Facts about the 1950s - UK

Population

According to the 1951 Census, the population of England and Wales was forty-four million, that of Scotland was five million and Northern Ireland one million, making a total of fifty million for the UK.

In the Census of 1961 the population of England and Wales was forty-six million and Scotland was still five million.

The UK population was stable in the 1950s, rising only slightly.

Today the UK population is sixty-seven million.

UK Prime ministers

Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee was Britain's Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951 Image by Winterbergen, licensed under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Money

Britain still used the pounds, shillings and pence (sterling) system of currency.

Prices and inflation

£1 in 1950 would be worth £25 today. Or to put it another way, a Boy Scout doing 'Bob a Job' would have netted £1.25. At the end of the 1950s £1 was worth £16.

Earnings

Prices were cheaper, but people earned less. The average wage in 1950 was just over £5, but by the end of the decade it was £9. Prices were going up, but wages were going up more quickly. People were better off by the end of the 1950s than at the start of the decade.

See How much did things cost in the 50s? for more about prices and inflation in the 1950s.

Rationing

At the beginning of 1950s' Britain, petrol, meat, sweets and sugar were still rationed. Petrol rationing ended in 1950. By 1954 all rationing had ended.

Consumer goods

In the 1950s British consumers had 'Never had it so good' according to our Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan in 1957. But what things did people have in the 1950s?

An old lady with a televison, 1951
An old lady with a televison, 1951

Television

Television was the product everyone wanted. In 1950 only 2% of households had one. By 1959, 57% of the population had access to a TV set.

Television prizes

The highest prize on a UK game show in the 1950s went to Bernard Davis, aged 33. On 24 September 1958 he won £5,580 on Granada TV's 'Twenty-One'. In today's money it would have been over £90,000.

White goods

Homes became better equipped in the 1950s, but many people still lacked what today we would think of as basic esentials.

In 1955:

Rising incomes helped more people to afford these basics by the end of the 1950s. Next to televisions, fridges and washing machines were the products people most wanted. By 1960:

Cars

In 1955 only 20% of UK households had a car.

Entertainment

Cinema

As more people bought or rented televisions, cinema attendances dropped. However, that did not stop Hollywood from turning out some epic movies. The most expensive film to date in the 1950s was Ben Hur which cost $15 million to make. The most successful film of the 1950s was 'The Ten Commandments' which grossed $49 million up to May 1959. It outstripped the previous record set by the 1939 movie 'Gone With the Wind'.

Music

The biggest selling gramophone record of all time in the 1950s was Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas', which sold twenty million copies. Bing Crosby's version is included in this total. His version of the song sold ten million copies.

Rock and pop

The Rock'n'Roll era begain in 1955 with Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock'. The best-selling pop records from each year of the 1950s in the UK were:

Source: 'Top 1000 UK singles' by Paul Gambaccini, Tim Rice and Jonathan Rice, published by Guinness 1993

Food & drink

Eating out

The largest restaurant chain in the UK was J Lyons. In 1958 Lyons had a chain of two hundred and fifty teashops.

Beer

Britains' favourite pint was mild in the 1950s. Keg bitter had started to be available in some pubs, but mild was still the nation's favourite.

The strongest beer brewed in the UK in the 1950s was Mitchell and Butler's (M & B) Strong Ale which was 11% by volume.[2]

Holidays

In the 1950s just over half of the UK population took a holiday away from home in any one year. Most of them went on holiday in the UK. Only 7% took a holiday abroad in the 1950s.

The South West of England was the most popular tourist destination.

Most people stayed in a hotel or guesthouse. An alternative was to stay with friends or relatives. The 1950s is described as the age of the holiday camp. But only 3-4% of people chose to stay in one.

Air travel

Air travel was for the few in the 1950s. Airlines were trying to open up the skies for more people. Tourist class travel begain in 1952 and economy class in 1957. Read more: Air travel in the 1950s.

The world's first jet airline was the de Haviland Comet, which first flew in 1949.

