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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 May 2007, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
A swansong to 'olde Britain'
Woman in the 1950s

Andrew Marr
The 1950s marked the last decade of "olde Britain" - when women were housewives, men smoked pipes and schoolboys sported caps and shorts, says Andrew Marr (right), whose TV history of post-war UK starts on Tuesday.

Between the fall of Attlee's Labour government and the return of Labour under cocky Harold Wilson, Britain went through a time which some believe to be a golden-tinted era of lost content.

Send your memories, in text, pictures or short videos, to help create a Peoples' History of Modern Britain to be built up over the next five weeks. We start with the 1950s.

Got any family snapshots or other photos from the 1950s?

E-mail them to:

(subject "modern Britain")

Soon you will be able to send in video via YouTube

To millions of others these were the grey, conformist, "13 wasted years" of Tory misrule.

It seems that today's British, when they think about the 50s, cannot decide whether to idealise or to mock.

This is for a good reason. Before the arrival of the 60s and rebel consumerism, this was for the last time truly a different country.

People still looked different. No schoolboy was without a cap and shorts; every woman is a housewife; hair-cream, corsets and pipe-tobacco are advertised everywhere. Hats and moustaches adorn "Mr Average".

Britain was still a military nation, whose generals were famous public figures and whose new jet-bombers provoke gasps of pride.

National Service, which was introduced by Attlee in 1947 to replace wartime conscription, and began properly at the beginning of 1949, would last until 1963, bringing more than two million young British men into the forces.

Spirit of the Forties

This was a huge, often underestimated, social force. It brought all classes together at a young and vulnerable age, subjecting them to ferocious discipline, often to privation, and sometimes to real danger.

Some of the anti-authority anger and sarcasm of British plays and novels derived directly or indirectly from National Service; but so did the habits of polishing, dressing smartly and conforming to authority in millions of homes.

In general, it probably kept some of the spirit of the Forties going for a decade longer than would otherwise have happened.

John Osborne
Playwright Osborne reflected an underlying anger of the time
The return of Winston Churchill and so many familiar faces from the war years and before suggested that, as many middle class people hoped, the country really could return to the moral order and professional hierarchies they vaguely recalled before the war.

Hanging, the physical punishment of young offenders, strong laws against abortion and homosexual behaviour by men - all these framed a system of control that was muttered against, or subverted, but not much openly challenged.

Tough action by the Home Office and the police against crime had produced clear results. The country was, at one level, orderly.

Patriotism was proclaimed publicly, loudly and unselfconsciously, in a way that would quickly become hard to imagine.

In the early 50s, Britain was a world-wide player, connected and modern. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were promoted as places for holiday cruises or emigration - a British California, the new frontier.

Nation reborn

This was not a country which is closed to foreign influence, far from it.

But the influences seemed as strong from Italy or Scandinavia as from America. Coffee-bars, Danish design, scooters and something promoted as "Italian Welsh rarebit" (later widely known as pizza) were all in evidence.

This is a time when the idea of powerful, self-confident, independent Britain - independent of American culture - seemed not only possible but likely. Per capita, Britain was still the second richest major country in the world.

After the 1953 coronation of the new Queen, there was much talk, albeit slightly self-conscious, of the New Elizabethan Age, a reborn nation served by great composers, artists and scientists.

Television brought, at first, a traditionalist English upper-crust view of the world to millions of homes

In retrospect, the world-class musical talents of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, and the great poets of the age, WH Auden and TS Eliot, partly vindicated this prediction.

In popular culture, the steady rise of television brought, at first, a traditionalist English upper-crust view of the world to millions of homes. This was the age of Andy Pandy and gardening tips, of Joyce Grenfell and Noel Coward.

It was also the time of Roger Bannister and his four-minute mile; the conquest of Everest; triumphs in yachting and football; even in the world of adventure and sport, Britain was doing well.

With Nobel Prize-winning science in physics and biology, there was no sign yet of the brain drain of scientists to the United States.

To be British was something to be proud of. Even the mild hooligan element was home-grown; the exotic and expensive costumes of the Teddy Boys, with their velvet collars, long jackets and foppish waistcoats, were modelled on English Edwardian dress.

Land of restraint

The future, as it seemed to many in the early 50s, would have seen Britain as a more egalitarian but also conservative country, cosy and fair.

As the world economy recovered after the war, employment was high and inflation, though quietly growing, was relatively low. Houses were being built in their tens of thousands, year by year, and whole New Towns were emerging from the mud.

This was the Britain remembered fondly by so many older people in the early 21st Century - a land of restraint, decency, untainted by the material and other excesses to come, a nation of carefully washed cars, clipped hedges, pressed trousers and shiny toecaps, of old hymns in old churches and patriotic children's comics reaching out to a better future.

The Queen and Prince Philip
The Coronation was one of the first television events
There is a lot of truth in the caricature but this was also the Britain of frustrated, bored, resentful people being shouted at; and a country being ruled by complacent, out-of-touch cliques.

These were busy, bustling years in global politics and at home there would be resignations and scandals aplenty.

Yet there has never been a time in modern history when government seemed less relevant to what was happening in the country.

The new welfare state settlement created by Labour was mostly left alone. Of the controversial nationalisations, only a couple were reversed.

The rising power and militancy of the trade unions was not confronted. No great changes were made to government spending and, therefore, to overall levels of taxation.

Closed world

Few social reforms were contemplated, still less enacted.

Photographs of Macmillan and his favoured cabinet cronies show genial, prosperous, rather grand men.

They look pleased with themselves. In private, many had difficult lives and had fought hard in war; but the impression is not unfair.

It was a closed world of friends and rivals from Oxford, Eton and the armed forces, many of them related.

After the 1950s, Britain would never be governed quite this way again.

Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain is on BBC Two on Tuesday, 22 May, at 2100 BST.

Thanks for your memories of the 1950s. Send us your memories of the 1960s, using the form below.

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