Ilford played a significant part in my life.


The government and Civil Service covered much, much more than today – coal, gas, electricity, railways, telephones, television and national savings. Education, doctors and hospitals and local government services were more centrally controlled.


Families stayed together. Men and women stayed married. Men and women were different. The man of the house worked; women stayed at home and were housewives; children grew up with their parents. More complicated family situations were rare. Homosexuality did not exist. (I am talking about generalities and public perceptions. It was not openly acknowledged or accepted.)

Most married women were housewives and there were few opportunities for work for women. Women expected to get married and raise a family at home and were generally happy with the situation. Housework (making beds, shopping, preparing and cooking food, cleaning and laundry, together with looking after children) took most of the average housewife’s day – and a lot of the evenings and weekends! Men were expected to do little at home and probably did even less.

Children, particularly those below school age, were looked after by their mothers because there were no alternative arrangements. Growing Adolescents remained in the care of their parents and could not vote until twenty-one.

While the man of the house earned an income and paid for regular bills (gas and electricity, rates, telephone etc.), he would pay a housekeeping allowance to his wife to cover basic food, cleaning and probably children’s clothes. In general, this allowance did not include anything for the wife to buy clothes or cosmetics (although most generally saved enough to look after their basic needs).

There was still the attitude that men made the major decisions for the family without consulting their wives, and wives just followed their husbands. The marriage ceremony included the promise for wives to ‘… love, honour and obey…’

[A major difference that affected all aspects of family life was that Contraception was not easy and abortion was illegal. It was not considered ‘right’ for unmarried women to have children.]

Law and Order

My impression is that there was much less public disorder and crime, but this may be partly from the innocence of youth. Police mostly operated on foot. There were no police cars. All they had was a police whistle to call for assistance.

There were different standards but crime, like other aspects of life, was more local. We didn’t have fast cars or easy roads.

Food and drink

Families ate together at home eating simple foods cooked by the housewife of the family.

Restaurants were up-market, much rarer than today and for special occasions and the rich. Eating at a restaurant was a more formal occasion and a more formal process. Except when on holiday, ordinary people rarely ate in restaurants or hotels. (Restaurants in those days were limited to British or perhaps French Cuisine. Foreign restaurants started to emerge in the sixties with Indian and Chinese restaurants.)

The only ‘fast food’ in the fifties was fish and chips, and for most people this was the only experience of eating out. The fish and chips were usually taken home, wrapped in newspaper, but there were facilities to eat in the shops. This would have been a much more informal and cheaper experience than eating in a proper restaurant.

The first equivalent of the American revolution that was fast food hit England in the early sixties. It was the Wimpy Bar. This was a glorified coffee bar which served hamburgers in buns (‘Wimpy’) but not exactly in the Macdonald’s takeaway fashion. They were served, with chips, at tables and on plates, with knives and forks – a downmarket version of restaurant service. The real takeaways such as Macdonald’s did emerge, in their full American format, until the seventies. After that came Pizza and other culinary imports from the U.S.A.

Pubs were much more common. They were crowded with men (not women) who drank pints of bitter and smoked. Pubs did not mess around serving food. Alcohol at home was less prevalent.

By modern standards, cafes were non-existent. When shopping in Ilford Mum might have a cup of tea at a department store café. That was it.


Almost all early Television was live, not pre-recorded. (The only real exceptions were programmes repeated a day or two after their original broadcast.) Also, in a way which is not easy to define, there was a much narrower range of programmes, only what the middle class establishment of that time would consider to be in good taste. This consisted of news, information and entertainment based on ‘Variety’ (i.e. singing, dancing, comedy, magic, circus acts etc.) Sports broadcasting was virtually unknown as technological limitations made ‘outside broadcasts’ (anything not done from the central studios) both difficult and expensive. Back in 1950 there was no choice of viewing, no television advertisements no phone-in programmes, no Soaps, no reality television, no live football, no morning television.

We had one channel for a few hours each day with very poor quality black-and-white pictures on a nine-inch screen! My memories of Children’s Television date from these earlier days. By the late sixties we had three channels, still not broadcasting all day and still without the reliability and picture quality we expect today.

I have a whole series of blogs about particular stars of television – from David Attenborough and Doctor Who … to David Attenborough and Doctor Who!

Of course in the Fifties Radio was just as important with Mrs. Dale’s Diary and Two-Way Family Favourites.

General Entertainment.

At home, people spent some time watching television, listening to the radio, reading and perhaps making their own music. Pianos were nowhere near universal, but were far more popular than today. Cinema was more popular. If people went to the theatre, it was a far more special night out than now. People more often just went out walking together.

Pop Music hadn’t really started. Televised sport was almost non-existent – apart from the weekly football results.


I have said a lot in my blogs about Primary School, Secondary School and University life all of which were much more formal than today. I can only speak for Grammar School education, which may have some similarities with the few remaining Grammar Schools today – including my alma mater, Ilford County High School, which still exists. Teaching was based on chalk on blackboards, reading from textbooks and writing in exercise books. Our most sophisticated visual aids were – coloured chalk.

We had just the traditional subjects, formal homework, end-of-term examinations and hand-written reports.


We had simple local ShopsGrocers, Bakers, Butchers, Newsagents, Chemists, Hardware shops and Post Offices were common. Big towns had Department Stores but there were no Supermarkets. If I take an example, the baker might sell half a dozen types of loaf (only one of which would be sliced and packed,) white rolls or brown rolls and a few types of cakes. We were not burdened with Choice. There was, of course, no on-line shopping.


There were no motorways, just narrow roads going through the centres of towns so that long-distance travel was a series of traffic jams. For local shopping parking outside the shops was easy and free.



We used cash and coped with pounds, shillings and pence and it was all done by mental arithmetic. Shopkeepers gave us the right change. Credit was virtually non-existent. Banks managed all their calculations without automatic calculators or computers.

By way of a diversion, here are some typical prices from the Fifties (or perhaps early Sixties) from memory. I have converted pre-decimal money to approximate decimal equivalents.

  • 1p would have bought a cup of tea. (Coffee was 2p.)
  • A stamp for a letter was about 1½p. (There was no distinction then between First Class and Second Class post!)
  • A Mars bar was 1½p, a Kit-Kat 1p. (Most other chocolate bars did not exist then.)
  • A bus ride started at 1p and was unlikely to be more than 10p. (Buses were double-decker and had bus conductors.)
  • A small loaf of bread was about 4p.
  • A haircut (for men) was about 5p.
  • A pint of beer in a pub was about 5p.
  • A cheap plastic ball-point pen was about 10p (and probably still is).
  • Single records, when they started, were about 33p. LPs (33 rpm) were about £2 to £3.
  • A three-course meal in a restaurant would have come to between 50p and £1.
  • A gallon of petrol was about 25p. (That’s a gallon, a bit more than four litres!)
  • A black-and-white television set (9 inch) was about £60-70. (This figure has remained virtually unchanged for 50 years.)
  • A 4-bedroom semi-detached house in the suburbs of London was about £250.

(The Retail Price Index has risen by a factor of about 25 since the mid-fifties. Most of this inflation took place in the Sixties and Seventies.)



There were virtually no plastics so things now made of plastic would have been made from wood or metal.

Packaging, when it existed, was simple, perhaps a rectangular box. Bread, meat, fruit and vegetables were sold loose or perhaps wrapped in tissue paper.

