The strange things we learned about England when we came here in 1958

We arrived in England thirteen years after the end of the war and the whole of Britain was just about recovering from the terrible bombings, the rationing and the many deaths and maimings that had occurred. My memory is of a grey London with lots of grey-clad people and grey cars though of course there must have been colour in the parks and clothes and even some cars.

Probably the first thing we realised was that most homes didn’t have a means of refrigeration. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that at the boarding house we stayed in during our first six weeks in London, our breakfast milk always had little bits of slightly sour cream floating in it. I imagine that English people were just happy to be able to buy however much milk they wanted and they used it up even if it had started to ‘turn’

Another thing was the toilet paper: in America toilet paper was just naturally soft and absorbent, in England the toilet paper was just like tracing paper and totally non-absorbent. (We spent a lot of money buying tissues which were like American tissues but not only for our noses!)

We moved into what was called a ‘luxury flat’ which had a fridge as part of the furnishings, which, as I pointed out above, was unusual. Even more unusual was the fridge was run by gas. It was about big enough to hold a bottle of milk, a half pound of butter and a couple of other things. In those days (1950’s) we did the shopping daily so we didn’t need lots of storage – we lived on a busy city street with butchers, greengrocers, delicatessens, tobacconists and off-licenses and even a coffee house!

We soon learned, though, that it was important to remember to buy anything necessary for a Thursday evening either on the Wednesday before or on that Thursday morning. Even today some small shops have one day a week which close at lunchtime but in the 50’s (and right the way through the 60’s and 70’s), all shops closed for a half day on one day a week. It just happened to be Thursday afternoon around where we lived. Of course, in those days, too, all shops were closed on Sundays but it was the same in America so that wasn’t strange to us. Prices’s Delicatessen in Queensway stayed open on Thursday afternoons but there were rules about what they could and couldn’t sell. You could buy some fresh ham but you couldn’t buy sausages and you could buy tissues but not toilet paper. (I’m not sure of the reasoning behind tissues vs toilet paper but I know that ham is something you can just pop into your mouth whereas sausages have to be cooked.) According to Google, the early-closing law was rescinded in the 90’s.

Just to go back to the gas-run fridge for a moment, the reason we couldn’t have a normal fridge was the electricity in the block of flats was direct current rather than the usual alternating current. I believe the direct current was something to do with the fact that the block was (still is) above an ice-skating rink and they used direct current for the ice. I could be wrong; it might have been for some other equally obscure reason. Not only could we not have a normal fridge but things like radios, televisions, tape recorders and record players all needed alternating current. We had ‘plumbed-in’ radio via a knob on the wall and a speaker in the corner near the ceiling in the living room. There were four set radio stations – BBC Light, BBC Home and BBC Third and, when we were very lucky, late on a Saturday evening, Radio Luxembourg where we would find ‘pop’ songs! It was a matter of luck because Radio Luxembourg was broadcast from abroad and hearing it depended on things like the weather. BBC Light had ‘light’ music, lots of what I believe are called ‘standards’, Home had drama, news and comedy programmes and I think the Third had some classical music and possibly plays and poetry.

We didn’t have a television for the first two years we were in London but, eventually, Patty went to Radio Rentals and rented a tv. In those days there were two channels and all programmes were in black and white. I seem to remember that the programmes started around five o’clock in the afternoon and went on until about ten in the evening. We girls, having had tv that started with cartoons at seven in the morning or even earlier and which went on into the early hours of the next morning with old movies (at least during the summer vacation) and three channels (at least), were disgusted with British ‘telly’! We hadn’t had colour tv in America (though we had seen it at friends’ houses) so we didn’t really miss that bit. 1960 was a far cry from today’s hundreds of channels, HD, surround sound and Netflix.

Other things we found weird: most houses had neither central heating nor a constant source of hot water. We didn’t really appreciate this fact until our eighth year in England. We moved out of the ‘luxury flat’ where the annual rent exceeded Patty’s income but where it was always warm and hot water came out of the hot tap when we turned it on, and into the flat above a shoe shop. I may have mentioned all this before and please forgive me if I’ve already gone over it! The flat, which was a great place on quite a few floors, had neither a method of heating the water nor a method of heating the humans. We solved the water situation by installing an ‘Ascot’, a gas fuelled water heater which was placed above the kitchen sink and which also piped hot water to the bathroom, above. The bathroom was the only room in the house which had a gas fire in the form of a sort of radiator. In order to turn it on one had to turn a key and apply a lit match. The rest of the rooms (kitchen, living room and three bedrooms) had paraffin heaters.

