The past is another country.

It’s hard to believe but several people have asked to hear more of my childhood memories; nobody wants more geology seemingly. As an amateur historian, I know that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II occurred in 1953, so I can be absolutely certain that my memory of lining up on the Bourne Infants School asphalt playground to be given a coronation mug dates from that time. My mug lasted all of three days, but at least the event provided work for the good people of Stoke on Trent, not the citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China. These were the days when ‘British Made’ was a guarantee of quality.

About the same time there was also a partial eclipse of the sun, which I remember running home from school to watch. In those remote days this was achieved through glass made less transparent with smoke from a candle. Please do not try this yourself at home.

For some years after the end of the Second World War clothing and many important foods (meat, butter, bacon, sugar) were still rationed. We had to attend a centre, the Central Methodist Church Hall I believe it was, to obtain new ration books and coupons. The last items to be rationed were sweets. These were removed from rationing by the first post-war Conservative Party government, around 1954 perhaps. I recall the day well. In those pre-supermarket days we purchased most of our food at the local Co-operative store or ‘co-op’. At regular intervals customers were given a dividend, or ‘divi’, based on the amount of their previous purchases. The co-operative movement also had a large clothing and furniture store In Eastbourne. As a child what impressed me most was not this example of practical socialism but the mechanisms used so that individual purchase points could communicate with the central cash till. In the grocery shop bills were pushed in containers on overhead lines. In the clothing store sealed containers were moved down pipes using suction or air pressure. A similar system was introduced by Bradford Royal Infirmary Pharmacy to contact the wards in the 1990s.

A basket of groceries would have looked very different in the 1950s. We had no washing up liquid, biros, instant coffee, tea-bags, pizzas, frozen food, and no microwavable ‘ready meals for one’. Indeed no microwave ovens (although the concept had been patented as long ago as 1945). In the absence of a fridge you kept meat in a cool larder with a perforated zinc screen to allow air in but keep flies out! In the absence of air transport fruit and vegetables had domestic ‘seasons’. Bananas were the exception; these came over from the West Indies in special boats and were said often to be accompanied by tropical spiders. If they were then none ever came my way. What else did we have? Tinned peas, spam, corned beef, sliced tinned peaches in heavy syrup, sugar cubes, wire-wool and Lux soap flakes, that’s what.

Of course fish and chips was the only ‘takeaway’ meal. Chips were 3d or 6d and fish 1/6 I think. Cod, haddock, or plaice in batter; or dog-fish, only they called it rock salmon to make it taste better. Children asked for ‘scraps’ or batter bits. Somewhat unhealthy eating I’m afraid. When you had eaten all that you cleaned your teeth with tooth powder (dentifrice) not tooth paste in a tube. In those days we had a pre-decimalisation coinage.

There was a tiny coin, with a wren on the reverse, called a farthing. This was worth one quarter of an old penny. With a farthing you could buy a single aniseed ball at a sweet shop. The coin was demonetised in 1960. My favourite barley sugar twists – with or without a chocolate centre – were far more pricey at 2d or 3d. Sweets or chocolate were usually bought by the ‘quarter’; a quarter pound block of Cadbury’s milk chocolate was 6d. There were only a very few old true silver 3d and 6d coins in circulation which could safely be added to Christmas puddings. These had almost entirely been replaced by brass hexagonal 3d pieces and cupro-nickel 6d pieces, during the war I imagine. One of these weekly would be a modest amount of pocket-money for a young child; the more affluent parents might give a whole shilling (12d or 5p). What else could you buy? There was Fry’s lemonade made in Brighton and sold in returnable bottles with a hard internal ceramic screw top; my father could just remember Codd bottles with marbles in them but they were long gone by my day. Ice-cream cones or wafers were 2d or 3d. There was local ice cream in Eastbourne made by a company with little imagination called ‘Cream Ice’ but only in vanilla and strawberry flavours. I loved playing the penny slot machines on Eastbourne Pier, where I often showed a small profit. The height of my ambition was to find a machine that ‘paid-out’ pennies wherever the little silver ball-bearing ended up. Later, when I walked to my junior school I invested 4d each week on a copy of the comic ‘Eagle’. I still recall the exciting adventures of ‘Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future’, his batman Digby, and their deadly enemy the mighty Mekon and his treens. In the centre of the Eagle were intricate drawings of technical subjects such as steam trains and jet engines. I cut them out and pinned them up on my bedroom walls. Actually, as those who know my study wall will testify, my preferences haven’t changed much in 60 years.

I have some photographs that date from this era. On one exciting day the Duke of Edinburgh visited Eastbourne in the first helicopter I had ever seen. Connected with this visit was the visit of a sea-plane, which somehow contrived to crash on arrival. This, by our standards, was an episode of great drama. I was, of course, photographed by the wreckage (see my earlier post). I am in the fortunate position of being able to date this picture accurately. My mother and father preserved a number of my old school exercise books. One of these dates from my last year at Bourne Infants and from this I can be quite certain that the plane crash occurred on June 7th 1955, and that 10 men were injured. It really must have been a most exciting day since apparently I saw frogmen explore the wreckage, and also a regimental mascot goat. Things have been a bit down-hill since then.

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2 thoughts on “The past is another country.

  1. Are you sure about washing up liquid? I can remember our family using it in the 1950’s. Fairy Liquid, was available from 1950, according to that unattributed poedia beginning with a W.

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    1. No, with due deference to Wiki, I believe that the first washing-up liquid on the UK market was Squezy in 1959. Do you recall ‘easy peasy lemon Squezy’? I think it was Unilever’s but what happened to it I can’t say.

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