We knew little of some modern health concerns and Health and Safety was not a major consideration. Substances like mercury, DDT and asbestos, now considered very dangerous, were uses routinely. The same can be said for lead in pipes, paint, toys and petrol. Smoking was common, ubiquitous and accepted.

Here are some of the evils of the modern world, which we did not have in the Fifties.

  • Consumerism and advertising were much less significant. There were no three-for-two or buy-one-get-one-free offers.
  • We had and no junk mail.
  • There was no cold calling on telephones.
  • Utilities – gas, electricity, water, telephones, television – were state controlled and there were no choices of tariffs.
  • Banks and building societies were similar to each other – offering few choices at identical rates.
  • Telephones did not have premium rate calls – but then all non-local calls were difficult, unreliable and expensive.


Something younger people find hard to understand is that we knew so little of the nastier side of life that we trusted people.

There were no school runs by the parents. Children as young as five walked to school on their own. When we were seven or eight we were sent to the shops at Beehive Lane on our own. Women with babies would leave them in prams outside the shops.

[I know. I said no pictures. I changed my mind.]

We played in the streets or spent the day at Wanstead Park Recreation ground – without mobile phones and without even watches. We came home when it was time for tea.



I have put in a lot of links but there is a lot more in the blogs including some about Christmas, my family, politics and some miscellaneous odds and ends … and language. I still think the best way to read then is to start at the beginning and work forward.

My last blog … in a week or two … will be about language.


The title of this blog comes from the quotation ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’ from Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in the English Language known to be written (about 1395 AD) by a woman.

We know little about the authoress, Julian of Norwich. Even her name is uncertain. She lived in the second half of the Fourteenth Century as an anchoress in a cell joined to the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich, which is probably the source of her name – although Julian was a common name for women at the time.



As this is almost my final post I want to acknowledge my sources. Apart from my own memory I have just two sources.

There may be an odd exception but almost all of the background information and most of the pictures come from Wikipedia.

The rest of the pictures – apart from a few of mine – come from Facebook, generally from the rapidly growing number of groups devoted to nostalgia about the Fifties and Sixties.



[106] How Green was my Valley?

I am going to do another blog that has long been on my ‘to do’ list, more about things that we recognize today than about the fifties – what we would now call Green issues or ecology.

I suspect that some scientists even then were aware of Global Warming but the general public had no concerns and would not have understood the word ecology or ‘green’ in its modern sense. But we were not profligate in out treatment of resources.


I am going to work backwards and start by a trip round our local rubbish dump today – now glorified as a ‘Recycling Centre,’ and look at the things we now recycle:-

  • Paper. Back in the fifties we had newspapers and we used them to light fires. Supply and demand matched very well. We didn’t use much other paper, perhaps note pads and colouring books. Any excess newspaper and all other paper just went on the fire. (There was nothing remotely like junk mail!)
  • Cardboard. This was quite a rare occurrence, maybe occasionally something came in a cardboard box. It would have been torn into small enough pieces and go the way of paper. (Cardboard egg boxes were collected and re-used.)
  • Wood. At the risk of being repetitive we used the wood that made up open boxes of vegetables to light the fire. I suspect we only had these boxes because Dad worked in wholesale fruit and vegetables. Any other wood would have gone on the fire.
  • Plastic. What! Plastic? There was virtually none of it. Small bits of plastic or cellophane wrapping could go … wait for it … on the fire. No food came in plastic containers.
  • Glass. Again there was very little. Milk bottles were re-used. Beer and soft drinks bottles were returned for their deposit. The only other glass I can remember was for jars such as marmalade or sherry and wine. I suppose it went in the dustbin.
  • Metal. There were not much because there were no canned drinks. The only food I remember in cans was baked beans (and very occasionally garden peas.) It must have gone into the dustbin.
  • Batteries and Light Bulbs. These went into the dust bin but were very rare. I think out only batteries we ever had were for a torch – used when we had power cuts. Light bulbs lasted a long time.
  • Electrical Goods. Now we have various options for recycling – Large electrical (white goods) and smaller items. Of course back then we didn’t have most electrical devices of today. (In the early fifties we didn’t even have a refrigerator. The electricity meter under the stairs had a wheel that went round faster as you used more. Except in the evenings when lights were on it generally stopped!) Anything large like a refrigerator would be taken away by the council (free) if you just rang up and asked them.
  • Textiles. This is still only a small area now for recycling or re-use. Basically we didn’t throw away old clothes then – they were used until they fell apart and then used as rags. (There were no kitchen towels.) Eventually they would probably go on to the fire.
  • Cartons. No we didn’t have such things.
  • Food Waste. This went to the compost heap but we did not waste food. Potato peel, pea pods, egg shells etc. made good compost.
  • Other rubbish. I suppose most of what we have now that goes to the land-fill department is packaging and things that can’t be recycled because they are mixed. I can’t think of anything we had in this category. We certainly did not have aerosol cans.


So what did we have in our dustbins? Basically it was just ash from the fire. Dustbins were metal so the ash could go in while still a bit hot sometimes.

Dustbins were collected every week and we didn’t have to do anything. The dustbin men would come round the back of the house and find it. After emptying it they would return it where it belonged! (I know we can’t call them ‘men’ now but it was never a job for women. They didn’t do it and almost certainly would not have been able to do it.)

The rubbish collected by the bin men was burned so we didn’t need large land-fill sites. [See Blog [2] ]


It’s worth pointing out that there were garden incinerators, simple metal mesh containers that could be used to burn some rubbish. Generally they were used for garden rubbish such as autumn leaves but old furniture could be chopped up and burned. We even had open bonfires in the back garden – not just for the Fifth of November.


One of the major causes of excessive rubbish now is packaging. There was very little packaging in the fifties, and it was mostly wood, cardboard and paper – easily burnable. Some things did come in metal containers.

Much more food was bought with little or no packaging, for example vegetables were loose; bread was unpacked, just wrapped in tissue paper. (Sliced, wrapped bread was an expensive alternative.) Milk came in milk bottles (rinsed and returned for re-use). Egg boxes were also re-used. Apart from milk, drinks came in glass bottles. For beer bottles there was a deposit, refundable on return – for re-use not for re-cycling.

For goods in department stores you might be offered a carrier bag (brown paper) or you could use your own shopping bag.


Most things were made of wood or metal. Plastic was only just emerging as a material and some toys were made of plastic. Bakelite telephones and electrical plugs were the main things in plastic. But there were no chairs, boxes, pens, bottles or cutlery made of plastic. (Also, of course, many of today’s uses for plastic were not around in the fifties in any material – food mixers, computers ….)

Most clothes were made of natural fibres – wool, cotton (and occasionally silk). Nylon had emerged for stockings but otherwise there was little use of man-made fibres for clothing.

We didn’t have materials like polystyrene, cling-film or bubble-wrap. ..

[Of course without metal cans and today’s ubiquitous plastic wrappings and containers, there was very much less visible litter. Any paper litter was biodegradable and soon disappeared. On the other hand with much more smoking cigarette ends and sometimes discarded cigarette boxes were seen in the streets. And dogs – no dog poo bags and no culture to use them.]


Re-cycling can be expensive and inefficient and so re-use may be more effective.

We re-used milk bottles, beer bottles, some soft drinks bottles and egg cartons.

For so many things we just didn’t need to change – so we were not regularly throwing out old models to make room for the new. For example, I remember we had a hairdryer. It lived in the middle drawer in the cabinet in the morning room. It always lived there. It must have lasted for years. It worked so we did not consider replacing it with a faster or better model.

