|Publisher:||The History Press|
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A 1950s Southampton Childhood
By Penny Legg
The History PressCopyright © 2013 James Marsh & Penny Legg
All rights reserved.
AFTER THE WAR
Southampton suffered during the Second World War, as did many of Britain's towns and cities. Bombs ruined the historic Holy Rood Church, caused heartbreak by killing children sheltering in the basement of the Civic Centre and left a landscape that would take years to rebuild.
For children, the terrors of the 1940s, when for safety's sake they were often kept very much tied to their mother's apron strings, were replaced by the relative calm of the 1950s – children could be children again.
The war, though, was never far away, as Rod Andrews, born in Sholing in 1946, comments:
The war was why, when we went into town to the shops, most of Above Bar was single-storey, temporary buildings. For nearly ten years the town centre was one big building site. I loved a trip to town to see the cranes, the cement mixers and the builders.
Brian Stansbridge, born in 1951, summed up attitudes in the decade:
The way that people were supposed to behave (scrubbing the doorstep, sweeping the pavement in front of your house, drawing the curtains on the day of a funeral, clean shoes, giving up your seat to adults on the bus, tipping your cap to school teachers and other adults, holding doors open for people); the things that were taboo (having lilac in the house); things that weren't spoken about (living in sin, extra-marital affairs); feeling sorry for families that weren't quite up to the mark for some reason; disdain for families and kids that were 'dirty' or 'smelly'; severely disapproving of 'wasters' and 'idlers' (people who didn't want to work); shunning families that had had one or more members in prison.
The Second World War had drained this country of much in the way of food, clothing and household goods. Strict rationing of all these commodities was the order of the day and many children had never known any different. Families were registered at one particular shop for their meat and groceries; there was no option to move elsewhere. Children running errands would be given the ration book. This was a huge responsibility as all the family's coupons were inside it. Bread rationing, which was started after the war, stopped in 1948 and clothes came off the ration in 1949. However, petrol, sweets, sugar and meat were all still rationed as Britain moved into the 1950s. Rod Andrews remembers rationing well:
Sweets featured high in our day/week/month. Rationing was still on then. I think it was lifted when I was about eight. [Sweet rationing stopped in February 1953 and sugar rationing ceased in September of the same year.] My mum was a great innovator and with very little sugar she was able to conjure up her own selection of sweets. She shaped chocolate, sugar and something else into eggs each Easter, using two large spoons to make the egg shape. She made lovely toffee apples that had all my pals queuing at the back door.
For Michael Holloway, born in Shirley in 1939, the end of sweet rationing spelt joy, as it did for many of Southampton's children:
A friend and I rode our bikes to the Cosy Cabin sweet shop in Paynes Road. Mars bars were our target at 4d (2p) each. We were disappointed to only be allowed to buy four.
Petrol was the first of the rationed items to be discontinued in the fifties, on 26 May 1950, which did not mean all that much to the children but meant more to their parents. Money, though, was short in most houses so nothing was wasted that could be used by other people. One thing kids didn't get their hands on was the brown paper bag many shops used for carrying things like biscuits and other loose goods. Parents saved these. They were useful to help take oily stains out of clothing, when placed between the stain and a hot iron. These same bags were also ideal to keep sentimental items in, such as locks of hair or photographs, in chests of drawers in draughty bedrooms – central heating was only a dream and frosty windows and overcoats as eiderdowns were reality.
Children earned the 3d (1p) deposit back on their father's beer bottle when they returned it to the pub, and they soon found a use for the daily newspaper; each edition was hoarded until there were enough copies to make a run to the fish and chip shop worthwhile. Old rickety prams, soap boxes, wheelbarrows if you could find one, were all eagerly seized upon and piled high with paper. Once at the fish and chip shop the paper could be exchanged for a coveted bag of chips. If you were lucky, a bag of scraps, the crispy bits of batter that broke off the fish during frying, were on offer and were scooped up, bagged and eagerly scoffed by small mouths! Rod Andrews remembers another fish and chip shop treat – nothing was wasted. 'On Saturday mornings we would ask the man who owned the shop if he had any fish left over and for 3d we indulged in a few pieces of cold battered fish ... we loved it.'
Mothers often made their own chips, as this was cheaper than the chip shop, easy to do and went a long way to filling their children's empty stomachs. There were no ready meals available then, until the advent of things like beef burgers (the first Wimpy bar opened in 1954 in London), so doing it yourself was the norm. James remembers family meal times:
My mother was very good at getting a few extra potatoes each week and as there were four children in the family then – my brother, two sisters and me – she did chips at least twice a week. She fried these in a big saucepan and once they were ready she took two eggs and broke both of them into her large frying pan. Then, breaking the yolks, she fried these in one big piece. Once cooked, the eggs were divided into four equal pieces and served to the four of us with the homemade chips. No one could tell us that egg and chips was not a good meal to have because all four of us loved it and never left even one single chip on the plate.
