Working Class Life in the 1940s & 50s
When I look back on my childhood the late 1940s and into the 1950s it seems almost like it happened in another world. In a way it did because so many things have changed since then that if I were magically plucked up from that time and brought here to 2009 it would be easy to imagine that I had been transported by aliens to another planet rather than just another time.
I grew up in a working class district of the city of Nottingham the district was called the Meadows. The area had been built on what formally had been pasture land and meadows in around the 1840s but by the 1940s with street after street the area had precious little of its green open spaces left.
The only green I can remember was the local Recreation Park which had a children’s play area with swings seesaw and roundabout two public tennis courts, crown bowling green and a large field that was used for Cricket or Football depending on the season.
The housing in the Meadows was predominantly terraced brick built housing mainly two up two down with the front door opening onto the street and the back door opening onto a back yard that had a coal-house and an outside toilet.
How women managed to bring up families with all that entails in housing that had no inside toilets, no bathrooms, no fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers, no hot water will be a mystery to those who only know of a life with all these things as necessities.
These women, who did bring up children under such circumstances my mum being one of them, not only did manage but managed to do a superb job that left the children of my generation from the Meadows with very strong and positive memories of their childhood.
As a child growing up in the Meadows each the day of the week seemed to have its own structure and you could tell what day it was by what you were eating and what activities happened on that day. I remember that the weekends were especially busy. Every Saturday morning I would run errands for an old lady who would give me a shopping list with a purse and some money and I would go to the local Co-Op and get her weekly shopping. In those days the prices stayed the same from one week to the next and so you knew exactly what the shopping bill would come to if you ordered the same things. I would also run to the corner shop for any bits that she needed during the week. The old lady lived with her unmarried son in a house on the next terrace, her back yard backed onto ours, and I used to climb over our back wall to get to her house. The old lady's son would give me 6d on a Saturday morning for doing his mum's errands.
My mum use to work in a shop on the high street I think it was called the Home and Colonial. Mum had one of those brains that could out add a calculator. When she went shopping she would be adding things up as she went and woe betides the shop assistant that rung up mum’s shopping and got it wrong. Mum would know to the penny what the total was. The tills in the places that my mum worked in back then didn’t do the adding up for you the shop assistant had to be able to do that. Some use to write down on a piece of paper the cost of each item as you ordered it and then add the items up but my mum did not need to do that as she could do it in her head as she served you.
I think mum got so good at adding up in her head by being in a darts team and doing the scoring. A dart board has numbers 1 to 20 with an area that doubles the number and another that triples the number, so you had to be able to quickly work out the score from the three darts thrown such as treble 19 plus double 17 and treble 14 and add them all together to get the score. Mum could tell you the score as soon as the darts hit the dart board she also was good at working out the odds for my dad when he wanted a flutter on the horses. Because mum was usually at work on a Saturday I was sent to the butchers, which was just across the road from where my mum was working to buy the joint of meat for Sunday dinner. Traditionally even most working class families had a roast dinner on a Sunday, and we always had a joint of meat on a Sunday but I never can remember having a roast outside of a Sunday.
In the 1940’s coal was king, virtually every house including the middle class semi detached and detached housing had coal fires. Gas which was also made from coal at that time was used for heating but this was not commonly the main source in most homes. Gas cookers were by far the most popular form of cooking with the old fashioned coal fired ranges coming next though electricity was beginning to be used also and electric cookers were thought to be very modern but most of my mum’s generation thought that they didn’t cook your food as well as a gas cooker did.
The by product of the production of coal gas was coke which was a smokeless fuel. Street lights by this time were usually powered by electricity that was produced mainly from coal fuelled power stations. Some streets and homes still were gas lit. I know that one of my uncles in Birkenhead still had gas light in his home as late as the 1950’s.
Chickens and Turkeys
Strange as seems we only saw Chicken and Turkey at Christmas as poultry then was not intensively produced on battery farms where the birds never see the outside but were free range which made them expensive to rear. This meant that for most working class families poultry was only bought for very special occasions which for our family was Christmas dinner when a turkey was purchased.
On a normal Saturday morning my mum would tell me to go and say to the butcher that my mum wants a piece of (then she would tell me pork, beef or lamb) about this big, and she would show me with her hands how big she wanted the piece of meat. Then I would go to the butcher and say "My mum says I’m to tell you that Jean wants a bit of beef this big" showing him with my hands the size of the joint that my mum wanted.
More often than not we had beef and the fat and juices that remained after the meat had been roasted in the oven would be poured into a small basin and when it was cool and set this dripping as we called it would be delicious when it was spread on bread with a little salt on it. The butcher would always give you some extra fat to put on the top of your roast so that you would have more dripping after the roast had been cooked, bread and dripping was often given to the family for tea on Monday.
In working class England tea was the early evening meal and for most people with young children teatime was around five o’clock in the afternoon. At teatime the meal usually consisted of sandwiches of some sort, dinner time in working class areas usually was at mid day however, the middle classes would have their dinner in the evening.
Poverty and Rationing
In many ways though we were poor we as children never knew that we were, everyone we knew lived in homes similar to our own and had a life style that was basically the same as ours. Poverty is often experienced as a relative thing, and so if everyone around you is in the same state as you there is no feeling of doing without or feeling underprivileged. Speak to almost anyone who was brought up in our neighbourhood around the same time as me and almost everyone will tell you that their childhood was in the main a very happy one.
Another thing that caused people to not feel hard done by was the fact that many items in the late 40’s and early 50’s were still on ration which meant that even if you had a little more money than someone else you still couldn’t buy more than your share of rationed items like sugar, sweets, tea, cheese egg etc
More about rationing and poverty and its effects on the working class will be in part two of this hub. I hope that you have enjoyed this small look back to a bygone era in the life of a working class family in the UK.
Other Working Class Based Hubs
If you enjoyed this hub I have put links to some of my other hubs that deal with similar material below.
All these Hubs have the common theme of coming from a Working Class perspective which differs quite a lot from that of the Middle Class and which has virtually nothing in common with the Upper Class perspective.
There is one period in modern times when all three classes had experiences in common and that was during the second world war.
I hope that enjoyed your foray into Working Class England if you did please leave a comment perhaps some feed back or if I didn't cover what you were looking for let me know and perhaps I can do another hub about that,
Other Working Class Based Hubs
- Working Class Life in the 1930s
- Working Class life in the 1950’s – Train Sets and Train Spotting
- Working Class life in the 1940’s and 1950´s Britain ~ Train Travel
- Working Class Life in the 1940s & 50s
- Working Class Life in the 1940’s
- A Victorian Woman of Substance
- A 1950s Working Class Mum's Answer to Children Biting
- Working Class Girl in Singapore in the late 1960s
- Bonfire Night in a Working Class area in the 1950’s
More by this Author
This story of incest is written from the perspective of a child born as a result of incest. Today I doubt that a twelve-year-old girl would have gone full term but this was the 1940’s.
Working Class life in England in the 1930's. What life was like for a typical working class family in Birkenhead during the 1930's.
- EDITOR'S CHOICE51
what wash days were like sixty years ago before there were such things as automatic washing machines. Read this first hand account of what it was like in a working class home in Britain on wash day.