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Britain in the 1950s (Paperback)

Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times – Memories of a Post-War Decade

P&S History > British History P&S History > By Century > 20th Century P&S History > Social History Transport > Trams

By John Wade
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 288
Illustrations: 225 mono illustrations
ISBN: 9781399061384
Published: 6th March 2023

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The 1950s was the decade of the Queen’s Coronation and the Festival of Britain; of family shops and pea-souper smogs; listening to the wireless and watching the box; when money was counted in pounds, shillings and pence and weights were in pounds and ounces. It was when children walked to school and ‘six of the best’ was a painful experience; postmen wore uniforms with peaked hats and chimney sweeps rode bikes with their brushes and poles balanced on their shoulders; milk and bread were delivered to your doorstep every morning and orange juice was free for schoolchildren; and when most people still preferred smooth shiny toilet paper to the new absorbent type. The Second World War left Britain in a period of austerity. Yet, born of the relief of the war ending in 1945, there was a spirit of hope for the future and new beginnings, from which grew a climate that was a comforting mix of the traditional past blended with exciting glimpses of an exhilarating future.

John Wade records briefly some of the great achievements and events of the 1950s, but concentrates more on what it was like for ordinary British people living their lives during a far from ordinary decade.

A very entertaining look at the 1950’s, covering most aspects of the period. As a child growing up in the 50’s the toys of the period and the advent of TV were of special interest although I do remember social and political changes that occurred. Highly recommended for those who remember the times and equally for those with an interest in social history.

NetGalley, Rolf Bachelor

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

John Wade’s Britain in the 1950s, subtitled Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times – Memories of a Post-War Decade assumes no knowledge of those times. It explains prices in £.s.d. and weights in lb. and oz. The book covers toys; shopping; entertainment such as radio and TV programmes and films; aspects of travel such as holidays, trams and pre-Beeching railways; and events such as the Festival of Britain and the Coronation.

I loved this book. Wade isn’t afraid to give us the details such as the difference between a Princess Line and an A-line dress; how Teddy Boys coaxed their hair into the famous quiff; how telephone party lines operated; and even how domestic appliances such as twin-tub washing machines worked. The book is lavishly illustrated with period adverts and photos.

Some aspects of the chapter on schooldays didn’t resonate with me, but it sounds as though Wade went to a school in town and I went to a small village school with a total of 62 children aged 5-11. Our school meals were made in the school kitchen by two lovely ladies known universally as Auntie Eirlys and Auntie Nance, whereas Wade’s were brought in from a central town kitchen. It’s good to see that Wade rightly assigns the decision to stop free milk for most children to Ted Heath, rather than Margaret Thatcher, who was actually against the decision. I’d forgotten the school lessons with us all listening to a radio broadcast.

Although I knew that Frank Hornby created Meccano, as well as the eponymous Hornby train sets, I didn’t know that he also started Dinky Toys. The book doesn’t just tell us about toy trains and Matchbox cars, though, it also gives the genesis of Barbie dolls (based upon a German doll called Bild Lilli, aimed at adults rather than children.

I learnt a lot, discovering that ration books had a list of staples such as meat, eggs, cheese, bacon and sugar – and that a specific retailer’s name and address had to be detailed against each one. That’s right: housewives (and it was women who did most of the shopping then) HAD to use the same shops every week as long as those goods were rationed. There are some lists, e.g. BBC radio shows, Ealing comedy films, as well as longer sections on, for example, shops like M&S and the Co-op; and car companies. If you are a child of the 1950s or ‘60s; or if you’re interested in the social history of those decades, this book is for you. It might even make a great present for an elderly relative with memory problems, as it will resurrect memories of a happier, more secure, time of their life.

NetGalley, Colin Edwards

This was a very nice book, of course I love learning about this time but I think that anyone would enjoy reading this book!

