The Feckless Fifties

York is one of the few British cities that is blessed with authoritative, extensive and detailed research on its social life and activity. Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871 – 1954) first reported on York’s social situation in 1899,   inspired and stimulated by the research work of his father Joseph Rowntree in York, and of Charles Booth in London. One of the first statistical studies ever conducted, his comprehensive, no holds barred, no stone unturned survey into the living conditions of the York poor involved investigators visiting almost every working class home; in other words 11,560 families or 46,754 individuals. Rowntree’s findings were published in his 1901 ground breaking, landmark study, Poverty: A Study of Town Life – a book which helped lay the foundations for the modern welfare state and established the poverty bar as a credible benchmark. His description of Hungate then, gives a flavour of this exhaustive work and neatly summarises the situation: he describes the area as typical of urban slum life while only too mindful that by no means everyone there was so feckless: ‘reckless expenditure of money as soon as obtained, with the aggravated want at other times; the rowdy Saturday night, the Monday morning pilgrimage to the pawn shop…the despair of so many social workers’.

Two further York studies followed. Seebohm’s third York poverty survey was published in 1951 as Poverty and the Welfare State, with George Russell Lavers. The subtitle was A Third Social Survey of York Dealing only with Economic Questions. It concluded that poverty was now considerably less of a problem, despite remaining pockets, mainly amongst the elderly. Welfare benefits, though, could eradicate much of this. Primary poverty afflicted 846 families and was down to 2.77% of the working population and 1.66% of the total population compared with 31.1% and 17.7% in 1936. 68% of these poor people were in poverty because they were elderly; sickness accounted for a further 21%. Significantly, the focus on old age was to make elderliness a major focus in subsequent poverty studies.

But it is to his 1951 work with G.R. Lavers that we must turn for a remarkable and unique insight into early 50s York life: that study is English Life and Leisure: A Social Study. The interviews, often somewhat impressionistic and judgmental, are nothing if not frank; they nevertheless shine fascinating light into an obscure corner of life at the time, as these random selections show:

‘Mrs. W. is distrustful of her fellow humans for most of them look down on her and show it. She might be any age between 40 and 55, but says she is 39. She is enormously fat, to an extent that defies description, and though she lives in a large, well-fitted council house in a large town, she is a complete slattern. She goes about with her clothes unfastened, bare feet thrust into muddy carpet slippers, long black hair uncombed, dirty hands and dirty face. Two men live with her, to one of whom she is married, and her children are divided between them. She is now pregnant again and it is astonishing that either of the men both decent working-class types could copulate with such a monstrous creature. Mrs. W. herself had her first child at the age of 17 out of wedlock. The child, a girl, in turn had her first child at the age of 17 out of wedlock. Mrs. W. says rather helplessly that she supposes any day now the second daughter, will probably come home and say she is “in trouble.” Because the neighbours openly scowl at Mrs. W. (“She lets down the neighbourhood”) she seldom goes out except for shopping. She is friendly once she gets over her suspicion, and the home is clean although untidy. Mrs. W. is a good cook and a devoted though not very prudent mother. She drinks spirits heavily when she can afford them (in this menage a trois there is plenty of money), and smokes heavily. She never goes to church because, she says, when she was a kid and first “in trouble” and needed a bit of help, the church people were the first to turn their noses up at her. Now she doesn’t want anything to do with them’ .

On the other hand:

‘Mrs. D. is a young housewife of 26. Her husband is an architect. They are very much in love and are anxious to get a house of their own (they are now in a furnished flat) because they want to start a family. They hope to have three children. Mrs. D. is a very gentle person who would do anything for anyone. She has not been a regular churchgoer but was married in church and has started going occasionally. As far as can be told, her life has no vice or unpleasantness of any kind, and a church could hardly make her better ! She is a teetotaler and non-smoker. Is of course innocent sexually, and does not gamble. She likes the radio, cinema and theatre, but her main recreation is looking after her husband’.

And: ‘Mr. X. is a clerk in a Government office. Aged 39, widower, no children. Keeps aged mother and unmarried sister. He professes to be an Anglo-Catholic. Earns 8 per week. Smokes fairly heavily (30 cigarettes per day, but is trying to reduce), and drinks beer, and occasionally whisky. Does not bet. Interested in politics but takes no active part. Occasionally picks up a prostitute and wishes he could afford a regular mistress. Reads several newspapers, both left- and right-wing, and is fairly well informed about current events. Reads biographies and travel books. Not interested in the cinema, but enjoys a good play. Is worried about the state of the nation and would accept a measure of dictatorship if only a national leader would appear. Oddly enough he takes days off from his work fairly frequently by taking advantage of a rule that he can be “sick” one day without a doctor’s certificate and without forfeiting pay. Was formerly a keen footballer but is now too old. Does not enjoy watching games. Gardens to grow vegetables. Not much interested beyond utilitarian aspect’.

We hear also of Mr H, twenty-two year old son of a publican who ‘smokes heavily and considers himself something of a Don Juan, has no discernible interests except gambling, women and drink … a nasty piece of work’; Mr C ‘is mildly homosexual and this had obviously sapped his moral fibre’; Mrs Z, a colonial widow who ‘probably does not stop talking long enough to enable a man to make improper advances’ and Mr P whose ‘two interests are games and women – cricket in summer, football in winter, and copulation all the year round … not a churchgoer’.

Other chapters follow on ‘Commercialized Gambling’ and ‘Drink’ where we learn that ‘the total personal expenditure on alcoholic beverages in 1948 was £762 million, compared with 285 million in 1938 … the nation was spending: (a) one-quarter more on alcohol than the total spent on rent, rates and water charges; (b) more than five and a half times as much on alcohol as on books of all kinds, and on newspapers and magazines; (c) seven shillings on alcohol for every £ spent on food’. Then ‘Smoking’, ‘Sexual Promiscuity’, ‘How Honest is Britain?’, ‘The Cinema’, ‘The Stage’, ‘Broadcasting’, ‘Dancing’, ‘Reading Habits’, ‘Adult Education’, ‘Religion’. Gambling was ‘Public Enemy No 1’ and completes the fascinating, if worrying, picture.

It is important to see this in the context of the times, but has that much really changed in the last sixty years ? It seems that the so-called feckless, fat and fornicators have always been with us…as have the judgemental.


© 2015 Paul Chrystal