Remembrance of Things Past

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

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[97] Upstairs and Downstairs

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

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

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

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


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

Living Room

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


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

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

Dining Room

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



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

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

Bathrooms and Toilets

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

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

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



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

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


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

Walls and Windows

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


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

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

Decorating, Plumbing and Electricity

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

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


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


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


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


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

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




[93] Hands that do Dishes …

[93] Hands that do Dishes …

You will remember Blog [74], which looked at personal cleanliness – or the lack of it. I want now to look at how we cleaned clothes, dishes and houses.


It was a little bit past the era of washboards and mangles but not long.

(You can read about mangles and washboards and skiffle groups in Blog [22])


Washing Clothes

By the 50s most households were no longer using washboards thanks to the invention of washing machines. But they were not the sort of thing you would recognize today! I can’t remember our first house but in the second one we had a brand new electric washing machine.

People from today would not recognize 1950s washing machines. They were called twin-tubs. One tub held the washing through its washing cycles and another for spinning – but these were not automatic. They were not even plumbed in to water and drainage supplies. Water would be fed in via detachable hoses from the sink and waste water would be taken out similarly. So the first thing Mum had to do was to wheel it over near the sink and attach the hoses!

But then washing was a major undertaking. Two days of the week – Monday and Thursday – were allocated to washing clothes, which took all day. (Of course Mum still had to do all the shopping, food preparation, cooking, washing up and looking after six children!)

Back to washing machines. After the lengthy fairly labour intensive washing cycles of the machine, the clothes were transferred, while still very wet, manually to the second tub. (The water left behind was emptied via more hoses looped over the sink.) The second tub acted as a spin-dryer. It was an improvement on the hand-tuned mangles, which twin tubs had made obsolete, but was far from today’s automatic washing machines. They took out some of the water but did not actually spin the clothes dry. The machines just did not have the speed to do much more than remove the surplus water.

In the sixties all washing still needed to be hung out to dry on the washing-line in the garden. (Washing dried outside was fresh and we had no such things as fabric softeners or conditioners.) Then it went into the airing cupboard for final drying beside the boiler.

Washing Powders

It’s worth pointing out two things about washing powders. Firstly they were just powders. Before automatic washing machines there were no liquids or capsules or gels, just powders that came in cardboard boxes.

Secondly, they were one of the major items of competitive advertising. This was notable with television but also applied to newspaper adverts and hoardings. It’s hard to imagine how washing powders could be different but they tried to convince us. There were various offers with temporary price reductions between the man brands – Omo, Surf, Daz, Persil and a few others of lesser significance. At some time in the sixties, Surf came up with the advertising gimmick that they didn’t do advertising gimmicks! They became Square Deal Surf – no special offers, just genuine quality at a fair price – and they kept to this for many years.

[OK, make that three. There was no such thing as biological washing and hence nothing sold as non-bio!]


In those days washing machines at home were not universal. Laundry services were used more than today (not just the dry cleaners). The invention which helped a lot people with their cleaning was the launderette (dating in practice from the early sixties) where people could take their clothes and use bigger and better washing machines for themselves. Large rotary washing machines were coin-operated. There were also what would be most peoples’ first experience of clothes dryers, which were not to become popular for home use in the UK until the 70s.

After the drying stage, all clothes needed to be ironed. (There were no drip-dry or easy care non-iron fabrics. Of course, clothes did not carry the laundry advice labels that are now universal. Mum had to know which ones needed special care or low temperature or washing separately – to avoid the colour spreading!) Ironing was far from today’s standards. Electric irons had quite recently come into use but we had still to wait for the steam iron to emerge.




House Cleaning

We did have a vacuum cleaner. I remember it arriving in its box with its hose and attachments. There were no upright models then just the old cylinder types, which were not easy to carry round the house – and up and down stairs. (They did not come into general use until the 60s and it would be a long wait until the cyclone models of Dyson would be invented.) It wasn’t that efficient and we also used a dustpan and brush. (Nothing like the picture because there were virtually no plastics. It would have been a metal pan and a wooden handled brush.)

I think Mum allocated one day each week to cleaning the house. She also used a plain yellow duster. Occasionally she might use polish for the furniture. This was before we had sprays and aerosols for polish.


For the kitchen and bathroom we also had Vim and Ajax. (Nothing like the picture above in a plastic container.) I don’t think their cleaning power was much more than a crude abrasive.

Now we have all sorts of cleaning products. I suspect that kitchen cleaners, bathroom cleaners and general cleaners are identical with different labelling. Then we didn’t go much for choice.



