Outside toilets, no central heating, corporal punishment and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, those who grew up in the 40s will remember the world being a very different place.
As part of our new series, we will be taking a decade in view and outlining what life was like for those who grew up in that time. We will identify key highlights and events, hopefully unlocking memories for those who remember life in that decade.
The first decade we have chosen is the 1940s, a period dominated by the Second World War and the struggles that arose with wartime. Britain was at war from 1939–45, and during the six years, food and clothing were rationed and in short supply. The bombing caused fear, injury, death and destruction, and families were often separated due to evacuation and fathers went away to fight.
Those who grew up in the 40s will either personally remember or know of someone who was evacuated during the war. As cities were being bombed, children were evacuated to the countryside to remain safe. Some found it an adventure, but for some, the separation from family and the feeling of homesickness caused distress.
Home life in the 40s was a stark contrast to how we live today. A quarter of British homes had no electricity, telephone or indoor toilet! There was also no central heating and houses were kept warm from the heat of a fire in the fireplace. Fitted carpets were also few and far between, with most homes having wooden or stone floors.
For those who were not fighting in the war, most people in Britain worked in manufacturing industries and factories. Heavy industries like coal mining, iron and steel making, ship building and engineering employed millions of workers.
Music and Entertainment
The Second World War brought fast, frantic (and often American) music – such as the jazz, boogie-woogie or jitterbug – as dances were held in church and village halls. Slower, sentimental romantic songs were also popular as loved ones went away to fight, such as Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The ‘White Cliffs of Dover’.
Although televisions were starting to emerge, they were not affordable or available to many during the war. There was, however, use of the radio, which provided some entertainment as well as broadcasting updates on the war. Families would gather around and listen intently to the daily news on their radio.
For children, toys were hard to come by at this time. Factories were used for war equipment, which took manufacturing priority. Those who had toys were usually passed them down from older children or relatives.
In cities, playing outside was not permitted as it was too dangerous. Evacuees on the other hand had to make up their own games. As autumn approached, trips to the woods were common to find the largest, shiniest conkers, being careful to not get stabbed by the harsh prickly cases that protected it. Threaded onto a bootlace, or a piece of string, a winning conker would be the one that had smashed others to smithereens in combat.
Some staple activities of the time were skipping, football and hopscotch, making use of the countryside and the opportunity to be outside, or cards, dice, pick-up-sticks, noughts and crosses, and jacks.
School in the 40s was very different to today. Teachers were strict and corporal punishment was extremely common. Children were punished by getting hit by a cane (thin walking stick).
Classrooms were cold and the windows were often high up so you couldn’t look out, and sometimes classes were in the open air as many school buildings had been bombed. Each child had their own desk with a lid, though schools in rural areas were often overcrowded because evacuated children joined the classes.
Lessons were quite formal with an emphasis on learning things via repetition and by heart. There were very few textbooks to go around, so most things had to be copied off the blackboard. During the War years, teachers often moved to the countryside also, with many retired teachers coming back to work while the younger aged went to war.
Those who grew up in the 40s will most certainly remember ration books, as they lasted well after the war had ended. Ration books worked on a coupon system, so people could only purchase their entitlement and no more.
A typical weekly food ration allowed: 1 egg, 2 ounces each of tea and butter, an ounce of cheese, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of bacon and four ounces of margarine. Meat wasn’t rationed immediately, but when it was its availability was decided by price rather than points, meaning cheaper cuts quickly became the most popular for many housewives. Catchy phrases like ‘go easy with bread, try potatoes instead’ were devised and circulated by the Ministry of Food to urge housewives to be frugal.
It was not just food that was rationed, clothes were too, and worked on the same coupon system. Adults were allowed to use 66 coupons a year – children were allocated additional coupons to allow for them outgrowing their clothes during the year. For example, a pair of shoes used five coupons while a suit used 18 coupons.
Pages of the book had different coloured coupons and only one colour could be used at a time. The government announced when the next colour could be used, to prevent people using all their coupons too quickly. Rationing should have imposed a ‘fair share for all’ but this was not always the case.
The government also devised a number of memorable campaigns to encourage people to become more conscious about using their ration coupons. The first being ‘Dig for Victory’, which encouraged Britons to turn green spaces they could into allotments so that they could grow food to feed their own family, as well as raise their own pigs and chickens to provide meat and eggs.
The equally memorable ‘Make do and Mend’, promoted repairing clothing and other goods. rather than replacing it.
The decade also saw a number of notable events, including:
1941 – The Blitz
Arguably the greatest test of Britain’s resolve against Nazi Germany, the Blitz began in September 1940 after Germany lost air superiority in the Battle of Britain. Many British cities were attacked, with London bearing the worst of it, being hit 56 times over 57 nights.
1945 – UK Joins the United Nations
The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of WWII, and the UK was one of the first to join. Britain became one of the five founding members of the United Nations Security Council, along with the United States, USSR, China, France and a majority of 46 other signatory nations.
1947 – Clement Attlee becomes Prime Minister
During World War II, the UK formed the coalition government between the Conservative and Labour Party in order to present Britain with a united front against Nazi Germany. After Germany’s defeat, Labor politicians called for a dissolution of the coalition government and a General Election was called.
Labour won a commanding number of seats having promised to bring British soldiers home and expand social programs.
1948 – NHS Founded
The National Health Service Act was passed in 1946, but it took a further two years for the NHS to be formally established. The formation of the National Health Service means universal healthcare was established in the UK.
Learning about various decades and how they differ to today is something we love about what we do at My Story Told. Creating a biography is a great way to capture your life and remember them in your own words.
Our aim is to provide a lasting document that can serve as a token of your or your legacy for generations to come. It is a way to tell life stories in the form of the written word, backed up by meaningful images and documents helping paint the picture of each chapter. For more on our process, please click here.