NetGalley, Heather Bennett

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What a super read about life in Britain during the 1950's. I was three years old when the decade started and the author has selected all the key moments that I remember and had also forgotten. My playground in London was composed of bombed-out houses, my only toys were produced before WW2 and those I made out of scraps.
The end of sweet rationing was one of the most momentous events for a small child. Sadly overdosing on Pineapple Chunks, Sherbert Lemons, and Pear Drops wrecked my teeth forever.
The decade spanned an enormous cultural change in the lives of the British. From the drabness of post-war living to the early beginning of the pre-1960s revolution.
The images brought many memories flooding back, both good and bad.

This book should be read by all age groups from teenagers to oldies. A fantastic study, very well-researched and presented.

NetGalley, Peter Coxall

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I love books that talks about social history and the life of common people. This one was well done, informative and entertaining at the same time.
I learned something and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Highly recommended.

NetGalley, Anna Maria Giacomasso

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A fascinating insight into the past.

NetGalley, Chris Hallam

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For me, this was a real trip down memory lane. Born in 1950, I remember much of the decade and it was refreshing to be reminded of many events and day to day things I’d long forgotten.

It’s a delightful book to dip into. It starts with an overview of each year of the decade. Looking back, it makes one realise just how much the world and day to day life has changed. It was a decade that started with ongoing post war challenges like rationing and ended with a spirit of optimism as the country moved into what would be the swinging sixties. Day to day life is well described. Supermarkets were unknown. Small shops and dedicated shopkeepers provided personal service. I well remember a local grocer who had a row of biscuit tins at the front of the counter. The biscuits like wafers, digestives, ginger biscuits were loose and if you were lucky, he’d give you a biscuit before you left the shop. Butter was cut and patted into a block and wrapped in grease proof paper, sugar was weighed loose and poured into blue bags.

It was an exciting time with the advent of space travel, particularly reflected in design. The first commercial jet flights took place and convenience became key with more emphasis on making things easier for the housewife (most women didn’t work) to keep the home perfect. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners, steam irons, tv, fridges all became more common. Teenagers stopped dressing like their parents and adopted their own styles of both clothes and music.

The book is packed with photos, pictures and examples of advertising. It’s an eclectic mix which brings the decade vividly to life and is a well written slice of social history. Great on e-reader, even better on a tablet where the pictures are sharp and distinct. I really enjoyed this nostalgic dip into the past.

NetGalley, Anita Wallas

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For Baby Boomers this book evokes wonderful memories of childhood, every facet of our formative years have been covered in some detail. The reader might imagine having lived through the 1950s that they were well versed in the decade, but John Wade has meticulously researched the decade, uncovering facts and finding numerous images from our early lives. Essential reading for my fellow peers and an important resource for today's researchers. Highly recommended.

NetGalley, David Styles

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What a fantastic book by -so far my favourite - publisher Pan & Sword.
The book takes us on a journey of daily British life in the 1950s. With the author, we listen to the wireless, watch the box, play with toys, travel and learn about money, weights and measures in the 1950s. The book is full of pictures and interesting facts. It was a very pleasant and sometimes humorous read. I wish it is the first book of a series of decades in British life. Who knows…sometimes the wishes come true.

NetGalley, Meg Gajda

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I read John Wade's Britain in the 1950s for research purposes for a project I'm working on. I really enjoyed it. This book is informative, without being stuffy, well-written and to the point. I like the fun fact sections that head up each chapter and I also like the author explaining how certain things worked, like radios, and buses (including the role of conductors, passengers, etc). All of these little details help me to imagine what it was like to live in 1950s Britain. Overall, I highly recommend reading this.

NetGalley, Stacey Thomas

About John Wade

John Wade is a freelance writer and photographer, with more than forty years’ experience in both fields. He has written, illustrated, edited and contributed to more than thirty books, plus numerous magazine articles, for book and magazine publishers in the UK, US and Australia. His specialities are social history as well as photographic history and techniques. His most recent books include Transport Curiosities (Pen & Sword, 2022), Cameras at War (Pen & Sword, 2020); The Golden Age of Science Fiction (Pen & Sword, 2019), London Curiosities (Pen & Sword, 2017), and The Ingenious Victorians (Pen & Sword, 2016).

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