It will be no surprise to learn that 1950s houses did not have dishwashers. There was washing-up liquid, which does not seem to have changed much since then. (I expect that modern products are better at cleaning dishes but worse for environmental effects.) We even had Fairy Liquid but not in our household. We used cheaper alternatives.

[I can’t remember exactly but to me washing up liquid has always come in squeezable bottle. It may have been one of the earliest uses of plastic.]

Fairy Liquid was always advertised, especially on television, with a little girl admiring how soft her mother’s hand were despite washing up so much. Television adverts ended with the slogan: ‘Now hands that do dishes can feel as soft as your face with mild green Fairy Liquid’ (sung to suitably romantic music.)

Plates and dishes, cups and saucers, glasses and cutlery were all washed by hand in the sink with a dishcloth and put on to the draining board. Then they were dried with a teacloth.

Saucepans, trays and dishes used for cooking were more difficult. They were nearly all metal (but we had some ceramic bowls and oven-proof Pyrex glass.) They went through the same process with the help of metallic scourers, Vim and Ajax. You could buy Brillo pads even then, but they were an expensive luxury.

If you remember a little about how we cooked you will realise that we had a lot more cookware to clean then. Nothing was prepacked or prepared.

When it comes to cleaning up the kitchen there is not much to add to what I have said about house cleaning. But it is worth pointing out that there was no such thing as kitchen roll or paper towels. For spilt liquid we just had dishcloths and old rags. Bits of old clothing became rags for really dirty cleaning jobs.

Perhaps I should have said something more about our houses, clothes, floors etc. before looking at how we kept them clean. There is plenty more to come ….



[80] A Walk round the Park

This post will be slightly different, inspired by a visit a few weeks ago.


This is Bletchley Park, now open to the public, where UK intelligence services worked during the War to obtain information about German forces.

In the seventies I worked at GCHQ, when the existence of GCHQ was a secret known to few. GCHQ had developed from the wartime work at Bletchley, which was even more secret. Perhaps I knew then more about Bletchley but now much of it is publicly known.

The park is now set up to show things about life in the forties. Much of it is so close to the fifties and sixties that I can use it to illustrate my memories. This post will have all of its pictures from Bletchley with comments reflecting life from the forties to the seventies.


This is the main house. All the codebreaking was done in huts out of sight from the house.

Alan Turing, who worked here, is now more well-known and has been portrayed recently in the film, the Imitation Game. When I visited, the house contained material used in the sets for this film, some of which is shown here.


This sign, at the entrance to the house, mentions early computers. I will have more to say about computers in a later post.


As you may now know, the Enigma was a code machine. Its interception and codebreaking – at Bletchley were important to the British success in the war.



This is one of the Enigma machines. When a lettered key was pressed, its coded version appeared.


It contained a number of wheels as shown here, which were removable and interchangeable. Below is part of the ‘bombe’, the machine constructed and used at Bletchley to decode Enigma – not the real ones, reconstructions for the Imitation Game.


Radio Interception

07radio1 08Radio2

These pictures above show table, chairs and filing cabinet that could have been from the seventies, with radio equipment typical of the forties.

Below is a display from Bletchley about ‘Y’ Stations, radio intercept provided by the forces. [Click on the picture to expand it and read.] I put this in because it must be close to what my father did during the War. He served in the RAF and said very little about it, but he talked of taking down Morse intercept in Burma (now Myanmar.) It was not quite the same as English Morse – as they had extra Burmese letters.

[Most people did not talk of what they did in the War. Perhaps I should have asked him later. Dad will probably have a blog to himself later.]


Inside Bletchley Museum

A selection of pictures showing life from the forties, generally applicable to the fifties and sixties.


Here are some school desks. At ICHS they were similar to those at the front, with a place for an inkwell and a groove for pens and pencils. I think we had only single desks. Everything stayed inside the desk. We had no personal lockers.


So much here is familiar the cooker, with its plate rack, kitchen cupboard, saucepans and the sink in the background. I have done a post about kitchens.


A typical room from the fifties. Note first the flooring – mostly bare lino with a rectangular patterned carpet. Fitted carpets were unheard of. Table, tablecloth and chairs are very familiar. Basket, cups and saucers (never mugs,) and the settee with its antimacassar could have been ours.


I’m not sure how typical this is but I think the clothes could be fifties. Note the clothes horse in the middle. You could use this to dry clothes by the fire indoors when it was raining outside.


Not a good picture (taken through glass) but a simple electric fire.


A gramaphone, a little earlier that the record-players that came with pop music in the late fifties. Occasionally I remember something similar at Highlands – wound up and using clockwork!



