A Century of Transport - The Return of Peace - a Drab or Dynamic Time?
Some commentators would have us believe that the late 1940s and 1950s was a dismal period with people's lives blighted by Victorian attitudes and the wreckage of war, beset by rationing and the threat of nuclear annihilation. In fact, much changed between 1946 and 1959 and, not surprisingly, even the latter seems a foreign place compared to the Britain of the 21st Century.
Wartime rationing persisted into the 1950s and Britain's pride, its Empire, was crumbling. 1952, the year that Queen Elizabeth II began her long reign, was undoubtedly grim. In addition to the death of the much loved King George VI, there were lethal floods and a winter smog (a deadly mixture of fog and smoke that took thousands of lives. The latter led to smoke control legislation which transformed air quality in cities.
The coronation of the Queen in June 1953 co-incided with a new optimistic era of growing prosperity. Life remained far from perfect in the 1950s but virtually everybody was certain of one thing - each year would be better than the previous one - leading to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's famous statement "You've never had it so good!" Many of today's gadgets would delight people transported suddenly from the 1950s but they would not necessarily be astounded because they came from an era when anything seemed possible. On the contrary, quite possibly they would be surprised that we have gone backwards in many respects. The big thing then was space travel, which began in the 1950s. It was the source of countless science fiction movies, yet not much has developed since the Moon landings in 1969. "Illogical, Captain!", as Mr Spock would surely say.
1950s life could be joyous - this was the decade of jive, skiffle and rock 'n' roll, after all. Bill Haley, Elvis and company were for the exclusive pleasure of the young, however. They were the first teenagers to have a culture of their own. Britain was otherwise still a place where pleasures were to be enjoyed quietly. People were horrified if you enjoyed yourself at the inconvenience of others. The once legendary courtesy of the British still ruled, it was a civilised place and you were safe to walk the streets, largely litter free, almost anywhere at any time of day or night.
Diplomacy in the hands of the ruling class had failed to avoid two World Wars in the first half of the century. The working class had gone to war twice, the first being an appalling slaughter, and was less inclined to be pushed around. A Socialist government had been voted in at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Social etiquette dating from the Victorian era could still suffocate but was breaking down. Somewhere since the Fifties the breaking down of barriers seems to have accidentally removed the foundations of civilised society; there was probably a week around 1966 when British society was in perfect balance between uptight propriety and the near anarchy that some feel prevails today!
There was a much greater feeling of certainty in the 1950s, despite the Cold War and the nuclear threat. Big employers had probably been around for decades and British goods were in demand at home and abroad. Shops, from big stores to local grocery outlets, had similar permanence although a new fangled American idea called supermarkets made their first appearance but surely would not catch on as one had to serve oneself without the help and advice of counter staff! The Empire may have been crumbling but the Commonwealth was seen as a splendid institution with close bonds to Great Britain, the mother country. 1950s people would have been horrified at the thought of abandoning close ties with the Commonwealth in favour of Europe - many European countries were viewed with great suspicion in those early postwar years.
A holiday 'on the Continent', however, was seen as a great luxury with coach operators providing more and more tours as prosperity increased as the decade progressed. At the outset of the 1950s, however, few people could afford to go abroad. Passengers booking a Midland Red continental coach tour would find themselves aboard a Sheffield United Tours coach, commencing from that Yorkshire city. Travel to Sheffield the previous day was recommended because of the early start. The coach took all day over pre-motorway roads travelling via Chesterfield, Mansfield, Newark and London before achieving the overnight stop in Folkestone. The Continent was at last achieved the next day (day three for a Midland Red passenger!), inevitably by sea crossing via Dover and Ostend. Restrictive currency controls were also in force - no wonder people found it easier to holiday at home!
Air travel was still regarded as exotic and glamorous. Mass travel abroad by air would not come until jet aircraft slashed the cost.
The years immediately after the war saw people wanting to get out and about but there was fuel rationing and new cars were hard to obtain as much production was earmarked for export as part of a national endeavour to repay wartime debt. 1940s public transport, still heavily dependent on tired prewar vehicles, had to take the strain and long queues were not the best message to promote future bus travel.
Midland Red had, by 1950, received several hundred new buses and most had been used to expand services. Bus operators were on top of the demand but it was not to last. The emerging prosperity of the 1950s would prove not to be good for the bus industry. The fortunes of the bus operators changed from an all-time peak in 1950 to something rather less encouraging by the end of the decade.
There were several increases in fuel tax and fares had to rise. The Coronation of the new Queen in June 1953 was shown live on television and everybody aspired to own one. This was disastrous for the cinema industry and, along with it, evening bus travel. Buses were thus only running at a profit over a shorter period of the day and the cycle of fare rises continued. This in turn caused further passenger loss to cars, now available in quantity. By the end of the decade, the fortunes of the bus industry were far less rosy and economies rather than increases were now the preoccupation of managers, along with growing traffic congestion which was hampering reliability.
©Copyright 2003 Malcolm Keeley for the Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcestershire B47 6JX, England.
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