By Tim Lambert

Changes in Society

In the 1950s large numbers of West Indians arrived in Britain. Also from the 1950s, many Asians came. In the late 20th century Britain became a multi-cultural society. Also, in the 1950s young people had significant disposable income for the first time. A distinct 'youth culture' emerged, first with teddy boys, then in the 1960s with mods and rockers and in the late 1970s with punks and also with rock music. A revolution in music was led by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. Unemployment was very low in the 1950s and 1960s and it was a long period of prosperity. By 1959 about two-thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However, fridges and washing machines did not become really common until the 1960s. Meanwhile, plastic or PVC was first used in the 1940s. By the 1960s all kinds of household goods from drain pipes to combs were made of plastic.

In the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work.

However in the early 1950s many homes still did not have bathrooms and only had outside lavatories. The situation greatly improved in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s and 1960s, large-scale slum clearance took place when whole swathes of old terraced houses were demolished. High-rise flats replaced some of them. However, flats proved to be unpopular with many people. Some people who lived in the new flats felt isolated. The old terraced houses may have been grim but at least they often had a strong sense of community, which was usually not true of the flats that replaced them.

In 1968 a gas explosion wrecked a block of flats at Ronan Point in London and public opinion turned against them. In the 1970s the emphasis turned to renovate old houses rather than replacing them. Following an act of 1946 new towns were built. Villages or small market towns were selected to take the 'overflow' populations of large cities like London. The new towns were greatly enlarged. New houses and factories were built to take the 'immigrants' from the big cities. It was the first time since the Middle Ages that large numbers of new towns were created. Among the new towns were Andover, Basingstoke, Crawley and Stevenage.

Meanwhile many town centres were 'redeveloped' in the 1960s and new shopping centers and car parks were built. Ironically at the same time increasingly strenuous efforts were made to protect old buildings.

The way people shopped also changed. In the early 20th century people usually went to small local shops such as a baker or butcher. The shops usually did deliveries. If you went to the butcher you paid for meat and a butcher's boy on a bicycle delivered it. The first supermarket in Britain opened in 1948. In the 1950s and 1960s supermarkets replaced many small shops. Meanwhile, the first cash dispensing machine in Britain was installed in 1967.

Cars increased in number after World War II. By 1959 32% of households owned a car. Yet cars only became really common in the 1960s. In the mid-20th century, there was a large network of branch railways. However, in 1963 a minister called Dr. Beeching closed many of them. Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, only a small minority of people had a telephone. They did not become common till the 1960s.

Television began in Britain in 1936 when the BBC began broadcasting. TV was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. TV first became common in the 1950s. A lot of people bought a TV set to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II and a survey at the end of that year showed that about one-quarter of households had one. By 1959 about two-thirds of homes had a TV. By 1964 the figure had reached 90% and TV had become the main form of entertainment - at the expense of cinema, which declined in popularity. At first, there was only one TV channel but between 1955 and 1957 the ITV companies began broadcasting. BBC2 began in 1964 and Channel 4 began in 1982. In Britain BBC2 began broadcasting in color in 1967, BBC 1 and ITV followed in 1969.

Following the 1944 Education Act all children had to sit an exam called the 11 plus. Those who passed went to grammar schools while those who failed went to secondary modern schools. However, in the late 1950s public opinion began to turn against the system and in the 1960s and early 1970s most schools became comprehensives. There was a huge expansion of higher education in Britain in the 1960s and many new universities were founded.

Meanwhile new sweets were introduced, Bounty (1951), Munchies (1957), Picnic (1958), Galaxy (1960), Caramac (1959), Topic (1962) Toffee Crisp (1963)and Twix (1967). Meanwhile, Starburst went on sale in 1960 and chewits were introduced in 1965. The first ready salted crisps were sold in 1960. Flavored crisps followed in 1962.

In Britain the health of ordinary people greatly improved when the National Health Service was founded in 1948.In the 1950s Dr. Jonas Salk invented a vaccine for poliomyelitis. A vaccine for measles was discovered in 1963. Meanwhile, surgery made great advances. The most difficult surgery was on the brain and the heart. Both of these developed rapidly in the 20th century. The first heart transplant was performed in 1967.

The laser was invented in 1960. In 1964 it was used in eye surgery for the first time. The laser printer was invented by Gary Starkweather in 1969. Meanwhile, the invention of fiber optics in the 1950s made possible the development of endoscopes in the 1960s. Contraceptive pills became available in Britain in 1961.

Meanwhile in 1957 the Homicide Act abolished hanging for certain kinds of murder. It was still allowed for murder during a theft, by shooting or explosion and for the murder of a police officer or prison officer while on duty. A person who was convicted of more than one murder could also be hanged. The death penalty for murder was abolished for an experimental period of 5 years in 1965. It was abolished permanently in 1969. However, in schools teachers were still allowed to hit children.

Life in Britain in the Second World War

Life in Britain in the 19th Century

Life in England in the 18th Century

A History of England


Last revised 2019