From the house at Bletchley, showing some office equipment. The house is probably more upper class. The large wooden desk was typical of the sixties. Chairs, tables, lamps and typewriters could also be sixties.


This picture, as well as the desk, shows a waste paper basket (when they were baskets,) and the heavy telephone, firmly attached with its thick cable to the wall.


A metal filing cabinet. We had hundreds like this at GCHQ. Each drawer hold dozens of loose folders, each holding perhaps hundreds of paper documents. We only had paper documents – no computers.


This typewriter is perhaps a little early for office work in the sixties, but very similar.


Tables, chairs perhaps basic, always wooden. Note the ash tray on the desk. Smoking was very common.


A few more unrelated pictures from Bletchley:


A radiator, seen in the Gents toilet. Of course, in the fifties and sixties, central heating in houses was very rare. These chunky radiators would have been seen in offices – and in houses much later.


Sadly this telephone box at Bletchley no longer has the working telephone inside. These used to widespread and common throughout Britain.


Finally, nothing to do with the fifties or sixties but here are some pictures from around the lake.


A juvenile Moorhen (above) and a Grey Heron.

52Heron1 53Heron2

If you haven’t been to Bletchley I would recommend a visit. There is also an excellent café/ restaurant.







[6] Heating


[6] ‘He is like a Refiner’s fire and He shall Purify’

In spite of the title, taken from the words of Handel’s Messiah, this blog has nothing to with religion. To complete my three part blog about winter I need to start with a lesson in physical chemistry and a bit of history. I warned you that I may stray off subject a bit!

Fractional Distillation of Oil

You may know something of the production of petrol. [For US readers, gasoline or gas.] It starts with what comes out of the ground, in the Middle East or Texas or elsewhere – a thick, black, unpleasant smelling mixture called crude oil. [Petroleum]

It is refined and purified by fractional distillation. Hence the title! It is heated in the absence of air so it doesn’t burn, and separates into a number of substances. The only two we are interested in are the main component petrol [gasoline] and a similar, inflammable [flammable] liquid called paraffin [kerosene]. More of these later.

For those who wonder why crude oil is measured in barrels, the unit comes from early oil fields in Pennsylvania. Standardized in 1866 at 42 US gallons, (very close to 35 UK gallons) it was chosen to allow the British and Americans to use the same unit. To the British it was a tierce, a measure used for wine. Oil has not physically been shipped in barrels since the late Nineteenth Century but production is still quoted in barrels, more often millions of barrels.


Less familiar than oil, there is a similar process with coal. (Don’t worry. There won’t be a test later. I am just getting in some definitions to help you.) If you heat coal with air around, it burns, producing lots of smoke. If you heat it without air, it separates, just like the fractional distillation of oil, into lots of substances, solids, liquids and gasses. We are concerned with two products. Coke was the solid residue, a hard, porous, darker grey substance, not as black as coal but and much cleaner. The gas is called ‘coal gas’, sometimes ‘town gas’, although at the time we called it just ‘gas’. (Nothing to do with gasoline!)

Before I come back to heating in houses, we need a brief look at the history of coal production. The National Coal Board (NCB) was set up just after the Second World War to manage all the coalmines in England and Wales. There were over 950 of them! It was a major industry and there were areas of both England and Wales where almost everyone worked in the mines. British coal was produced in large quantities.

We have already seen the use of coal in coal fires. It was a major source of heat in houses. We produced coal in Britain for use in coal fires; but also for the production of coke and gas (as described above); and to produce electricity. We will come to gas and electric heating in a minute but the gas was really produced primarily for cooking. Virtually all cooking was done on a gas oven. (We didn’t call them ‘cookers’ or use posh words like ‘hob.’)


Shown here is a gasometer, a device for holding and storing gas. As more gas is produced, the inner cylinder can rise in the outer structure to hold larger a volume of gas.

House Heating

Ok, we have enough background information, so let’s look again at home life in the fifties! In our house our only source of heat was the fire in the living room. This was true for probably 95% of winter days for us, but not completely accurate. There were other sources, only for very cold days and nights, for emergency use.

There were electric fires, small and portable. What you saw was one or two bars of metal, which were heated to red heat, not the pretty things we have now looking like coal fires. We did use these occasionally, never for more than an hour or two. They were considered expensive in their use of electricity. We used electricity almost entirely for lighting. Using a small electric fire for an hour was comparable to lighting by electricity for a week. (Electric ovens were only for the rich.)

