With the knowledge we have now about the dangers of smoking, it’s hard to believe that in 1940s Britain even doctors might advise lighting up as a way of calming a patient’s nerves. It would be a common sight to see GPs smoking in a surgery, doctors and patients smoking in hospitals. Figures show that around eighty percent of adult males were smokers – cigarettes were popular, but so were pipes. Many women also smoked – estimates show around forty percent took up the habit in the late 1940s.
It was only when medical research began to show a link between smoking and lung disease that attitudes gradually began to change. In the early 1950s reports in medical journals highlighted the link, but the tobacco industry was powerful and it took many more decades until legislation started to support the findings. The British Medical Research Council reported “a direct causal connection” between smoking and lung cancer in 1957 and then in 1962 a Royal College of Physicians report confirmed that smoking is a cause of lung cancer and bronchitis, also probably contributing to heart disease. But it was only in 1965 that television advertising of cigarettes was banned and from there an increasing numbers of laws eventually led to the reduction in smoking that we see today.
Now we know that rather than benefitting our ‘nerves’ the dreaded weed harms almost every organ in the body – so perhaps it’s time to consider a soothing cup of chamomile tea instead!
It might be strange to think about a time not so very long ago when the term ‘teenager’ didn’t exist. Now we accept it, but in 1940s Britain young people aged between thirteen and nineteen lived a very different life to the life they might live today.
School leaving age was fourteen, with many leaving at thirteen. Their priority was to get a job – often unskilled – to bring in money to a household that would inevitably be struggling to pay all the bills. Popular jobs for young teenage boys might be as a butcher’s or baker’s boy, cycling around their local area, delivering goods to families. It’s likely that young girls would have been relied on to help with household chores, washing, cleaning, cooking and perhaps looking after younger siblings. The war years saw a significant rise in women taking jobs in a wide range of occupations, leaving teenage girls to ‘stand in’ at home, but when the war ended and the men returned many women had to take up their role as housewife once more.
It’s thought that the concept of ‘teenagers’ as a distinct group was first flagged up in America with retailers identifying them as a potential consumer group – particularly for developing fashion. Gradually this filtered into the UK, with young people beginning to choose their own clothing styles, rather than following the traditional fashion of their parents. There was a steady rise in youth clubs and dance halls, all attracting youngsters. Although this would be a generation who didn’t have to fight in a world war, National Service meant that eighteen and nineteen-year-olds would spend two years away from the influence of their parents.
It was in the 1950s that the independence and purchasing power of teenagers really took off, with Teddy Boys and the rise of rock and roll, developing still further with the pop culture of the 1960s and the likes of Beatlemania and fashion icons such as Mary Quant.
But the freedoms seen during later decades saw their beginnings in the 1940s when a world war changed the attitudes of every age group and every strata of society.
Factories offering no protection to their workers might be something we associate with Dickensian Britain. Workers subjected to long hours in harsh, polluting conditions – surely this belonged to the 19th century? Sadly, no. Thousands of factory and mine workers in 1940s Britain were subjected to dangerous working conditions that resulted in terrible preventable diseases from which many perished.
A link between lung disease and asbestos was highlighted during the 1920s, resulting in legislation in 1931 that required factory owners to monitor the health of workers who were in direct contact with asbestos. But the use of asbestos in many industries actually expanded during and after the Second World War – it was widely used on ships, steam engines and in power generating plants. Sadly it would be more than thirty years before the authorities really began to take notice of the dangers. In 1955 British physician and epidemiologist, Richard Doll, (who had reported on the link between lung cancer and cigarette smoking in 1950) reported that men working in a factory where asbestos was present were ten times more likely to have died from lung cancer. It would take decades before regulations ensured the protection of anyone coming into contact with asbestos – construction workers were still handling asbestos products right up until the 1970s.
And asbestosis (or mesothelioma) wasn’t the only dreadful lung condition to be experienced during that period. The link between coal mining and lung diseases, such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis, was known about, but little was being done. It wasn’t until 1952 that the National Coal Board instigated research into the problem and not until 1959 that all mine workers underwent regular medical examinations.
It would take many more years before adequate health and safety legislation was passed to protect workers, not only from lung diseases, but from all avoidable accidents and death.
