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The East End in the 1950s

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 is a heart-warming programme that also gives us an insight into just what life was like in the East End during this period.

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.

Call the Midwife and the East End

The author of the original books, Jennifer Worth, had worked as a trainee midwife in the area, although she actually worked in a different convent in Whitechapel.

The East End of London in the 1950s

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!

East London Housing
East London Housing

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

You can also 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.

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

The Welfare State in the 1950s

The nuns and midwives at Nonnatus House are generally respected by locals, many of whom are pleased to be getting 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 to have babies at home with no/little access to medical help, as they could not afford to pay for it in the past.

The East End’s population in the 1950s

Call the Midwife does show us quite a lot about local East Enders. 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 has recently come over to London. This episode shows the racial tensions and bias that immigrants often had to put up with. The attitudes of locals to foreigners, especially if they were non-white, was 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 were living in in the same conditions as local East Enders.

Social conditions in 1950s London

Although the main focus of Call the Midwife is on women and babies, the show also covers many other cases – the midwives often took on nursing roles for locals as well as delivering babies. These stories highlight some other social conditions of the time. In series two, we see a young mother fighting for life after an illegal abortion and meet adults whose lives are scarred by spending their childhoods in local workhouses.

We are also shown the issues that people living in that period had with illnesses such as TB. The government started screening programs for the disease at this time and one of the nuns is diagnosed with it during a screening at Nonnatus House.  A family who give birth to a child with spina bifida have to come to terms with their baby’s disability or consider putting him in a home for disabled children.

This was a common option at the time, as people were less educated about disabilities – there was no stigma attached to putting a child into an institution, but attitudes during the 1950s made it difficult to bring up children with disabilities at home.

72 thoughts on “The East End in the 1950s”

  1. I was born 1952 living in Fawset estates on Clapton road by Springfield park. I went to school 1956/ 57 Tyssen school. Anyone attend that school let me know. Peter

  2. My Great Nan – Margaret Godfrey Nee Devonald Nee Greenwood lived at 27 Shackelwell Row, from 1940s until 1970 when she died her 2nd husband was called Big Daddy his name was Charlie Godfrey my uncles remember visiting their nan and she would spend time in the pub on the corner must be shackelwell arms.
    My Nan came back from Rugby after being evacuated and bombed out of Hackney in 1950s when children all left and moved to number 26 Shackelwell Row until she was offered a flat in Wilton Estate. The old nan stayed on i believe that it was a slum area until it was knocked down and re built
    I love to hear more from anyone who remembers shackwelwell row

  3. Ah, Call the Midwife — poverty made palatable for the benefit of impressionable viewers who want nothing more than the warm milk of sentimentality to lull them into lucid slumber. Reality rarely sells.

    Poplar was sublimely interesting for a child growing up after the war, but the price for this dubious fascination was a painful longing for escape from those desperate environs. Some never did.

    I confess to having never seen nor heard of hordes of Raleigh-riding midwives hurtling toward the verminous structures crumbling in that desolate grayness. Perhaps I was too busy huddling before the coal fire, inhaling the poisonous fumes of poverty and wishing that I had been born into the lazy royalty which insisted that we, the common masses, should simply Keep Calm and Carry On.

    Sod the Midwife.

  4. I was born in Mile End hospital in 1949 and lived in Stepney. My mixed race parents were new immigrants from Copenhagen, Denmark and Lagos, Nigeria and could only afford the slum we rented which had one bedroom and a living room plus a kitchen with 1 cold tap. The toilet was in the cobbled yard and the bath was a bus ride to Limehouse Public baths. A bath cost 6 old pence (2 1/2p new money) for a small piece of soap and a bath, which I shared with one of my parents.

    These poor East London post war living conditions were enough to freak out my mother who was brought up in a detached, centrally heated, double glazed house in the suburbs of Copenhagen, hence her taking me to live in Denmark for a period of time.

    Our Stepney house was in a street called John’s Place just off Sidney Street (where they had that siege). Our lighting was gas as there was no electricity and street lighting was also gas, which was lit and extinguished each day by the gas board.

    My mother worked as a seamstress in the rag trade which is still busy today along Commercial Road. Just around the corner was my playground which was a huge bomb hole. My only friend was a child called Michael (Danny La Rue’s nephew) but he wasn’t famous then. We left the East End when I was 4 after my father bought a new build in Rainham Essex. The slum was pulled down over 50 years ago and they built some modern slums for rent in its place.