Today many things like mobile phones have a life of 2-3 years built in almost automatically. (In business they call it built-in obsolescence.) We have a monthly contract on a phone which includes buying the actual handset. When it runs out we assume it’s time to upgrade to the next model. So we spend several hundred pounds to buy a replacement and throw out the old one. [The old fixed phones lasted forever.]

Global Warming

Most people now accept the significance of the phenomenon known as Global Warming, which predicts an imminent collapse of the World’s environment as a habitat fit for human population. Politicians are only just beginning to try to prevent or reduce it but many predict that all efforts are now far too late.

One of the major contributing factors is the change to our carbon balance with the depletion of carbon stores such as coal and oil deposits and the loss of rainforests. A hundred years ago large areas of Africa, America and Asia were rainforest but economic and demographic pressure has let to most of it being cut down with increasing losses in recent years.

Back in the sixties most of what still remained was the Amazon basin a large area of undisturbed forest. I remember from Geography lessons in the Fourth Form we looked at South America. The capital of Brazil used to be Rio de Janeiro until an ambitious project around 1960 carved space for the new city of Brasilia in the middle of this rainforest. Now many large areas of the Amazon are no longer forest.

If you ask – what did we know about Global Warming in the fifties and what we do about it? Well, I suppose that few really knew what was happening and politicians, as always, ignored anything even slightly long-term. [Ok, I’m a cynic about politics – a Grumpy Old Man!]


In the seventies the Ecology Party in Britain and other organisations began to open up political awareness of green issues. (The Ecology Party has since been renamed as the Green Party.)

My awareness goes back a bit further to Gordon Rattray Taylor and the book he produced in 1968, The Biological Time Bomb. I read it at the time and still remember it. It was primarily about the rise of biotechnology but it also considered many resources with only limited supplies. There was a whole list of elements expected to become unavailable by the turn of 2000. (Of course they did not run out. Maybe we have other sources or alternative technology. Maybe we have just postponed our problems.)

There have been predictions of inevitable doom for many years and at University I also noted the predictions of Rev. Robert Malthus, who in 1798 published, anonymously An Essay on the Principle of Population. It considered how improvements in food production led to population growth.



Of course the elephant in the room is now population growth as it has been for hundreds of years. People still don’t talk about over-population although it is far more important than all other considerations.

Malthus observed that the improved well-being from better food production was temporary because it led to population growth. Mankind used abundance for population growth rather than a higher standard of living. Populations tend to grow until halted temporarily by war, famine and disease.

Even in the sixties I remember our Geography teacher, Mr Evans (the one who taught us about South America and the Amazon forests,) foretelling the doubling of World population by the year 2000. It’s now three times what it was then.

When movements like the Ecology Party arose in the seventies there was a movement called Zero Population Growth. Demographics make even this unachievable because we live so much longer today. If every couple in the UK had just two children the population would continue to rise – probably for hundreds of years. (China with its one-child policy has still doubled its population over the last fifty years.)

I don’t generally comment about politics but my views are that we are already in excess of sustainable population levels by a factor of maybe five or ten – and the climatic effects of Global Warming will inevitably lead to another great extinction event like the one that led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Earth has had five such events and will survive another one. It’s unlikely that the human race will survive. We may all be lucky enough to survive before it gets too bad!


Two comments before I end this somewhat pessimistic blog. First we have a language rich in idiom with all sorts of convoluted expressions which come and go. There are hundreds of expressions we use now that people of the fifties would not have understood. One such expression is ‘the elephant in the room.’ Wikipedia mentions a story from 1814 but dates its use from the New York Times in 1959. It certainly was not well known until sometime later.

And ‘How Green was My Valley’ is a 1939 novel about family life in Wales. I remember a very early series on (BBC) television but Wikipedia knows only of a series from the mid-seventies. Perhaps I am wrong.


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[91] Sing, Choirs of Angels …

It’s time for the next blog about St Andrew’s Church and I’m going to start with a look at typical services there in the sixties.


It won’t surprise you, after reading about Religion when I was younger, to find out that services always followed the Book of Common Prayer. In those days there was no alternative liturgy available. Every Sunday there were the two main services of Matins (at 11:00 am) and Evensong (at 6:30 pm) with everything according to the book. More details will come when I look at the Choir.

The only other services were Holy Communion and occasional Weddings, Baptisms and Funerals – all according to Common Prayer – and one or two special services through the Church Year. There were the same services every Easter (including Good Friday), Whitsun, Ascension Day and Christmas.


It also won’t surprise you that we always used the Authorized Version of the Bible and all or hymns were from Hymns Ancient and Modern.

(The first replacement to the Authorized Version came with the Good News Bible, available for the New Testament from the late sixties. The Alternative Service Book came in 1980, originally as an alternative to the Book of Common Prayer, but soon almost a complete replacement. There are many more even more modern versions of both now!)

I don’t think we actually went to these services. Mum and Dad were not churchgoers so I don’t know why we formed such a close link. We certainly always received the monthly Parish Magazine.

Mothers’ Union

The church then had several clubs and societies meeting regularly in the Church Hall. There was a Youth Club, Young Wives Fellowship, Mothers’ Union and S.A.M.S., the Men’s society.

The Mothers’ Union is an international Christian charity that seeks to support families worldwide. According to Wikipedia, its members are not all mothers or even all women, as there are many parents, men, widows, singles and grandparents involved in its work. I suspect that in the sixties it was mainly (if not all) women. It main aim is to support monogamous marriage and family life.

Mum joined the Mothers’ Union as soon as we moved to the parish. I can’t remember much about how this was managed – perhaps there were afternoon meetings when Nan could look after us. But she did make some very close friends through it. In those days just about the only thing they could do as friends was to meet at each other’s houses for a cup of tea and a biscuit. (There was no coffee shop culture and in any case Mum couldn’t drive anywhere.)

Sunday School

I am going to look at several activities associated with the church. I’m not sure I can remember the ages at which we were involved so these may not come in chronological order

We did go to Sunday School as young children – I think from when we first moved to our second house. This was from 3 to 4 in the afternoon in the Church Hall. I don’t know how or why this was arranged. Maybe it was to give Mum and Dad some time without us at home. We walked to the church.


At some stage when we still went to Highlands School there was a group for children that met every Thursday evening called Discoverers. This short for ‘Discoverers of the Way,’ and it was a bit like Sunday School, based on Bible stories – with art and craft activities.


I must have joined the church choir at about the age of nine and I can remember some of the details of how it happened. My younger brother somehow volunteered to join and he came home and told us something about it. They had been learning to sing the well-known anthem about ‘highly flavoured gravy,’ which was, of course the Christmas Carol, ‘The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came,’ recounting part of the Magnificat, and the actual words were, “Most Highly Favoured Lady.”

This very well-known anthem recounts how Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus:

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,

his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;

“All hail”, said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,

most highly favoured lady.” Gloria.

Within a matter of weeks I had joined, with my twin brother and the younger brother had left. I think have always enjoyed singing and I enjoyed everything about the choir. I stayed for a few years until my voice broke (at about twelve.)

The choir sang at the main services (Matins and Evensong) every Sunday and we filled the choir stalls of the church – two rows each side. They were not ‘left’ and ‘right.’ They were always Cantoris and Decani. The front rows were boy trebles and the back rows were men, mostly bass and tenor with about two altos each side. The men seemed to be permanent features – I don’t remember their membership ever changing. (And there were no women or girls. I suspect that this aspect has changed now.)

14 year old chorister Aled Jones at St Edmundsbury Cathedral today 25/4/85.

