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A 1960s Childhood
From Thunderbirds to Beatlemania
By Paul Feeney
The History PressCopyright © 2010 Paul Feeney
All rights reserved.
A Decade of Change
It's eight o'clock in the morning on the first day of January 1960, and kids all over the country are dipping freshly cut bread soldiers into the soft yellow yolks of lightly boiled eggs. Just like any other morning, the wireless is already on and Jack de Manio is reading the news on the Today programme. Thousands of grown-ups are running late for work, having foolishly believed his inaccurate time-checks. Everyone knows that he is prone to giving out the wrong time during his radio show, it is all part of his laid-back presentation style. He is easy to listen to and can be quite amusing, not at all stuffy like the other BBC newsreaders; even young children happily tolerate his breakfast programme. It's hard to believe that Christmas Day was only a week ago. It now seems like a distant memory. Some children have already gone back to school, and the rest have just three more days of freedom to enjoy before the dreaded Monday arrives when they too will have to return to school for the start of a new term.
You have just finished the last of your bread soldiers and you are now scraping your spoon around the inside of the eggshell to retrieve every last piece of egg white. There is a cup of tea that's been sat on the table in front of you for about fifteen minutes, and it's now cold. You've been daydreaming and it's taking you absolutely ages to eat your breakfast. Meanwhile, your mum is bustling about the room, trying to clear the table around you, but you are oblivious to her loud tutting, too engrossed in your own thoughts and in no rush to finish.
As amazing as your daydreams may be, your imagination will never stretch to encompass all of the astonishing delights that future years will bring to improve the lifestyle that you so readily accept as normal on this, the first day of 1960. Could it be that one day, ordinary people will have their whole house centrally heated and families will no longer have to huddle into one room to keep warm? Is it possible that soon there will be a toilet and a bath fitted inside every house, and that the old tin baths will only be needed to wash the dog? Is it really feasible that every home will have at least one television set, and that within a few years you will be able to watch all your favourite television programmes in colour? Can you believe that the GPO telephone boxes that are so prevalent on the streets today will some day become almost redundant? Not only will everyone have their own telephone, they will even walk around with them in their pockets! Many of these things are way beyond the imagination of the average grown-up, let alone a young child. You might as well suggest that one day a man will walk on the moon!
At last, you stop scraping around inside that long-suffering eggshell; you put down your spoon and allow your mum to finish clearing away the breakfast things. Resting your back against the hard wooden uprights of your chair, you turn your gaze to the skies beyond the tightly closed sash window next to the table. You have absolutely no idea that you are witnessing the start of what is to become the most exciting decade of the twentieth century, and that, in years to come, you and every other child of the 1960s will have reason to look back on these years with great fondness. Forevermore, the decade will be referred to as the 'swinging sixties', and although future generations will experience greater lifestyle improvements than you can ever imagine, they will also fantasise about what it was like to grow up in the 1960s.
You will surely have many unforgettable personal memories of your childhood, but there are also a myriad of things that touched and influenced everyone that grew up in the sixties and evoke common memories. In the early sixties, you will have experienced some of the austere 1950s' mood that rolled over into the 1960s as part of the seamless transition between decades. After all, the older generation were not likely to forget the hard times that went before, and their long-time practice of living sparingly didn't just end at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1959. The stories you were told of the post-war hardships and food rationing suffered by your parents and grandparents are like ancient history to you, even though food rationing only finally ended a few years earlier, in 1954. But even the most uncaring or self-absorbed child couldn't help but see the lasting reminders of war and deprivation that were still evident in the early sixties, with many bomb ruins and bomb-damaged buildings still to be seen in towns and cities. You would regularly encounter people suffering from old war injuries, not just ex-servicemen and women, but also many innocent civilians that had been caught up in enemy bombing raids on local streets and houses. It wasn't unusual to see people in their thirties and forties, particularly men, hobbling around with the aid of a crutch or a walking stick, with some having lost limbs or been made blind during the hostilities. Back in 1957, the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, caused an upset when he said, 'let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good'. This remark remained etched in the minds of the fifties generation; in the 1960s it was regularly paraphrased as 'You've never had it so good', and used by grown-ups to remind children of the hardships that people suffered in previous decades. However, the cold rooms, tin baths and outside toilets had not been entirely consigned to the history books. For some people, the dearth was ongoing and improvements were only gradual.
During the early sixties, more and more high-rise blocks of flats and new housing estates were being built to replace homes that had been demolished during the government's large-scale slum clearance programme, and the once familiar landscapes in some urban and rural areas were seen to be radically changing. The new homes provided more comfortable and sanitary facilities for people that had previously occupied old run-down and overcrowded terraced houses, but they were considered by many to be characterless and ugly, lacking the community spirit previously enjoyed in the rows of old terraced houses. Some people in tower blocks felt isolated and the kids had to adapt to a whole new way of life. But there were some benefits, such as the luxury of having modern bathrooms and hot running water, thus consigning many old kettle-filled fireside tin baths to the scrapheap.
