Remembrance of Things Past

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


[79] In Sickness and in Health

I have a lot to say about health and medicine in the fifties, which was very different to today. I think I have put it off because this post will be a bit rambling and unstructured, but never mind. You can’t stop me that easily …


Doctor’s Surgeries

I am going to start with a picture that most younger people will find hard to believe – the inside of a Doctor’s surgery in the fifties. For the more than ten years we lived there, our doctor, Doctor Segall (not sure of spelling) lived less than half a mile away. His surgery and consulting room were in the ground floor of his house. He was the only doctor in the practice with no receptionist or surgery management. He was very typical of the time. There were no multiple practices (and no practice managers).

I think he held surgeries four times a week, every weekday except Wednesday. If you wanted to see him you turned up at the surgery. There was no such thing as an appointment.

There was a large waiting room. As you went in, you had to note everyone there, who were ahead of you. He would call the next patient and, one at a time, the next one would stand up and go to his consulting room. Eventually when only people who had come after you remained, you knew it was your turn next. (No visible queue. No number system. We just knew who was next. If in doubt you might ask someone if they came before you.)

The doctor would see everyone for as long as necessary and the surgery continued until the waiting room was empty. You never had to wait until another day.

Best not to consider appointments and delays now!

Home Visits

After surgery, the doctor would visit all those in need of help who could not come into surgery. Calling for the doctor was one of the rare things sufficiently important enough to be done by telephone. Again this would take as long as necessary. The need for a house call was not questioned. There was no pressure to attend surgery and certainly no necessity to find a means of transport to get there.


If you telephoned at other times, the doctor would make emergency visits. He was on call every evening, every night and throughout every weekend. If he was called, then it was important enough for him to come out. [This is all from my memories, but at least the general picture is right.] When the doctor went on holiday a locum would give 24-hour cover for two weeks.]



The doctor brought his leather bag with all of his equipment for home visits. An examination would always include use of the stethoscope and he had a small mercury thermometer, which was held under the tongue for a few minutes – a nightmare for modern Health and Safety! [Thermometers were marked in Fahrenheit, where 98.4 degrees was considered to be normal body temperature, unlike the picture above, which uses Centigrade. For a home visit, he would give the thermometer to Mum afterwards for a quick rinse with warm water, so it was ready for the next patient.] Pulse rate came by touching your wrist and using his watch. Blood pressure was the old-fashioned wraparound and pump system. That was about it.

He would make a diagnosis instantly, with no Internet, no computers, no telephone calls and not even the chance to look into a medical book. (OK, at times he must have deferred the decision, but I am generalizing!)


If you needed any medicine, the doctor would write the prescription on a piece of paper and you took it to a Chemist. Doctors were notorious for their illegible writing and no one but the chemist could read a prescription. There were no charges for prescriptions. All tablets were dispensed in bottles with no blister wrapping like today. (You could buy aspirin and all other non-prescription medicines in bottles of a hundred, which facilitated attempted suicides from drugs.)

The medicine did not include a piece of paper listing possible side-effects etc. Al you had was what the doctor told you (which was nothing.) If you had to take, say, two tablets three times a day, this would go on the prescription and the pharmacist would write on the bottle. Nothing else.


Doctors were treated as respected professionals. (See Secrecy.) Nobody questioned a diagnosis or treatment, and it was up to the doctor what he chose to tell the patient. When prescriptions were given, people were just told to take them. They were not told what the medicine would do, or how long it would take, or whether there were any possible side-effects. For minors (in those days this meant under 21) all conversations with the doctor would involve the parents, not the child.


In one of those politically correct decisions, what we used to call Casualty is now called Accident and Emergency (A and E.) I suspect the change, which came long after the fifties, was to discourage too many visits. We only ever visited for fractures where plaster of Paris was routinely used.

General Hospitals

As for GPs, there was awe and respect for hospitals, doctors and nurses. People did what they were told and were never given any choices. Patients were not given any information about why things were being done to them and they were not really asked for permission. Life was much easier for doctors. They were under no risk of litigation. When mistakes were made, hospitals might have carried out their own internal investigations, but results were never made public.

