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What life in the fifties was REALLY like

"Fredric" (2018-04-08)

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by Maureen Harvey (John Blake £7.99)

It's become fashionable to romanticise a Fifties, working-class childhood as a smudge-faced, urban idyll of homemade go-karts, conkers and knicker-flashing cartwheels in the streets. But Maureen Harvey's social security my account of life in Birmingham's ‘squalid and cramped' back-to-back housing provides a crisp, but lively, corrective for nostalgics.

Born in 1946, Maureen was the third of nine children born to Joe and Ruby Rainbird. The family were lucky to have (cold) running water, but the toilet was outside, along with the ‘brewuses' (communal wash houses). They washed in an old tin bath before the fire (when they could afford the coal).

Maureen Harvey gives an account of life in Birmingham's ‘squalid and cramped' back-to-back housing during the 1950s. She says the neighbours chipped in when her mum couldn't afford to play tooth fairy 

The walls were so thin, the family could hear their neighbours weeing into a bucket at night. Mice, rats and beetles nicknamed ‘black bats' populated the cellar and crawled between the cracks in the walls.

The family fought back with hand-pumped blasts of DDT bought from the Co-op, although some of the girls found the strong, toxic smell of pesticide deterred potential beaus.



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Share With Joe away during the war, Ruby struggled through the domestic grind with one toddler crawling around on the flagstones and another on the way.

Harvey recalls how, on Christmas Day 1944, the toddler knocked the clothes horse on to the fire, setting the room alight. Ruby went into labour while stamping on the flames and those thin walls came to her aid: neighbours heard her screaming, extinguished the blaze and called a local midwife.

Wash day was back-breaking: boiling laundry in copper tubs, stirring them with a dolly stick, scrubbing the collars and cuffs with the washboard, before rinsing and mangling. Some people would even remove all the buttons before washing (to ensure they didn't crack in the mangle) and sew them back on afterwards.


But Harvey looks back with affection at the cosy atmosphere in the wash house fug and the neighbours who chipped in when her mum couldn't afford to play tooth fairy.

She feels pride at the way they made use of every scrap of wood, cloth and cardboard, making dolls from broken pegs and wallpapering the bedroom with her dad's old Argus newspaper.

Harvey's childhood home was demolished in 1959, when she was 13. ‘History may have been too embarrassed to leave them standing,' she writes. The Rainbirds pulled themselves out of poverty by their own efforts and gave all the children an ‘entrepreneurial spirit': Harvey ended up owning six hairdressing salons and a second home in Spain.

But she worries children living in modern poverty, trapped and isolated in high-rises, lack the community support that underpinned her family's success. ‘I never realised it at the time,' she says, ‘but we did need a voice to speak for us back then.' She's proud to be speaking up for those in need now.



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