I struggle with the media portrayal of the UK as a country suffering from increasing levels of poverty. I’ve had a look back and captured what life was like back in the 1950s when I was a boy.
It was very different from the Britain of today. Evidence of the war was everywhere with prefabricated houses and bomb sites with unrepaired houses. The military had four times the number of servicemen compared with today, most of them conscripts. Close to seven per cent of GDP was spent on defence and Britain was classed as a militarised country.
There was a financial legacy from the war with high taxation, the standard rate of tax was more than twice the rate today. Butter, meat, tea and coal were still rationed and there was also a shortage of consumer products. The de-rationing of chocolates in 1949 was abandoned due to unexpected demand. There was a housing problem and almost half of the population lived in dingy rooms or bedsits with little privacy, comfort or warmth. Less than one-third of houses were owner occupied.
Britain was the most urbanised and industrialised country in the world and the most polluted. The London smog of 1952 lasted five days and killed over 4,000 people and the following year hundreds were killed on the east coast due to high tides. Factories not only polluted the air but also the waterways and spoil tips from mining altered the landscape.
There was low unemployment and strikes were illegal until 1951. The labour government was big into running the economy and nationalised coal mines, railways, waterways, gas, electricity, airlines, the iron and steel industry altogether employing over two million.
In the countryside farming did not employ intensive farming methods and due to the large number of hedgerows and limited use of chemicals wildlife populations were much higher than today. There were large numbers of poorly paid agricultural workers living in tied housing that lacked modern facilities such as sanitation and electricity.
Only 3pc of the population had been born overseas and the Irish were the largest immigrant group. The other big group of immigrants were from mainland Europe comprising around 160,000, mostly Polish and Jewish. There were fewer than 140,000 from Asia and Africa although the 1948 nationality act confirmed unrestricted entry for Commonwealth citizens.
Class divisions were reflected in how people dressed. Caps for the working class males and suits and hats for the middle class. Only a small proportion of young people went to university and most of them came from middle class families.
Although the National Health Service had been created the combined expenditure on health and social security was behind most western European countries. Abortion was illegal and there was a social stigma attached to single mothers.
This was a golden age for public transport with one out of every three vehicles a bus or truck. Rationing of petrol resulted in one car per 16 people. Bicycles were used for short journeys and trains for long journeys. Most shops were family owned and traditional with the butcher, baker, grocer, etc all local. Supermarkets were only starting to appear in some towns in the south of the country. Televisions were expensive and unreliable with only the BBC to watch and as a result there were over 5,000 cinemas.
I’ll leave it to you to make up your mind in what decade you want to live.