Vegetable peelings and food scraps were saved in a separate container to the household rubbish bin. Everywhere that food was prepared had the bins, which included schools and households. Local farmers or council employees collected them once a week and the scraps were used to feed pigs. James has particularly strong memories of this practice:
The food waste was taken to a council depot in Kent Road, just yards from the houses in Belgrave Road [where James lived with his family]. Here it was cooked up and sent to farms all over Hampshire. But when the wind was in the wrong direction the awful pong from this operation wafted over all the houses, meaning doors and windows were firmly shut.
During the 1950s, hand-me-down items of clothing were the order of the day. As nothing was wasted, it made sense to pass out-grown children's clothing on to a smaller person. Rod Andrews remembers cast-offs with a smile. 'A lot of clothes I had were handed down from older male cousins. That never bothered me. I was quite proud to wear them.'
However, James's memories are not so happy ...
Being a boy growing up in this decade I had to endure this practice all the time. I had an older brother and his clothes were handed down for me to wear. That wasn't so bad, but it was the clothes from other boys in the road that had to be worn as well that caused a feeling of awkwardness that still lingers in the memory today. I can still visualise it now. There would be a knock on our front door and one of the mothers of older boys in the road would be standing on our front step. 'Oh hello, Mrs Marsh,' she would say, 'my David has grown out of these trousers, but there's plenty of wear in them yet. I'm sure they'll fit your little Jimmy a treat.' Then 'little Jimmy' would be sent upstairs to try them on, coming back down, now wearing them, to be subjected to a close scrutiny by my mother and whichever neighbour it was who had brought the trousers for me. 'Oh yes,' they would both chorus, 'they fit him a treat.' So next day off I would go to school wearing trousers that had so recently been the property of one of my or my brothers' friends in our road.
It wasn't just trousers of course that were handed down in this way, but shirts, socks and even shoes travelled around from boy to boy, and the girls were given dresses, blouses, cardigans and footwear in the same manner.
We all had to put up with it, but there is definitely something rather embarrassing about wearing trousers that had belonged to a boy who might be walking alongside you as you walked to school, knowing that as recently as just a few days ago these same trousers had covered his legs. Ah well, that was life!
Those born in the 1940s noticed a difference between their childhood and those of children born in the following decade. This was because children of the forties had to be sheltered during the dark days of the Second World War. True, it was the continued bombing of Southampton that caused so many buildings to be smashed into ruins (which would later become cherished playgrounds), but during those times when there was a constant threat of bombs being dropped on the town, children were kept under their mother's beady eye, much more so than in times of peace. As a result, in the years following the war children grew up much faster and became more streetwise. In this way, the children born in the fifties had a distinct advantage over their slightly older companions.
Throughout the 1950s, much of the children's playtime happened outdoors, in empty roads that were free of parked cars. Homemade bikes were often ridden up and down, making a fearful noise because they sometimes lacked anything as grand as tyres. However, Southampton at that time had a playground that children took full advantage of – the use of the many bombed and empty buildings, many of which remained into the 1960s. These were limited only by the children's imagination, so were, for example, hideouts for baddies and the town jail when playing cowboys and Indians. Brian Stansbridge, brought up in Stratton Road in Shirley, describes the bombsites as 'adventure playgrounds for boys (and some girls)'.
Where I lived, in Stratton Road, there was a small bombsite on the corner of Lion Street and a much larger one at the bottom of Stratton Road, adjacent to the Scout Hut. There was another in Victor Street, opposite the bottom of Stratton Road. They all contained bricks and large chunks of masonry, timber, rusting sheets of corrugated iron, and household items like mangles and tin baths (few of our houses had bathrooms so we would have a bath in the kitchen with water drawn from the 'copper', the gas-fired boiler) and other remains from the ruined homes. The sites were also very overgrown with wais-thigh weeds, trees and shrubs and always mauve buddleja (there was a story that the buddleja came from the German bombs – seeds being used as some kind of packing – but I don't think that was true). We would build dens from the wreckage, hidden in amongst the weeds and the shrubs; we would create rope swings hanging from the branches of the trees; we would build camps – a ring of pieces of masonry like a prehistoric stone circle – light a small fire in the middle and sit around like cowboys or soldiers; we would crawl around on our hands and knees in amongst the waist-high weeds creeping up on each other and ambushing passers-by. For reasons I didn't entirely understand, the people who lived next door to bombsites were always cross when they saw or heard kids playing on them and we were always told to 'clear off'.
