What was it like growing up in the Sixties? Is anyone interested? Many of the readers of this blog don’t remember life without computers, let alone life without television. So I thought I would take some time and write about what life was like for me, growing up in a small town in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s.
I was born in 1955, so as 1960 dawned I was 4. I have virtually no memories of 1959, so my memories really come from 1960 and beyond. I am the little person on the right, this was taken in 1960.
1960 – What Was Life Like?
Britain was coming out of its post war austerity. White goods were starting to become available, and people were becoming a little more affluent. Unfortunately it hadn’t quite reached our household. My parents owned their own home, but we spent most of our time in the building where my father had grown up, ran the family photography business from, and which had been owned by his family for 80+ years.
This was a massive old building, with 29 rooms over 4 floors, a shop underneath (rented out), 3 flats (rented out), my Dad’s business and our family rooms, which were spread throughout the house, over all 4 stories…. My Mum worked with my Dad full-time, so when not in school we used this old building as our playground! There were loads of nooks and crannies and cupboards that hadn’t been looked in for years. Hide and Seek could often take a while! We definitely made our own entertainment.
In 1960, we had no fridge, no TV, no car, no central heating – only open fires, water heated by an old ‘pot-bellied’ stove, no electric immersion heater, no automatic washing machine. Chilblains were a fact of life every winter, stuffed material sausage dogs were at the bottom of many doors to keep the draughts out (and there were many of them!) Curtains were also put across the doors as well as the windows, to ‘keep the heat in’. Yes, there was ice on the inside of the windows when it was really cold. In summer, the fire had to go on to get hot water for your bath, even if the weather was really hot. We did have a phone though!
As a child you accept what life is like. None of my friends were any better off…..
Below is a picture of my brother taken on a lovely sunny but windy day in Portrush about 1963, with 1 car visible. Today that same picture would be full of cars, even on a winters day.
What I remember more than anything else is the freedom we had, from quite an early age. We spent our summers in my Dad’s old family home in the centre of the town. Our own home was rented out to holiday makers. (It helped to pay the mortgage!) The main drawback to this was that when the business was shut, the front door was locked, so from I was about 7 or 8, I had a key round my neck on a bit of string, so I could get in without having to wait for someone to answer the door. With the key came freedom. My friend and I would roam the town. Portrush is on a peninsula, so there is the West Strand and the East Strand. The East Strand was our playground, and all the rocks and pools. We spent the days paddling, swimming, climbing sandhills, (and then rolling back down them!), playing on the beach. Endlessly burning off our energy.
We would head out about 10:30am (having already done a few chores in the house. Everyone had to help!), stop home briefly for some lunch, then not come back until we were tired and hungry (and probably quite dirty…) in the late afternoon. Far more freedom than my children were able to have, a generation later. My mother wasn’t too worried about what we were up to, because ultimately she trusted us to stay within the agreed boundaries. No further than x, and behave yourselves. If you got into any trouble, you were very well aware that the news would get back home ahead of you. Growing up in a small town comes with a price, everyone knows everyone else, so if you were misbehaving, the nearest adult would take you to task, with the dreaded words – your mother will hear about this!
Supermarkets definitely hadn’t reached our town. The town had a myriad of small independent, family owned shops. Between butchers, grocers, greengrocers, bakers, dairies, haberdashery shops, a hardware shop, shoe shops, a cobblers it was a bustling community. We even had our very own department store – the White House! Then, of course, there was the tourist trade – quite a few restaurants, shops and cafes, mainly catering for tourists, two cinemas, not to mention quite a few pubs! My mother once told me that she didn’t leave the town for about 18 months when my brother and I were small, so the town must have had every type of shop needed to keep us fed and clothed.
Being sent out for ‘the messages’, would mean calling at quite a few different places. The bakers for a loaf, the grocers for your tinned goods, the dairy for the butter. Mum would hand us a wicker basket, and some money, and off we went. We had to note on the shopping list what we were charged, and then we had to add it all up, and check our change when we got back! Pounds, shillings and pence – it was very good for our arithmetic!
Everyone knew your name, and you addressed adults as Mr X or Mrs Y – no first name terms. We were expected to be polite, because if you weren’t, your mother would soon hear about it!
Our treat each week was 4oz of sweets on a Saturday. We might persuade our Mum to buy a bottle of lemonade, every now and then. No crisps, peanuts, pretzels etc. A snack was a biscuit and a glass of milk.
Today the same town is still friendly, but it is easy to be anonymous. That didn’t happen in 1960. Everybody knew your business.