Both doctors and nurses dressed more formally. Nurses had very formal uniforms including hats, and a number of different uniforms delineated the various grades of nursing staff. Doctors wore white coats, or in some cases formal suits. (And just in case this was not enough, no doctor ever went anywhere without a stethoscope round his neck.)

Hospital visiting rules were rigid and rigidly enforced – normally fixed hours (an hour each morning and an hour in the evening); two visitors each.

Everything was simpler and the procedures carried out in hospitals were much simpler. Many of the more advanced operations had not been attempted. There were no transplant operations. (I think the only exceptions were corneas. Kidney transplants started in the fifties.)

The management of hospitals was by the usual hierarchical management systems of government in those days, with no NHS Trusts of any description.


[It’s hard to get a good picture of nurse’s uniforms of the times. Search engines give a mixture of too early, too late and erotic fantasy. This one is probably too modern. The picture at the top of this post, from Call the Midwife, is too early.]


In the fifties most deliveries took place at home. The trend in the sixties and seventies was towards almost universal hospital deliveries, but since then the reverse trend once again sees the popularity of home deliveries rising.

As with doctors and nurses, midwives simply told the expectant mothers what to do. What we now call the Delivery Suite was then the Labour Ward. There was no element of choice in delivery procedures or anything else. (Lots of sweeping generalizations in this blog!) There were no epidural anaesthetics, no Birth Plans and virtually no elective Caesarean Sections.

Treatment for infertility was relatively basic. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) came only in the late seventies. (I will look at contraception later in another post.)

Dentists and Opticians

Dentists all gave National Health treatment and it was all free. Basic treatment was probably as now with drills for fillings (often mercury amalgam) and gas for extractions. I hated the smell of the gas.

In a way they were similar to the doctor’s surgeries described above, with no management. Even in the nineties my dentist kept paper-based records and managed appointments himself, sometimes with an assistant while doing fillings – sometimes he was on his own. Now, in the same building, my dentist has a separate large waiting room with three staff doing reception, two hygienists and a permanent assistant.

Opticians were also part of the National Health System and most glasses were free. Contact lenses were much rarer. I can’t say too much about these as I managed to live into the nineties before needing glasses.

Childhood diseases

This is not the place to discuss the details of our modern inoculation system – but it has effectively eradicated many childhood diseases that were almost accepted as routine.

Most children at some stage as they grew up had measles, mumps and chickenpox. These were probably the main causes of home visits by the doctor. For most families, rubella, which was then known as German measles, was particularly associated with problems during pregnancy. If you knew someone with German measles and had girls under puberty, you would try to get them to catch it while it was too early for such complications.

Scarlet fever, smallpox and polio had virtually disappeared. Smallpox was declared to be ended worldwide in 1977, after its eradication through vaccinations. Polio had left its mark and I knew a few people with partial paralysis from polio earlier.

School visits

We had vaccinations by inoculation, hypodermic needles. I can’t remember the details but they were done at school. We all had them and I was not aware of our parents having any choice. We would just queue up for the procedure. (I could be wrong, but I am sure disposable needles were not used. The same needle could cover several vaccinations.)

The last one was the BCG for Tuberculosis (TB), somewhere around the fourth form at Ilford County High School. This was done in the hall of the church just next to the school (now Barkingside Methodist Church on Google Maps.) We were given timed appointments and missed part of a lesson. BCG involved a pre-test and left a small scar on the shoulder.

The use of a sugar cube for this polio vaccination was a few years too late for us. I don’t think we had polio jabs.

There were times earlier, probably mostly at Primary School, when we had other visits from medical staff to check our general health. We had eye tests and dental check-ups with referral onwards where necessary. And there were visits by the nurse to check hair for nits.

I also remember a general medical check-up by a doctor at ICHS, at around puberty – earlier than the BCG, probably in the same place. The doctor’s request to cough was recognized and incorporated into our boyish banter and humour.

Health in General

There are so many ways in which our health has improved and medical diagnosis and treatment has improved.

Average life expectancy has consistently gone up and we now live at least twenty years longer. Even in the sixties, on average we lived only just to about 65. Now we almost expect to live to eighty or ninety. (I will consider elsewhere the economic effects of this. An old age pension used to be something that maybe be lasted two or three years. Now it has to pay for perhaps thirty years of life in continuing inflation, and expensive medical life-extending treatments.)

