Here's what Berkshire Life looked like in 1955
PUBLISHED: 10:41 28 February 2017 | UPDATED: 10:41 28 February 2017
Editor Jan Raycroft opens a parcel and is transported back to the middle of the last century… with Berkshire Life
The first time I truly accepted the years were flying by was when the daughter-in-law started chatting about the hideous horrors of childbirth in “olden times” she’d witnessed on TV the night before. It turned out she was talking about ‘Call The Midwife’.
Just the night before I’d watched a Sunday episode with my mother, also imagining the scenes of nurses going round on wobbly bikes were from some alien time, only to have it pointed out that I had actually started school during the era the series was set in.
And now it’s happened again… this time courtesy of a little parcel delivered to the magazine’s office and addressed to me. Inside was a letter from my late great aunt Ida’s daughter, Valerie, who had found something very interesting in their Windsor home while going through old photographs and keepsakes.
There was a photograph of my own grandmother, Eva McKelvie nee Pilgrim, a woman always ahead of her time, who had entertained me in childhood with stories of growing up on Queens Eyot island in the Thames where her parents ran the clubhouse, providing food and drink for Eton boys who had rowed down.
Alongside Valerie’s note were two copies of Berkshire Life from 1955. Not the publication you are reading today, but a magazine then published by the Reading Standard newspaper from Valpy Street. This newspaper ran from 1891 until 1965 when it was re-launched as the Evening Post (which itself became just an online publication in December 2014).
But back to the intriguing contents of the parcel. Priced at sixpence – two and a half pence today – the monthly magazine was clearly a gem, recording social life across the county. The two 1955 copies I now have mean that the first was published while my mother was waiting to ‘Call the Midwife’ (actually I was born in Old Windsor Hospital as she was living in Horton at the time) and by the time the second was published her bump had vanished and she had a month old daughter instead.
Back to 1955...
Together we’ve pored over both copies, laughing and enjoying the contents. The magazines, both in their editorial content and advertising, tell the story of a post-war era when memories of conflict are fading and Baby Boomer time is in full swing as families look to improve their lives with all manner of modern attractions and home technology. The big word is ‘luxury’, appearing time after time in advertisements.
There are some familiar names too, some still with us, others, like The Reading Standard, now part of the past. Businesses like Martin & Pole, land and estate agents, auctioneers, valuers and surveyors, are still in Broad Street, Wokingham, and in 1955 were advertising their ‘spacious central furniture auction rooms’.
Jacksons of Reading, established at Jacksons Corner on Kings Road in 1875, closed its remaining store in the town three years ago, but in 1955 had seven branches. A department store treasure trove, it was a supplier of uniforms for some 50 public and state schools. I had to go there to buy an expensive kit for my own son in the mid-1990s when they were still using those pneumatic tubes to whizz cash and sales slips around the store.
At G Sleep of Kings Road, Reading, the big draw was Easi-fix panels to transform your kitchen: ‘Revel in the colour and luxury of their smooth-as-glass plastic surfaces!’. You glued them over the probably Victorian or Edwardian wooden fittings many modern day restorers now search for to strip back to an original period look.
And the Aga had arrived in a big way at Edwards & Godding of Market Place, Newbury, and the showroom in Oxford Road, Reading. There was also great excitement over the pleasure of having as much hot water as one could desire – Southern Electricity Service was promoting ‘the luxury life’ of an immersion heater for £2 and 5 shillings deposit and then 1s 6d a week.
Another sign of changing times is the sheer number of small laundries advertising their services to the middle classes in competition with the mass arrival of home washing machines from companies such as Hotpoint.
Similarly, families were warned ‘you don’t know what you are missing’ if they had failed to buy a television. They needed to urgently head to Herbert Lascelles in St Mary’s Butts and Friar Street, or Currys (‘Come to the Experts’ as ‘Television needs Expert Handling’) in West Street, Reading.
And everyone needed a car, from family models to big beasts such as the Humber Super Snipe (‘Beauty and Luxury perfectly matched’), available from Nias Ltd of Herborough House, Newbury. Their home is now the site of Sainsbury’s superstore, but at the time they were distributors for The Rootes Group. Their Humber Hawk 6-seater luxury estate car would set you back the equivalent of £33,000 today (white wall tyres and chrome rimfinishers extra!).
