Life in 1950’s East London: A Time of Change and Contrast

The 1950s was a decade of significant social and economic change in London, especially in the East End. The area had suffered heavy bombing during the Second World War and was undergoing reconstruction and redevelopment. The population also changed as new immigrants arrived from the Commonwealth countries and settled in the East End.

The welfare state was expanding, providing free health care and education. But not everyone benefited from the new opportunities and prosperity. Many East Enders still lived in poverty, overcrowding and poor housing conditions. The 1950s was a time of contrast between the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the traditional and the modern.

Housing Conditions in the 1950’s East End

Poplar Railway Station, London.
Poplar Railway Station, London.
Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most striking features of life in the 1950s East End was the housing situation. Many people lived in slums, tenements or prefabs unfit for human habitation. Some had no running water, electricity or sanitation. Others lived in bomb-damaged buildings that were still awaiting repair or demolition. The government launched a massive slum clearance programme, building new council estates and high-rise flats to replace the old dwellings. Some were modern and spacious, but others were poorly designed and maintained. Many East Enders felt a loss of community and identity as they moved from their familiar streets and neighbourhoods to new and unfamiliar places.

Entertainment and leisure in the 1950’s East End

Life in the 1950s East End was not all gloom and doom despite the hardships and challenges, and there were also many sources of entertainment and leisure for the people. The East End was famous for its vibrant street markets, such as Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane and Portobello Road, where people could buy and sell all kinds of goods, from clothes and food to antiques and bric-a-brac. The markets were also places of social interaction and cultural diversity, as people from different backgrounds mingled and exchanged stories.

Hackney Empire

The East End also had a rich music hall, theatre and cinema tradition, offering cheap and cheerful entertainment for the masses. Some popular venues were the Hackney Empire, the Stratford Theatre Royal and the Troxy Cinema. The East End also had its celebrities, such as the Pearly Kings and Queens, who wore elaborate costumes decorated with buttons and pearls and collected money for charity.

Social Issues and Movements in 1950’s East End

Life in the 1950s East End was also marked by various social issues and movements that reflected the changing times. One was immigration, as thousands of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jamaica and other Commonwealth countries arrived in London after the British Nationality Act of 1948 granted them citizenship. Many of them settled in the East End, where they faced discrimination, racism and hostility from some of the locals. However, they also contributed to the area’s cultural diversity and economic vitality, bringing their languages, religions, cuisines and customs.

Another social issue was crime, as some parts of the East End became notorious for gangs, violence and corruption. The most famous gangsters were the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, who ruled the underworld with an iron fist. They were involved in gambling, extortion, robbery and murder, but they also had a glamorous image and mingled with celebrities and politicians. A third social issue was feminism, as women began challenging their traditional societal roles and expectations. The 1950s saw the emergence of new types of women, such as the career woman, who pursued professional ambitions; the teenage girl, who enjoyed fashion, music and romance; and the rebel woman, who defied conventions and norms.

The Welfare State in the 1950s

The nuns and midwives at Nonnatus House are generally respected by locals, many of whom are pleased to get free medical treatment under the relatively new NHS system. In some episodes, however, you can see evidence of the transition into free healthcare. Some patients are suspicious of their “new-fangled” midwifery ideas, having spent many years having babies at home with no/little access to medical help, as they could not afford to pay for it in the past.

Call the Midwife and the East End

Covering the work done by the nuns and midwives based at a convent, Nonnatus House, in Poplar, the show takes us back to an East End that was soon to change.

Although Call the Midwife is a ‘feel-good’ show most of the time, it also tells us a lot about the social conditions in the East End after the war and before the liberation of the 1960s. The occupants of Nonnatus house were working at a time before birth control became common, dealing with up to 100 births a month. Many of these babies were born into already large families who were not living in the best conditions. The record number of children in the show for one family is 25!

Is Nonnatus House a real place?

The author of the original books, Jennifer Worth, had worked as a trainee midwife in the area, although she worked in a different convent in Whitechapel. The convent Nonnatus House is not a real location.

The East End was being redeveloped to repair the effects of the war, and parts of the area would have looked like building sites, but you don’t see that so much in the show.

