Friday, 22 March 2013

Colour pictures from 1953 suggest Britain might not have been the hell on earth of liberal myth

Earlier today, SDG kindly forwarded an email he'd received stuffed with colour pictures of Britain, taken in 1953. The one above is of boys from Kings College Junior School, Wimbledon, talking to a master (i.e. teacher, for my younger readers), and they're wearing the exact same, rather snazzy uniform I donned for the first time some eight  years later. I even sported one of those boaters with the fetching red bandana when I was twelve or thereabouts. Fair took me back, it did: a real chocolate madeleine dipped in tea.

I arrived in Britain from Norway in 1959, so I was too late for the 1950s. The decade's come in for a terrible kicking ever since - dull, drab, poor, conformist, hierarchical, deferential, sexually-repressed, racist, anti-women, anti-LGBT (useless at sandwiches, they were), and simply horrid to the disabled. And, of course, it was full of braying privileged posh people thrashing workers whenever the fancy took them. And everyone was white. And you couldn't get an abortion. Or drugs. And the welfare state wasn't as lavishly generous as it later became. And if you gave birth out of wedlock, you were locked away and tortured by deranged nuns. And all men got drunk and beat their wives just for the fun of it, and the police turned a blind eye.

In other words, hell on earth for your average liberal.

But not everyone hated the decade. The funniest parliamentary sketch-writer of all time - in fact, the man who invented the genre - Frank Johnson, who grew up as a working-class lad in the East End, had this to say: “…to grow up in 1950s London was to grow up in the last decade when everything was more or less as it should be.”

Apart from the rubbish music - and the vestiges of food rationing - I'm not sure I'd have minded it that much.

Yes, the following pictures, taken at the time of the Coronation, don't show the poverty and scarcity and class divisions and the lack of decent Thai restaurants - but they do depict a calm, innocent, orderly world full of rather nice people which, in many ways, looks extremely appealing: not all change is for the better.

Gosh, they look miserable!


  1. Marvellous pictures.

    One (pedantic) thing:

    The one above is of boys from Kings College Junior School, Wimbledon, talking to a master ...

    I think the junior school boys are talking to a senior school boy, not to a master.

    I zoomed in to see what the senior boy was reading but can't make it out.

    What I can see is how spectacularly frayed the blue braid is on the junior boys' blazers. They're second hand. Or third, or fourth ...

    The early 50s were a period of deprivation, there was still rationing, these boys were turned out smart for school but we're talking making do and mending.

    Privilege, eh?

    1. I think you're right! He's probably saying, "As soon as this photographer chappie has buzzed orf, I'm going to roast both of you little beasts in front of an open fire after thrashing you viciously with this copy of 'How to Torture New Bugs'."

      One forgets that all seventeen-year olds used to look as if they were 32.

  2. Or "Here's a tip ,up to new ticks. Make sure you pay full attention to the wisdom of the Rev Kinghorn. I am sure you will find his teachings replete with meaning for the soul and the spirit.'