I don’t know if these exist in America so I’ll give brief description. A typical paraffin heater was cylindrical with a round wick which had ‘tails’ going down into a reservoir which holds the paraffin. There was often a hinge so that the bottom part of the cylinder could be exposed. This was where you would find the wick which would need to be lit. Then the top part (which is probably two or three times the height of the lower part) would be replaced. There was a little mica window through which you could see if the heater was alight and make sure that the wick was burning with a blue flame. The worst thing you could do was forget to turn the fire off before it ran out of paraffin! The smell was terrible and seemed to hang around for days. Also, the wicks had to be trimmed often, which was a bind

In order to fill the paraffin heaters it would usually fall to me, as the eldest daughter, to go to the nearest place where paraffin was sold. Luckily ours was an ironmongers about a five minute walk away. I would set out with two light-weight empty two gallon cans which were pink plastic (we used pink paraffin!) and struggle home again with two exceedingly heavy cans. The heaters had to be filled through a hole in the top of the reservoir using a large pink funnel. If a drop was spilled on the hearth, woe betide you! As soon as the match was applied to the wick the fumes of the spilt paraffin would start to stink. All you could do was wash that dribble before you lit the wick and hope you got it all! [I don’t have any photos or paraffin heaters but look for them on Google images]

Not only did most houses not have central heating and constant hot water, many still had no indoor toilet nor even a proper bathroom! I told you about the house Patty bought in West Malling earlier and how the bath was in the kitchen under a worktop lid on hinges and the toilet was across the garden in a sort of shed in an earlier post. Even in the 90’s I knew of a house which had its toilet and bath in an outhouse. By the 90’s this was unusual but in the late 50’s and through the 60’s there were still many houses without indoor ‘facilities’! I suppose it’s because lots of people were living in houses that were built before indoor plumbing was even thought of but also because there were no sewers nearby.

Even today there are lots of houses built before the twentieth century or even later which have either cess pits or septic tanks because, for one reason or another, there are no nearby sewers to carry away the waste. Cess pits have to be emptied from time to time which is a costly and smelly business. When we lived in East Malling our electricity came, not from the national grid but from the local paper mills for some weird reason and the waste from toilet, washing machine, bath, shower and basin all went into the cess pit which was under our driveway. There was a lid, about (and I’m guessing here) 2’6′ x 2’6″ which needed to be lifted off for the cess pit lorry which we would phone when we needed to have the cess pit emptied.

I seem to have come, rather abruptly, to the end of my thoughts on strange things we found in England when we came here. I haven’t included the strange words and accents, nor the fact that people you had never met before, called you ‘love’ or ‘ducks’. These things may still happen today, for all I know, but I’m so used to it I just don’t notice – and, as for accents, my ear has attuned to many of the regional accents but, with old age comes some deafness, so I use subtitles whenever I watch tv – be it a scandi thriller in Danish, a soap in english or an American cop show.

I imagine that this post will be of interest to people in America who are my age but haven’t strayed too far from their home town and, I believe, it will also be of interest to anyone born within the last 40 or so years in the UK – things have changed so much!

About Candy

I am 74, was a teacher, then a dealer in antiques and collectables. When I retired to the seaside I started website selling antique and vintage games and wooden jigsaw puzzles. Now, I'm spending my time blogging, gardening and making oil paintings.
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2 Responses to The strange things we learned about England when we came here in 1958

  1. Omar Sharif says:

    Interesting you remember so much details. Many of the things I remembered as I was reading but had totally forgotten. I must admit I’m pretty surprised to take a time travel to 1950’s London, it was so different. Your clear descriptions draw clear pictures in mind.


    • Candy says:

      Thanks, Omar. My daughter asked me in 2016 to write down some of my memories so that they’ll still be here when I’m not. At first I just wrote a list but last summer I found I had some time on my hands so decided to write it for anyone who wanted to read it. WordPress says you have a blog but I can’t find it! What is is called?😀


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