One of my earliest memories is of my mother crying in our garden. When I asked why, she replied “The King has died”. It was February 6 1952; her grief was shared across the country and for a month afterwards she and millions of others wore black arm bands in mourning.
It is a cliché, but not a bad one, that the past is another country. The kingdom which the 25 year old Queen Elizabeth came to reign over in 1952 was another world, one which must seem astonishingly distant to young people today. Amongst the words which identify it are perhaps “cohesion” and “confidence” .
But it was on the cusp of criticism and change. With hindsight, the early 1950s seem a time of transition from a settled, somewhat ordered society to one that has been evolving at high speed ever since.
Signposts from that lost world are provided by the official handbook to the Festival of Britain.
The Festival, four years in the making, under the supervision of Clement Attlee’s Labour governments (1945-51), was infused with pride – a pride that some people would find embarrassing, if not elitist and chauvinist today.
A celebration for having defeated fascism, the Festival, on the new South Bank, praised Britain’s “contributions to civilization” and displayed our industrial and design achievements in “one corporate reaffirmation of faith in the nation’s future”.
The Festival honored Britain’s Christian culture and celebrated not just Shakespeare but also the Bible – “The English Bible is still the great beacon for the language. Into successive versions of that Bible went the pride of English penmanship and the pick of English words: out of it came a resonance and radiance which have suffused all our later literature and speech”.
The British “native genius” was displayed in a pavilion called “The Lion and the Unicorn” – these symbolized “two of the main qualities of the national character: on the one hand realism and strength, on the other, fantasy, independence and imagination.”
Fifty years later, the Millenium Dome showed no such happy, patriotic self confidence. Supposed to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, it barely mentioned Christianity and showed none of the pride in Britain of half a century before.
In 1952, the monarchy was not just accepted but adored by most of the population – one third of the people thought that the new Queen had been directly chosen by God. (Believers might say that her extraordinary record of service ever since shows that they were right.)
When her father the King died, Churchill lamented that the new Queen was only a child whom he hardly knew. But he quickly came to love her as he taught her statecraft. For her part, she said later that her weekly meetings with the first of her twelve Prime Ministers were wonderful fun.
Television was beginning its long march into conquering the world of media. Churchill had at first been against televising the coronation service and only changed his mind when the Queen herself said it should happen. People scrambled to buy the new fangled sets which had just become available.
Betty Brown, a 22 year old confectionery saleswoman said “My aunts and uncles and cousins all gathered in my mum’s house – and we watched it enthralled. My mum made a buffet- roast ham, pease pudding, beef, custard pie and cake and we watched the ceremony and nobody spoke.”
The Church of England was another pillar of national identity – since the end of the war church membership and religious celebrations of all kind had increased. Billy Graham had great success on his crusades of 1954-6. There was a reassertion of “traditional” family values, including thrift and sexual restraint. Sex was little discussed in popular papers, except in terms of “the intimate side of marriage”.
But there were prices to pay. Young lovers lived in terror of pregnancy. Children who did not believe in God might be denounced as “heathens” by their peers. John Lennon’s mother “lived in sin” and this made him the object of constant jibes in the playground.
Suburban conformity was the prize that millions of people thought they had won and should (at least in theory) enjoy as a result of victory in 1945. Deference, orthodoxy, and self discipline were the rules for proper behavior. Suits came from Burtons, and white shirts with stiff white collars were de rigeur in every bank and many other businesses. Trust was implicit. The G.P, the policeman, the bank manager, were figures whose respectability meant that their authority was rarely questioned.
Homosexual acts were still illegal – in March 1954 Lord Montagu and two other men were sent to prison after conviction for “conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons”. As a result of such prominent convictions the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexuals Offences and Prostitution was set up.
The sensibilities of the day were such that Lord Wolfenden suggested that, for the sake of the ladies present, during their discussions, homosexuals should be called Huntleys and prostitutes Palmers. But the study was serious and in 1957 the Committee made a revolutionary recommendation – that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.
These recommendations were implemented in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. But that was ten years away. In the mid-1950s much of life was still closeted. The Lord Chamberlain still censored the theatre and the courts still censored literature. Lady Chatterley would not have been approved for publication.
Alongside cultural certainties, there were serious economic concerns. There were still dusty bombsites all over London and other cities. Services at St Bride’s Church, and many others, were still held in the open air, amongst the ruins.
Added to the costs of rebuilding, there was the cost of constructing the welfare state which Labour had started to create in 1945 and which the Conservative Party had accepted.
The new Conservative Chancellor, R A Butler admitted in 1952 that the country faced “a major calamity for sterling” – as Chancellors would do for the next thirty years.
Wartime and postwar rationing had lingered painfully into the 1950s but Churchill insisted that the rationing of sweets and chocolate must be lifted before the Coronation.