The BBC’s Call the Midwife is one of the channel’s most popular shows. Set in the East End of London in the 1950s, this heart-warming programme gives us an insight into what life was like in the East End during this period.

East London Housing
East London Housing

The show casts middle-class young midwives, who grew up outside the area, to show us how bad these conditions could be. Most trainee midwives have not seen living conditions as bad as before, and many of their clients live in poverty and cramped housing conditions. For example, many women in the area had no running water or clean sheets for birth and gave birth in squalid and slum-like conditions.

You can still see the effects of the Second World War in the show, although these have probably been a little sanitised for TV. The area was bombed heavily in the war and had not been fully redeveloped by the 1950s.

Employment was sometimes hard to come by, and the welfare state did not always give all the needed help. In some cases, older people living in poverty did not know that help was available.

The East End’s population in the 1950s

Call the Midwife does show us quite a lot about local East Enders, and we see the traditional family values and close-knit communities that the area is well known for. This area has also historically been attractive to immigrants wanting to work in the UK, and although the show doesn’t cover this in detail, it does use one episode to highlight some of the problems this caused.

In one show, the midwives work with a young West Indian woman whose family recently came to London. This episode shows the racial tensions and bias that immigrants often face. The attitudes of locals to foreigners, especially if they were non-white, were often suspicious and racist. Immigrants often moved into poor areas with few facilities and were looked down on as second-class citizens, even though they lived in the same conditions as local East Enders.

Immigration in East London during the 1950s: A Remarkable Decade of Change

The Post-War Landscape of East London

The 1950s marked a profound shift in the demographic landscape of East London, a period etched in the annals of history for the significant wave of immigration it witnessed. As a district known for its dynamic character and enduring resilience, East London transformed into a cultural melting pot, welcoming people from across the globe who sought new opportunities and a fresh start in the wake of World War II.

MV Empire Windrush.
MV Empire Windrush

A Call for Labour: The Beginning of Mass Immigration

As the city rebuilt from the rubble of the war, the need for a labour force to fuel the burgeoning industries, particularly in textiles, manufacturing, and docks, was paramount. The British government, in response, encouraged immigration from its colonies and the Commonwealth, leading to an unprecedented influx of immigrants, notably from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent.

The Windrush Generation: A New Chapter in East London

In the early part of the decade, the Windrush generation, named after the Empire Windrush ship that brought the first group of West Indian immigrants in 1948, began establishing their homes and communities in East London. They brought vibrant cultures, music, and culinary traditions, contributing significantly to the socio-cultural tapestry of the district. From the pulsating beats of reggae echoing in the streets to the tantalising aroma of jerk chicken and curries, East London began to hum with an enriched multicultural vibe.

South Asian Immigration: The Transformation of Brick Lane

Simultaneously, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, primarily India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, began to arrive in substantial numbers. Brick Lane, famously known as ‘Banglatown,’ saw a remarkable transformation, becoming a hub for curry houses and sari shops, offering an authentic slice of South Asian culture in the heart of East London.

Challenges and Tensions: The Notting Hill Riots of 1958

Immigration during the 1950s was, however, not without challenges. The sudden and substantial influx of immigrants sparked tensions, leading to societal unrest. Though not directly in East London, the infamous Notting Hill riots of 1958 served as a poignant reminder of the prevalent racial tension during that time. However, the resilient spirit of East London’s communities and the gradual acceptance and integration over the ensuing decades helped create the diverse and vibrant East End we know today.

The Legacy of the 1950s Immigration in East London Today

The 1950s in East London was a decade of change and adaptation when the waves of immigration reshaped the district. From the heartwarming tales of community spirit to the struggles against discrimination, this era was pivotal in shaping East London’s rich and diverse history. The immigrants from this period and their descendants have left an indelible mark, making East London a unique testament to multicultural Britain.

Understanding Today: The Impact of the 1950s on Modern East London

As we delve into the past, we understand the present better. The story of immigration in East London during the 1950s is more than a historical account; it’s narrative of resilience, adaptation, and cultural fusion. The legacy of this period continues to reverberate through the streets of East London, reflecting the district’s enduring spirit and multicultural heritage.