Much the same was true of gas fires. They were small, fairly portable and relatively expensive. (You could have two or more gas supply pipes. You would move the fire, connect it and turn on the gas.) Some houses without coal fires used gas fires. Neither of these types of fire would have been acceptable now with our accent on ‘Health and Safety’ checks everywhere. Gas very easily forms an explosive mixture with air!


What we did have was a paraffin heater and this may be more difficult to explain. Paraffin [kerosene] was used originally for hand-held lamps, replacing whale oil. It is now very similar to the jet fuel that keeps our planes in the air. That makes its use in homes a significant fire hazard.


A paraffin heater was really a larger version, cylindrical and about a metre high. The paraffin had to be poured in by hand. The heater itself was not easily portable. It was quite large and had to be moved in a way that avoided paraffin spillage.

In the cold winters of the fifties, where our houses had limited heating, we relied on the other method of providing warmth. We wore warmer clothing and slept in warmer beds. So the critical times when we considered additional heating were when we wore little – dressing and undressing, and baths.

The coal fire spread a little heat downstairs so we spent as little time as possible upstairs out of bed. My only real memories of heat to supplement our coal fire were from very occasional use of a paraffin heater. It would either be for a few minutes while we changed into our warm pyjamas, or for slightly longer in the bathroom. Having a bath was not a daily occurrence.


As I said, electricity was relatively cheap for lighting but heating was seen more as a luxury. We had an immersion heater in the water system and we hat hot water for part of each day. We certainly could not have hot water all day. Of course demand was less as we were not tempted to bath more often than once a week.

I have to admit that in the mid-fifties we did move to a more affluent house with its own water heater – a closed fire in a room by the kitchen, burning coal or coke for the whole day. So we had two relatively warm rooms. But still most of the downstairs was unheated, and upstairs was cold. In our cold bedrooms we always slept with the top window open for fresh air. Those top windows were always open. This is a habit that has stayed with me, but in very cold days and nights it does get closed now.

What Happened Later

British coal mining declined gradually from the 1950s with the famous Miners’ Strike in 1984, but the decline continued after that. There are now just three deep pit mines in England, with a few opencast mines in England and Wales. Just as the production of coal has fallen so has its use in the production of electric power – but it is still a significant source.

In the 1960s, large reserves of Natural Gas in the North Sea led to the end of the use of town gas for heating and cooking. Every gas appliance in the country, including ovens and gas fires, was converted free by the government to allow the conversion. Natural Gas is now a major source of electric power.

Having considered winter, it may be time to say something about Christmas next …


[2] Coal Fires

[2] Fire, Smoke, Coal and Gulls

I have decided not to attempt any logical order for these blogs, resisting the temptation to be logical or sensible. Inspired by the current cold weather, after a great deal of consideration, I have decided to consider how we coped with winter. I have thrown away, for the time being, my carefully crafted overview intended as a general introduction. But before I continue, readers born in the last forty years will need two quick reminders.

Health and Safety; Conservation and Recycling

Just ignore these topics. Assume that we never thought of the possibility of accidents, and we cared not for future generations. Both are, of course over-simplifications. But we certainly did get up every morning without writing a risk management plan to cover all possibilities. And we assumed that life would go on as it was or just getting easier and better.

You will find us burning coal without thought of accidental fire, or the hazards of smoke or coal dust, and without a care about depleted carbon resources or atmospheric carbon dioxide. Young children ventured on to the streets alone, without worries of traffic or crime. You will spot other examples in this and subsequent blogs.

Measurements and Money

We have a few references to old units with us still and you may still understand feet and yards, perhaps even inches. We buy petrol for our cars in litres but still stick to miles per gallon! We use metric units more and more and are familiar with decimal currency.

Back in the fifties, even a child of six or seven coped with all the non-metric units. We knew that there were sixteen ounces in a pound, fourteen pounds in a stone and eight stones in a hundredweight. So a hundredweight was 112 pounds (about fifty kg. Well done if you worked that out. No prizes for those old enough to remember.)

We also knew that there were four farthings to a penny, twelve pence to a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound. So we knew that £9:19s 11¾d was a thinly disguised £10. Without computers or even calculators, shopkeepers did all their sums by mental arithmetic.


I will leave for now the subject of coal mining in Britain and take up the story with how coal was delivered to our homes. Be ready to spot health and safety issues and non-metric units.

Some of my readers may not even know what coal was like. It was not the clean carefully packed product now sold in bags at petrol service stations. It was a dirty and dusty product sold loose from coal merchants. It burned to produce a thick, dark smoke, which could spread everywhere and contributed to frequent widespread smog. It was extracted from hundreds of mines in England and Wales and it was the main fuel for heating houses and producing electricity.