We wore robes – a long, plain blue cassock, white surplice and ruff, but for choir practice it was just a cassock. [Yes, it’s red in the picture but we had blue ones.] Our robes were in the Wilson Room in the Church Hall. We would move to the vestry for services and join the vicar to walk to the back of the church. We would process into the church as we sang the first verse of the first hymn.

The service followed a formal structure and the choir was part of that formality. For each hymn the organist would play an introduction and the choir stood en masse on the first note from the organ. There were notices (mostly banns of marriage) but apart from these the vicar never said a word that did not follow the standard liturgy. For the sermon, delivered from the pulpit, the choirboys sat in the front rows with the congregation – supposedly so that they could listen attentively.

(The liturgy is actually quite complex with wording changing within seven days of Easter, Christmas and other dates. It’s all in Common Prayer.)

In our weekly practice we learned how to sing properly, how to breathe properly for hymns and how to read the complex notation for Psalms. (The trouble with Psalms is that the words of each verse can be of any length with variations of stress and metre. The same music, which covered two verses, just repeated.) Everything was in four part harmony but some verses of some hymns were marked for unison. Just occasionally the trebles had a descant for one verse of a hymn – such as the well-known one for verse three of O Come All ye Faithful: ‘Sing, choirs of Angels …’

I don’t know how others coped but I had the advantage of being able to read music. In later life I came back to singing choral music and for a few years sang in a chapel choir as a bass.

We did actually get paid in the choir. Every quarter (thirteen weeks) we were each given a little brown envelope containing … about 7s 6d. (Yes, that’s 37½p in modern money for singing 26 times!) The amounts were variable and we all seemed to get different amounts. It must have depended on attendance and quality of singing but were never told how it was worked out. And, of course, we never asked.

Weddings were a bonus but there were only a few each year. They were nearly always on a Saturday morning and we were asked if we could attend. For each wedding we were paid two shillings. (That’s 10p! It was a lot to us then) Just occasionally the bridegroom must have felt generous and we would get 2s 6d. It will not surprise you that the service always followed the Book of Common Prayer rigidly.


The choir just about had enough time in the weekly practice to cover hymns and psalms for the next Sunday and we only occasionally sang an anthem. My of my favourite anthem was All in an April Evening, which I have listed in my first Music blog. We probably only sang it twice. (It’s about Easter but has to come in a year when Easter is late to fit the April setting.)

All in the April morning, April airs were abroad; The sheep with their little lambs – Pass’d me by on the road. The sheep with their little lambs – Pass’d me by on the road; All in an April evening – I thought on the Lamb of God. …



[88] Christmas Comes but Once a Year

I am going to do a mixed post, partly about Christmas but also a reflection of a year of blogging. It’s more or less a year since I started.


I have done some memories of Christmas in [7] Christmas Preparations, [8] Christmas Day, [9] Christmas Carols and [10] Christmas Traditions. The first two are general memories of the festive season – when cooking a full Christmas dinner was a much more significant task than today. You may find more about our primitive kitchens and cooking in [68] Cooking with Gas and [76] Cooking Part 2

You will know how much Music can bring back memories – especially if you have read [26] Music (1), [32] Music (2) and [34] Music (3), which list my favourite musical memories, so you will understand why Christmas Carols concentrates on the carols we sing at Christmas. We still start our family Christmas family by listening to the carols from Kings College Chapel, Cambridge as we drive to visit relatives.

The last Christmas Blog is more of personal blog, concentrating on our family traditions. Even before Christmas proper we now always have to see the film It’s a Wonderful Life, although I suspect that this tradition may have started later than the sixties. (The film is much earlier.)

I could now add Miracle on 34th Street and many of the familiar Christmas pop songs. Rocking around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee was an old favourite.

As early as [3] The Church I wrote about the part that religion, particularly the Church of England, has played in my life, and of course this comes to the fore at Christmas. The series about St Andrew’s, only just starting with [81], will show other close connections with the Church that are gradually disappearing. It’s hard to explain but I like the words of hymns, Christmas carols and Bible readings partly because of the archaic language which we no longer have. Younger readers may not understand why it used to play such a dominant part in our lives. [15] Highlands School (1) and [16] Highlands School (2) in much the same way show the part religion used to play in schools.


[21] Review and [50] Half a Century looked backwards and forwards about this blog and I feel much the same now as I did when writing them. I would like suggestions from readers about possible topics but don’t seem to get them. Comments are always appreciated, preferably on the blog rather than Facebook. (When I post a link on Facebook with a picture I get many comments about the picture, generally points in the blog, which the Facebook viewers have not read.)

From the WordPress site and its apps I see the statistics about this blog and so far I’m up to 15000 hits. I put in lots of Tags and so some of these hits come from searches. It can be quite amusing to find what people look for.

What people see in Facebook is not predictable but posting on Saturday seems to get the most views. Very few actually follow the blog so I share each new post on several Facebook groups about the fifties and sixties. Most are now getting two to three hundred hits. The few comments I get have all been very positive. (I have been amazed at the spam comments. So far I have about 350 genuine comments, of which about half are my own internal cross-references. But over 800 spam comments have been automatically removed for me.)

I can still see at least another twenty topics that I am working on and expect to keep going at one a week for a few more months. After [69] Elizabeth Martha about my grandmother you can expect some more personal memories about Mum and Dad; there are several about St Andrews to come; and I have basic subjects not even started!


The Gospel of Saint John

I will end with the first words of this book of the Bible that somehow remind me always of Christmas. They are part of the traditional Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, where they form the last of nine ‘lessons’ (readings from the Bible). It’s the part I like best.

It’s a very philosophical (or theological?) passage and I can’t claim to know what it means. Perhaps it’s meant to be mysterious rather than literal. (The Church has argued for centuries about the precise definition of the Trinity of God.)

Here, firstly, is modern version, from a New Testament by J B Phillips:

At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. All creation took place through him, and none took place without him. In him appeared life and this life was the light of mankind. The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.

A man called John was sent by God as a witness to the light, so that any man who heard his testimony might believe in the light. This man was not himself the light: he was sent simply as a personal witness to that light.

That was the true light which shines upon every man as he comes into the world. He came into the world – the world he had created – and the world failed to recognise him. He came into his own creation, and his own people would not accept him. Yet wherever men did accept him he gave them the power to become sons of God. These were the men who truly believed in him, and their birth depended not on the course of nature nor on any impulse or plan of man, but on God.

So the word of God became a human being and lived among us. We saw his splendour (the splendour as of a father’s only son), full of grace and truth.

I can’t see this as either meaningful or mysterious.

Here is what I think of as the original version, the original Authorized Version (also known as the King James Version.) Perhaps the meaning is even less clear but the language is so much better.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe.

He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light.

That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.


You may take this passage how you like and you may draw your own conclusions about why I put it here. Perhaps it’s just because it reminds me of Christmas when I was younger.

To me Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it.


[85] Shotgun Weddings


It’s time for another subject I have been putting off for a long time – relationships and family life – although, to be honest, it’s mostly about sex. I’m not really sure why I have put it off but it may be because of my shy nature, innocent upbringing and a reluctance to talk about sex. I often put in links to other blog posts – to boost my hit statistics but this time, as background information, I would really recommend [60] Young and Innocent, which includes something about sex education (or the lack of it) in the fifties and sixties.

