A 1950s Southampton Childhood
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A 1950s Southampton Childhood

Penny Legg, James Marsh

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📖 eBook - ePub

A 1950s Southampton Childhood

Penny Legg, James Marsh

About This Book

The 1950s was a time of regeneration and change for Southampton. For children growing up during this decade, life was changing fast. They still made their own toys and earned their own pocket money, but, on new television sets, Andy Pandy (1950) and Bill and Ben (1952) delighted them. With rationing discontinued, confectionary was on the menu again and, for children, Southampton life in the 1950s was sweet. If you saw a Laurel and Hardy performance at The Gaumont Theatre, or made dens out of bombed-out buildings, then you'll thoroughly enjoy this charming and nostalgic account of the era.

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Family life was as varied in the 1950s as it is today, with families coming in all shapes and sizes. Myron Sowtus looks back on the decade and sums up the attitudes of the time:
It is hard to believe that it was not feminine for a lady to be seen smoking in the street, to ever drink from a pint glass or to swear. To have a child out of wedlock was to bring shame upon the family name and as to having been in prison, this was a disgrace. Scandals could be covered up and kept within the family. The father was the head of the household, the mother the home keeper. Manners were everything and women and elders were to be treated with respect.
Many families had to cope with husbands and fathers who were not quite the same as they were when they went off to war. In an age when post-traumatic stress had not been recognised, the effects of what had been termed ‘Shell Shock’ were difficult to cope with – by both the sufferer and his family. Of the several children who grew up in Southampton during the 1950s and who spoke to the authors about this aspect of family life, Rod Andrews, born in 1946 in Sholing, spells out some of the problems most eloquently:
In retrospect I suppose the war loomed large in my early life, though I accepted that as normal. The war was the reason there were gaps in the houses. The war was the reason there was rationing. The war was why Mr X from down the road walked up and down our street shouting to himself. The war was why Mrs T stood in the shop with tears silently falling down her cheeks. When I asked my mum why she was crying, she mouthed, silently, the eternal answer, ‘It’s the war.’
The war was why my dad hid in the cupboard under the stairs and cried when a thunderstorm went over. He would emerge wet eyed and visibly shaken as the thunder and lightning had reminded him vividly of his time as an artillery gunner in Libya.
My father, like so many other Second World War servicemen and women, didn’t talk much about his experiences. My father would tell us about the silly things he and his fellow captives did, but never the gaunt truth.
Normally a quiet, loving and laughing man, I can only ever recall him ‘losing it’ when the Italians were mentioned; something sparked off in him whenever pictures of Mussolini came on the TV. One day my mother brought two pretty little hand-painted plates she had found at the market. My dad turned them over, read the words ‘Made in Italy’ and went out into the yard and smashed them. It was only this year, when I am older than my father ever was, that I read an account by a fellow gunner who was fighting and captured at the same place, same day, in the same desert battle as my father [that I understood]. The treatment those men received from the Italian troops as they were transported across the Libyan desert and then across the Mediterranean to prison camps in Italy was disgusting, vile and totally inhuman.
In addition to post-traumatic stress, many families had to cope with major illness. Several 1950s children mentioned that returning fathers were prone to tuberculosis (TB) or other major medical problems. TB, a bacterial infection of the lungs spread by droplet infection, is associated with overcrowding, malnourishment and poor healthcare. It was in 1952 that Ukrainian-American biochemist Selman Abraham Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for work on streptomycin, an antibiotic treatment for TB. Waksman and Albert Shatz, his student, had developed the antibiotic, although Shatz missed the Nobel Prize as he was classed as a research assistant. Shatz had actually first made the discovery of streptomycin in 1943.


