Chapter 20 (1950-1953)

End of Empire

Ground Floor Flat
Our new home consisted of the whole of the ground floor of the house, the upper floor being occupied by a widow and her daughter whose husband was in the Merchant Navy. The house was fairly old but well built, and the ground floor had three quite large rooms plus a kitchen. Our ground floor toilet was attached to the house but had no internal door, necessitating a sojourn into the garden in order to visit it. Baths were taken in the upstairs bathroom, by courtesy of the tenants there. But these were minor difficulties and to us it was sheer heaven, not least the long garden at the end of which ran the railway line to East Croydon and Brighton, to Brian's endless delight. Bensham Manor Road was not far from Berne Road, where I had spent my childhood, and Brian, now approaching 5 years old, duly entered Ecclesbourne Road School, the very same building where I myself had started school 23 years previously, at the same age. Nothing seemed to have changed much, and my name still appeared on the roll of scholarship-winners for 1934.

Among the many wonders of the flat were a real gas stove, a larder and - joy of joys - an ancient boiler which actually heated the water. Beneath the house was a small cellar for coal, which commodity the coalman was expected to deliver regularly in large sacks and shoot down a small manhole by the front door. But not in 1950. Coal was scarce and coalmen unreliable. The expression "carrying coals to Newcastle" had been used for generations to describe the ultimate in unnecessary activity; yet Britain's coal production now sank to the point where we actually had to import coal and the newspapers showed us pictures of it being unloaded at Newcastle, of all places.

Fuel for Heating
I found that it was possible to buy a hundredweight of coke at the Croydon Gas Works, some four miles away. For those unfortunate people educated only in the boring metric system, a hundredweight was actually 112 pounds weight, or some 51 kilograms. With an odd mixture of Latin, Anglo-Saxon and numerical inaccuracy its shortened form was “cwt”. A pound weight was shortened to “lb”, from the Latin libra, and thus we learned at school “112lbs = 1cwt”, which may look quite odd to the young reader but was engraved upon the hearts and minds of generations of Britons until 1971. A regular chore for me before setting off for work would be to remove the back seat of the old Ford and join a long queue of prams, wheelbarrows and conveyances of all kinds inside the Croydon Gas Works where, under a towering chute, stood a man operating a trapdoor who would deftly fill one's sacks with the ration of coke. Coke is considerably lighter than coal, being the residue left after extracting gas from coal (there was, of course, no North Sea gas in those days), and a hundredweight of the stuff took some handling. But it burned in our stove with a fierce heat and we also had the fireplace in our living room converted to use it. This wasn't as easy as it sounds, because coke does not ignite as freely as coal. A gas poker was needed to get it started and the air supply had to be concentrated by fixing a large metal sheet over the front of the fireplace, so that a forced draught swept through the glowing coke and up the chimney. When the metal plate was red-hot one could be satisfied that the fire was properly alight, but removing it could be a problem.

We acquired new friends too, including Ernest Ashmore, a struggling Branch Manager for the Trustee Savings Bank and the man whose young brother had been lost in the ill-fated corvette HMS Asphodel while homeward bound in company with my own ship. Also Denis Coe, a talented pianist whom I met while playing at Hammersmith Palais de Danse and who came to give Brian and myself lessons on the beautiful Bechstein piano which had been Freda's father's pride and joy and which we now had space to accommodate. Sadly, both of us later allowed our lessons to lapse.

I was shortly promoted to Higher Clerical Officer at the Admiralty, with a pleasantly increased salary, still in Personnel (Miscellaneous) Branch, and with added responsibilities. The Royal Navy was still large and powerful, and the Admiralty retained much of the dignity and pomp of its nineteenth century role as rulers of the world's predominant naval force. It was also guardian of the traditions of the Naval Service often called “the Silent Service” because of the necessary concealment of many of its activities. I was part of the Secretariat, which dealt with broad policy matters in the name of the Board of Admiralty. Letters to non-Navy persons and authorities were in archaic form, beginning “Sir, I am Commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you…”; and ending “I am, Sir, your Obedient Servant”. Those to ships and Naval authorities were peremptory, not to say rude, having no salutation and ending simply “By Command of Their Lordships”.