Janet Bowen (née Sturgess), born in 1937, also remembers the bombsites. 'I had fun playing on these near Radstock Road. The thing I remember most is the abundance of buddleja that grew there.' Paddy Maxwell, born in 1949, and who lived in Rossington Way in Bitterne, remembers:
Where I lived, we had woods and glades that stretched from Midanbury to Lances Hill. We had a stream and a site called 'the dump' (Hum Hole, near Lances Hill) where we found old abandoned war stuff, camouflage, bits of aeroplane and even live ammunition, which had to be neutralized by the Army, but it was mainly all kinds of useful bric-a-brac that meant endless hours of fun as we played our boyhood games.
Air-raid shelters did not disappear overnight. Many Anderson shelters remained in private gardens for years after the war, sometimes being used as garden sheds or children's Wendy houses. Public shelters were similarly in evidence.
Brian Stansbridge had a public shelter in his road, opposite Wellington Street and next to Brown and Harrison's Dairy who were renowned for their delicious 3d bottles of orange juice.
It was set into the ground so that only the top two or three feet showed, with a thick concrete slab on top. Interestingly, we never played in it. It was dark and often had a few inches of water in it and seemed very scary. We would venture down into it if dared by a friend, but always got out rapidly as soon as the dare had been carried out and honour satisfied. It was almost as if the walls still echoed the fear that its wartime occupants would have been feeling. Eventually, it was demolished and the site used for an extension to Brown and Harrison's.
The choice of games played on the sites, and in the streets generally, reveals the understanding the children had of what had occurred. Rod Andrews remembers:
We all played at war ... dividing into German, British or Japanese troops. Guns were either shop bought with precious pocket money, or handmade – as long as you could point it and make a gun noise yourself, you were lethal. Once TV and comics came into our lives we converted, without a backward glance, to Cowboys and Indians.
Playing in the many bombed buildings that littered Southampton was a temptation no red-blooded boy could resist, although we all knew it was not allowed. This time it was the police telling us this and not our parents. These ruined buildings became our camps where we could believe the building belonged to us, and if it still had a banister intact we could all slide down it, a thrill most children were forbidden at home. All over Southampton kids in large numbers enjoyed this. The peril here, though, was that if a police constable did catch us they dished out immediate punishment – a clip round the ear with a rolled up leather glove.
Concrete anti-tank blocks, known as 'Dragons' Teeth', were still in place about the city, and these too became a play area for children, as they jumped from one to the other. At the end of the blocks were open bays, like shelters but with no windows, and they were open all round. These made great places for kids to meet up.
The bombsites were all over Southampton, offering children endless excitement. However, there was a more practical side to having them in the area, as Di Baker, (née Thomas), born in 1948, remembers:
Before November even arrived, all the people in our neighbourhood would start collecting their rubbish and piling it on the bombsite in the corner of St Edmunds and Clarendon Roads in Shirley. For bonfire night, we would make a guy out of clothes from the rag bag and wheel it around in the traditional hunt for 'a penny for the guy.' Only the dads were allowed to throw the guy onto the bonfire and to light the fireworks.
Margaret Hitch (née Read) was born in 1948 and grew up in Argyle Road in Newtown. She remembers sitting in her pushchair on a trip with her mother to the post office in London Road, with the family ration book. She also remembers the bonfires on the old bombsites, 'With everyone's rubbish building up there in the few weeks before Guy Fawkes' night.'
Paddy Maxwell loved bonfire night and remembers it well:
The planning for bonfire night usually started around about September. We would keep our eye open for anything flammable, old car tyres were a particular prize, linoleum, old carpets, bundles of paper, in fact I realise that many garden sheds were cleaned out and given to us eager workers. There was no worry about pollution then with every chimney belching smoke. It was just another addition to the foggy nights that winter months usually were. Building the bonfire was, in a way, teaching us to work together. Leaders emerged and different gangs of lads competed with each other to see who could bring the most stuff to the 'bommy'. We would always say we would not light the bonfire until 9 p.m. on the big day but the excitement was so great that as soon as it was dark we lit the monument we had been building for months and watched it perish to ashes in a few hours. Most lads went out with a guy asking, 'penny for the guy?' Passers-by would give a few coppers that soon added up and were spent, not usually on fireworks but on sweets from Fancy's open-all-hours shop.
Excerpted from A 1950s Southampton Childhood by Penny Legg. Copyright © 2013 James Marsh & Penny Legg. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. After the War,
2. Kids Will Be Kids,
3. Children's Imagination,
4. Growing Up,
5. Teenagers – A New Breed,
6. Family Life,
7. Trains, Planes and Automobiles,