A diversionary note about terminology: The word ‘sex’ used to be used almost universally where we now say ‘gender.’ Printed forms would routinely include: Sex: (male/female)……. The grammatical purists insisted that ‘gender’ applied to French nouns, and of course Latin and other languages. If we wanted to talk about the activity that we now call ‘sex’ – which of course we never did – the expression to be used was ‘sexual intercourse.’ It was hardly ever talked about. Of course in real life there were alternative slang and colloquial ways of saying it that are still used today! (Today we have a lot more ways!)

The dramatic changes in relationships and families started in the sixties with the advent of widely available contraception. I need to go back and look at sex and sexual relationships in the fifties, perhaps in more technical detail than I would like. People from the fifties would be shocked to see such openness.

There will be many generalizations in what follows and I need to make it clear that I am talking about people in general. I will say nothing of my personal experiences at the time.



In the fifties you would not have heard of the word ‘contraception.’ There was something called ‘family planning’ and some products were available through medical channels. You have to remember that the morals of the time would only consider such a topic for married couples; many adults would have been too embarrassed to ask (and probably didn’t know such things were available); and children under 21 could only see a doctor through their parents.

There were no contraceptive pills for women, just Intra-Uterine Devices (IUD) fitted under medical supervision. So contraception was virtually unobtainable for almost all women.

For men, the only contraceptives were condoms, which you could ask for, if you were bold enough, from a barber. I suspect that these were available from Chemist’s shops, where you might have to queue and ask a young female shop assistant. (The word ‘condom’ was never used perhaps because they were never spoken of. The word condom is unusual, inasmuch as its etymology is unclear. No one seems to know why they are called condoms. The only polite term was ‘Durex’, the one and only brand name. It came in one product only, always 3s 6d for a ‘packet of three.’ That’s 17.5 pence.)

As an indication of the way I was brought up, I could never have talked to anyone about this topic until a few years ago, even to my children. I don’t think I could now, except almost anonymously here. I still can’t quite believe I have gone as far as the picture above of a condom.

There was no way that young girls (or older unmarried women) could receive contraceptives and the contraceptive ‘pill’ had not yet arrived. Here it is worth pointing out the modern situation. For women now, contraceptive pills and other devices are feely available to all without any discrimination against the unmarried or the young. Even girls below the age of consent can obtain contraceptives from their doctors without the need to inform their parents. (Of course in our times, those under 21 had no chance of medical advice of any form apart from through their parents. The age of consent remains 16 as it was then – with some technical differences of definition that I will not go into here.) For men condoms are freely available now in supermarkets and elsewhere.


This is beginning to look as if it may be a whole blog post just about sex, but I need to add background material to put things into perspective. Everyone will be very aware that, over the last hundred years at least, people grow and develop more. Most men and women are significantly taller than their parents. This is presumably a result of better health and diet.

I will not go into the anatomy and physiology of sex but the onset of puberty is determined by weight and body size as much as by age, so that boys and girls now mature significantly earlier. I suspect that since the fifties, the average age of puberty in both boys and girls has gone down by about two or three years but it’s hard to find statistics. This change is, of course, different in different countries and cultures and it’s only an average – another sweeping generalization of mine!


Attitudes to Sex

Readers will be aware through literature of different ways of life – from the novels of Jane Austen to well-known Victorian attitudes. Change has been gradual. So in the fifties we had progressed from Victorian ideas of chaperones at all times. But there was still very strict control by parents of their children, which meant up to the age of 21.

To the Victorians, even in marriage, sex was not something for a woman to enjoy. It was said that they were told to “Close your eyes and think of England.” Missionaries to Africa and elsewhere had similar attitudes, discouraging experimentation and insisting on the so-called ‘Missionary position.’ We had progressed some way from here by the fifties, perhaps not very far by today’s standards.

At the right sort of age – different for different people, younger for girls, maybe 13, 14, 15, 16 – boys and girls might meet and ‘go out together.’ (In earlier times this was called courting.) They might become ‘boyfriend/ girlfriend’ and be seen everywhere together. But there were not opportunities for sex, either regularly or one-off. They could go to the pictures, just walk together in the evenings, or meet in each other’s homes. But generally parents would impose curfews – home by 10:30 etc. If you brought a girl home at 10:30 for a relatively innocent goodnight kiss, you parents might be in the next room, and both sets of parents would impose a time limit.

(I have been chastised for suggesting that no one ever had sex before marriage. Of course it happened and it was more common than it had been twenty years earlier. But I can only work in generalizations. Innocence and virginity were much more common than they are now. Much.)

You will remember from Blog [60] that almost the only information about relationships came from Agony Aunts, with columns in newspapers and magazines. They might suggest that adolescent girls could allow their boyfriends to engage in light ‘petting’ (above the waist) but should never allow ‘heavy petting,’ which could lead inevitably to unwanted pregnancies. (I haven’t defined petting but then the Agony Aunts wouldn’t have defined it either.)

There was still a heavy influence from the Church about moral values and so much was kept secret that many children grew up in almost total ignorance. Those who kept to the standards of society (where few had the desire or opportunity to do otherwise,) might enter into marriage as virgins, with insufficient knowledge of what was expected of them. (OK, most had a basic idea gleaned from a very short talk from their parents or from friends or relatives, but many from more protective families knew nothing of sex. It was not flaunted in public as it is now.)

Other ‘Contraception’

I am going in a fairly rambling manner but need here to mention two other methods that approximated to contraception – one for respectable married couples and one for not so innocent adolescent young lovers.

The Roman Catholic Church has always had somewhat more strict attitudes to sexual relationships than protestant churches. They believe that all artificial forms of contraception are wrong and devout Catholics have tended to have larger families. Their only allowable method to prevent pregnancy in unmarried couples is abstinence from sex. (Of course, for most people in the fifties this was the only practical reason. Their reasons may have been to do with preventing pregnancy rather than their moral views.)

For married couples who longer wanted pregnancies, the Catholic Church only allowed the ‘Rhythm Method,’ based on the fact that a woman’s fertility came only at certainly periods of her monthly cycles. Again, I will not go into technical details but the method was complex, based on following calendars; it was difficult and it was unreliable. It was effectively abstinence for some dates within the monthly cycles.

For young adolescents who did venture as far as ‘heavy petting,’ there were possible activities they could do and in some cases this could go as far as the so called ‘Withdrawal Method.’ (No technical details – but coitus interruptus was not much fun for either boy or girl and it was very unreliable as a contraceptive method.)

Unwanted Pregnancy

No method of contraception is perfect. Condoms are not completely reliable. Users do not always concentrate on correct use for contraception. Sometimes boys and girls would engage in activity without even knowing about the possibility of pregnancy. And of course sometimes they just got carried away with what they were doing.

In a world of ignorance there were many ‘old wives tales.’ For example, some girls thought that they would not get pregnant from intercourse standing up.

Inevitably, pregnancies did occur with unmarried girls. The moral atmosphere meant that such pregnancies were almost automatically unwanted. There were four choices open to the girls – abortion, marriage, adoption and trying to bring up a child as an unmarried mother. I will look at these four possibilities.


Abortion was only available legally as an emergency operation if the mother’s life was in danger. In the fifties there were ‘back-street’ abortionists which were illegal, expensive and dangerous (because conditions of hygiene were not good).

The change in legislation, which allowed abortion effectively on demand came in the late 60s.

Shotgun Weddings

If an adolescent girl got herself ‘in trouble’ there was tremendous pressure on the father to ‘do the right thing’ and enter into a ‘shotgun marriage’. This had always been so. Those like me who have taken up genealogy will find a large number of births coming quite soon after marriages.