But with the ending of the war, Defence was the last thing people were interested in, and once the immense task of demobilising over three million men and women had been completed an air of stagnation began to permeate the organisation. On 5th July 1948 a new Government Department had been set up, called the Ministry of National Insurance (later named Social Security and still later Social Services), to handle the wide range of social benefits introduced after the war and covering all citizens from the cradle to the grave. They urgently needed staff and called for volunteers from other Departments. There was a rush of ambitious people from the Admiralty and several of my colleagues left with high hopes of rapid advancement. I, too, applied and was actually allocated an office in Wales, but by that time the Admiralty had become alarmed at this brain-drain and I was refused permission to leave. As it turned out, those who left were generally stuck with boring jobs and poor promotion prospects because the new Department by its nature consisted largely of small local offices with only a limited central policy section. My own career benefited from this departure of competitors and the force of subsequent world events.

In spite of a national desire for disarmament, the British Empire still demanded a considerable amount of policing and we had to retain quite large Armed Forces for this purpose. But Britain now had neither the economic resources nor, under its highly principled Socialist Government, the determination to keep these immense populations under subjugation indefinitely in a world which science was changing daily. National independence movements in many countries had been pandered to for the sake of their support in the war and were now demanding action. Others perceived the balance of power in the world was shifting dramatically and no longer felt confident of Britain's ability to protect them. At home, many returning Servicemen had travelled widely throughout the Empire during the war and were not disposed to support military suppression of Colonial peoples whose condition, as they had seen with their own eyes, was often miserable compared with ours. The fact that British rule had brought peace, stability and many other benefits which would later be lost or wilfully destroyed did not cut much ice with the average man or woman at that time, desperate to stop fighting other people and get on with more sensible lives. Most importantly, the intellectual establishment, the product of pre-war universities and generally opposed to militant nationalism, now became the rulers and significant opinion-formers of the British people. To add to this groundswell, a large majority in the newly-formed United Nations notably the USA, on whose goodwill we were now dependent, had a profound dislike of British imperialism.

Empire to Commonwealth
The dismantling of the British Empire was thus inevitably only a matter of time, though the ordinary citizen did not recognise this immediately and the actual process was fraught with difficulty. As each Colony became obviously fit for self-rule or impossible to control militarily, the British Government would hopefully look for the emergence of local rulers strong enough to command popular support and competent enough actually to run their country; but it was rarely as simple as this. Such local leaders had often spent years organising armed resistance to us and were still doing so. Furthermore, the Empire had a wide cohesion and social structure which over the years encouraged, and sometimes compelled, its diverse races to move about and mix, so that in many Colonies the indigenous population was much swelled by generations of settlers from Britain and other parts of the Empire whose futures had to be safeguarded in some way. In some cases, too, a fledgling State needed protection by the Mother Country against marauding neighbours. And over all lay the need to look after what were then still seen as Britain's long-term interests.

It is therefore not surprising that British troops were in action in some part of the world almost continuously for nearly forty years after the war with Germany and Japan had ended, as the difficult and painful process of withdrawal unfolded. By 1950 Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma and Transjordan (now Jordan) were independent and the British Mandates in Iran and Palestine had been surrendered, the latter becoming the new state of Israel by United Nations decree. Over the next thirty years the Gold Coast, Malaya, Cyprus, Nigeria, British Somaliland, Tanganyika, Sierra Leone, Brunei, North Borneo, British Honduras, British Cameroons, Uganda, Western Samoa, Sudan, Jamaica, Trinidad, Kenya, Tobago, Zanzibar, Malta, Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesias, Gambia, the Maldives, Basutoland, Aden, Bechuanaland, British Guiana, Barbados, Mauritius, Singapore, Swaziland, Fiji, Tonga, and others, with their teeming millions of inhabitants, would also struggle to independent statehood, some peacefully, others with turmoil and bloodshed.