Nowadays telecommunication is considered so vital that even some children have mobile phones. Yet in 1940s Britain a landline telephone was so rare that barely ten percent of households had one. And if you did decide to have a phone installed you might choose to have a shared line to help reduce the cost. This would mean that when you went to make your phone call you may well hear another caller’s conversation and have to wait until they finished before you could be connected.
But the iconic red public telephone boxes could be found on every street – in fact, there were around 52,000 of them. Alongside the coin-operated telephone, users would find a telephone directory where you could look up the number of anyone lucky enough to be on the phone. You put your coins in the slot, dialled the number and pressed Button A to be connected. If no one answered, then you pressed Button B to get your money back.
The organisation responsible for the telephone service during those years was the General Post Office. Depending on where you lived in the country you would either be able to dial directly through to your required number, or you would go through to a manually operated switchboard who would then transfer you. Early in the 20th century all switchboards were manual, operated in the main by women, with automatic switchboards gradually come into effect. The last one to be converted was in Enfield in 1960.
Long distance calls went through international telephone exchanges where individuals and businesses experienced the frustration of having to wait their turn for their call to be put through.
It’s hard to imagine such challenges when nowadays many people are ‘connected’ via their mobile phones almost every minute of every day.
There were many horrors to contend with in 1940s Britain and cruelly it was often children who suffered, despite adults’ overwhelming desire to protect them. For during the latter part of that decade there were annual polio epidemics, striking down thousands of people in Britain – many of them children.
This viral infection, which begins with a fever, affects the nerves in the spine and the base of the brain, which in turn can lead to paralysis in the legs and for some people affects their ability to breathe.
For many this meant treatment in a device called an ‘iron lung’, which works on the basis of air pressure controlled by bellows, helping the patient’s lungs to breathe in and out when their own ability to do so is severely restricted because of the loss of muscle control. Most patients having to use an iron lung would remain in one for several weeks or perhaps months, depending on the severity of their illness. After this time there would be a long period of rehabilitation, with breathing exercises to strengthen the chest muscles.
Some sufferers were spared the iron lung, but as a result of severe muscle weakness in their legs they needed to wear calipers during the day and splints at night. Once the calipers were removed patients still had to go through extensive rehabilitation. Some were left with deformed or weakened limbs that lasted a lifetime.
And so when a vaccination was developed by American scientist, Dr Jonas Salk, in the early 1950s it offered a real opportunity for health services to start to combat polio. After several years of clinical trials the vaccination was rolled out through a UK nationwide programme, beginning in 1956.
This was a virus that might attack anyone – a fact that is clear when you look at just a few of the names of well-known people who were stricken down by it in their early years:
US President, FD Roosevelt
Singer/songwriter, Neil Young
Actor, Donald Sutherland
Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo
Hollywood director, Francis Ford Coppola
Actor, Mia Farrow
For many people experiencing polio as a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the effects were long-lasting. For some those effects were physical, with limps or other mobility issues, or stutters. For others their childhood confinement meant they began to see the world in a different way – perhaps choosing to escape into the world of books, film and art.
But for anyone affected by this dreadful virus at least we can now be grateful with the knowledge that in Britain at least there have been no cases of polio since the 1980s. Sadly, other countries across the world are still struggling…
I’m sure there are many things that might trigger a rise in the birth rate – but consider these particular influencing factors for post-war Britain:
couples were finally able to celebrate the end of six years of war
wives and girlfriends could welcome the return of a loved one from the horrors at the front
British women had a chance to meet and marry a military man from the US or Canada who had come to Britain to help the Allied Forces.
Perhaps it was not surprising, therefore, to see the UK birth rate jump from around 795,000 in 1945 to over 955,000 in 1946. Quite a rise! But that wasn’t the real height, perhaps because there was a lag in the timing of demobbing, with some military men not arriving home until well into 1946. And so we see a further leap in numbers in 1947 to well over one million.
Babies born during the war years had to experience all the difficulties that their parents were experiencing – from rationing of food to losing their home – as the photo above shows.
But even after the war, the increase in the numbers of children would, in turn, lead to a number of problems. The housing crisis was already one of the greatest issues to trouble families and with more children to care for, having an appropriate home to live in was even more of a priority. Then, five years on, the education sector would start to be stretched to the limit, with class sizes needing to increase. As I mentioned in my previous post, schools were already experiencing problems because of the lack of suitable buildings and a shortage of teachers. Now there were even more children to factor into the mix.