For the final stage of delivery to houses, it came in hundredweight bags brought to us in open topped lorries. We all had a coal bunker in the back garden large enough to hold a ton or two of coal. (That’s a ton, twenty hundredweights, not a tonne but quite close.) The men who delivered it carried these bags one at a time on their backs and emptied them into the bunker. Coal was an amorphous substance coming in pieces of varying sizes with fine powdery coal dust at the bottom of each bag. Some of this dust would fall. Wind and air currents which inevitably spread it around the house and garden.

Coal Fires

I remember at about nine or ten, at school, being given the exercise of writing down familiar routine actions, to teach us how to think clearly about things that were so automatic that we did them almost without thinking. One example was tying shoelaces. We did that every day but you had to actually do it to recall it in words.

Another example was laying and lighting a fire. My point is that we knew how to do it because we actually did it. The fire went out overnight and needed a new start every day. We had a coal fire in the main living room that was almost our only source of heat. With six children in the family, we all helped with some domestic tasks and this was one. It was easy enough or a small child. I can’t say when I first did it but it was a familiar task at age eight.

The worst bit was clearing out the dusty ashes and taking them outside to the dustbin. Precursors to the variously coloured wheelie bins of today, dustbins at first were aptly named because they were filled with dust and ashes from coal fires. Most of the time we didn’t need them for anything else. Food waste was composted and just about everything else was burnt. Every week the dustbin was filled with the ashes of burnt coal fires.

Yesterday’s newspapers were an essential part of the process of laying the fire. Scrunched up in small balls, the pages made the first layer. Next was wood in suitable small pieces, arranged in a criss-cross pattern. We got our wood from the basket-like wooden boxes in which vegetables were sold. Finally came the coal, all carefully laid to leave the paper accessible below. If it was done properly, it just needed one match on the paper to get things going. The paper and wood did not last long. Soon we had a nice roaring coal fire that would last all day – topped up with continued coal brought in from the bunker outside.

In the early 1950s, a single coal fire, relit every day, warmed the only heated room of the house. So we lived in the living room. In winter, we spent as little time as possible in the cold rooms upstairs.

Smoke and Dust

As I said earlier, the smoke and dust from coal fires spread everywhere in the house, in almost every house. Apart from the health aspects of inhaling the dust and chemicals (which was significant to those who worked in coalmines), the widespread smoke from chimneys was one of the causes of frequent polluted fogs called smog. Coal was also used widely in industry, especially the production of electricity.

Smogs lasted all day, sometimes for several days, where visibility was measured in feet. You could feel the dust in the air. If the fog thickened in winter days we still had to walk home on our own. School would close half an hour early so that we would find our way back home easily before dark.


I have used Wikipedia to find the date, 1956, of the first Clean Air Act in the UK, passed in response to London’s Great Smog of 1952. It was sponsored by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in England and the Department of Health for Scotland.

The Act introduced a number of measures to reduce air pollution, especially by introducing ‘smoke control areas’ in some towns and cities in which only smokeless fuels could be burned. It was the beginning of a process which gradually extended controls over the type of fuel burned to the whole country, reducing the amount of smoke pollution and sulphur dioxide. This Act was one of the first significant Acts in the development of a legal framework to protect the environment.

Across the country homes moved to burning a substance called ‘coke’, nothing to do with either cocaine or fizzy drinks! Coke was produced by heating coal to extract the gas that powered out gas ovens (of which, perhaps, more in another blog). Coke was more expensive than coal but it was cleaner and produced much less smoke. Later still other ‘smokeless’ versions of coal were produced. We changed from coal merchants and coal bunkers to bags of just a few pounds of coal cleanly and neatly packaged for easy use and available from petrol service stations.

Over the years open fires disappeared almost everywhere. Those that are left mostly burn logs instead of coal. Chimneys are becoming a sign of the past.



There was another unanticipated effect from the Clean Air Act and subsequent changes. We stopped burning rubbish and moved to landfill. Vast open areas of landfill rubbish including food waste attracted scavengers, including gulls.

In the fifties gulls were called seagulls and you found them by the coast. They were sea birds. In periods of actual or expected bad weather, they congregated on open fields inland. Now they are to be found everywhere inland. In towns and cities, flat-topped office buildings provide them with a habitat for breeding.


For the main two species at least, Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, there are now more birds inland in the UK than at our coasts and on surrounding waters! They have adapted their behaviour.


Well I didn’t get time to say much about winter. Maybe next time …