    1. It’s really interesting to read about the 1950s and how different it was for me and my husband in The 1969s. We moved to Rhondda Grove opposite mile end tube station and live in the ground floor flat at the end of the road which belonged to the Coopers Company School nearby. It was a new building with three flats for teachers from either Coopers boys grammar school or Coborn girls school. The flats had all mod cons and were fantastic for us to move into when we married in 1963. David taught at Coopers and I taught at Malmesbury Junior School. We loved being part of a lively friendly community- lots of different nationalities…. but we couldn’t afford to buy a house in London so after our son was born in 1966 we moved to Cornwall.
      Ann Hedley

  5. Hello I used to live in providence house buildings during the 1940-1950s – great days. Everyone the same no money no cars, no debts. plenty of fun, home made scooters, bicycles, Knock down ginger, hanging on back of lorries, swimming in lime-house pier, bon fires, Victoria park, Poplar baths, Chrisp street, Troxy, Pavillion. Lenny West

    1. Leonard , We also used to hang on the back of lorries We used to get them when they slowed down at the moors arms in Devons road , We were all skint but very happy, We used to go swimming fro stink house bridge

        1. Hi. If you mean the one off Chrisp street, / ans near Burdett road flats, it may have been caller Excelsior, ( spelling may be wrong) I lived in Matthews house, surnamed was Holland.

  6. Ruth
    I was born in 1954 in the Stepney Maternity Hospital in Commercial Road. We lived in a room in Gough Grove before moving into a house in Canton street, where we lived with extended family. My grandad, 2 aunts and a uncle as well as my own family of 4. I went to mayflower and remember my friends , ShelleyKing; Gillian Farmer andElizabeth Tarr. We shopped at crisp street market and took baths at the poplar baths. If you remember life at Mayflower I would love to hear from you.

    1. Christina Staines

      Hi Ruth, I went to Mayflower, my name was then Tina Scourfield, (Christina) Shelley King and Gillian Farmer were in my class. I lived in Lindfield St, where the Sussex Arms was on the corner. We also lived with my Aunt in the old derelict houses, with my Nan, Grandfather, another aunt & great grandmother lived about 8 doors away. We had a tin bath in the yard which was put in front of the fire every Sunday afternoon, whether we wanted one or not!
      Be lovely to hear from you.
      Take care, Tina. X

  7. Does anybodt remember knapp rd school . I left there in 1951 , I used to live in sumner house about 200yrds from the school

  8. does anyone know any of the coal men in the east end. my mum was born in 1932 and lived there with her nan. mum’s name was jean rose her mum annie rose charlie rose her uncle was a coalman they had to move during the war in and around the east end canning town stepney poplar shoreditch. where i was born in 1954 living in clifton buildings. of course they had stables there. anyone any info that can help me to look for my family.

  9. Hi Well I lived in the East End in the 1950’s and the tv show depicts life as it was in the 1920’s 30’s and transposed it to the 1950’s yes there were slums with loo’s out in the back garden and many did not have a bath,but people kept themselves clean with hot water in a tin bath,I was born in the London Hospital at Whitechapel ,kids used to play in the street or on bombsites of which there were many,but we all went to school I went to Sir John Cass foundation school at Aldgate ,as for cockney rhyming slang,well nobody I knew went around talking like that maybe just one word would enter a conversation,thats all,the show is a fraud,by hey people like it so watch it ,I do not.

    1. Hi Brian! Thank you for you comment. Have you read the book? I am interested that no one really spoke with Cockney rhyming slang but what do you think of the accent of the characters in the tv programme? Do you think their accents as ‘Cockney’ are authentic?
      Grace.
      P.S. If anyone else has any opinions about the accent I would love to know!

    2. Tina Staines (scourfield)

      Hi Everyone, to start with, I was born in East London Maternity Hospital, in 1954. My Brother in 1947 in Bethnal Green. We lived in Currie Hse near Blackwell Tunnel, but Mum hated living in a flat, and we moved to Lindfield St, and moved in with my mums aunt, about 5 or 6 doors from my Nan, Grandfather and Nans stepsister Rose. The houses were very big, Victorian style and run down, (slums) although as a kid you didn’t see that. There was no bath, tin bath hanging on the back garden fence. Bath-day was Sunday afternoon, in front of the open fire. The only heat in the house. No hot water just a cold tap sticking out of the wall, so mum used to boil the water in large saucepans to fill the bath. Our toilet was in the back yard. As Brian said not many people used rhyming slang as a matter of course, but now and again it was used, my brother still uses some words, and now and again so do I. Crisp st, market was a short walk and that’s where you heard most slang. I loved it and still wish I could turn the clock back now and again.

  10. Hi, I have been reading all these comments are they’re so interesting – I have watched the series right from the start and I am currently reading the book. I am doing my degree at the moment and I am writing an essay on the representation of Cockney as a dialect in the book and the TV programme. I was just wondering if you anyone had any thoughts on the accent used in the book and TV programme? I would be really interested in your responses, especially as so many of you have grown up there.
    Thank you,
    Grace

    1. Hi, I quite often laugh at the accents of the actors in the programme. I was born in 1955 in the East London Maternity Home (as my mum called it) and raised in Columbia Road. Apart from Cliff Parisi, the accents are pretty dire. “Cockerny” … Dick van Dyke is not far behind in the cringeworthy stakes. 🤣🤣🤣

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