Every house had at least one radio or wireless as my Dad would have called it. In our house they were tuned to the Home Service (serious programmes), no Light programme (music…). With no TV, and an aunt who had spent most of her life in America, we listened to Alastair Cooke’s Letter from America every Sunday evening. I was taught to knit, crochet, sew and cook. My brother didn’t have to do any of that! Even though my Mum worked as much as my Dad did, she also had to cook and clean.
If you were lucky your family had a radiogram, so you could listen to records (we didn’t have one! Maybe that’s why I rarely listen to music today…)
There were two active theatre groups in the town, my mother was a member of one, and my Dad of the other. I often wondered why they went to different ones, but I suspect it was purely practical – no babysitters needed. The highlight of the year was the annual pantomime in January! Every week in the summer, there was a different theatre programme, and from I was 10 or 11, I would be ‘volunteered’ by my mother to sell programmes, but then I got to watch the show for free.
There was a cinema in the town, but we didn’t get to go very often. The library was very small with only a couple of shelves of children’s books, but we circulated books among friends and families. Enid Blyton, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women. I read avidly, all day, if I was allowed to!
1969 – How the world had changed by then
I was rather too young to have enjoyed / made the most of the swinging sixties. However in that decade, life changed for everyone in a myriad of ways.
In July 1969, men landed on the moon. We sat up late and watched it on television. Yes, radio had ceased to be our only form of entertainment – 3 channels on the television, although Northern Ireland hadn’t yet gone ‘colour’. In general, white goods were not only available but mainly affordable. We had an automatic washing machine (no more mangles…), even a tumble drier, not only a fridge but a freezer too. A car had arrived in our house, or rather the garage! My Mum definitely noticed a difference with these ‘labour-saving’ devices. No fitted kitchen yet, that was still ahead of us!
We weren’t alone. Many homes, which had started the 60’s with only a few luxuries, definitely ended the decade with more. Given we lived by the seaside, and that the majority of my friends’ families made their money from tourism, there was no opportunity for summer trips to Spain. Everybody was far too busy. Other members of my family were a bit more fortunate – by the end of the decade, my city cousins had been camping on the continent – it seemed so posh! My other aunt who was a teacher, enjoyed her Mediterranean cruise, but look at the style- no jeans or joggers then! It could almost be an advertisement for the ‘joys of cruising!’
We were still a long way from today’s electronic devices. Record players while still chunky, were smaller than their predecessors, there were portable cassette players, instead of huge reel to reel tapes. Even children’s games were changing. The decade started with a fairly restricted set, but as the decade came to a close, Lego had arrived, along with a huge variety of board games not to mention a far wider range of books.
Clothes were brighter, easier to look after. By the end of the decade, it was as if everything had gone colour, much like photographs moving from black and white to colour. Even trainers were starting to make an appearance.
Shopping was changing too. With the availability of cars and better storage facilities, more people went to the supermarket in the big town nearby, rather than shopping each day in local shops. The shops that had been run by the same family for generations, were finding that the next generation were not wanting to take them on, and that their trade was evaporating, almost in front of their eyes.
Food was changing too. Things like pizza and spaghetti had started to make their appearance. Cans of coke and bags of crisps were readily available. It wouldn’t be long before Portrush would have a Chinese restaurant.
Mind you, motorbikes and the clothing hadn’t changed much in 1968. No brightly coloured bikes, leathers or helmets in those days!
Brands Hatch 1968
1960’s – Hit or Miss?
In the 1960’s in the UK, there was a programme on a Saturday night, Juke Box Jury, where David Jacobs would play the current ‘popular’ records, and a panel would decide ‘Hit or Miss‘. (I remember this programme so clearly, yet when I did the research for this post, I find the programme stopped in 1967!)
For me, the 60’s were a definite Hit. The freedom that the decade opened up, an opportunity to question and change what had gone before. The access to a more open and a better, more comfortable life. However, it came with a price. It took away that lovely small community that I remember with love and affection, where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was invariably polite, kind and caring of their neighbours. It removed so many of the small shops, in favour of the supermarkets and it changed the landscape of so many towns.
However, I don’t miss the coal fires, the draughts, the chilblains, one bath per week. I definitely don’t miss helping my Mum with the wash on a Wednesday afternoon. (Her half-day off from work, when she worked even harder than she did in the family business!) Many years later, my Mum and Dad moved into a modern house, and Mum said her biggest delight was being able to press the ‘On’ button for the central heating, no more laying of fires or clearing out coal fire grates, no more carrying coal up several flights of stairs.
Me – as the decade ended!
Are any of you old enough to remember the 60’s? What are your views?
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(Note: I am away for the next few days, back to Northern Ireland and Portrush, so I might take a few days to answer comments. I won’t have wi-fi. Please be patient!)