Because cars were uncommon, we walked and exercised more. Food produced by cooking at home was in many ways healthier – and sugared drinks were not in popular use. So obesity was not common.

On the other and, smoking was much more common. It was generally socially acceptable. People routinely smoked at home, at work, in shops, pubs and elsewhere. So smoking related diseases were presumably more prevalent. Alcohol was more controlled, never seen on the streets, and much less of a problem. (Now it seems to be acceptable to drink from cans anywhere, or from bottles, or coffee in paper cups. Sweeping generalization – but we did not eat or drink except sitting down at a table.)

Drug problems were much less. Although there was some culture of cannabis use amongst the youth, hard drugs such as Cocaine and Heroin were much rarer. Drugs such as Ecstasy did not exist.

Without computers or complex machinery, many of the (expensive) treatments and operations of today were unavailable and because of this there were not the controversies about where scarce funding should be directed. There were no kidney transplants or heart transplants, no routine hip replacements, no laser surgery for eyes, no statins routinely prescribed as preventative medicine.








[74] Cleanliness is next to Godliness

You may be wondering how we all managed to keep ourselves so clean and sweet smelling in those early times without all the conveniences of modern life. Well the short answer is: We didn’t (at least by modern standards, we didn’t.)

People were not motivated in the same way to maintain the perfect standards of cleanliness that are generally assumed today. This was at least partly because they could not have achieved such standards with the facilities available to them.

But before I look at washing ourselves and bathing I have to consider something else.



Houses were different. Plumbing was different. Toilets were different. Many houses still had outside toilets and only a few had inside toilets downstairs. Most houses were usually built with just one inside toilet upstairs. It may have been next to the bathroom but it was not in the bathroom. It was a separate little room with just a toilet, no facilities for washing hands.

[I am not sure of US terminology here, where the small room we call a toilet is always a ‘bathroom.’]

As I say, time and again here, were no plastics in the fifties. (At least in general use this is true.) Toilets were ceramic, toilet seats were wooden and all the plumbing, everywhere in the house was metal. The cistern was fixed to the wall above head-height, operated by a chain with a wooden handle.

As for many things, aspects of the picture above are too modern. It looks to me like a plastic toilet seat (much too modern,) plastic plumbing and luxury sixties toilet paper. But it does at least show typical cistern height with the chain to operate it.

(I presume that low level cisterns came in when the technology enabled efficient flushing without the pressure coming from height. Toilets integrated with bathrooms and downstairs toilets have come from revisions to Building Regulations. Standards now mean that as new houses are built there are downstairs toilets that include the plumbing for a small hand basin.)


I have to mention toilet paper. When Andrex came out, (perhaps in the sixties) it was a luxury product, softer, thicker and more comfortable. Even at the end of the sixties the old type was still in use – thin, hard paper. As it was semi-transparent, it could also be used as tracing paper.

When I started work in 1969, in a Government department, they had toilets with chains, hard toilet paper and big, chunky ceramic hand basins. We were all given a small hand-towel the size of a tea-cloth. Every week messengers came round to change the towel for a clean one and give us a tiny personal bar of soap. Soap dispensers and electric hand drying came much later!


A bathroom in a typical house had just a bath (US: bath tub) and a hand basin. Taps (US: faucets) were plain metal – separate hot and cold taps. (They were labelled HOT and COLD, not just tiny almost invisible red and blue markings as today.) Our bathroom cabinet was just a portable floor-standing cabinet and we didn’t have a fixed bathroom mirror.

Showers were just about non-existent although in the late sixties we had a rubber hose type spray attachment, which attached to hot and cold taps, mainly for washing hair.

There was nothing like liquid soap or shower gel or foam bath. We just used soap and water to bath.


We had Wright’s Coal Tar soap for baths, which seemed more luxurious than the ordinary soap for handwashing.

imperialleahterbar  Pears_New_Shape

There were just a few other brands – Palmolive, Imperial Leather, Pears, all presented as relatively luxurious. Camay, soft and creamy, long advertised by Katie Boyle had an even more upmarket image and was presumably more expensive. (We never had Camay.)