Inevitably this led to many instances of unhappy marriages when the couple were not really in love or ready for marriage. But it was more usual to accept things then. (See later about divorce.)


If attempts to persuade the father to marry failed, or if the mother did not know the father, it was quite common for her to be taken away, as far as possible in secret, to an unmarried mother’s home and looked after until the delivery. The baby would almost certainly go straight to adoption and the mother could then come back into normal society.

Adoption was easier and could be done informally by a relative. Those who study family history may find instances of births to an older mother who already has many children. A fifteen-year-old girl could have a baby at home without medical attention and register it as her sister. Many children have grown up without the knowledge of their real mother. (Perhaps this happened less by the fifties than in earlier times – but popular television series make much dramatic use of such situations.)

Unmarried Mothers

The social and moral stigma attached to unmarried mothers led to them being swept under the carpet. The highly pejorative term ‘bastard’, which applied to their children remains today as a term of abuse but is no longer used in its literal sense. It was very rare for a lone mother to attempt to bring up a child on her own. There was no social service support or easy child minding so it was financially impossible in most circumstances.

More Diversions

Two other things come under the broad category of Sex.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) have always been with us. We knew them as Venereal Diseases (VD) although there was much more general ignorance. There were VD clinics advertised in public toilets but otherwise no public awareness or knowledge – not surprisingly in view of the complete lack of education about sex. Agony Aunts would occasionally post cryptic replies to unprinted letters that may have been associated with these diseases.

It was well before AIDS (starting gradually in the seventies) which was a significant driver in the spread of awareness of STD. Where we now talk of ‘safe sex,’ using condoms, to mean safety from disease and pregnancy, in the fifties people rarely considered disease. Condoms were and still are sometimes called prophylactics – which means disease prevention.

Fertility was a subject only considered through medical channels and only for married couples. The options for prospective parents were limited. IVF and the use of surrogate mothers were unheard of. Artificial insemination (usually by the prospective father) was emerging as an option. Perhaps for practical reasons, families were much more ready to accept their childless situation. Of course, there was also a much greater supply of healthy, normal babies for adoption, from the unmarried mothers who (voluntarily or otherwise) abandoned them at birth.


Getting engaged was a more formal thing. Of course people proposed marriage (and then it was always the man doing the proposing) but they might fix a day to get engaged. (We did. Only personal reference here.) It was a definite commitment, less likely to be broken.

There was still in common law something called Breach of Promise, which allowed a woman to sue for damages when a man changed his mind. (It only worked one way!) I suspect that this was not much used but the threat was there and it indicated the moral atmosphere. In the United Kingdom, this legal situation no longer exists.

Partners and Cohabitation

I am not sure how or when the trend for unmarried partners to live together emerged. Free contraception form around the sixties (with ‘The Pill’) led to freer sexual activity. Unmarried mothers gradually became acceptable, and the decline of religion reduced the hold of the Church over marriages. The cost of weddings has also been a factor.

Living together without marriage has gradually emerged as more and more popular. At first it was as a ‘trial marriage’ and would often be followed by a real marriage before children arrived, but now many couples see no need for marriage even with children. This phenomenon was almost unknown in the 50s.

We also now have partnerships being treated as less permanent. Victorian and earlier literature talks sometimes of step-parents with a somewhat sinister attitude. Now they are common, more often from previous relationships than previous marriages, giving more complex families.



Families were generally what we now call nuclear families – mother and father (married) and their children, sometimes perhaps with a resident grandparent. They lived much more together and would eat together round a table.

You could more or less assume that each child was the child of both parents. (Without considering how other possibilities might occur, there was no DNA tracing and no questioning of paternity. It was assumed that the husband of the mother was the father – when perhaps only the mother knew otherwise, and of course the ‘milkman’ in the humour of the day.)


This was much more difficult and followed a lengthy legal process. The only valid grounds for divorce were adultery, physical violence or desertion. The process ended with a provisional decree nisi and a six-month wait to the decree absolute.

There was even a halfway status known as a legal separation, which was acceptable to those who, for religious or other reasons, did not want a divorce. It sorted out the custody of the children and established maintenance payments without the need to establish grounds for divorce.

Children and Adolescents

Young children were looked after by their mothers who stayed at home as housewives. There were some kindergartens for the more well-off but no play schools or other pre-school care. There were no crèches for working mothers.

Children had a much lower profile. They were expected to be ‘seen but not heard’ and to pay due respect to all those who were ‘older and wiser’. They certainly did not have the influence over what was bought in the house that modern children have gained through the television advertising which is aimed at them. There was not much television for children to see.

With the age of majority at 21, adolescents were still largely treated as children up to that age. They stayed at home and more or less kept within the bounds of behaviour expected of them by their parents.

It was only in the 50s that markets began to see the potential for this age group who were gaining power from their ability to earn money and spend it. This started the move to pop music, then to fashion for adolescents (‘teddy boys’), and later to the vast cultures aimed at young men and women – music television, mobile telephones, and alcohol (and drugs).



[81] Fishers of Men

I need to start a series of posts about St Andrews Church, which I have been putting off because I wanted some pictures of the building. I have found some on the Internet and it’s clear that the outside of the church now is virtually unchanged – and probably much of the inside.

It may help to read [3] Religion first, especially for those more familiar with modern worship.


This picture shows the main church building, with the very distinctive dome at the front. Even the noticeboard and fence railings look exactly how they were in my time.

To the right in the picture you can see the Church Hall. In the following description I may talk of the past but I think much is unchanged since the sixties. I will use a whole blog post just to describe it as it was – as background to what was a significant part of my life for about ten years.

Church Building

The inside was the same as most churches of the time, a large single room with a high roof. As is traditional, the altar is to the east. [It’s not an altar, it’s a communion table or the Lord’s Table, but everyone always called it the altar.]

The two main entrances, seen in the picture above, were used for weddings. To the right hand side. Not visible in the picture, is a smaller entrance, which we usually used. Just inside on the wall was a metal box to take donations towards church expenses.


This quite modern picture shows inside, facing the altar, and is very familiar to me, almost unchanged. I used to love that ceiling with its wooden beams. At the far end the altar, stained windows, pulpit and lectern look the same. (You will need to click on the picture to enlarge it.) The choir section is not clear from this picture. The boxes along the sides (lights, heaters or sound?) are new.


This view shows the other end. One main door is open and in the centre is the font. Again it’s very familiar.

The main nave of the church was full of pews, which used to be very common in churches. It was said to hold a congregation of 800. It was only full for the last Sunday before Christmas – the Nine Lessons and Carols – and sometimes one or two chairs were added to seat everyone.


The pews had hassocks, kneelers for prayers, like those in the picture above but embroidered to indicate St Andrew’s Great Ilford. (This was the only context in which I heard it called Great.) Hassocks were kept under the pews. They were used during services.

[There was a group of ladies, with a name I can’t remember, which met for sewing and embroidery. They probably did other things as well but they did some of the hassocks.]

Service Books

In the back of each row of pews was a rack to hold books and Orders of Service. Two sets of books were kept right at the back of the church, to be handed out by sidesmen as we came in.


We used the Book of Common Prayer. It was virtually standard then with no alternative options. This was a little black book, most of which was never used. It had the liturgy for Matins and Evensong, also Holy Communion, and the words of all the Psalms.

But for those of us with nothing exciting to do during the sermon, there were pages of useless information to leaf through – several tables detailing the incredibly complex process of working out the date for Easter; the list of close relatives not allowed to marry; and various other services including the Churching of Women – already obsolete then, this was a sort of ritual blessing and purification for women after childbirth.


