Austerity: Post-war style

I’ve always thought of my parents’ generation and their parents’ generation as being the ones who had seen the big events and huge changes during their lives but I think that there have been tremendous things – both good and bad – happening during my lifetime. So I’ll try to remember them as they come along during this story. There were several such moments in the first few years of my life but I don’t have any personal memories of them.

A few days ago, I talked about the terrible winter which was in full swing when I arrived home to our little flat above the shop. The country was freezing while struggling to get back on its feet, less than two years after the end of World War 2. I was lucky enough to be one of the early beneficiaries of the national health service which came into being on 5 July 1948. When I was looking up the date for this event, I was interested to read that even in its first year of existence the NHS was suffering from a shortage of nurses and had cost £248 million to run, almost £140 million more than had been originally estimated. No surprise then that it is in the difficulties it finds itself in today. The resources needed have always been underestimated and, I guess, its users have always expected more of it than they were prepared to fund. My grandma, who lived with us in our tiny flat, did not welcome the coming of the NHS, which she took to be yet another socialist plot conjured up by Attlee’s government. She refused to join and continued to pay for her doctor’s services until my father signed her up without her knowing.

One welfare benefit that I know we didn’t benefit from was the so-called “Family Allowance”. In these early days it wasn’t given to the first child and I remember that my mum was always rather bitter about it. It doesn’t seem fair, as it is the preparation for the first child which was and still is, very expensive. My mum also had very definite views about mothers (and even married women in general) having to go out to work. She had obviously worked in the early days of her marriage during the war but, to her, one of the most awful thing to happen to a married woman was to have to go out work. After my dad died and she was in receipt of a widows pension of about £4 a week, she sometimes used to say, anxiously, “I think I’m going to have to get a job” but we seem to have managed and it never came to that. I wonder how she would have felt about today’s women, most of whom would hate to stay at home and not have a job.

I’ve been trying to think of what my earliest memory could be. I’m not one of those who claims to remember things that happened when they were just a baby. But I do remember – Rationing!

In the deep midwinter

So, it’s 26 January 1947. I’m told it was one of the worst winters in living memory. But of course my memory doesn’t stretch back that far. Good old Google tells me that one of the cold spells started on 21 January, so I guess there must have been some difficulty in getting my mum to hospital. I was born in St Luke’s Hospital in Bradford. The main buildings of this hospital formed the infirmary of the Bradford Union Workhouse (completed 1852). It was not luxury, obviously!

Everyone was also dealing with the difficult post-war period. In1945, Labour had won a general election and on 1 January 1947 had nationalised the coal industry and created the National Coal Board. Still, due to a lack of planning for a possible cold winter, there was a coal shortage and, together with food rationing, we all had a pretty tough time.

Health-wise, the NHS was taking longer to be born than I was and, apparently, it was practice at that time for new mothers to stay in hospital for two weeks, having bed rest. So again it must’ve been difficult for my dad to visit us in hospital. We were one of the lucky families who had a car but as I’ve been told that snow was so deep that people had to walk on the walls I’m not sure if the roads will have been open. Anyway I presume that at the beginning of February I arrived home to our cycle shop (perhaps strapped to the handlebars of a bicycle) where the other person waiting to meet me was my Grandma.

Before I start moving forward from January 1947 it’s time to explain who my mum and dad were and where they came from. Phyllis and Cuthbert (whoever would call themselves by their middle name, Cuthbert, when their first name was a perfectly normal John?) had been married since November 1939 and had known each other for many many years before that. I believe I was their first and only baby. No-one ever mentioned miscarriages or stillbirths but then, they wouldn’t. So I have no explanation as to why it was more than seven years after their marriage that I was born. My belief through teenage years that it was because Dad was doing war work in a local factory through the night, while Mum did similar during the day was poopooed by a kindly colleague who assured me that “people will always find time for a little love”.

Let’s start with Phyllis. Born in August 1905, she was the youngest of five sisters. Emma (known as Emmie) was the oldest, born in 1891. Her father, Thomas, was my grandma’s (also Emma) first husband who sadly died at a very young age only two or three years after they were married. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to him, although I know that he was farm labourer. Grandma Emma later married my grandfather Frederick and had four more daughters, Bessie, Violet, Jessie and Phyllis. Frederick had been a baker at some point and, possibly, a soldier. He was born in Lincolnshire in 1863. Emma was also born in Lincolnshire in 1869. By the time mum was born Frederick worked on the railways and they lived near Wakefield. Bessie was born in 1896, Violet in 1901, Jessie in 1904 and Phyllis in 1905. The girls all worked in the local mill when they left school.

I think I’ll leave dad’s early story until tomorrow. It includes desertion and, possibly, bigamy, a drunken first wife and illegitimacy so will take a bit of explaining.

In the meantime, I’m digesting the final episode of “The Plague” from BBC4. Not an easy watch, what with the pustules, the Spanish Inquisition and a pre-NHS doctor who shouted for “lard” when the hero was brought in close to death. He patched him up and bathed his wounds with a mixture of egg and turpentine. BBC4, my staple Saturday night fare (sub-titles and all) was on hold last night while I went to a party. I’m coming to terms with the fact that BBC1 has started has started showing an equally gripping but totally different, Saturday night serial. “Killing Eve” is fast, edgy and has me hooked already. How will I juggle the two?