[As always, pictures shown here are uncertain. These products had been around and advertised for many years earlier and all are still available today in similar forms.]

You have to remember, among other things, that we did not have constant hot running water in unlimited supplies. In general people were still in the habit of taking a bath once a week – as part of the weekly schedule. Perhaps the whole family would take the opportunity of using the boiler or immersion heater to heat water just once a week. (It would have been too expensive to have the immersion heater on all the time.)

Baths were functional and quick. Our bathroom did not have a radiator or a heated towel rail. In very cold winters the paraffin heater was there for us.

When we were very young children we shared a bath or (later) shared bath water sequentially. With six children the hot water was carefully managed.


People may have washed their hair more often than weekly, but certainly not daily. There were a few shampoo types available but no hair conditioners – we just managed without them. (Perhaps early shampoo did not have such a strong effect on hair that we need to restore it to its normal form!) Sometimes we used Vosene but sometimes there were cheaper alternatives, which I can’t remember.

Instructions on shampoo used to say something like ‘apply, lather, rinse and repeat,’ which implied that we had to do the whole thing twice. It took some pressure from consumer organisations to remove this part of the instructions.


Apart from an occasional hair wash, the only other thing that some men would put on their hair was Brylcreem. It may have kept the hair in place but when overused it looked as if the hair had been smothered in fat. It was fashionable and became particularly useful for the quiffs of the fifties. To be honest, I suspect that sometimes Brylcreem was a cheaper alternative to frequent washing (In the War, RAF pilots were known as Brylcreem Boys so it must have been fashionable earlier.) I have to admit to using it myself as a young teenager.

          Chrome-Safety-Razor   Gillett-7-OClock-SharpEdge-5-x-Razor-Blades_detail


Even into the seventies we used safety razors, metal contraptions into which you could put double-edged, sharp razor blades. They could be used for a few days but rusted quickly. More expensive stainless steel ones came in gradually over the sixties. Disposable plastic razors, with double and triple blades, came later.

Electric razors, at first luxury goods, came in gradually. I think I was nearly fifty before I was converted.

Barbers sometimes used the older, non-safety razors.


I remember my father had a large, old wooden mirror, slightly magnifiying the image. It stayed on the windowsill by the kitchen sink, where he used to shave in the morning. Even with our dirtier habits then, there was a lot of competition for the bathroom in the morning.


Mostly, people used shaving soap in various forms, sometimes with shaving brushes like this to whip it to a creamy lather. Aerosol shaving foams came around the early sixties.


Toothpaste was either Colgate or Gibbs SR (the first product to be advertised on television in 1955.) It came in metal tubes, which were easier to roll than the modern plastic ones.

The only function of toothpaste was to clean teeth. There were no fluorides to prevent cavities; no mouthwash or teeth whitening claims; no coloured stripes. Hence there was little choice. (I remember in the early sixties reading articles in the New Scientist about the possible effects of fluoridation of water on dental health. It came in gradually, first in tap-water, then in toothpaste.) Aqua-fresh, now Aquafresh, came out in 1973 with just two stripes – white fluoride and blue ‘aqua’ gel for fresh breath. The third stripe came ten years later.

There were, of course, no electric toothbrushes. We had never heard of dental flossing!

Made by Eucryl Limited, Southampton. The inscription on the lid reads 'Eucryl Toothpowder/For Cleaner Whiter Teeth. Net Weight 40 Grammes'. Toothpowders and toothpastes are thought to have been used as long ago as 500 BC in China. They did not appear in Britain until the late 18th century, and were applied using brushes by the rich, while the poor used their fingers. Many of the early powders probably caused more harm than good, as they contained abrasive substances such as china, brick dust and cuttlefish.

We did sometimes have Eucryl tooth powder. While toothpaste hardly tasted pleasant, tooth powder was revolting and we didn’t like it. I expect we tried it because it was relatively cheap. You can still buy something similar

Barbers and Hairdressers

Back to hair again. Barbers for men and Women’s Hairdressers were different, always separated. Barbers only did haircuts for men and boys. We used to go to Packard’s at the other end of Beehive Lane, normally on the way home from school. He had two other assistants and we queued for our basic trim, which cost about a shilling (5p).

