Chapter 18 (1945-1946)

War is Over!

With what joy and expectations did the British people greet the end of the war? Joy, that the fear and the killing were over and that we had surprisingly emerged on the victorious side - in spite of our wilful unpreparedness - with the fortuitous assistance of the USA and Russia; and that our casualties at around 500,000 military and civilian were remarkably small against the millions of Germans and Russians who perished.

And expectations that were at once simple yet ambitious. Simple in that we wanted to get back to an orderly, secure family life with enough to eat; and to be able to choose our lives as individuals, instead of being pushed around by a vast and insensitive war machine. Ambitious, in that the majority of people wanted to return to something more than the peaceful, romantic but hierarchical pre-war Britain which we had so often told ourselves we were fighting for.

The First World War saw a considerable levelling of the social classes in Britain, particularly in the emancipation of women, but nothing to compare with the Second World War. The Government had early recognised that this had to be a War of the People, and whether in the Armed Forces or in factories and offices, a huge unifying ethos of “One Nation” was created. There were still officers and bosses, but the lowest soldier or operator came to be regarded as having a contribution to make which at times might match that of the highest. Unlike the First World War, when the “over the top  mentality treated men, like ammunition, as a disposable commodity, those in the British Services now generally felt that their lives were valued and would not be sacrificed needlessly. And in the provision of adequate food and medical care all ranks were treated equally.

On the civilian front, food, clothing and the necessities of life were standardised by a most efficient rationing system which was universally accepted as fair. For the first time, the poor fed as well as their betters, while social services were developed for the benefit of working-class mothers and children. In fact, infant welfare improved more in the six years of war than in the preceding ten years of peace, so that by 1945, five-year-old boys in Glasgow were on average 1kg heavier and 2.8cm taller than those of 1930. On top of this, particularly in the larger towns, the discomforts of the blackout and shortages of fuel, not to say death or injury by enemy action, fell upon all ages and classes equally.

Above all, everyone had work; not always what they wanted to do and rarely in the place they wanted to be, since civilians of both sexes, no less than the Armed Forces, were compelled to register and were often directed to factories or other work of national importance anywhere in the country. But it was regular and gainful work, and for the two million or so who had been unemployed in 1939 it was infinitely better than the dole queue.

Political Change
The British people had no intention of giving up this new confident equality and reverting to the class-bound society of “haves” and “have-nots” of 1939. And to be fair, the erstwhile ruling classes generally acknowledged and indeed supported the wider aspirations of ordinary people. It says something for our national character that even in the darkest and seemingly hopeless days of the war the Government was giving thought to the needs of society after it had ended. As an example, the Beveridge Report outlining a structure for Social Insurance, a National Health Service, Family Allowances and a Full Employment Policy, was produced in 1942. A “Green Book” on Education was published in 1941, which led to the 1944 Education Act. And “A Plan for Greater London”, containing the famous Green Belt concept of open spaces within and around the capital, appeared in 1943. All these when it was by no means certain that we would emerge as a free nation, let alone as victors. Sadly, the one policy lacking was on housing.

When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he had invited leading members of the Labour and Liberal Parties and prominent industrialists to join in forming a coalition Government. They included Clement Attlee as Deputy Prime Minister, Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, who became a remarkably able Minister of Labour, and the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Express newspaper group, whose dynamic energy poured into Aircraft Production. But with the decision to hold a General Election without waiting for the defeat of Japan, which then still seemed far away, the country moved back to normal Party political government. Ballot boxes were sealed for three weeks while votes from Servicemen all over the world were collected, and on 25th July 1945 it was announced that the Labour Party had won with the over whelming majority of 183 seats. Churchill, in spite of his war leadership, was identified with the Conservative Party and its pre war policies of stringency and stagnation, and thus gave way to Attlee as Prime Minister.

Thousands of young people who were under 21 (the voting age in 1945) when the war began were voting for the first time and they voted Labour, including Freda and myself. It seemed to be the natural Party to create the Welfare State which would usher in the new egalitarian Britain which we longed for and which we had discussed endlessly through the long, dark wartime days. Their programme also included taking out of private hands a range of essential services such as railways, coal mines, transport, electricity, gas and water - measures which were to us natural and necessary features of a country whose resources would be utilised for the benefit of all its people. In fact, our idealistic world seemed happily to combine the principles of both Marxism, as then understood and wrongly perceived, and Christianity. But British Communists were still deeply distrusted because of their slavish loyalty to Stalin and fierce obstruction of our war effort when he concluded a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1940. While events, and propaganda, later converted the Russians into our gallant allies, British Communists were regarded as a secretive, power seeking and above all untrustworthy clique; they never gained more than one or two seats in Parliament and were banned by its written constitution from membership of the Labour Party. But it was a different story in the trade unions and education, where lack of democratic opposition enabled them to make deep and damaging inroads after the war.

