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Monday, 28 February 2011

Living on Benefits in the 1960s

This is autobiography.

In 1962, after lodging with my mother's brother and his wife for a year, my mother (then aged 54) and I (14)moved to 16 Sheridan Road, Lower Belvedere - administratively in Kent but really in south east London.

I will describe the accommodation in detail.

The flat occupied the ground floor of a Victorian red-brick terraced house, divided into two flats with a shared front door and hallway, with stairs leading to the upstairs flat, occupied by a London docker and his wife, Mr and Mrs Gerrard.

The first room off the hall was quite spacious with west-facing double sash windows, making it light. This was my mother's bedroom and remained so until she died in 1978. It had no heating - there was no electric socket. For some time, it was without floor covering, but my mother had a dressing table and wardrobe. At some point, we were given a large carpet and I think my mother later added an armchair so that she could sit there on sunny days.

The next room off the hall was my room until I went to University in 1965; I used it intermittently thereafter. It also had no heating, again because there was no electric socket, though there was an old gas lamp still supplied with gas - I lit it on a couple of occasions but did not dare risk regular use. There was no floor covering. There were large windows facing east and in winter this room was very cold with ice sometimes forming on the inside of the windows. I had a wardrobe and built-in cupboard.

I studied for my A levels in this room, sitting on a stool and using the top of a chest of drawers as my desk, and if it was cold, I wore my overcoat. In this room I memorised large parts of Samuelson - my A level textbook of economics.

The third door in the hallway led to the living room, a small damp room with a small window looking into the back yard. There was an electric socket allowing this room to be heated and to house a wireless.

It was on this valve wireless that I heard the news of President Kennedy's assassination. I recall this as the last time that I consciously prayed. I continued through my teens to be interested in religion but ceased to believe. My mother read her Bible regularly and when modern translations of the Bible appeared (the New English Bible), I gave them to her as birthday presents.

My mother's brothers and sisters gave us a dining table and two upright chairs, two armchairs, a sideboard, and a china display cabinet. To begin with, we had newspaper on the floor to stop the draughts through the boards and later we were given some lino. I think that it was after I had gone to University that my mother acquired a TV.

She never acquired a telephone, but there was a public booth opposite the house and, in time, she learnt to use this. But when at the age of 18 I collapsed with an allergic reaction to the antibiotics (sulphonamides) prescribed to me for bronchitis, she fetched the doctor by running to his surgery.

A cupboard off this room was the pantry and in warm weather a bucket of cold water was placed inside to help keep milk cool.

A door off this room led to the kitchen, which I painted and tiled soon after we moved in. There was a deep sink with a cold tap, a gas cooker, and a contraption (I forget the name) which used gas to heat water either for boiling clothes or for supplying hot water to the tin bath kept in a corner. I had a bath once a week. This organisation of the kitchen did not change in the 16 or so years my mother lived in the flat.

Outside, there was a pair of brick-built toilets, one for each of the two flats. As there was no light, after dark you took a torch.

In about 1963, the Headmaster of Marlborough College, John Dancy, published a book The Public Schools and the Future which I read. As you do when you are an angry young teenager, I wrote to him expressing my scepticism and in reply received an invitation to stay at Marlborough for a few days, accompanied by two or three of my fellow Bromley Grammar School sixth formers. In exchange, we were expected to accept a return visit and a boy called Charles Hicks lodged with me - he had my bed and I slept on the floor. I think my home must have been a talking point, because another Marlborough boy, Redmond O'Hanlon, asked to swap with Hicks. My mother said no.

The rent was about thirty shillings (£1.50) per week and my mother had a basic income of about £5 per week at this period. Because my father did not pay his court-ordered maintenance, and because my mother was much of the time not fit enough to work, we were supported by the National Assistance Board (later the Ministry of Social Security). In addition to their support, from the age of 15 I received allowances from Kent County Council for school uniform and a Free Dinner pass. I also worked in my school holidays, beginning when I reached my 15th birthday in July 1962 and took a summer holiday job with the London Trustee Savings Bank in Fleet Street. I forget how much I earned though the figure of £3 something comes to mind, about half of which went on train fares.


Added 24 July 2018: I have now published a memoir of my childhood I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

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