We always used Hymns Ancient and Modern, with its archaic language. In spite of its name, the hymns were mostly of Victorian origin. This was snother small, pocket-sized book – with a maroon cover. (Pictures are almost certainly more modern versions.)

Church Hall and other buildings

You can see the Church Hall to the right of the first picture. It was used for many activities and was ideal as a theatre with its large stage. I suspect that this building has also changed little since I was there. Apart from the actual hall there was a smaller hall behind it, the Wilson Room, and toilets. Upstairs, above the Wilson Room were two smaller rooms – the Chamberlain Room and another smaller room now known as the Office. I am pretty this other room used to have a name (the Erskine Room?) and was used sometimes.

The Church Hall building was linked to the main Church through the vestry – where priests and choir put on their robes.

Behind the church was the vicarage, where the vicar lived.


In those days services were defined inflexibly. For Sunday morning it was always Matins and in the evening Evensong, both as in the Book of Common Prayer. There were also Holy Communion, and Weddings, Baptisms and Funerals, all as per Common Prayer. I will look later at services through the Christian year.


Vicars and Curates

I remember Rev Samuel Erskine for the early part most of our time (1952-60) He was Irish, with an Irish accent. With his first name he was amused by the existence of the SAMS, St Andrew’s Men’s Society.

After him, as shown in the picture above, were Charles Porter (1960-66) and John Martin (1966-76), who officiated for my wedding. [Porter left suddenly in circumstances best not described here.]

We also had curates coming and going. It was long before the time of women priests.

The Church Today

I have not been back for fifty years but there are some changes. They now have a woman priest and regularly have services in Urdu. I my day the only minority ethnic groups of any significance in the area were Jewish.


Lots to come about my early life and St Andrew’s but I have to end with this picture again, drawn just over 500 years ago by Albrecht Dürer. I remember it from the wall of the Chamberlain Room – not the original! I am told that is no longer there.

The title of this blog comes from the Gospel according to Saint Mark, Chapter 1 (Authorized Version):

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.











[60] Young and Innocent

I think that I managed to live a sheltered life, without knowing about what may have been going on in the world around me. By modern standards, we were all very young and innocent. How did I manage to grow up in ignorance and innocence, without being introduced to all the sins of the world?

To put things into perspective, we have to remember two general points. Firstly, people under 21 were children and were treated as children. They had some limited rights at eighteen, such as drinking alcohol and getting married, but 21 was the age of majority, the age of voting. By some quirk you could be persuaded to leave home and join the army as young as sixteen. I could never understand that.

Up to the age of 21 you were generally considered to be a child, under the care and control of your parents. School teachers also acted in loco parentis, so that they had as much power over children in the daytime as parents when at home. (If you grew to be over 21 at University, they still kept some control over you in loco parentis. They certainly tried to keep the male and female students apart!)

Secondly, information did not spread openly as it does now. [13] Secrecy has illustrated how little we knew about life outside of our families. With the general standards of society, originating in the very Christian and moral standards of Victorianism, it was as if people deliberately kept adult topics away from children. Newspapers were generally much more prim and proper and with the advent of television, the BBC (sometimes known as Aunty BBC) was even more prim and proper. There was no blatant sex or sexuality in television, or newspapers, or on the streets.


Reproduction – the ‘Facts of Life’ (or the ‘Birds and the Bees’)

Children were protected from what today we might call ‘adult’ topics, including everything relating to sex. We had no idea of where babies came from or how they were produced. Mum would say that ‘the Stork brought them’ or, ‘they were found under a gooseberry bush.’ (Yes, people really said such things.) As we grew a little older we knew that these ideas were not true, but we also knew that asking again would not get a more accurate or more sensible answer. What surprised me in retrospect was that I presumably never noticed women in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

We knew that there were boys and girls, who would grow into men and women but we didn’t know the difference. (With three brothers and two sisters I had some evidence to go on.) Without knowing anything about physiology, we knew and accepted all the stereotypes of men going to work; women staying at home as housewives; boys playing with toy guns and cars; girls playing with dolls. None of this was ever questioned.

When I was about ten, my younger brother managed to borrow a book from a boy living next door. It had a picture showing a baby growing inside its mother, which was enlightening. The book was soon whisked away, as if it was something evil we should not be seeing. Nothing was said about it. It was our first knowledge of the origins of babies, a somewhat surprising revelation.

I must have been about thirteen, in the Second Year at Ilford County High School, when things became a little clearer. A group of about six of us spent the dinner hour walking round the school playing field. One boy had acquired a book about the facts of life. (I think his father was a doctor. In those days there were introductory books for maturing boys and girls. Not everyone saw these books – I suspect that they were given out occasionally by doctors rather than being available on sale.)

As a general rule most children, like us, grew up in blissful ignorance of the ‘facts of life’. They certainly learnt nothing about sex (or children, or married life, or relationships between men and women) from school and many children learned almost nothing from their parents. As they reached adolescence there was a permeation of knowledge from gossip, from neighbours, from elder siblings and from schoolmates. This probably covered the basic mechanics of sex but little else.

They may have been taken aside for a short, embarrassing chat when they reached 21, (perhaps earlier) or left home, or approached relationships with the other sex, and given a furtive limited explanation of a few things. There were still plenty of men and women who entered marriage without knowing what was expected of them. But at marriage there was the possibility of a talk with parents, religious ministers or doctors, and some educational books were available. I know that my parents would have been far too embarrassed to mention the topic. When I was older there were vague hints that if ever I wanted to know anything, perhaps I could ask my older brother.

It was, of course, generally expected that no sexual conduct should take place before marriage. Of course some did, but only in a furtive, guilty way, and in some cases with dire consequences. There was little in the way of publicly available contraception. (More about relationships in a future blog.)


While it is not true that homosexuality did not exist, that was the impression that was given by the press, radio, television and books. It was simply not mentioned openly. There were references to it in introductory books about sex, where it was generally described it as, at best, a psychological disorder. I remember being told by a friend that I should not use the word ‘queer,’ as it referred to people who were half men, half women. We had no idea what that meant, perhaps it was a vertical bilateral division – like the black and white men from an episode of Star Trek.

(The Star Trek episode was an analogy with racial discrimination. There was a world where one of these two races was dominant – either black on the right or black on the left. The Start Trek crew did not notice the difference at first. The moral was, not surprisingly, that we should not judge people by the colour(s) of their skin.)


Agony Aunts

There used to be a small number of magazines for women, generally covering the life of a housewife – cooking recipes, knitting patterns, fashion and perhaps a short story. The main ones were Woman, Woman’s Realm and Woman’s Own. One of my mother’s luxuries was Woman, which she read every week.

These magazines always included a page with an Agony Aunt, answering letters about relationship problems, sometimes indirectly alluding to sex. They were as near as we could get to finding out about such things. It was the only page of the magazine that interested me.

Evelyn Home in Woman was Peggy Makins, but this was not revealed until she retired as Evelyn Home and was seen at times on television. She wrote the column from about 1937 to the seventies.

Other well-known names were Claire Rayner (Woman’s Own) and Marjorie Proops, both of whom, like Peggy Makins, branched out into radio and television after retirement.

(In the late sixties, Claire Rayner was one of the first to write an introductory book on sex, primarily aimed at adolescents. They were a little too late for our time.)

Yes, I know, there are still agony aunts, some serious and some amusing parodies.


