Life in the 1950’s

It’s a week until my next planned medical encounter so I thought I would turn to some notes I came across the other day. I had written these when I was reading Pam Ayres autobiography ‘The Necessary Aptitude’. Pam had grown up in Oxfordshire at the same time as me so there were a few parallels and (because she was in a small village and I was in the city) quite a few differences. I first heard her reading her poetry when she was on the same bill at the Oxford Playhouse as a guitarist school friend of mine. Some years later she was living a quarter of a mile from our house, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The time we are now talking about is the 1950’s and early 1960’s. We didn’t have a car or television – very few people did. When Princess Margaret got married we were invited to watch it in a neighbour’s house on a small black and white screen –the only person at our end of the road with a television. We relied mainly on public transport although my father had a Cyclemaster (a pushbike with a small engine in the back wheel). At some point my father’s step-father (step-grandfather or grand-step-father?) got a Hillman saloon which we borrowed for holidays. Later my father got his own car (amazingly I can still remember the registration FNX461 and I think it was a Morris 8 or 10. We later had an Austin Somerset, an Austin A40 and a Hillman Minx which I learned to drive in). For many years if you left your car on the road after dark you had to leave the sidelights on, although as an alternative there was a single light with clear plastic at the front and red at the back which clipped on to the driver’s window – this was not such a drain on the battery. For me to get to my primary school was just over a mile so my mother would have walked four miles a day taking me to school and fetching me home.

We lived in a road running between the Banbury and Woodstock Roads in Summertown. It was a tarmacked road covered in granite chippings and with cobbled gutters. There was a gas lamp just outside our house. All the houses had small front gardens often laid to lawn with flower borders round them. There were very few cars around (but by the 1970’s the front garden had been concreted over as a parking space). We were at the end of a terrace so had access to the back garden round the side of the house. In this side passage there was a chute down to the cellar for coal to be delivered. Every autumn the coalman would come and tip twenty sacks of coal down this chute. Throughout the winter there would be regular trips down to the cellar to fill the coalhod for the fires in the living room and dining room. The door to the cellar was kept locked after my grandmother had mistaken it for the door to the passage (which was next to it) and had fallen down the stairs.

About half a mile away there was a recreation ground with a ‘witches hat’ roundabout, a large rocking horse with five or six seats and chains hanging from a pole to swing on. None of these are seen in playgrounds these days. There were a couple of tennis courts next to it along with corrugated iron pens holding a few pigs (I always assumed that these had something to do with food production during and after WW2 – food rationing lasted until 1953). After dad got his car we would drive through London on the way to stay with his cousin in Orpington. I remember there being gaps in the buildings strewn with rubble – bomb sites where rebuilding hadn’t yet taken place. My grandmother had an air raid shelter in her garden – a cool damp place to explore in summer.

Every Saturday a horse and cart would come down our road piled high with vegetables. The horse was called Flower and he was owned by a Mr Simmonds who had a small-holding down Marston Ferry Road where he lived and grew various crops. Marston Ferry Road itself was a cul-de-sac leading to a footpath which led down to the ferry across the Cherwell. There was a cable across the river at about head height and the ferry was a punt attached to the cable. The Victoria Arms pub was on the other side of the river and you could summon the ferry (which was kept on the Victoria Arms side) by pressing a bell and someone would come down from the Victoria Arms and bring the ferry across and take us to the other side. Years later the Marston Ferry link road was built with a bridge over the river and the ferry fell into disrepair.

In the 1960’s I walked across the river here when it was frozen (keeping one hand on the cable). Those were the days when the ice on the inside of my bedroom window made fantastical patterns (and the same would be the case on the inside of the bus windows on the way to school).  Duvets hadn’t made an appearance so my bed would be kept warm by a sheet, one or more blankets and an eiderdown – and coats and anything else that could be found in the middle of winter! Getting dressed was often done before getting out of bed.

Our local shops were on the Banbury Road with three or four on the opposite side of the road at the end of our road. The most notable of these was Linda’s junk shop with furniture and other items piled high on the pavement covered in tarpaulins while it was a rabbit warren inside. I occasionally found an interesting (and old) book in there but most items seemed to stay there for years. The only other ‘commercial’ buildings on that side of the road were the Dewdrop Inn and the North Oxford Garage. The main array of shops was on our side of the road between our road and North Parade – no supermarkets just the usual mix of greengrocers, open fronted fishmongers, butchers, and so on. We knew many of the shopkeepers by name (and vice versa) – Mr Erlund had the hardware shop and post office, and Mr Bond the cycle shop. (These days it is the Indian takeaway and the chemist who great me by name). Up near the recreation ground was Oliver and Gurden’s bakery a large building with a small shop that we occasionally ventured into. Just walking past and smelling the air was a treat.  The Co-op had cables running high above our heads from each counter to the cashiers kiosk and money would whiz to and fro in small canisters. Groceries could be delivered from here by a boy on a bicycle with a large basket at the front.

At the opposite end of our road to Linda’s disorganised pile was the Morris Radiators factory (where Pam Ayres briefly worked at the end of the 1960’s – another tenuous connection). Beyond that was the Oxford Canal and the Oxford to Birmingham railway line. If we could hear the trains it meant it was going to rain (because it was a westerly wind). If we hadn’t had clocks we could have kept some sense of time by the factory hooter announcing the start and end of the day (and start and end of the lunchbreak). So I’ll sound my hooter and be off.


One thought on “Life in the 1950’s

  1. Fascinating reminiscences, reminds me of my childhood in Huntingdon. We used to follow a brook part of the way to school and for a few weeks every year it turned bright green – in fact pea green.. Batchelors had a factory in the town where peas were processed before being tinned and the waste was discharged you-know-where.


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