Nothing as vulgar as price of a Super Snipe is mentioned of course, but for those on more of a budget, The Standard Eight was offered as outstanding value at £339 plus £142 purchase tax (forerunner of VAT) by Julians of Reading in Kings Road.
Wellsteeds in Broad Street, Reading, was a department store, next to what is now the entrance to The Oracle. Within the fashion pages they advertised ‘genuine Harris Tweed perfect travel or country coats’ for ladies with inset or raglan sleeves for eight and a half guineas.
And for the gents Milwards admit their latest show range is ‘Yes! A little informal but suitable for many business occasions’. We are not talking trainers here, but what appear to be shiny dress shoes in calf leather for around £62 a pair in today’s prices.
Blakes Sports in Minster Street, Reading, had quickly caught on to the world of celebrity in their particular field. Customers could purchase cricket bats autographed by the likes of Don Bradman, Denis Compton or Len Hutton for under £4.50 (around £112 in modern day rates). Blakes also supplied football boots to stars such as England centre forward Roy Bentley who played 367 games for Chelsea and captained the club to their first League Championship in the 1954-55 season.
Reading Fine Art Gallery in Cross Street asserted that as well as having the complete range of Penguin books, readers should not decide on Christmas presents before visiting their gallery.
Who wrote that?
So the advertising tells the story of a changing era… but what about the editorial content of 1955 Berkshire Life? The first thing I did was cringe – not at the magazine but at my now lost belief that I’d been coming up with completely new ideas since taking over the editorship six years ago.
What’s this? A feature on all the little streams of the county. I thought I’d produced a first time gem having researched this one a couple of years back. And here are several pages on The Kennet and Avon Waterways, although I would never have given space to lists of financial receipts going back to 1838.
‘Mainly for Women’ takes a look at fashion with the latest designs from the likes of Hardy Amies, but there’s room for a chat with some American lady visitors (“They told us back home you British were cold and unfriendly” admits one), and four young Italians who miss spaghetti and macaroni as it’s not in any restaurants here.
Ah yes, food… ‘Mainly for Women’ promotes flans as the cook’s best standby, and comes over all exotic with a ‘Jamaican Casket Gateau’ cake which includes a drop of rum and chocolate bottle sweets.
In a time when populations of towns and villages were much lower and noted families (both the gentry and ‘trade’) tended to stick around one place, the coverage of social life and personalities is fascinating.
We learn about everyone from ‘a model wife’ in Pangbourne who has paraded on the catwalk in front of the Queen, Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, to a Maidenhead chap back from a two-year period of service with the police force in Kenya, dealing with buffalo, lions and elephants as well as ‘the rebel terrorists’.
But perhaps the best pages are those which are the 1955 equivalent of our photographic social pages. A cartoonist went along to an event such as a military dinner or clay pigeon shoot each month to record in superb details the characters attending. We think the author might be one Fred May. The work is of the highest standard.
And some of the regular contributors of words must have been favourites with readers. What about John Gornal’s ‘From My Notebook’? He’s fed up with ‘more and more and yet more cars on the road’, even if they are quieter than previous models, and the all-round racket created by typewriters, calculating machines, radio, television, electrical gadgets in the home (legion is their name), infernal electrical drills and even helicopters.
He declares: ‘Generally speaking northerners have stronger voices than those born in the south. But southerners now have to pull out more stops to compete with challenging noises.
‘We all tend to lift up our voices ‘with strength’ and are often accused of shouting when we are just trying to win in a contest into which we have been dragged without our consent. Try and carry on a conversation in a bus, particularly in a train travelling at speed, in a genteel voice and you are in for an unequal struggle, and glad to turn to your magazine for a measure of normality’.
So let us now head back to our own 2017 ‘normality’. If any of the names mentioned in this feature have sparked memories with you, do let us know.
And thanks to Valerie for providing us with this find – I shall see if Reading Museum would like the magazines for their themed displays of eras of local life.