However, although lots of babies were being born, the average family size remained around 2.4, despite the limitations and inaccessibility of family planning support or modern day contraception. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that the contraceptive pill made family planning more of a reality, of which more in later posts.
Consider how it must have been after the Second World War for millions of families who were all desperate for somewhere to live – somewhere ‘fit for purpose’, many having lost everything during the wartime London Blitz and similar devastation across the country. House building on a grand scale was promised by the post-war Labour government, but it was taking too long and in many ways falling short of what was needed.
It should be no surprise then that some people chose to take the situation into their own hands. Shortly after the war ended – in the summer of 1945 – a group of people in Brighton decided to solve the housing crisis by ‘commandeering any house that is empty and installing in it a family in need of accommodation.’ These squatters called themselves the ‘Vigilantes’.
A year on, what had started as small-scale developed into something much more significant. Newspaper headlines in 1946 reported that ’43 families out of 100 are wanting a new home’ – clearly the situation was dire. And so people started to look to disused military camps. In some parts of the country ex-soldiers led the way, but the concept spread across the country, with some 40,000 people occupying over a thousand camps.
And then it was the turn of empty hotels and mansions – particularly in London.
This growing squatters’ movement added to the pressure already felt by the new Labour government who must have been loath to attempt eviction of ‘war heroes’. And so some local authorities and even central government provided financial assistance to help make the military camps more habitable, enabling them to remain as homes on into the 1950s.
At the same time though public and political opinion was mixed, leading to the Home Office drafting a new law that made squatting a criminal offence, with guards placed in empty buildings across London to prevent unlawful access.
Nevertheless, squatting would continue across the country and across the decades, but it’s interesting to note the thoughts of one social historian regarding the late 1940s movement…
‘…after the war, the acts of the squatters were as close as Britain came to revolution […] it is clear that they were a movement only in the sense that they were inspired by the example of others… as class warriors; as victims of the Labour government, fighting for their rights; as respectable people doing what any young families would in their situation…’
Webber, H. (2012) ‘A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’ Ex Historia
Such was the general reception to the Butler Act of 1944. The paper’s editor went on to comment that ‘there shall be equality of opportunity, and diversity of provision without impairment of the social unity’.
So why did the Butler Act promise such wide-reaching changes to education and how successful were they in reality? Up until this point state education provided for children aged five through to fourteen in one ‘elementary sector’. Butler, however, recommended a division in education between ‘primary’ (five to eleven) and ‘secondary’ (eleven to fifteen). Some local authorities were already offering state funded secondary education, but with this Act the intention was to ensure fairer and widespread access, particularly for girls and, more broadly, children from working class families.
Although the Act was passed during the Second World War, it wasn’t until the war ended that the full sweep of changes could be made. Despite the severe economic constraints of the post-war years the then Minister of Education, Ellen Wilkinson, ensured the raising of the school age took effect from April 1947, as well as introducing free school milk.
The new secondary sector was to be made up of a mix of grammar schools, secondary moderns and secondary technical schools – with the idea that they would all have equal standing. In reality this was not the case. Grammar schools continued to carry greater prestige, attracting more financial resources and a more middle-class intake. The secondary technical schools were few in number and the intention – to train youngsters for work – never really worked out.
Another element of the Butler Act that proved controversial was the ’11-plus’ examination, intended to determine which strand of secondary education each child was most suited to. A pass meant the child went to the grammar school, failure meant attending the local secondary modern. Opinion was divided – many believed it helped ensure a fair system, others argued that to label children as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ so early on in their life would stay with them forever.
Harry Webb (aka Cliff Richard) said of his 11-plus experience:
‘that failure permanently ruined my confidence in any kind of written examination’
Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
There were other critical factors to overcome for the whole education system. The teaching profession had also been decimated, with young men sent off to fight, many never to return, leaving women to fill the role. This in itself was not always popular, with men returning after the war expecting to walk back into their job. Many existing schools needed to be repaired or rebuilt following wartime bombings, while new buildings needed to be found for new schools.
And, as we can see from the photo below, all these problems were compounded by the post-war baby boom, meaning often that classes were held in village or church halls while waiting for new prefab buildings to be made available.
