Family Britain: 1951–57

Adrian Bingham enjoys a portrait of a nation on the cusp of modernity

 
Author: David Kynaston
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Reviewed by: Adrian Bingham
Price (RRP): £25

Was 1950s Britain a contented era of stable family life, close-knit communities and low crime? Or a grey decade of stifling conformity, rigid social hierarchies and sexual repression? David Kynaston provides evidence for both sides of the debate in his magisterial history of the period from the Festival of Britain to Eden’s resignation after the Suez fiasco. The second volume in his projected history of Britain from 1945 to 1979, it follows the acclaimed Austerity Britain and is written in a similar style, drawing upon a wealth of evidence from diaries, letters, social surveys, memoirs, newspapers and magazines. Although he provides a basic political narrative, his main aim is to describe the everyday life of ordinary people. This is about shopping and television-watching, smoking and pub-going, work, leisure and domestic routines. But the author’s skill, and the vividness of the testimony that he uncovers, is such that the journey is never mundane: there is plenty of humour, irony and raw human emotion to sustain the reader .

So what sort of picture emerges from this carefully assembled mosaic? Kynaston is sparing with his analysis, preferring to let the contemporary voices speak for themselves, but the overriding impression is of a deeply conservative nation sticking to familiar attitudes while being gently challenged by the forces of change.

Food, jobs and homes, he writes, were the holy trinity of the period: food increasingly plentiful as rationing was eased and then ended, full employment sustaining a feeling of growing prosperity, and the rapid construction of houses and flats reshaping the urban landscape and bringing greater convenience to family life. The rise and rise of television – boosted by Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and the introduction of ITV two years later – provided a new form of domestic entertainment that was eagerly consumed despite elite anxieties about Americanisation. Yet tension and discontent bubbled away too. Kynaston brilliantly evokes the disappointment of those who failed the 11-plus exam, the anger of West Indian immigrants faced with social rejection, and the shame of those prosecuted for homosexuality. 

With the benefit of hindsight it is clear this was the end of an era. The deference to authority and respect for institutions that characterised the 1950s would soon be seriously eroded; the dispersal of communities into high-rise flats, and the spread of the car, would alter the rhythms of life; most importantly the deepening of consumerism in the affluent 1960s would alter the aspirations of men and women. In the afterword, Kynaston looks ahead to “modernity Britain”, when these developments and many others wrenched the nation into the future. Those reaching the afterword will in all likelihood already be looking forward to the next instalment in this magnificent series. This is the richest and most readable account of postwar Britain yet published.  

Dr Adrian Bingham is senior lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield

 

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