Going to an all-boys school (of which more later,) I had virtually no social contact with girls after leaving Primary School. (I may have been shyer and more naive than the average adolescent boy of the time.) As for several topics in this post my maturity began with Youth Club at St Andrew’s Church (again, more later,) at the age of about fourteen or fifteen. It was there that I first met and talked to girls – but always in a group with other boys and girls. Sometimes a few of us went to one of our homes where would play cards (Crazy Whist or Black Maria) or play snooker, while listening to records.

At the age of about sixteen there were one or two parties. Alcohol was limited and controlled and parents remained on the premises. I had one such party on my sixteenth birthday.


As I have said, we were young and innocent and at these parties we played a game called ‘spin the bottle’ (not really related to the illustration above.) Wikipedia describes it as an embarrassing kissing game popular among teenagers. That describes it very well. For most of us it was our first experience of (very innocent) kissing.

I will say no more of my experiences with girls after the age of sixteen.


Nudity and Pornography

There was no Internet. Newspapers did not have pictures of topless models. (They couldn’t do pictures except very low resolution dots in black and white.) The BBC kept to middle-class, Christian values. I am not sure how much pornography has been regulated by legislation in the past. There have been changes to the laws and prosecutions which have changed the interpretation of the law. Until 1968 theatre productions were censored by the Lord Chamberlain.

Broadly speaking, in the fifties and early sixties pornography (although it must have existed) was not publicly displayed or on sale. I did not see any provocatively dressed (or undressed) women or pictures of them.

As an adolescent at an all-boys school, our talk outside lessons was not always about our education. Some boys seem to have a constant supply of obscene jokes. One or two occasionally obtained books (not really books, magazines, smaller than A5) of nude ladies (not even nude, topless). They were very tame in comparison with those that more recently have featured on Page Three of the Sun for many years. It was, of course, before the days of cosmetic silicone implants.

Pornography, including what has now become known as glamour photography, was generally seen as illegal and wrong – or perhaps it was just hidden from the young. Changes came from the late sixties with the introduction of magazines such as Playboy, some legal test cases and the later widespread use of the Internet.


Cigarettes were an accepted part of life and smoking was very common everywhere. It was not publicly seen as harmful. Cigarettes were widely advertised in newspapers and shops and on hoardings (and later on television) and were shown with a more positive image.

My father smoked constantly including at home – Players Navy Cut in packets of twenty. The house must have smelled of smoke but there was also the smoke from coal fires. Tobacco smoke was common – people smoked in shops, pubs, trains and busses. (I think smoking was only allowed on the top deck of busses.) Dad knew it was harmful. He used to say that every cigarette was a nail in his coffin. He did manage to give it up some time around 1960.

It was much easier then for children to buy tobacco and cigarettes. They were openly on sale, widely advertised and without health warnings on the packets. I don’t think it was illegal for children to buy them (or to smoke) but in our general ignorance we assumed that it was not permitted. If you were bold enough to ask, you could buy them in shops. (Maybe shopkeepers assumed that you were buying them for your parents or perhaps they didn’t care.) There were packets of ten and five for the cheap brands and some shopkeepers would sell them one at a time to children with their pocket money.

Somewhere around the age of fourteen, with friends (brothers and friends from choir, cubs and scouts, later Youth Club) we experimented a little. I remember at the back of St Andrew’s making ‘cigarettes’ from tea leaves rolled up in paper, and taking occasional puffs from real cigarettes bought by others. (I was not the sort of bold child who would have asked for them in a shop.)

I spent much of a weekend Scout patrol camp (where there were just half a dozen unsupervised boys) smoking inside the tent. But I never inhaled, never saw the attraction, and never did it again. I always say that I gave up smoking before I was fifteen. I think I was lucky with tobacco.

The regulation of cigarettes has changed gradually and in general it has become almost universally socially unacceptable. Pubs are no longer full of smoke. Those who still smoke now know that in other people’s homes they are expected to smoke outside in the garden, if at all. (Many don’t smoke inside their own houses.)



I saw very little consumption of alcohol. In our house it never exceeded a bottle of wine at Christmas and occasionally sherry on Sundays. We were brought up to be honest and law abiding so my first experience of drinking in a pub came soon after my sixteenth birthday. A few school friends met at a pub in Barkingside one evening. We bought rounds of drinks, as was customary and at the end of the evening I had consumed five pints of bitter.

I don’t remember all of the journey home by bus. The next day was my first hangover. I did eventually acquire the taste for beer, in moderation, and other alcoholic drinks but gave up about fifteen years ago.


There have always been illegal drugs. In the fifties, as far as I know, there were heroin and cocaine. With the popularity of cannabis, the sixties was supposedly the age of free drugs (and free sex and lots of other things). Later on, Ecstasy and related drugs appeared, and now the Internet provides ‘legal highs.’ They all passed me by. In my life, have never seen or heard of any illegal drugs or anyone selling drugs. I have never met anyone who admitted to having used illegal drugs at any time. Perhaps I was lucky with drugs. I was always firm in my intention to avoid drugs but never had an opportunity to test my resolve.



There were no Betting Shops until 1960 and when they did come they were not the sort of place for children. I have never dared to enter a Betting Shop (and never wanted to do so.) I was always aware of Dad’s betting on horses but never knew how much money was involved. It seemed to depend far too much on following the horses closely to study form.

In the Upper Sixth form at school we often paid three-card Brag in breaks for small sums of money – only pennies, but a penny then was worth something. It’s like Poker but with three cards instead of five. I would have been about eighteen and may have lost more than I should have done. But at school we didn’t have much money anyway. (There was no freely available credit!) I was never led seriously into gambling.


I can remember as a young child, presumably at Christmas in the context of the Virgin Mary, asking my mother what a ‘virgin’ was. After some thought she said it was someone ‘who was very pure.’ Later, something on television ended with an accusation of rape so I asked Mum what ‘rape’ was. Again she thought and her reply was that it was ‘something that only happened when people were married,’ although it was obvious to me that those concerned in the television programme were not married.

Both answers were given in the same tone that was used to say that children were brought by the Stork. I knew that they were perhaps not the whole truth but I also knew not to ask further.

My ignorance continued in the same way about the four-letter Anglo-Saxon expletives. By the time I reached the age of St Andrew’s Youth Club, I had only ever heard one of them used. I remember someone telling me that I had to be sixteen to find out what it meant. I also remember on two separate occasions having the definition given to me of an expletive that had been looked up in a dictionary. They were words I had never heard used before.

My parents did not swear. The only expletives I ever heard used were ‘bloomin’ and ‘bloody,’ with ‘Bloody Hell’ the most powerful. Sadly television and books now all too frequently use words as expletives, words that I can manage without.

I also grew up in an environment where the Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in vain’ was respected. Until the late nineties I did not hear people saying ‘My God!’ Now we have the strange use of OMG, as if using initials makes it less offensive.

Crime and Violence

It’s hard to say whether violence and crime were less common then but that was the impression we had. I think that where there were violent crimes, they were not publicized so dramatically. I have never seen a crime of violence. I have never seen or heard of anyone carrying a gun or knife – although television and the press sometimes give the impression that violence is everywhere.



So, up until about fifteen, I led a very sheltered life, with some mild introductions to the ways of the world when I started Youth Club. As a postscript, I am sure you will like to know that I grew up into a polite, honest, law abiding, clean living, non-smoking, teetotal citizen! This may be another of my sweeping generalizations but it’s (approximately) true.