How much did things cost in the 1970s?

The 1970s was the decade of high inflation in the UK.

In the first year of the 1970s we still had pounds, shillings and pence. Decimalisation came in 1971 and many blamed it for rising prices, but inflation was endemic by then.

How did prices compare with earnings? The average weekly pay packet in 1975 was less than £40. Allowing for inflation, that is £230 in today's money. Today average weekly earnings are more than £500.

In the 1960s the average weekly wage was just £150 in today's money. So, in spite of the rising prices, people were better off in the 1970s than in the 1960s.

Motoring

Austin Allegro, 1975
The cost of petrol was on the increase in the 1970s, but it was still much cheaper than today

People talked endlessly about the rising cost of petrol in the 1970s. The 1973 oil crisis was responsible for some of the increase, but in real terms the cost of fuel remained remarkably static.

In 1970s a gallon of petrol cost 6s 8d (33p), at the end of the decade it was just short of the pyschological £1 per gallon.

Source: Petrol prices 1896 to present, published by the AA Motoring Trust.

Today we pay for fuel in litres. Comparisons:

Year Price per litre Cost in today's money
1970 1s 6d 83p
1979 22p 84p

Verdict: Petrol was cheaper in the 1970s.

746 Telephone
The 746 was the telephone most people had in the 1970s.

Telephone calls

In 1976 it was one hundred years after the invention of the telephone, but only half of UK households had one.

In 1976 you paid a quarterly rental of £8.91 and you paid for each call you made. That was for a basic dial telephone. If you wanted a Trimphone you paid an extra 75½p per quarter (remember the decimal half penny?). There were also push button phones, but these cost an extra £4.32 per quarter (£23 in today's money).

Cost In today's money
Quarterly rental £8.91 £47.00
6 minute local call at peak time 9.72p (including 8% VAT) 51p
Typical annual rental + 600 local calls £55.00 £288.00

Source: Which? February 1976, pages 39-41, published by the Consumers' Association

Today most people combine telephone with broadband and other services. Telephone-only packages are still available though. The cheapest I could find was with the Post Office. Line rental is £39 per quarter and all calls are 15p per minute (as of March 2019).

Telephone charges had gone up since the 1960s. This was because the Post Office, which ran the services, was making a loss in the 1970s and put up charges substantially.

Verdict: Phone deals are better today than in the 1970s.

Newspapers

The Daily Mirror was Britain's most popular paper in the 1970s, just edging out The Sun. The Daily Express was the most popular mid-range paper and the Daily Telegraph the most popular 'quality'.

Newspaper prices rose signifcantly over the decade. Note the 1970 price is in pre decimal currency.

  • Daily Mirror - 1970 (5d); 1979 (9p)
  • Daily Express - 1970 (5d); 1979 (10p)
  • Daily Telegraph - 1970 (5d); 1979 (10p)

In today's money newspapers prices increased from 23p in 1970 to 38p in 1979.

Today newspapers are much more expensive:

  • Daily Mirror - 75p
  • Daily Express - 90p
  • Daily Telegraph - £2

Source: Tesco, prices as of March 2019

Newspaper circulation has halved since the 1970s. Newspapers have to compete with online sources of news.

Verdict: Newspapers were much cheaper in the 1970s than today.

3p stamp 1972 and 10p stamp 1979
The cost of first class post rose from 3p in 1972 to 10p in 1979. It was still cheaper in real terms than today.

Posting letters

In 1968 the GPO started a new two-tier system. Before then all letters cost 4d to post. After 1968 there was a 4d and a 5d post. By the 1970s the terms first and second class post were in common use.

Service 1972 1974 1975
(from March)
1975
(from September)
1977 1979 Today
Second class 2½p 3½p 5½p 6½p 7p 8p 58p
First class 3p 4½p 7p 8½p 9p 10p 67p

The 1972 cost of posting a first class letter was 24p in today's money. The 10p charge in 1979 is 38p today. People were shocked at the huge increase in the cost of postage. It went up by a factor of 4 in seven years, but it was still better value than today.

Verdict: Posting a letter was much cheaper in the 1970s than today.

Television

Colour television sets were expensive at the beginning of the 1970s. But improvements in technology and competition from Japan brought prices down.

Cost Cost in today's money
1970 Bush CTV184S 22" screen £289 19s £3300
1979 Bush BC6630 £260 £990

Today a 22 inch screen television can easily be found for around £100. So we are much better off today than in the 1970s.