Britain was in what was called a post-war boom period, when there seemed to be factories in every street in the country that were busy making all sorts of British goods. It was a time when British products and services were in great demand and unemployment was very low. The sixties generation had much more disposable income than their predecessors and they could afford to buy and enjoy many of the things that were previously considered to be extravagant. Up until about 1962, items like television sets and telephones were regarded as luxuries, but they soon became much more affordable to ordinary people, as did labour-saving devices like vacuum cleaners and washing machines, and by the mid-sixties these were all considered to be necessities in the home. There was little sign of 'absolute poverty', as there had been in previous decades when it was obvious that some people did not have enough money to clothe themselves or to eat an adequate diet. By the mid-sixties, a great many working-class families had seen their lifestyles improve significantly, and it could have reasonably been said that most people had 'never had it so good'!
Although cultural changes were noticeable right from the start of the sixties, in retrospect, the first couple of years were monochromatic in comparison to the rest of the decade. We were still cleansing deprivation from our lives and ridding ourselves of all the guilt we felt for having so much more to enjoy than our parents did when they grew up in the forties and fifties. From about 1962 onwards, attitudes began to change very fast, and by the mid-sixties even the old fogies were too caught up in the mood of the sixties to reflect on the frugal times that went before. The good times had finally arrived and everything was so different to anything that had gone before. It was like someone turned on the light or fine-tuned our signal so that all of a sudden there was an explosion of colourful sound and vision.
People of all ages and social backgrounds were now taking an interest in fashion and music, and although young people set the trends, older people also began to follow them. The revolutionary changes in lifestyle were all-embracing, with children from working-class families enjoying a much better standard of living than ever before and sharing in the thrill of being at the birth of exciting new forms of entertainment and fashion. At Christmas 1961, while kids were practising the latest dance craze – the Twist – in the playground, the first signs of 'mod' fashions were starting to emerge in London. By Christmas the following year, The Beatles had made their first appearance in the pop music charts with their single Love Me Do, and within a few months the whole music scene had exploded into action with a procession of other Mersey groups and artists hitting the big-time, quickly followed by a contingent of new groups from London, including the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five.
This was the first generation of children to take a real interest in fashionable clothing, which was probably because they were the first generation to be influenced by television, with programmes like Thank Your Lucky Stars,Top of the Pops, and, in particular, Ready Steady Go! This was a must-watch Friday evening show for kids who wanted to keep up to date with all the latest music and fashion, and it was co-hosted by the much respected and admired 'Queen of the Mods', Cathy McGowan. You were completely uncool if you didn't watch it, and you had to be able to recount the whole show at school on the following Monday morning. Can you believe that a grainy black and white television programme created so much excitement back then?
Back in the fifties, many schoolgirls balanced their school hats on top of their perfectly backcombed bouffant hairdos, while the Brylcreemed quiffs of fashionable schoolboys often poked out from under the front of their school cap, much to the annoyance of schoolteachers trying to enforce strict school uniform policies. In the revolutionary sixties, kids were more reluctant than ever to conform to rigorous rules on school uniform, and were continually looking for ways to bend them. With girls, the biggest rule breaker was wearing skirts above the knee, and of course there were always some who took it too far! Sadly, for those who went to strict schools, there was often a rule that the hem of your skirt had to touch the floor when you knelt down. If it didn't, then it was too short and had to be lengthened. With boys, as in the fifties, it was their haircuts that seemed to most offend authority. But attitudes were slowly changing and by 1963 it was noticeable that older people were becoming more relaxed about modern male hairstyles; even male teachers were beginning to grow their hair. The regular shearing sessions and pudding-basin haircuts started to disappear and young boys were allowed to grow their hair longer. It was now acceptable for a boy's hair to be touching his collar at the back; at last, short back and sides were beginning to disappear, and there was no going back.
For children, some sixties revolutionary changes were somewhat less welcome. It was nice to have parents that were 'cool', but it could also be embarrassing. All of a sudden, everywhere you looked there were mums and grannies wearing knee-high boots and brightly coloured miniskirts. Dads and granddads consigned their hats and flat caps to the dustbin and allowed their hair to grow and be styled as never before. It was embarrassing for kids to see their mums and dads turning up at the school gates dressed in trendy 'mod' clothing, and it was even worse in the late sixties when flower power and hippy fashions were all the rage. These fashion-conscious mums and dads were probably only in their twenties or thirties, but to their children they were ancient! Shouldn't your mum be snuggled up by the fire in her slippers, knitting a beige chunky cardigan for dad? And shouldn't dad be whittling some wood in the garden shed and smoking a pipe? It's not their job to be trendy, that's what youngsters do. But no. This was 'the sixties', and the sixties generation was unlike any that went before. The old rulebooks were completely discarded; everyone wanted to be part of the sixties' cultural revolution. The barriers between young and old were torn down and oldies sought to reclaim their youth.