For more fascinating stories and in-depth accounts of East London’s past, please continue to explore our website, your trusted guide to the vibrant history of East London.

Conclusion: A Decade of Transformation

Life in 1950s East London was a decade of transformation for the area and its people. It was a time of change and contrast between old ways of life that were disappearing or evolving into new ones that were emerging or developing. It was a time of hardship but also hope, a time of struggle but also an opportunity, a time of diversity but also unity.

84 thoughts on “Life in 1950’s East London: A Time of Change and Contrast”

  1. I am writing a story (just for fun) about the 60s . Does anyone know about putting a shilling (coin) in heater to get it to work? I read about it somewhere not sure if it’s real.This was in a cold water flat.

    • Susanne

      I am an ex council kid from Hackney and so 1950s and 1960s I can recall quite a bit. We had a “Geyser” gas heater with open pilot light like this if you google it “ascot-water-heater-water-heater” but the only thng I recall about meters, was on TVs. Most were rented, but I had some mates who’s parents paid by meter, A higherer than rental rate that I think coverd rental and repairs. Trouble is, wehn you got a good bit of TV, it often went off. We did have a meter for the gas early 60s. It had a twist coin slot . Google “1960s gas coin slot”. We had coal fire for heating like everyone else we knew. Dave

  2. I lived in East Ham in a prefab when the war finished , after we came back from being evacuated. I went to school in East Ham and always remember the boat trips down the Thames, does anyone know the name of the person who funded these trips.
    We really loved the day and my late mother always said it was funded by a rich man. I would to know his name.
    Thank you ,

  3. Well love this web site but do not agree with them saying there were large families in the East End in the 50’s and there was no contaception,you only had to sit in the barbers and hear the barber say to the men “anything for the weekend”,the problem is that web sites like this are run but people who have never lived in the era they are talking and posting about,yes our big old house in Stepney did not have a bathroom we had a look outside the back door,as for call the midwife ,well maybe in the 30;s it was like that,I was born in the London Hospital Whitechapel and we had a doctor up the commercial road in a house on the Troxy side of the road,we never had a car or a phone but we did get a TV ,yes we played on bomb sites and down on the canals ,we made soapbox carts out of old prams and we had a great big bonfire night on the waste ground next to our house every year,I cherish my time in the East End it was a great time in the 50’s.

    • Hi Brian,
      I was also born in the London Hospital (1955) and the doctors surgery was also along Commercial Road. I lived in Felbrigg street and used to get errands at the Barley Mow Pub all have been knocked down now. Often played on the bombsite opposite. I moved when I was 6 but I remember the fun times and a certain freedom we had. We did have an old van and a 3 bedroom terraced slum with an outside toilet. This was near Stewart Headlam school. Does abyone remember Barmey Park?

  4. i would like to ask something please as people here seem so knowledgeable. i was born in The London Hos bopital and my mother had her second child who was delivered in the East End Maternity Hospital. The child was still born and my sister and I have been trying to find out where the hospital possibly would have burried the child. if this indeed was what they did. I now live in Australia and cannot find much information other then the general born/died/length of stay in the hospital and im just wondering if anybody would have the faintest idea as to where the still born children in 1956 were placed. Thankyou i would be very grateful if anybody had any information. keep well.

    • from what I can gather, a stillborn child cannot have a funeral as it has not lived and therefore not died. Common practice was to have a chat with a local funeral director, who would slip the baby’s body inside another coffin for a small fee. The parents would then be reassured the babe had a christian burial, although un-named.

    • Yes, you ae right about that. My mother gave birth to a baby girl around 1954 /5. She was either still born or died very soon after birth. I never got to see her but distinctly recall being told she had been placed in the coffin of an adult and had been buried with whoever that lady was.

    • Have a chat with a local funeral directors, they may well be helpful. Try T Cribb 0207 4761855 . If they can’t help I sure they would recommend someone.

    • Hi
      Often they was buried in the grave of another person! Depends on religion a lot was buried at Leytonstone cemetery

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