Largest airliner

The world's largest airliner was the Russian turboprop Tapolev Tu 114. It had capacity for two hundred and twenty passengers.[3]

Today the world's largest airliner is the Airbus A380. It can carry up to eight hundred and fifty-three passengers.

Fastest airliner

The world's fastest airliner was the Boeing 707 with a top speed of 606mph or Mach 0.88 [4]. It could carry up to one hundred and eighty-nine passengers.

The era of supersonic flight has ended. Modern jet airliners are not much faster than their 1950s' equivalent. As a comparison, the Airbus A380 can fly at 675mph, but can carry more than four times as many people.

Jobs

Office work, 1950s
Apart from domestic service, clerical work was the most common occupation for women in the 1950s

There were far more working men than women in the 1950s. It was still common practice for married women not to work. In 1951 there were fourteen million working men according to the England and Wales Census, but only six million working women. This pattern changed slightly over the course of the 1950s. In the 1961 census the numbers were fifteen million working men and seven million working women.

Men in the UK in the 1950s were most likely to be working in the following sectors:

Source: Details from the 1951 Census in "The changing social structure of England and Wales" by David C Marsh, published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965, pages 135-6

Women were employed in the following occupations:

Source: Details from the 1951 Census in "The changing social structure of England and Wales" by David C Marsh, published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965, pages 135-6

National Service

Men aged between seventeen and twenty-one were expected to serve in the military for a period of eighteen months to two years. The system was phased out after 1957 and the last recruits were called up in 1960.

Education

In 1947 the school leaving aged increased from fourteen to fifteen. All children in the UK were entitled to free secondary education under the 1944 Education Act.

In spite of this, very few children went on to university education in the 1950s. The figure for the decade as whole was less than 4%. Today it is more than 25%.

Birds and animals

Most popular breed of dog

The most popular breed of dog in the 1950s was the minature poodle in the UK. Welsh corgis came second. In the 1930s and 1940s the cocker spaniel was the most popular dog breed.

Wild birds

The most common UK birds in the 1950s were the chaffinch and the blackbird. Londoners may have thought that sparrows were the most common birds. The population in London was estimated at 300,000 in 1959. [1]

The record for the earliest cuckoo was on 26 February 1952, when a cuckoo was heard on the Hamworthy Marshes at Poole, Dorest.

The space race

The first artificial satellite was the USSR's Sputnik 1, launched on 4 October 1957. It was officially called 'Satellite 1957 Alpha 2'.

Computers

The world's most powerful computer was the IBM 7090 used in the USA for missile and space research. It used magnetic tape. [5]

Crime

Murder

The most notorious case in the UK in the 1950s was that of John Reginald Halliday Chistie. He was hanged on 15 July 1953 aged 54. Christie killed at least six women, including his own wife, Ethel. The case was controversial because an innocent man, Timothy Evans, hung in 1950 for two of Christie's murders (Evans' wife, Beryl and their daughter, Geraldine).

World records

The world land speed record did not change in the 1950s. 400mph seemed to be the absolute limit for a conventionally powered car. The following decade saw jet and rocket powered cars take the record to over 600mph.

By contrast the air speed record changed thirteen times between 1950 and the and of 1959. The speed record more then doubled from 671mph set in 1948 to 1526mph in 1959. The Cold War was a spur to continued development of military aircraft.

In the 1950s the world was living under the shadow of the bomb. On 1 March 1954 the US tested a nuclear device of fifteen megatons at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

References

[1] The Guinness Book of Records, Guinness Superlatives Ltd 1960, page 24

[2] The Guinness Book of Records, Guinness Superlatives Ltd 1960, page 62

[3] The Guinness Book of Records, Guinness Superlatives Ltd 1958, page 187

[4] The Guinness Book of Records, Guinness Superlatives Ltd 1958, page 188

[5] The Guinness Book of Records, Guinness Superlatives Ltd 1960, page 71

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history