Many people still chose black and white TVs at the beginning of the 1970s. In 1970 a black and white television cost around £70 (or around £800 in today's money).

Verdict: Television, especially colour TV, was much dearer in the 1970s than today, but prices were coming down.

Groceries

Inflation was a big concern for people in the 1970s. Which? magazine did a survey of grocery prices. They chose what was a typical shopping basket and tracked price rises across the decade. This is the basket for 1973.

Item Cost 1973 Allowing for inflation Typical price today
White sliced loaf 28oz 10p 86p £1.00 (800g)
Wall's back bacon 7½oz 34p £2.92 £2.00 (200g)
John West red salmon 7½oz 37½p £3.22 £3.50 (213g)
Fairy Liquid 14½ fl oz 15p £1.29 £1.50 (500ml) (an equivalent size would be £1.22)
McDougalls self-raising flour 3lb 15p £1.29 £1.00 (1.5kg)
Maxwell House coffee 4oz 32½p £2.80 £1.00 (95g)
Wall's pork sausages ½lb 14p £1.20 £1.00
Ariel (washing powder) 18oz 17p £1.46 £7.00 for 2.6kg (equivalent quantity - £1.35)
Del Monte tinned peaches 15½oz 12½p £1.08 £1.10
Tate & Lyle sugar 2lb 10p 86p 69p for 1 kg
Birds Eye peas 10oz 10½p 90p £1.30 for 375g (equivalent quantity 97p)
Stork margarine ½lb 6½p 56p £1.20
Heinz tomato soup 15¼oz 8p 69p 95p for 400g
Ty-Phoo tea (loose) ¼lb 8p 69p £2.29 for 250g (equivalent quantity £1.03)
Kellogg's cornflakes 12oz 11p 95p £2.00 for 720g (equivalent quantity 95p)
Heinz baked beans 15¾oz 7½p 65p 75p for 415g
McVitie's milk chocolate home wheat biscuits 8oz 11p 95p £1.60 for 266g
Anchor butter ½lb 10½p 90p £1.65 for 250g
A dozen standard white eggs 14p £1.20 £1.69 (medium free range, Tesco)
New Zealand frozen lamb 4lb £1.93 £16.60 £13.50 Sainsbury's New Zealand Whole Leg of Lamb 1.8kg

Most of these products are similar prices in real terms today. There are few exceptions that reflect changing tastes. Coffee is cheaper and is bought in larger quanities today. Butter and margarine are dearer. Stork, which is mainly used in baking, is significantly dearer. Perhaps fewer people bake their own cakes than in the 1970s. Loose leaf tea is a minority product today.

Verdict: There has been little real terms change in the cost of groceries.

A pint of beer

Courage Tavern, keg bitter dominated British drinking in the 70s
A pint of beer was much cheaper in the 1970s.

The 1970s was the age of keg bitter. The price of a few popular drinks in 1972 is as follows:

Brand Cost (1972) Cost in today's money
Draught Double Diamond 15-18p £1.41 to £1.70
Worthington 'E' 14-18p £1.32 to £1.70
Courage Tavern 14-18p £1.32 to £1.70
Younger's Tartan 13-17p £1.22 to £1.60
Watneys Red 14-18p £1.32 to £1.70
Whitbread Tankard 14-18p £1.32 to £1.70
Guiness 16-20p £1.51 to £1.88
Harp Lager 17-19p £1.60 to £1.79

Source: 'Keg beer' published by the Consumers' Assocation in Which? April 1972

The price ranges cover the difference between saloon and public bars and regional variations. Londoners generally paid more for a pint in the 1970s.

Today the price of a pint can vary from £2 to £5. Most people will pay £3 to £4. Making a pint in the 1970s much cheaper.

Verdict: Beer was cheaper in the 1970s.

Writing a cheque

In the 1970s banks charged for each debit entry, not each cheque.

There was a 2d stamp duty payable on every cheque up to 1971. The Treasury dropped this tax when Britain switched to decimal currency.

The big four big banks in the 1970s were Barclays, Lloyds, Midland (HSBC today) and National Westminster. In 1970 Westminster and National Provincial Banks merged to form the National Westminster (NatWest) Bank.

If you kept at least £100 in your current account you avoided charges (£50 at NatWest and Midland). Otherwise you paid between 12½p and 15p for each debit transaction.

Source: 'Which bank?' in Which?, published by the Consumers' Assocation June 1979, pages 354-355

Verdict: Banking is much cheaper today than it was in the 1970s.

By Steven Braggs, May 2019

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