Recently my son came home from school with his homework. He had to talk to various members of the family and find out what life had been like for them when they were his age, eleven. He talked to his grandparents and also to his dad and me and found out a lot about how life had changed over a 60 year period.
When his grandparents were eleven the second world war had ended. Even though it had ended three years prevously rationing was still in place. Everyone had a ration book which contained coupons for food and clothing. When you went shopping you had to take your ration book with you as well as your money. The shopkeeper would remove the relevant coupons from the book to ensure that you only got what you were entitled to. If it was rationed, even if you had the money, you could not get more without the coupon. Children hardly ever got sweets, a Mars bar was half the size of a Mars bar today and one would be divided amongst the whole family. New clothes were rare, they got passed down from families and friends and many ladies were very good at dressmaking and could turn old clothes into new ones.
In those days there was no television, instead families used to sit around and listen to the radio. Often crumpets were toasted round the fire while listening to the stories on the radio. Instead of the television families used to go to the cinema. Normally two films were shown as well as a news reel. In those days you did not get the news breaking as it happened, the film showed all the news for the previous week. The two films were the A movie and the B movie. The A movie was the film you went to see and the B movie came on first. You did not have to go for the start of the film, you could walk into the cinema at any time. The films were played over and over so you could stay and watch again if you wanted. During the interval between the films a light came on and a lady with ice creams on a tray round her neck came out and would walk up and down the aisles selling ice cream. Popcorn was not sold at all.
Telephones were not common place either. If you wanted to phone a friend you had to pick up the phone and speak to a lady at the telephone exchange. She would take the number and put a plug in the switch board to connect the call. Once she had done that the phone would ring on the other end. If there was no answer then the operator would say “Sorry,no reply” and you would have to try later.
In the schools children sat at little wooden desks for two with a bench seat. There was a little hole for the inkwell and the teacher used to have to mix powdered ink with water to make it liquid. One of the children was the ink monitor and got to pour the ink into each inkwell with a little watering can. Writing was done with a wooden handled pen with a steel nib which was dipped into the ink after every three or four words. Fingers were normally covered in ink.
Children walked to and from school. In those days police boxes were often found on street corners, just like the Tardis in doctor who. Horse troughs were also common place as horses were still used to pull delivery vehicles. These were big stone troughs, as big as a bath, for the horse to drink from. Milk was delivered every day in the morning by a milkman. Rag and bone men would come round with a cart collecting old clothes and unwanted household goods. The knife grinder would come on his bicycle to sharpen knives and scissors. He would set his bike on a stand so that back wheel didn’t touch the ground and a grindstone on the front of his bike. When he peddled the stone would turn and you could see sparks coming off the knife. Chimney sweeps rode bicycles with dirty hands and faces black with soot with their brushes and rods strapped to the crossbar of the bike. When the chimney was being swept you could wait outside to see the brush pop out the top of the chimney. When the sweep came it was a big job to cover all the furniture and carpets with sheets to prevent them being covered with soot. There was no central heating in those days, everyone used coal fires. Once a week the pig-man came to empty the pig bucket, a bucket where all the scraps were put like potato peelings and cabbage stalks. All the things that were not eaten.
In contrast when I was eleven I was growing up in Belfast in the seventies. At that time the “troubles” were in full swing and although we were not affected that much by them. Some things were obvious though, our police were armed and drove around in armoured land rovers. When you went into town by bus before the bus could enter the centre of town a man had to walk up and down the length of the bus checking under seats. When you entered shops your handbag was checked and you got swept with a device which I presume was some sort of metal detector. Fireworks were also banned, apart from indoor ones. These were not very exciting, they are little cardboard squares which you light with a match and either a snake comes out or they glow for a few seconds. We were most impressed when we visited my uncle’s house in England and he put on a real firework display for us.
In those days we did have a television but children’s programmes were limited. There was an hour of children’s television which we could watch after school with programmes like Record Breakers and Cracker Jack. We used to get our tea in front of the television. In the school holidays there was also an hour of children’s programmes in the morning but the rest of the time we had to amuse ourselves. There were no continual children’s channels like we have today. I vividly remember watching Dr Who. We used to have chairs that swivelled round and when it got scary we could face the back to the television and peep over the top.
There were no computers or video games either. We spent our time playing with our toys, wandering around outside playing football on the street or doing craft projects. We were very impressed when we got our first video game. It was a console you plugged into the television and you could either play two player tennis or one player ping pong. The bats were sticks and the ball was a blob and you could move the bats up and down the screen to hit the ball backwards and forwards.
The seventies were also a time for strikes and power cuts. I remember the power being off and we had to cook over the fire in the living room. It was a great adventure at the time. 1977, when I was ten, was also the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I remember watching the celebrations on television and also getting a special badge from the Brownies to sew onto my uniform.
I find it absolutely fascinating how much life has changed in a period of sixty years and how much we take for granted today. Now days children have access to more than one games console, computers, constant television and seem to play less outside. I also wonder what life will be like sixty years from now, what other changes will we see?