Insufficient housing in the 1950s was a problem after enemy bombing during the war destroyed many homes. In the short term, this was overcome by hastily erecting prefabricated houses, or prefabs as they were known, and, in some cases, by families living in Nissen Huts in Houndwell Park. These huts had been used to house American troops during the war. David Haisman remembers them very well, as he mentions in his autobiography Raised on the Titanic (Boolarong Press, 2002). David is the son of Titanic survivor Edith Haisman. He went with her to South Africa for most of the war. On returning to England he stayed in a prefab with one of his brothers and his family, before moving to the Nissen hut in the park. In his book he says:
On leaving the ship that morning, we were met by my brother Leo, his wife and two children and taken to their home, which was known as a prefab. These prefabricated homes were meant for a family of five. There were now eleven of us cramped into that small home. Eventually, something turned up and we were to finally move out. Our new home was to be a Nissen hut situated in parkland in the middle of Southampton.
The prefabs were built off-site and erected on-site in minimal time. David Preston loved living in his family’s prefab.
We were given a prefab and it was wonderful as these had things we never had before, such as fitted kitchens with a gas fridge and a cooker. They also had an indoor bathroom with indoor toilet facilities as well. Gone now were the days of outdoor toilets and a tin bath in the kitchen. In some ways Adolph Hitler did us a favour because bombing our old houses gave us the chance to move into these prefabs and start a whole new way of life.
Tin baths were used in most working-class houses then and water for these was drawn from the gas-heated boiler. The bath was placed in the kitchen and the person using it was then given the privacy to do so. In large families, however, this process would take too long and the water would be cold long before the older children took their turn at having a bath. So it was done two at a time, two girls sharing, one sitting at either end, and then two boys doing the same. As well as saving hot water, it also saved on time, which made sense to do so.
The copper came into its own for the family washing, so on washday (Mondays, whatever the weather) these were heated up and all of the washing, clothes, towels handkerchiefs etc. were boiled clean. Then the rinsing was done in the kitchen sink before the long process of hanging it all out on the line. These stretched the length of the back garden and the clotheslines were raised and lowered by pullies. Everything was pegged onto the line and nature was then left to get on with the job of drying it. On rainy Mondays however, the average house looked like a small laundry as washing was draped around the small fire in the living room to dry – a long and very boring process, especially for children to put up with.
Myron Sowtus was born in Southampton in 1952. His father was Polish, whose immediate family had perished in Auschwitz and Belsen. His mother was Irish. They lived in rented accommodation in Shakespeare Avenue in the Portswood area of Southampton. Myron’s mother came from a large Irish family who came to England and all lived in Shakespeare Avenue. It was his grandparents who then ruled the roost, his granddad’s word being law. However, his grandmother did most of the cooking and Myron remembers, ‘She made her own home-baked bread and the smell when this was baking was heavenly. Her stews were something to die for.’
The Sowtus family moved to a prefab in Lordswood in 1957. Myron remembers the house:
This had two bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom with indoor toilet. But only one coal fire in the living room for heating. In winter this wasn’t enough, so a paraffin heater was brought in and placed in the hall. All of the doors inside were left open so that the heat from the heater could get into all of the rooms. There was also a large garden and my father, who was a keen gardener, grew lots of vegetables for the whole family to enjoy. We also kept rabbits at the bottom of the garden but they always seemed to be able to escape. It wasn’t until much later that I realised they only escaped to the stew pot.
Chris Newman lived in Wakefield Road as a small boy and had the run of the Townhill Park estate nearby. In the 1950s, this was all fields and farmland and was a joy for a small boy to grow up around. He lived in a house with his parents and grandparents, plus an uncle who ate all of his meals with them but slept with another of his relatives further down the road. He was brought up with canaries, budgerigars, cats and a dog all sharing the bursting home.
Chris Newman’s family was large but close-knit. Chris is the babe in his mother’s arms in this family shot taken in Chris’s Aunty Ethel’s living room in Spring Road in 1952. (Image courtesy of Chris Newman)
Sue Diaper, born in 1949, lived with her parents and grandparents in a rented flat in Britannia Road, Northam:
My nan worked in the Gas Works as a carpenter during the war and she had a flat because of this. The flats are still there – right opposite the stadium, home of Southampton Football Club. I lived there until I was thirteen and my happiest childhood memories are of living there.
Sue’s recollections of life living in the flat, without what many consider to be basic amenities, may make twenty-first century readers wonder!
I can remember having gaslights and the gas mantles used to go ‘pop’ when they burnt out. We had no carpet – just lino – and the walls were painted cream at the top and dark green at the bottom. We had a black range and I can remember Mum heating her iron and the kettle on it, as we didn’t have electricity then. The toilet was outside the back door, on the balcony, and we used newspaper for toilet paper. We used to keep a tin bath hung up on the balcony and I can remember it used to take ages to fill it up with hot water. I used to hate having my hair washed, because it was very long and thick and took ages to wash and dry. I had to hold my head over the sink or the bath with a towel pressed to my eyes and Mum used to pour jugs of water over it to wash and rinse it. I must have slept in my parent’s room up until my grandparents died, and then I remember sleeping in the small room in an armchair bed.


Many young couples starting out on their married life together in the ’50s, found that getting a place to live was a very difficult thing to do because of the housing shortage. Many couples lived in one room in either the bride or bridegroom’s family home. This, of course, made things cramped for the rest of the family living in the house. James remembers:
We had a very special front room in our home that my mother kept just for important visitors. My five siblings and I were only allowed in this room for two days at Christmas each year. For most of my infant and very young years the room was the home of our regular lodgers Mr and Mrs Biggs. They were eventually re-housed. Sometimes whole families found themselves with nowhere to live. If my mother knew any of these people, the invitation was immediately given for them to take up residence in our front room until the situation was resolved. Two of my sisters started out on married life living in that room with their new husbands. This was the way things were done then and somehow, despite the overcrowding, it always worked out all right.


In the 1950s, animals were kept not just as pets but also as working parts of the family. Dogs were guards for the homes they lived in, while cats were kept for the main purpose of keeping down the mice and rats that infested so many properties then. It was, in fact, unusual to enter a house that didn’t have an animal in it for one or another of these purposes.
Chris Newman recollects the patter of tiny feet in his house: ‘We never had many pets in the house. Only two cats, one dog, a talking budgie called Paul (Mum reared it from an egg), a chirping canary called Canary (I think it was Peter, actually) and Toby, the tortoise.’
There were also the continual food shortages to be considered and here animals again helped enormously. Chickens abounded in many gardens. They produced eggs all year round and a good dinner at Christmas. James remembers:
Some of my friends in Belgrave Road lived in houses that had chicken runs in the garden. They always had fresh eggs to eat in this way....

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Citation styles for A 1950s Southampton ChildhoodHow to cite A 1950s Southampton Childhood for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Legg, P., & Marsh, J. (2013). A 1950s Southampton Childhood ([edition unavailable]). The History Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1528300/a-1950s-southampton-childhood-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Legg, Penny, and James Marsh. (2013) 2013. A 1950s Southampton Childhood. [Edition unavailable]. The History Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1528300/a-1950s-southampton-childhood-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Legg, P. and Marsh, J. (2013) A 1950s Southampton Childhood. [edition unavailable]. The History Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1528300/a-1950s-southampton-childhood-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Legg, Penny, and James Marsh. A 1950s Southampton Childhood. [edition unavailable]. The History Press, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.