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Life as a child in Bethnal Green
in the 1950’s

Life in the 1950’s East end (as I remember it).

Adults were not the same back then. It's hard to explain really. They all seemed to look older for one thing, more serious, and they acted in a more adult way, as if their minds had matured earlier than they should have. Was it because of two World wars in a relatively short space of time that made people in the 1950's somehow different. Or at least when I look back, they seemed different. Different from the following generations of which I am a part. I have often wondered if this was simply because I was a child at the time. I suppose even young adults look to be old when you are a child.
Most of the men had served in the forces, seen and done terrible things, and lost friends or relatives in the conflict. The ones who were left behind had to live with the fear of the bombings, of which the East End had more than its fair share. Quite a few of them had gone through both wars.
Yes, looking back it's no wonder they looked older, earlier than the adults of today. By the time the fifties arrived, things were getting back to normal, and on this page I will try to recall aspects of family life as seen through my young eyes. I'll try to avoid the usual bullshit, about how hard those times were, because they couldn't have been a fraction as bad as the generations before had endured...

Healthy eating

The milkman’s horse

Everything was cooked from fresh in those days. All the meat and vegetables came straight from farm, to shop, to table, with only an occasional tin of something being used. When I say occasional I mean the odd tin of processed peas or baked beans with dinner and a tin of Sockeye Salmon on special occasions. There just wasn't the variety of tinned food in the local shops. supermarkets were yet to make an appearance. I think 'Key Market' was the first one to open in Bethnal Green Road in the early sixties.
There was less insistence on hygiene laws where food was sold and I think that’s what built our resistance to some of today’s childhood diseases.
Frozen foods were non existent because no-one had a freezer. In fact hardly anyone even had a refrigerator! I remember our first fridge, and I must have been eleven or twelve when we got that. Even the cat had to drink sterilized milk in our house because the cows milk would go off in the hot weather, especially if nobody was at home when the milkman left it on the doorstep in the sun!

Speaking of milk, something else that has almost disappeared is the local milkman with his battery operated float. It's too easy to nip into Tesco now and pick up a fresh pint. Our milkman, Jim, lived in our street, Robinson Road, and still used a horse and cart. He parked it outside our street door on Sundays. I remember we used to stroke the horse and it always show it's gratitude by dumping a pile of manure in the kerb. I was glad at the time that the houses on the opposite side of the street had gardens at the back. Our side had small concrete yards. My granddad used to send me up with a shovel full of it for his mate across the street. "To put on his Rhubarb". "Ugh! I prefer custard on mine", I thought to myself.

Spotted Dick and custard

No fast food shops

Food we take for granted now and eat frequently were too expensive back then, because the farming methods differed. There were no modern day factory farms turning out livestock for food at today’s rate. Chicken was a luxury, served only for Sunday dinner periodically. In fact some families only ever got to see chicken on the table at Christmas. I didn't find out what Turkey tasted like until after I was married! After's, which we now refer to as dessert, were also a Sunday only luxury. Normally a Spotted Dick or home made jam tart with custard. On special occasions we would have tinned pineapple or peaches with Carnation or Libby’s evaporated milk poured over it (cream was another Christmas only luxury). Sometimes though, I would be allowed to take the cream off the top of a bottle of gold top milk if the weather allowed a break from the sterilized. The cat was grateful for a break from sterilized as well, it was OK in tea or Camp coffee, but tasted terrible to drink alone. My favourite after's were Pineapple chunks. I used to like the way they made the milk curdle when you poured it over. The trouble with all this fresh food though, and the fact that there were no supermarkets and no fridges and freezers to stock up, was that some poor sod had to run to the shops every time mum forgot something. Halfway through my game of run outs the dreaded shout came from the street door. "Quick, run round Russia Lane to Alice's veg shop and get a pound of carrot and onion" she would say. "And don’t dawdle, I've got the water on the boil already". It was either go, or get no dinner!

There were no McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken shops around then. The only take away I can remember, was fish and chips with a Wally, or a couple of penny onions. You could always take away from the pie and mash shop, but almost everyone ate it in the shop. I was courting my wife by the time the first Chinese takeaway opened in Cambridge Heath Road (It's still there now), that must have been in the mid sixties. Nowadays people have so many fast food shops and ready made meals from supermarkets. Life is so much simpler for the housewife and mother. Mind you, I don’t envy the husbands or kids, they don’t know what they are missing by not having a home made meal with no additives and no goodness spoilt by the use of chemicals.

I always knew what was for tea on Sunday afternoons. In the morning the Winkle man would arrive with his handcart and park it by the wall at the back of the hospital. A couple of shouts from him (never could make out what he was actually shouting), and he had a long queue in front of him, including me. That's another thing we did in those days that seems to be a dying art now, especially at bus stops, queue! A pint of Winkles, A pint of shrimps, Mussels, Whelks, Cockles. Sunday tea was always seafood with bread and butter (or margarine). I used to sit there with my pin digging the Winkles out of their shell, sticking the little black hats all over my face. Happy days.

The versatile loaf

Dripping from the Sunday roast was always saved. Poured into a pudding basin when hot, it soon solidified into a thick white mass with brown jelly at the bottom. This was for ‘bread and scrape’. We spread the dripping on bread or toast with a bit of salt and pepper.  Another snack we used to get was sugar bread. Just spread the butter on the bread and rub it in the sugar bowl. Not very good for the teeth, but it made us eat the bread! Like most things then, it never went to waste. All stale bread was collected and used for other tasty treats, mainly bread pudding. Not the mass produced rubbish you buy now, but proper thick spicy chunks, bulging with raisins and currants. Bread and butter pudding was another way to use up the stale loaf and the milk that would ‘go off’ tomorrow.

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