I was reading a newspaper recently and there was a photo of a woman and two children taken in the 1950s. It was captioned, “Slum living in the fifties and sixties” in Great Britain.
The scene was allegedly in Liverpool, but it inferred that most British streets were like this at that time.
In the photo the alleyway – the backs or back entry as we called it – was strewn with rubbish, the walls were falling down and the gates were hanging off their hinges.
The children were dressed in rags and the woman looked positively slovenly.
In all, the picture and the write up gave the impression that the British way of life back then was just short of tragic.
That’s definitely not the way I remember it. Our back entries were not strewn with rubbish.
I was born at number 5 Queen Street, Goldenhill, in 1946. The street name was changed to Alice Street in the early fifties.
The walls and gates were well looked after and secure to prevent unauthorised access. The children, of whom I was one, we’re relatively well dressed, we had play clothes, school clothes and best clothes, never at any time could we be considered as raggedy. Our mums, although not the best-dressed ladies of Britain, were definitely not slovenly.
I suppose we were classed as poor socially, mainly because we didn’t have any money to spare, but the money that was available was used properly to feed and clothe us.
Our homes were clean and tidy, although not posh. We had furniture to sit on, a table to eat from and a home-made hearth carpet made out of strips of old coat material and a piece of sacking.
We had the sleeves of those old coats stuffed with material and laid across the bottom of the doors to stop the draughts.
We had coal fires and some of us still had gas-lighting – so we were warm and it was possible to read our books after dark with the aid of the gaslight. We even took a candle to bed, having been warned of the consequences of misuse.
The quarry tiled floors were washed with soft soap and rinsed on a regular basis, not by a machine, but by mum on her hands and knees. Sheets of newspaper were laid over the damp areas and woe betide you if you stepped off the paper onto the clean floor.
Our clothes were washed each Monday in the wash house using the boiler, dolly tub, dolly peg and mangle.
The clothes were then hung on the rack to dry in the back kitchen. The room felt damp for a while, but thanks to the coal fire they were usually dry by morning.
The front doorstep was washed and whitened with a special stone and a bucket of hot water and the pavement was swept at least once a week.
At the appointed time each week the tin bath came out of the wash house. It was placed on the hearth in front of the fire and filled with hot water.
We went to bed wearing clean pyjamas and lay between clean sheets with an eiderdown covering us. If it was really cold then I had my dad’s Army overcoat on top of the eiderdown.
Our food was cooked using the oven in the black cast iron range. Eventually, mum had a gas cooker installed around 1951. That made life a lot easier for her.
The house was nicely decorated, dad was a painter and decorator so that was to our benefit.
Anyway, back to the slum element of the story… even though the city council declared that it was embarking on a slum clearance programme, we never considered that we lived in a slum.
Alright, when we moved to a 40-year old council house from our 120-year old terraced house it seemed like total luxury with its inside toilet, bathroom, hot water and electricity.
Our terraced house had been built in the 1840s. At that time there were no toilets included with the houses, they were added on later. There was no mains drainage so the village had a communal cesspit, not something you would want to visit on a weekly basis I think.
No individual wash houses, just a communal one shared between several houses.
No running water and in some cases no gas supply, never mind an electricity supply. Damp running down the walls, glass missing from the windows and children begging in the street.
Now that was slum living, but not our way of living. We had what we had and it could have been worse I suppose. But, they weren’t just houses, they were our homes. They were filled with love, good feeling and encouragement.
So, no matter what the council and the government decreed at the time, or what the history books say now, I certainly don’t consider that I grew up in a slum and it certainly wouldn’t have been a good idea to tell my mum that she was raising her family in a slum either.
The dictionary definition of a slum is: ‘a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district, occupied by very poor people’.
Where we lived wasn’t squalid, it wasn’t overcrowded and we weren’t very poor – we were poor, but not very poor.
Now, hands up those who think they were raised in a slum…
n What are your memories of growing up in the 1950s & 60? Please get in touch with Adam Gratton at The Way We Were, Sentinel House, Bethesda Street, Hanley, ST1 3GN, or email; firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01782 864255.