Birth of the Cold War
By 1950, it was also apparent that drastic disarmament would regrettably have to be shelved because of the unexpectedly hostile attitude of the Soviet Union to all its erstwhile allies. This manifested itself in refusal to agree to any sort of peacetime co-operation, the flooding of Western democracies with spies and the blatant support of armed insurrection against democratic Governments in countries all over the world. The Western Powers’ reaction to this was to set up the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) whose members were pledged to come to each others’ aid if attacked; and so began many years of confrontation betwen East and West in what became known as the Cold War. The real turning point, however, came in the artificially divided country of Korea, when in June 1950 communist North Korea, supported by both Russia and China, invaded democratic South Korea. The United Nations, strongly urged by the USA, authorised military action to stop them and so began a vicious war which lasted three years involving the USA, Britain and several other countries on one side, and China and Russia on the other, though the latter never committed troops to the conflict.

The effect in the Admiralty was electric. The whole place suddenly came alive again, since naval forces were heavily involved in the action which promised to develop into a full-scale war. Mothballing and scrapping of ships were slowed down; new contracts for weapons and supplies were placed, and the run-down of manpower eased. Thus, although in the ensuing decades Britain's Defence capability slowly declined, we remained one of the strongest miltary powers in the world and a career in a Defence Department now offered prospects, variety and purpose matched in few other Departments of State.

The BBC's public television service, which was suspended during the war for fear of providing a beacon to guide German bombers to London, re-commenced with transmissions from Alexandra Palace in North London in June 1946, and in 1950 we duly acquired a television set. It was a Ferguson with a screen just nine inches wide - black and white, of course, and with only the one channel - but a novelty which friends and relations came to watch and marvel at. Two controls, Vertical Hold and Horizontal Hold, had to be adjusted from time to time to match the quality of the transmission, particularly for outside broadcasts. An incorrectly set Vertical Hold allowed the picture to scroll up or down rapidly while the Horizontal Hold kept the picture from vanishing into jagged tears, so that viewing sometimes needed energetic leaps from one's seat to fiddle with them while other viewers groaned impatiently.

Second Child
Into these stirring times our daughter Carolyn Lesley was born on 8th June 1951 at 42 Bensham Manor Road, Thornton Heath. Attending the clinic at the same time as Freda was a certain Joan Prentice whose daughter, Christine, was born shortly afterwards. We formed a friendship with Joan and her husband, Reg, then a young Labour-Party Councillor in Croydon, which has remained firm to this day. He, after a dramatic and extraordinary political career, eventually became Lord Prentice of Daventry. In 1952, we all rented a small bungalow by the sands of Littlestone, near Dymchurch in Kent where, impecunious but cheerful, we had a wonderful English holiday accompanied by the two babies for whom sand and wind were the final indignities in a clearly unfriendly world.

Workman’s tickets

Our First House
My journey to work was by Southern Railway, now nationalised, and to save money I would often take a “Workman’s” ticket which applied to any train arriving at its destination before 8am and at a much reduced fare - a far cry from the gentlemanly pre-war Admiralty starting time of 10am. This concession lapsed when it was realised that the “workman” was no more in need of financial support than many white-collar employees. In 1951, however, we learned that Croydon Council were building a new estate far out on the Addington Hills and that they had difficulty in finding people willing to move there. With the additional points afforded by Carolyn's timely arrival, we applied for a transfer which was granted immediately, and so moved into our first real house, a three-bedroomed semi-detached house at 14, Cator Close, New Addington.