So many of the problems with the school system encountered during the late 1940s would continue well into the 1950s and beyond, but more of that in later posts!
If you wanted to travel around Britain in the 1940s it’s likely you would have been walking, cycling or travelling on public transport. And if you were a critical worker, delivering milk to doorsteps early mornings, then you might even still be relying on a horse-drawn cart.
The average distance people needed to travel to get to work was around five miles and a bare six percent of workers choose to get there in a car. The motor car was still an unaffordable luxury for many.
Take the Ford Anglia, for example. In 1950 it would have set you back around £310. And to give that figure some context, the average house price in 1950 was £1,940 – making a car purchase one sixth of the cost of a house. So, converting that in today’s terms, (with the average house price around £256,000) it would mean the cost of an average car was equivalent in value to around £42,000!
And if you were able to find the funds, then you’d have to rely on a whole of patience! While more than thirty British car manufacturers proudly showed off around fifty models of car at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1948, the majority were intended for other countries, with a wait of anything between a year and more than two years for British owners. But the interest in motoring was certainly increasing, with double the numbers of visitors attending the Motor Show that year than for previous years.
But the car was still out of reach of most people. The UK population at the end of the 1940s was around fifty million, and yet there were barely two million cards on the road, nevertheless car production was seen as an major boon to the British economy. Soon after the Motor Show of 1948 a talk on the BBC Home Service included the claim:
‘Britain, perhaps just for the time being, is the greatest motor-car exporting nation in the world.’
Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
The situation would remain the same for several years, with Britain responsible for fifty-two percent of world motor exports in 1950.
And while Britain’s rail network was beginning to struggle under the strain of under-investment, any plans for road improvements – which were soon to be desperately needed – were shelved. A ten-year national road plan, announced in 1946, was abandoned, perhaps due to the economic difficulties of a country landed with enormous post-war debt, and too many demands on a decreasing pot of money.
Of course, for anyone who could afford a car – and lucky enough to get their hands on one – then petrol rationing would continue to restrict their use of it. During the war years – from 1942 in fact – any private motoring was banned, with petrol restricted for essential workers and emergency services. Once the war ended petrol could be used for private use, but it continued to be rationed until 1950, with supplies restricted, allowing each motorist to travel no further than 180 miles in a month.
All in all, plenty of reasons for choosing ‘Shanks’ pony’ !
The perils of war concentrate the mind when it comes to romance. If your sweetheart is about to go off to fight and you couldn’t be sure when or if you would see them again, then it would make sense to confirm your love for each other by ‘tying the knot’.
In the early months and years of the Second World War thousands of young women decided to marry. The wedding was often planned in haste, with no white dress or finery, no posh reception and certainly no honeymoon. Some couples might have managed a ‘knees up’ with friends and family at the local pub or village hall, but many others would merely attend the register office with the barest minimum of guests to act as witnesses before the solder had to return to the front.
Statistics bear this out, with the increase in marriages for young men under the age of twenty increased by an enormous 77 percent, and even among those aged twenty to twenty-four the increase was almost 50 percent.
During the middle years of the war perhaps life was too unpredictable for couples to make any kind of lifelong commitment to each other, as between 1938 and 1940 the number of marriages fell. But then in the later war years – some as a result of the many British women falling for the American soldiers who arrived in Britain bringing wealth and charm – marriage rates were on the up again. The Americans brought with them delights that had never been seen – such as Coca Cola and nylon stockings, but also everyday foods that they had in plenty while British families were still struggling with rationing. Their average salaries were more than five times that paid to British soldiers, making them quite a catch. Around 70,000 British women became GI brides, and after the war the GI wives were offered a free passage by the US Army to start their new lives in America.
And then there were the British soldiers, sailors and airmen who were stationed in other parts of Europe, North Africa and Burma, who fell in love with a local girl, and married.,
Sadly, though, not all war-time marriages resulted in ‘happily ever after’. Some couples who had rushed into tying the knot clearly discovered that they were not as compatible as they hoped. And then there the wives who found it difficult to be alone for the six long years of war, turning to another for comfort, their adultery only to be discovered when their husband returned from the front. And so, while many war-time marriages were a wonderful success, others resulted in disappointment reflected in a significant rise in the divorce rate during the late 1940s.