Welfare State
The new Labour Government set to with great gusto transforming the face of Britain. They were in the main intelligent and deeply motivated people with clear ideas of what they wanted to do and a deep sense of the ordinary man's long struggle for a democratic voice in Britain. The results were far-reaching but were gained without the anguish and turmoil which usually follows revolutionary change. In spite of their overwhelming majority, they acted with commendable responsibility, carefully protecting and strengthening the bulwarks of our Parliamentary democracy and judicial system. Some things did not work too well, of course; some ideas were so confused by years of dogmatic theorising that they never could work. But for the most part, the British people understood what the aim was, were determined to make it succeed, and did make it succeed. It is often assumed that the burning desire of the Germans, French or Japanese to rebuild their lands and cultures was lacking in Britain; but this was not so. Our failure was in concentrating on social changes without accepting the hard work, sacrifice and industrial muscle needed to create the resources to support them. We thought we had done enough and that the world owed us a living. Not only the politicians but, more importantly, our industrialists and trade unions allowed markets to wither away, skills to degenerate and quality to be neglected. It was to take us forty years and a desperate recession to begin to reverse this process.

The greatest problem facing many people in 1945 was housing, particularly by those who had married during the war. A huge number of houses had been destroyed or damaged and a massive programme of repair was started. There were shortages of materials, which were available only on licence, but as there was also a dearth of skilled workmen anyone could set up as a builder and apply for a licence, obtaining Government payment for work which was often pretty shoddy. Some of today’s large companies started life as small-time builders or dealing in war-surplus material, of which there was a colossal amount. But the prime need was for new houses and flats, which presented a much more difficult problem than the repair of existing buildings. To meet the demand, an attractive new type of pre-fabricated single storey dwelling was designed, called the Portal but universally known as the Prefab. These, however, never appeared in sufficient quantities to meet the demand, and for most returning Servicemen it was a case of living with relations or scratching around for rooms somewhere.

(photo of prefab)

In October we gave up our furnished room, over the garage in Namton Close, and Freda went back to her mother’s house in preparation for the baby’s arrival. On 8th November 1945 I received a summons to repair at once to Cardiff and, hastening to Paddington Station, arrived in time to see the Cardiff train pulling out. It was four hours till the next one so I went to a cinema, though what I saw I haven't the faintest idea. Our son, Brian Anthony, was born that day in a Salvation Army hostel for “fallen” women which I hasten to add was supported by fee-paying patients, of whom Freda was one. They looked after her extremely well and the lusty youngster was soon brought home to Freda's mother's house.

An Upstairs Flat
However, my job was in London and they would have to come back there. There was no question of moving into my mother's two-room flat, but by great good fortune my mother happened to know an old lady, one Mrs Andrews, who had been a children's Nanny for many years and was now virtually confined to the ground floor of her house since she was too stricken with arthritis to get upstairs. Mrs Andrews had been a widow since about 1924 and although now some 80 years old she was much taken with the idea of having a baby in the house, so she offered to rent us the upstairs part of her home. We were delighted and grateful, because few people then or now would accept a young couple with children as tenants in their own house, and we were in no position to contemplate buying property; in fact, we owed her much more than in our youthful carelessness we realised at the time. Thus we set up home as a family at 87, Headcorn Road, Thornton Heath, in November 1945, just one street away from my mother's house in Leander Road.

The house was a typical 1930s small terrace dwelling, the upper floor consisting of two bedrooms and one “box” room, a bathroom and a separate toilet. I set about redecorating the two larger rooms in such complete ignorance of first principles that I spent some days removing dry wallpaper before learning that when wetted it scraped off quite easily. I then coloured the walls with a thick liquid called distemper, the customary alternative to wallpaper for the avant-garde and the hard-up, I being in the latter class. Emulsion paint was still some years away. The prime need was to furnish the place, since the single room over a garage which we had occupied before Brian was born was let ready-furnished. We applied for our ration of “points” and acquired a bed, wardrobe, chest of drawers, dining room table, chairs and sideboard of the universal “utility” design. We also spent much-needed money on two off-ration easy chairs made legally but dubiously from unlicensed wood, usually old packing cases. They were very expensive and very shoddy, and the leg of one came off soon after purchase. Until I could repair it, the missing leg was replaced by a jam-jar which did good service for many months and provided much laughter when unsuspecting visitors shifted their position and it collapsed.

Compared to the vast array of gadgets and comforts with which people surround themselves today, our possessions were modest, not to say primitive. In these days of Hypermarkets it is hard even for those of us who lived through that time to recall the rows of bare shelves and utter lack of the most ordinary civilised artefacts in the shops, except what the Government chose to treat as necessities on points or coupons. Almost the entire industrial life of the nation had for six years been devoted to making weapons of war. I happened to see an advertisement by someone living just down the road who was selling his belongings and emigrating to Australia, and from him bought the best part of a dinner service, a large but old and extremely threadbare carpet, and sundry minor items.