The British economy was still dominated by steel, shipbuilding and mining. Our scientific achievements were still fine. We launched the world’s first jetliner, the Comet, in 1952. After early, terrifying crashes caused by metal fatigue, it became one of the most successful and longest lived planes in the world.
A year later, in research of vast significance, Francis Crick and James D Watson published their description of the double helix structure of DNA. And in 1956 the Queen opened the world’s first commercial nuclear power station at Calder Hall.
In his superb history of the 1950s, Family Britain, David Kynaston writes, “Papers, cigarettes, drink : those were the three staples of the working class, especially male working class, way of life – call it ‘culture’” . An extraordinary 29 million papers were sold every day across the country in 1952. Amongst the biggest titles were the News of the World, the People, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express.
Crime and punishment were, as always, popular reads. And there were some notable murders and trials to grip the imagination. Amongst the most controversial was the conviction and execution of in January 1953 of Derek Bentley, an educationally subnormal teenager, for his part in the murder of PC Sidney Miles. Later that year John Christie was sentenced to death for multiple murders after several bodies were discovered in his home, 10 Rillington place, Notting Hill.
In the hot July of 1955 Ruth Ellis, who had murdered her lover under extreme provocation, and whose peroxide hair, penciled eyebrows and dark lips excited much prurient tut-tutting, became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Thousands of people gathered outside Holloway Prison on the morning of her execution. Many of them smoked and smoked as they awaited the moment.
Almost 80% of men smoked, an average of 15 a day. The first British research showing the link between cancer and smoking was published in 1950 but took years to make an impression.
Smoke of different kinds constantly filled the winter streets of London, as hundreds of thousands of coal fires puffed out soot. Over four days in December 1952 the smog was so terrible that passengers could not see platforms, let alone stations into which their trains had crawled. Opera and theatre performances had to be stopped because the coughing audiences could not see the stage.
Prize cattle at the Smithfield Show became so distressed they had to be slaughtered. Along with the beasts, up to 12,000 people in London may have died. It was not until 1956 that the Clean Air Act, which made coal fires illegal in cities, was passed. It made a big difference to urban air.
Television began its long march to conquer the world in the early fifties. The Quatermass Experiment was first of TV’s great science fiction serials began in July 1953. In 1955, the television industry had another huge boost when competition to the BBC was allowed and ITV began to broadcast. Roy Thomson (later an owner of the Times) called his early investment in commercial television “a licence to print money.”
Tragically, in Europe, the fascist dictators had been replaced by a new threat. The brutality of Soviet communism in the countries of Eastern Europe which it controlled was now obvious. The iron curtain of which Churchill had warned was manifest in barbed wire strung across the continent.
The first test of a British nuclear device took place off Australia in October 1952, and the postwar consensus that Britain should maintain an independent nuclear deterrent has held ever since.
The British Empire had been the greatest the modern world had ever seen and the new Queen could travel right around the world without ever leaving her own territories, coloured red on maps of the world.
But it was clear that what Harold Macmillan later called “the winds of change” were beginning to blow and the transformation of the Empire into a Commonwealth of nations which, as the Queen herself said, “bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception…”
Kenneth Kaunda, a nationalist fighter in Northern Rhodesia, which became Zambia, said that the transformation from Empire to Commonwealth was only possible “because of the personality of the Queen. Without that, many of us would have left.” Instead, the Commonwealth continues to grow – with new members who were never part of the British Empire.
In July 1956, the Egyptian President, Gamel Abdul Nasser, announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. It was almost inevitable that many politicians would see the question in terms of the 1930s – to appease or not to appease. Nasser was described as “an Asiatic Mussolini”.
Eschewing the United Nations, the British, French and Israeli governments concocted a scheme whereby Israel would invade Egypt and Britain and France would then intervene in order to restore order. This device fooled few people and infuriated many more.
Unlike Moscow, which was ruthlessly crushing all dissent in Hungary at the time, London and Paris were susceptible to outside pressure and had to withdraw. The debacle was often seen as colonialism’s last hurrah in Britain, it led to Prime Minister Eden’s resignation and a new cynicism about government.
Appropriately the Suez crisis took place soon after John Osborne became most the prominent of the young playwrights to stamp on the middle class pieties of the stage. Kenneth Tynan praised the play for its portrait of postwar youth – “the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of ‘official’ attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour…the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for…”
“No crusade worth fighting for”. That was a concept becoming more and more fashionable. By now British decline became a subject of almost morbid, if not self fulfilling, fascination – at least amongst those who saw themselves as intellectual. In all the decades since then every British institution, including the monarchy, has been subjected to criticism, sometimes withering, and often pitiless analysis. The church, Parliament, the judiciary, the civil service – all are held in less regard today than they were in the early 1950s.
The monarchy itself has had its own turbulence, but has arguably survived these sixty years better than most institutions – thanks to the stoicism and faith of the young woman who acceded to the throne after the death of her father in February 1952.