[As far as I know barbers were the place to buy contraceptives. I saw adverts for Durex without knowing what they were. There were no alternatives to Durex, which was always 3s 9d (17.5 pence) for a packet of three – don’t ask me how I knew that! They were not sold anywhere else, except presumably under the counter at Chemists, where most men would be too embarrassed to ask.]


Women’s hair styles in the fifties and sixties (as for the forties) were based on what hairdressers could provide. The Beehive Lane shops at our end had a Hairdresser. My mother used to have a ‘shampoo and set,’ about every couple of months. This was a long and quite expensive process, costing nearer to a pound. Dad would collect her in the car.

Less often (I’m guessing every year or two) it needed a ‘perm,’ or permanent wave. This was even longer and more expensive, about £2 to £3. (In those days that was a lot, too much to be done every month.)


It included a period of time with the hair in curlers under a hairdryer like the ones shown above. I have to be honest, I can’t be sure but a ‘shampoo and set’ may have had this stage as well.

[Of course, ‘fashion’ come into it. As far as I can see, women of the forties and fifties all wanted to look like their idea of fashionable film stars and they ended up more or less all looking alike with shortish curly hair and bright red lipstick. But then I am not a fashion expert and I have a lot of difficulty in recognizing faces.]

Choice of styles was small because women did not have the hair styling products of today. Only hairdressers had the products used to perm and set hair. Apart from simple shampoo (with no conditioner) aerosol hair spray was just about the only product available. In the fifties I expect this was an expensive luxury.

With no hair straighteners, the only electrical device for home use was a very basic hairdryer.


Early home hairdryers were very basic, made from bakelite, the early plastic used for those black telephones. They were much slower speed and lower temperature. (Modern hotels often provide similar low power hairdryers, presumable to control the amount of free electricity they provide!)


Women had hairbrushes and combs and a variety of hair clips to keep hair in place. These are the type that my mother wore, designed to be invisible. It should not surprise you when I point out that in the fifties and sixties they were metal not plastic!


In the sixties, bouffant styles, like the one shown in the picture above of Dusty Springfield, became fashionable. A lot of backcombing and hairspray were needed for this.

[The word ‘unisex’ first appeared in general use in the late sixties for places that combined cutting men’s hair and women’s hair. Like many things that we now accept without question, it was a revolutionary idea when it came in. They still manage to maintain the habit of charging much more for women.]

Men’s Grooming

Now we have aisles in supermarkets devoted to men’s grooming, which didn’t exist in the fifties. What did exist were deodorants, shaving soap, shaving brushes and after-shave, a mild fragrance advertised as a necessary adjunct to the shaving process.

In those days men’s luxury toiletries were advertised and sold just before Christmas. Almost all were bought by wives and girlfriends for men in presentation boxes. Old Spice, from America, was just about the only brand until Brut in the mid-sixties. The famous English boxer, Henry Cooper was long associated with the advertising campaigns for Brut, suggesting that we should: ‘Splash it all over.’

Other varieties, like Lynx with its sexually provocative advertising, came later still.

The idea that men would ever wear fragrances (apart from a touch of after-shave) emerged very slowly from about the nineties. The same was true of other grooming products such as moisturiser.

Women and Make-up

The whole industry of beauty products for women has now grown dramatically with increasing feminism, more work equality, the move from housewives to working women, and consumerism and advertising. Women have a lot more to spend on themselves and there is an industry keen to take as much as possible of their money from them.

I have never been an expert on women’s makeup and I won’t say much in detail but back in the fifties housewives like my mother did not have a disposable income to spend on themselves. Dad gave Mum a housekeeping allowance that had to be managed carefully to provide food and clothing for a family of six children. Out of this allowance she took a tiny amount for things like makeup (perhaps with even less for clothing.) For most women in the forties and fifties I suspect that makeup meant a single, bright red lipstick, a little powder and not much else.

Maybe Dusty Springfield helped to popularize the heavy eye make-up of the sixties, when teenagers rebelled against the standards of the war years.

There are, of course, lots of sweeping generalizations here, based in part on how things happened in our household (and an almost complete lack of knowledge about women!)