Meanwhile, children's lifestyles were changing in other, more fundamental ways, particularly in urban areas. In the early 1960s, as in previous generations, children's main source of enjoyment was playing outside in the local streets and on the greens and wastelands or bomb ruins with their mates. This is what their parents had done before them and they encouraged their children to do the same. It was playing outside in the fresh air that rid them of their excess energy and kept them healthy. That is where they played all the best games and had such great adventures, and importantly, it is where they became streetwise. This was all part of childhood and growing up; taking a few tumbles, getting dirty, grazing knees, having a few bumps and bruises and falling out of trees. You were more afraid to go home with a torn shirt or blouse than you were with a grazed knee or a bloody nose. Cuts and grazes would be disinfected with iodine, and the telltale sign of purple iodine was often to be seen on children's knees and elbows. The sting from the antiseptic as it was applied was often worse than the pain of the accident itself. In later years, TCP antiseptic became more popular, but it really stank. The smell followed you around for hours. There was very little mollycoddling of kids in the 1960s; once a cut or graze was cleaned up and disinfected, the wounded little soldier would be sent back out into the street to fight another battle. But, over the coming years, all of this was to change. In the early 1960s, traffic levels were still fairly low and kids were able to play happily in local streets without the hindrance of parked cars and passing traffic. The main roads only suffered from traffic problems during the morning and evening rush hours and so there was little reason for vehicles to use side streets as 'rat runs'. However, car ownership doubled between 1960 and 1970, and by about 1963 traffic problems had started to spread into the residential side streets. As the years went by and car ownership continued to increase, the streets became busier and far less safe. Those previously traffic-free streets were quickly filled with parked vehicles and it soon became impossible for children to play their chase and ball games in the road, as they had done for generations before. Exhaust fumes from passing traffic now polluted the fresh air that was once peacefully enjoyed by babies in prams on the pavements outside their houses. Very soon, just crossing a small side road became a game of dodgem cars. The quiet local back streets, where the peace had only previously been broken by the sound of excited children playing, were now changing forever. Most of the bomb ruins and derelict war-damaged houses had by now also been demolished, cleared and rebuilt, or at least more securely fenced in. The local streets and ruins that had been handed down to the sixties kids as their main playgrounds and 'home turf' were gradually being lost to them. Now, with the exception of a few games like hopscotch, skipping and two-balls, which could all be played on the pavements, children had to go to a park, playground or swing gardens to play safely in groups. It sounds like a better alternative to playing in the streets, but there were some disadvantages, not least the fact that they now had to share territory with other groups of kids from different neighbourhoods, and territorial fights between neighbourhood gangs became more common. It was also further to run home for treatment when you fell out of a tree.
No matter what decade you were born into, everyone can recall the long hot summer days of his or her childhood, and there were certainly some of these in the sixties. You may have been fortunate in having the open fields of the countryside or the sand dunes at the seaside as your natural playgrounds, but most kids found themselves hemmed in by houses and flats in the back streets of large cities. Wherever you grew up, to you, that was your natural environment, and you thought that yours was a normal childhood. Whatever the setting, you will have played the same games and had the same thrills and spills, whether you played British Bulldog in a rural field or on an inner-city bomb ruin, you had just as much fun and nursed just as many injuries.
By the early sixties, television had overtaken radio as the most popular form of home entertainment and children were spending much more time indoors, particularly in the early evening when most of the children's television programmes were on air. But even with all this extra time spent in front of the television, and in spite of all the new sixties toys and games available to them, their appetite for outdoor adventures had not diminished. Many of the outdoor games had been handed down to them through the generations. Ball games, skipping, run-outs and tag were as popular as ever, as were mischievous games like knock-down-ginger, but when it came to make-believe they now had even more television and cinema heroes to imitate as they played their swashbuckling games.
Excerpted from A 1960s Childhood by Paul Feeney. Copyright © 2010 Paul Feeney. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One A Decade of Change,
Two Home Life,
Three Out on the Streets,
Four Games, Hobbies and Pastimes,
Five Music, Fashion and Cinema,
Eight Schooldays and Holidays,
Ten Memorable 1960s Events,
Eleven Whatever Happened To?,