Water (cold only, since the old lady did not light a fire with which to heat it) was obtained from the bathroom, and for cooking we had one single gas ring which I connected to a gas point conveniently provided in upstairs rooms of most pre-war houses. Rudimentary roasting or baking was possible using a curious small tin oven balanced precariously on the gas ring, but we rarely seemed to have sufficient quantities of food to justify this perilous undertaking. Some time later I acquired for two pounds a truly revolting mini gas cooker which had a tiny oven and two burners and which I scraped clean with much difficulty. Baths had to be taken at my mother's house where an aged and possibly lethal gas geyser supplied copious hot water to the accompaniment of strange gurgles.

In these stark conditions Freda kept Brian cared for and the three of us fed on the meagre rations of the day, though I shall never know how she did it.

American Aid
Meagre the rations were indeed, and remained so for several years. America perceived that her interests lay in restoring the world to health as quickly as possible and introduced the Marshall Aid Plan to pump billions of dollars and material aid into Europe. This magnanimous and far sighted measure, unique in the world's history, made the prosperous Europe of today possible. Britain received a good share of this money but much of it went back to the USA because the food and materials which had been so generously supplied by America under wartime Lease-Lend arrangements ceased abruptly the moment the war ended. Now, food from the USA had to be purchased at market prices and there was competition from the shattered and starving nations of Europe, not to mention India and the Far East where famine also spread. The traditional sources of cheap food in the British Empire and South America, to which we had become so accustomed, were themselves much reduced by the demands of war, increased cost or by national uprisings. In July 1946 bread was rationed even though it had been unrationed throughout the war, and its extraction rate increased so that it became even browner and rougher.

The price of total war for Britain was a massive deficit in the balance of trade. Suddenly, exports became all-important, at the expense of home consumption and to the bitter disappointment of people who had endured so much already. With much misgiving the Government devalued the Pound and accepted a large loan from America to try to tide us over. Even so, there was a financial crisis in August 1947 and to save imports the food ration was actually reduced to below wartime levels - meat from *2/9 down to 2/- per week (14p down to 10p) and tea from **2½ oz down to 2 oz per week (125gm down to 100gm). However, sugar came largely from the sterling area and was increased while jam and sweets actually came off ration. The small wartime petrol ration was stopped completely to save dollars but restored in 1948 with a limit of 90 miles per month.
     *two shillings and ninepence down to two shillings
     **two-and-a-half ounces down to two ounces

Whalemeat and Horsemeat
We were intrigued to discover that the meat ration would be supplemented by whalemeat, which was however only occasionally found in the shops and of course had to be queued for. It looked deliciously like steak but was tough and stringy and tasted of fish. Ordinary fish became very scarce but an ocean denizen called “snoek” (pronounced “snook”) from South Africa appeared for a short time before disappearing for ever. People ate it but I never met anyone who liked it. The Ministry of Food published a recipe for “Snoek Piquante”, which was certainly a contradiction in terms. About two million people ate horsemeat of whom only fifty per cent realised it. I tried it consciously once but found it sweet and tough.

Clothing, too, was rationed, which affected women much more than men. Nylon stockings were unknown then; there was only rayon or lisle - or silk, if one happened to have an American boy-friend. The agony of donning a new pair and finding them instantly laddered was sad to behold but was lost on most young men of the day. Liquid make-up appeared for the legs, on the back of which it was necessary to draw a straight line from top to bottom since fashion decreed that stockings must have a seam which must be visible and straight. I believe people even used wet sand to colour their legs. (Tights, of course, did not appear until the 1960s). Skirts were an inch or two below the knee to save cloth - considered to be daringly short then - but in 1947 the female world was shattered by the appearance of a “new look” skirt by Christian Dior, running down to the ankle and pleated at the waist. How or why this bombshell arrived I do not know. It required vastly more cloth but extra coupons for new material were of course totally rejected by a chauvinist male Government who thought, like most people, that the fantasy would soon pass. I can still clearly recall where and when I first saw someone wearing the new adornment - neither day nor evening skirt - and very odd it looked to me. But the power of Fashion after years of making-do was no more stoppable than it is today and in no time at all women were adopting the most extraordinary inventiveness to replace their meagre wardrobes. Within months the short wartime skirt had vanished, until a generation later the mini-skirt arrived to a similar chorus of disbelief, disapproval and inevitable acceptance.

My mother was now 60 years of age and, like so many older women alone and no longer needed by the nation, found her life a struggle against boredom and increasing health problems, swiftly drifting behind in the stream of youth savouring new lives of freedom. Before the days of television, the winter evenings were long and lonely. Sundays and Bank holidays, when nearly everything was closed except pubs and churches, were particularly tedious for those with limited interests and mobility. Fortunately, public transport was frequent and reliable, and London still a civilised and safe place for elderly ladies to go about at night, so that whist drives and a new craze, bingo, were popular. We saw her often and took her out when we could.

Next page . . . Post War Life

Previous page . . . The End in Sight

Website © Brian Smith 2015