Sustainable living in 1950’s U.K.

I recently explained to my daughter that sustainability isn’t new …. it was how people lived when I was a kid growing up in the U.K. We never ever used the word ‘sustainable’ it was just what we did to survive and thrive.

I was born in Croydon, just after WWII ended, in a house my parents shared with another family because bombing had caused a shortage of housing. Our families are still friends seventy years later. Certain foods (sugar, meat, cheese, milk, eggs) and clothes were rationed and purchased with coupons and obesity was unknown. Following on from the wartime ‘Victory gardens’ most families grew potatoes and other vegetables – there were few lawns or patios. A couple of my dad’s work mates hunted rabbits and pigeons which they shared so mum could make stews or pies. Food scraps were saved for the neighbours chickens. Newspapers were used to wrap apples for winter storage or light fires or just torn up to join the potato peelings in the bean trench.

Our milkman delivered daily using a horse and cart. The horse was a dapple grey called Dolly and I loved to go out with my mum and stroke her while the milkman ladled out the milk into our jug!  Horses were later replaced by electric powered milk floats and bottles replaced jugs. We rinsed them out daily, put them on our doorstep for collection, and they were reused over and over again.

Horses and carts were also used to deliver vegetables and coal. Kids would follow them along the street collecting horse poop for garden manure. My grandparents had an outside lavatory, a metal tub for a bath, no hot running water, gas lighting, no power points and no refrigerator. There was no central heating so coalmen carried sacks over their shoulders to the coal box by the back door. It was a long time later that we learned how bad coal burning was for the environment.

The rag-and-bone man was a regular sight on the streets with his call of ‘Any old iron’ or ‘Rag’n bone’ collecting anything that could be recycled. Some would push a hand cart, others might have a horse and cart. The rag-and-bone man would take old clothes, pots and pans, shoes and so on, to either sell on or to repair. Any bones collected would be used to make glue and fertilizer. The rags went for paper-making and metal was sold as scrap.

There was zero packaging waste in those days. The butcher delivered meat twice a week selling most animal parts (liver, kidney, hearts) and wrapped everything in paper. A lot of groceries, bought from bulk bins, were ‘scooped’ into paper bags by weight. When mum went shopping she took her trusty wicker basket lined with newspaper to keep it clean. The grocer’s would weigh and tip in potatoes, carrots and cabbage on top – no plastic! She took her handy string shopping bag for seasonal fruit. We rarely ate anything imported from far away countries, except treats at Christmas like tangerines, nuts and dates. Fast food was only fish and chips which came wrapped in recycled newspaper without any styrofoam boxes to litter the roadside.

Kitchens were small and simple but mum regularly baked our cakes and biscuits. I was seven when we got our first fridge, before that butter, cheese, milk and meat was kept in a box on the wall by the backdoor. Other appliances came slowly as the country became more affluent through the 1960’s.

We ate three meals a day with plenty of veggies and no packaged or processed foods. My mum dished up our plates from the stove top and we ate what was served. Second helpings were rare. We ate what mum prepared all together or we went hungry – if there was food on your plate you were grateful. Mum only learned how to cook rice and pasta in the mid 1970’s, prior to that we ate potatoes every day and never complained about the lack of variety. There were no other food choices and no TV dinners! Loose sweets arrived on Saturdays with comics from our grandmother and were shared out between all my siblings. Soda and ice cream were big treats. The Fanta lorry delivered fizzy drinks weekly and collected used bottles while the ice cream van drove by our house in the short summers announcing their arrival with the seductive jingle that kids of that era can never forget.

Most of us wore hand me down clothes from older siblings or cousins and were appreciative, never fussing about fashion. New clothes were very special, bought only at Christmas or birthdays unless they were school or summer holiday outfits. My mum’s first washing machine had a hand wringer. All our laundry was dried on the line outside and at the first sign of rain we all rushed out to bring them inside. Mothers used real cloth nappies washing them daily by hand and saving the land fill from stinky single use diapers.

Toys were treasured and bedrooms never overflowed with plastic throwaways. To earn money for toys and fireworks I went with my siblings and cousin door to door collecting newspapers and sold them to a local family business who gathered lorry loads to deliver to London. We hauled our loads on self built carts constructed from odd bits of wood and recycled pram wheels. Hours were spent building and racing these funky go-carts and since I didn’t get my first bike until I was eleven they satisfied my need for ‘wheels’.

I had few material possessions but still enjoyed a happy childhood. We only had the radio for entertainment before our first TV arrived when I was ten. It only had three black and white channels and during the week programs began at 3pm and ended at 10 pm with a rousing rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’. We were experts at keeping ourselves amused playing cards and board games.

We made our own activities and always had a laugh. We cruised around the fields, went scrumping in the orchards, built camps in the woods, paddled in ponds and walked to school in all weathers. We would play football on the green and in the streets joined by all the neighbourhood kids, sometimes with parents sitting on front door steps watching us. Playgrounds were simply made from old ropes and repurposed tires. It was a healthy and sustainable communal lifestyle.

Transport was basic. Buses were busy and larger towns had trams. People walked to villages and towns on the amazing network of footpaths and bridleways that crisscross the country. Bikes were commonly used, even by policemen. When I started going on foreign camping trips with the Boy Scouts we rode our bikes to Paris. As a teenager I made it to rock festivals by hitchhiking which was safe and socially acceptable.

Everyone got along and helped each other. I never had a key for our house since the doors were never locked. If we went away our neighbours looked out for us. Travel trips were very rare and I treasured our school holidays visiting relatives. We never stayed in hotels or ate in restaurants. We used cars borrowed from friends until I was ten then my dad bought an an old mail van in an auction for £15 and my three siblings and I sat on cushions in the back.  Other excursions close to home were occasional trips to the coast, organised my Sunday school, or to the swimming pool where we’d go on the steam train.

Life was simple and home based. I was fifteen the first time I ate in restaurant and took my first flight when I was eighteen. It was a day trip to France in a single engine plane from a tiny rural airfield. I was the first member of my family to take to the air, charter flights came later, and gave my parents a chance to spread their wings, but none of my grandparents ever flew in a plane. I was nineteen when we finally had a house phone, before that we shared a public phone box up the street with the neighbours.

By the early 1950s, in the U.K., nationalised industries had been created to provide us with free health and social welfare ‘from the cradle to the grave’ . Socialism eliminated exorbitant wealth and high tax rates prevented anyone stretching the income divide. There were only 36 millionaires, down from over a thousand before the second world war. It was a time when support for unions and community development were at their peak. The ‘neuveax rich’ with rock stars like the Beatles and the Stones were taxed at 95% which led to many of them choosing to live abroad. It is only since the 1980s, when taxes were cut and globalisation was embraced, that Britain’s new super-wealthy began to surpass the lifestyles of the very rich of the late 19th century and early 20th century and create the uber rich elite that exists today.

Today, the state of the planet and our environment is at the very top of the political and ethical agenda. We are all need to do our best to try and mitigate the situation by cutting waste wherever possible. The 1950s and 1960s in the U.K. serve as a good example where recycling, reducing, repurposing and repairing was a way of life and where the development of sustainable community was just what people did. We would do well to remember and reflect upon what we are capable of doing to live more in harmony with ourselves and with nature.

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