It was more than we ever dreamed of - well-built, with a garden front and back, in clean, fresh air and surrounded by beautiful countryside. Our neighbours were pleasant and we formed a special friendship with Kay and Leslie Turner, who lived two doors away with their two children, Stephen, the same age as Brian, and Carol two years older than Carolyn. Leslie had driven a tank in the Western Desert, had been captured on the fall of Tobruk and spent the next four years incarcerated in a German Prisoner of War camp. The four of us developed a passion for a new card game, Canasta, and spent endless evenings playing it. The television was even more prestigious and the large "H" aerial on our chimney marked us out as Very Important People. After school, our living room was often filled with fifteen or more small children, gazing at it in silent wonder.

A Festival, Queen Elizabeth and Post-War Britain
For five months in 1951 the whole country was enthused by the Festival of Britain, in beautiful pavilions created on a bombed site on the South Bank of the Thames near Waterloo where, on one fateful Sunday morning in December 1940, I had emerged from a night-watch at the Admiralty to a London engulfed in flames and smoke and saw huge warehouses burning and crashing to the ground, their gallant firefighters with them. In 1952 Elizabeth became Queen on the untimely death of her father, George VI, and the nation rejoiced at the prospect of a new Elizabethan Age of British glory and discovery.

Sadly, although we did not then know it, these high hopes were not to be realised. London, once the biggest and busiest port in the world, was already on the way to extinction as a maritime centre. The damage done by German air raids to the docks was to be completed by continual strikes and disruption on the part of dock workers. After years of haggling, a container ship terminal was set up at Tilbury, but not before Rotterdam had usurped London's place; and the famous Docks - Surrey, Commercial, East and West India, Baltic - which had sent the artefacts of the Industrial Revolution to the whole world and received its produce back in Britain, would before long be closed down for ever. It was a similar story in shipbuilding and ship repair, where incessant futile union disputes, often between rival unions over who should do what, led to waste, decline, closures and foreign domination; while the British Merchant Fleet, which once boasted one in every four ships on the world's oceans, would in a few decades be reduced to a minor position. Of course, it was not only the fault of the Unions: - Management, Government, all of us had a share in clinging to the myth that by winning the war we had a right to an easy life.

Although my financial position had improved, I now faced heavier travelling costs. My route into London was a six-mile journey by No.130 Bus to East Croydon and thence by train to Victoria. Waiting for a bus to get home was often a nightmare, marginally improved by the introduction of "Express" buses which stopped at only two or three places en route. My mother remained at Leander Road and undoubtedly missed us a great deal, but she visited us fairly often and we her. Brian would sometimes spend a night with her and Christmas became a family occasion when we were joined by Freda's brother, Peter, then living in a bed-sit in London and looking for a career. I also exchanged the Ford for a 1934 Morris 10 saloon, a truly splendid car finished in red and black, spotlessly kept by its previous owner, which gave us many years of faithful service.

Consumer goods now began to appear more widely in shops even though some commodities were still rationed. The days of the black market were declining and with them the colourful “spiv” with his “ ’ere, tosh, want any stockin's? only ’arf a bar”. (Half a bar meant half of one pound, or ten shillings). Strangely, the spiv was universally regarded with good humour, immoral though the black market might be, and was a frequent character in popular radio shows. 

The income from band engagements was useful and I continued to take them with various groups, sometimes travelling for large distances for a worthwhile “gig”. Traffic was still sparse and I frequently encountered strange happenings on the way. One icy, bitter evening at around midnight I was startled to meet a line of four elephants marching majestically towards me through thick snow, trunks entwined in the tail of the one in front. They turned out to be from a circus, making its way to East Croydon Station.

But my public musical career was nearing an end. In 1953 I was appointed to the Private Office of the First Lord of the Admiralty. The post did not involve promotion but carried a small responsibility allowance and I decided it would be inappropriate to continue regular band engagements, though I did take casual jobs for some years afterwards. I was then 31, and the appointment marked the start of another stage of my life.

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