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Decade to remember

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Join historian Nick Dobson on a trip back to 1950s London at Wanstead Library this month and discover a decade during which wartime austerity gave way to growing optimism

It is tempting to look at the 1950s as the dull decade bracketed by the battlefield of the forties and carnival of the sixties. If the London of the 1960s is in glorious psychedelic colour, then surely the fifties remain in drab black and white? However, the decade which started in austerity ended with Harold Macmillan telling us we had never had it so good! It was a decade of steady progress towards new confidence and prosperity; a march towards modern Britain, seen with greatest clarity in London.

At the start of the fifties, the average weekly wage for a man was £9-5s-11d, but meat cost an average of 2/- per pound, butter 4/- per pound and tea 2/6d a pound. All of these items were still rationed in those days. Food rationing ended in Britain by 4 July 1954. A packet of cigarettes cost 3/6d and around 80% of adults in London were smokers.

There were some landmark events that took place in London in the 1950s. The South Bank Exhibition was the centrepiece of the 1951 Festival of Britain, held to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and shaking off the dust from war-torn London in the process.

Travel back to 1951 and see the South Bank skyline dominated by a cigar-shaped, aluminium-clad steel tower supported by cables, the Skylon, a symbol of the Festival of Britain. The Skylon was demolished in 1952 but other legacies from the Festival endure, such as the Royal Festival Hall. And, of course, had you been in London in the early summer of 1953, you could hardly have failed to be swept up by the wave of public euphoria that greeted the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place at Westminster Abbey on 2 June: a new young monarch and a symbol of hope for a brighter future. The event really kick-started the sales of TVs in Britain – the number of TV licences shot up from 763,000 in 1951 to 3.2 million in 1954.

Not everything was positive. There was the Great Smog of London in December 1952. Air pollutants, mainly from coal fires, caused a smog so thick it brought London traffic to a halt and killed 4,000 Londoners in a week.

However, overall, the fifties in London was not so colourless as they are sometimes remembered. Along with the Queen, other aspects of the decade endure, such as Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, still enjoying its initial run, which started in 1952. The 1950s also saw the foundations laid for a London that burst into bloom and became ‘the scene’ in the following decade.

In many ways, the fifties started London along the path to the modern capital it is today.

Nick’s illustrated talk will take place at Wanstead Library on 26 February from 6.30pm to 7.45pm (free; booking required). Call 020 8708 7400
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