The Post War Years (Life in the early 50s)

By Vivienne Harris

Although things were starting to pick up again, there were still lots of shortages. Coal and meat were rationed; there was not a lot of choice of goods in the shops, low wages that meant you had to budget very carefully. Most working class people were paid weekly, in cash, collecting their pay packet on Fridays and by the following Thursday, often were left with only a few coppers in their purse or pocket. House building was under way but there was not enough to go round, even if you could afford one.

So it was, when I met Jack and fell in love, it was a case of putting away a few shillings a week, collecting for your “bottom drawer”. Small items like towels, a set of Pyrex casserole dishes, pillowcases, the odd saucepan and collecting items of crockery one at a time till you had built up a collection. We were both working; my husband to be was a blacksmith in his family business, a small ancient forge situated on Rowley hill. He had completed his National Service and decided not to go back to his previous work as a laboratory technician at Coombs Wood, but helped his father in the forge. I was working as a records clerk in the warehouse of an engineering firm in Granville Street, Birmingham. Previously I had been in insurance, but found the work at the engineering factory more interesting. Seeing the raw materials come in, the men working at large machines and then seeing the finished product arrive in the warehouse ready to be matched to the orders and despatched around the country. So, in a way we were compatible, me seeing the bigger picture, and he hand forging on a small scale, specialist items of ironwork that could not be done on big machines.

When we decided to think of getting married, the big issue was where to live. Most young couples had to look at renting a room or two in someone else’s house to begin with. It was often the case that some families had lost their men folk in the war and were finding it difficult to make ends meet, so were glad of a bit of extra income to pay the bills. We looked at a few, but in the end we opted to stay with parents, at a peppercorn rent, so that we could carry on saving towards a home of our own. We got married at College Road Methodist church in January 1954 on a bright, cold frosty morning with just a sprinkling of snow on the ground. We couldn’t wait to get away, so shortly after a small reception with family and friends, we were driven by our dancing teacher (who was lucky enough to own a car) to New Street Station where we boarded a train to Stratford-on-Avon to stay at the Shakespeare Hotel for one night only. We had to be back in work on the Monday!

We were living with my husband’s parents and brother in Blackheath. We had the front “parlour” and a bedroom. It was a bit of a shock for me, as I was used to living in a “modern” semi with a bathroom, and now had to adjust to a terraced house with just a cold water tap in the brewhouse across the yard and the lavatory further still up the yard with a latch door and a gap at the top and bottom and a hurricane lamp burning to stop the water freezing!

Sooner than expected, I discovered I was pregnant, being rather naďve in those days and no such thing as the “Pill”. This led to mixed feelings firstly, happiness and fulfilment, but it also giving up my job as employers expected you to leave and stay at home to prepare for “the event”. Consequently, our income was much reduced and the prospect of having our own home was pushed further away. We tried to economise and while I sat knitting, Jack was gardening, growing vegetables and chrysanthemums, which we later sold. His best prize blooms to friends and neighbours for half a crown a bunch, and put the money in our piggy bank or paid a little each week on a club card at a local shop towards a pram and a cot. New clothes were impossibility and we survived on “hand me downs” or made our own from remnants of material. I remember my mother had a contact with a lady we called “the old clothes lady”. I don’t even know if we knew her proper name! She used to visit the more affluent folk in Edgbaston area who were able to change their wardrobe every season. Then she would bring the clothes for us to see and if they were the right sizes we had the chance to buy them from her at a very reasonable cost. She seemed to make a good living out of her dealings as she had a car! Not only did she have clothes but also small items of furniture and household goods, usually of very high quality.

When the baby arrived, life got even tougher. There were no washing machines, vacuum cleaners or fridges for us. Instead a fire had to be lit under the copper in the brewhouse and clothes “poshed” in a tub before going through the rinsing, in cold water, and then the big wooden wringer, which certainly exercised your muscles.

Nappies were soaked in a pail of water and hand washed every day. During the winter months when you couldn’t dry outdoors, they were draped on a clothes horse by the fire.

Brewhouse
Old ringer in Brewhouse
Washday Items
Dolly Maid, Posher etc

The coal ration was delivered once a month and literally dumped outside the house, so we had to collect it in a barrow and wheel it up the entry. It didn’t last long so we needed to supplement it with whatever we could find so that we could keep the fire going. As I went shopping, pushing the pram, if I came across a few stray bits of coal left from a delivery, I would pick them up and put them in my basket underneath the pram! In spite of these hardships, we were happy, spending our evenings listening to the radio (no TV then) and reading. During the summer months we would go for walks and when my father changed his motor bike and side car for a small A30 car, we were able to get out further into the countryside to places like Arley and Kinver where we could enjoy the fresh air and take a picnic, boiling a kettle on a little primus stove (which I still have!).

For me, apart from household chores, my weekly routine always meant a visit to the “Welfare” clinic where the babies were weighed and advice given, also a chance to chat and exchange news with the other mums. Another day I pushed the pram up to Quinton to see my mother and while she looked after the baby, I relaxed in a nice hot bath and then enjoyed a meal put in front of me. What a treat!

Eventually, we counted up our savings and decided to look around for a place of our own. I very much wanted to find a house in Quinton again and as luck would have it, a friend of my mother’s told us about this family who were emigrating to Australia and wanted a quick sale. So, on a foggy November day, we knocked on the door and had a look around. It seemed very large to us, but we negotiated a price and set the wheels in motion. The owners wanted to leave some of the furniture, etc. as they could not transport it to Australia. We hadn’t any of our own it suited our purpose. So in January 1956, just two years after our wedding, we moved into Bissell Street, shut the door, hugged each other and began the rest of our lives.

Ed’s comment- Thanks Vivienne for that lovely story, which I am sure will evoke memories for our other members.

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