Red, white and blue flags are popping up across the country as we prepare to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952 at the age of 26, but while she was preparing to carry the weight of a crown how were ordinary people her age coping with life in post-war Britain?
The Second World War almost bankrupted the country and seven years after it ended, the UK was just beginning to recover. Unemployment was falling and homes were being rebuilt. However, people were still using ration books, and many shops had only limited stock. Average yearly incomes were around £589 and the bill for a threebedroom house came in at £2,000.
Today, life for the average twenty-something is very different. We can get practically anything delivered to our doors within 24 hours, the average salary is £27,000 and we have credit cards that let us buy beyond our means.
However, our addiction to debt has brought the country to its knees. We’re in recession, facing high inflation, high unemployment, strict lending regulations and high house prices. These days, the average UK home costs six times the average annual salary.
So which period was better?
For Eric Treherne, 87, and his wife Hazel, 82, 1952 was a special year, not just because of the new queen but also as it was the year they got married. “Our wedding was very ordinary with sandwiches, trifle and cake, and we’ve still got all the receipts, including the flower bill for £6 and six shillings,” says Hazel.
In the early 1950s, the couple say life was very hard and friends and family helped to make their wedding a success.
As for household finances, Hazel explains that the banks were a ‘no no’ for ordinary people as to open an account you needed to deposit a large sum. Instead, Hazel, who worked in a dress shop, and Eric, who worked in a fire extinguisher factory, kept their weekly wages in a box. To help them budget, the box was split into sections, such as gas and electricity bills, food and clothes.
Mortgages weren’t a practical option for most either, as they were only based on a man’s salary and there was a real shortage of affordable houses after the Blitz. Hazel and Eric lived with Eric’s mother in Croydon and they say most people they knew did the same. “I can’t believe how we lived looking back but we weren’t alone as everyone else was hard up too,” says Hazel.
She explains that back then you could buy things on the ‘never never’ – buying something on credit and paying it back – but that was looked down upon and not something most people did. So, although money was tight they didn’t run into debt because if they couldn’t afford something they simply didn’t buy it.
“We’ve always been careful with money and we still are now as it’s ingrained in how we think,” explains Hazel. She thinks the problem today is that many people rely on the banks for money and use cards to pay for things and then lose track of what they’re spending.
However, life is very different for Hazel and Eric’s granddaughter Clare, 26. They say they don’t envy her and the financial worries she has. “When we were young we never considered a pension as thinking about it seemed just too far ahead,” says Hazel.
At the time, the state pension was 10 shillings a week and as people struggled to survive on this, many grown-up children lived at home with their parents and contributed to the housing costs. And as the state pension was only introduced in 1948, it wasn’t something people relied on.
Hazel and Eric didn’t start thinking about saving for their retirement until a lot later in life and they were able to use other savings to top up their state pension when they did retire.
Then and now in numbers
A pint of milk: 1952: 4p 2012: 49p
Loaf of bread: 1952: 6p 2012: £1.25
A dozen eggs: 1952: 8p 2012: £1.68
Tea (per 40 bags): 1952: 5p 2012: £1.35
Annual income: 1952: £589 2012: £27,000
Three-bed house: 1952: £2,000 2012: £162,000
1952 prices converted into modern £/pence. Source: Office for National Statistics
How things have changed
Clare, on the other hand, is already making long-term plans for her pesonal finances. She has a pension and puts away £40 each month, which her employer matches. She says it’s vital for her to save this as she knows there’s little hope of relying on a state pension when she comes to retire and she doesn’t want to work into her 70s.
Although she has a long-term goal of buying a home and puts £250 a month into a work savings scheme to achieve this, the only other thing Clare’s saving for is a holiday.
As a fashion buyer, she knows how easy it is to get carried away and spend money on clothes and although she tries to budget, she admits using her credit card to buy things and repaying what she owes as and when she can. Compared to her grandparents, she’s a lot less frugal.
Her attitude to debt is the major difference between Clare and her grandparents. Despite having a student loan of £20,000, which she’s been paying off for five years, Clare still doesn’t feel she’s any closer to clearing this debt but this doesn’t stop her spending money on other things.
So who’s better off? In 1952, no one had much money but they lived within their means. Today, we’re hooked on credit and debt is a reality for many. Clare says her grandparents’ savings attitude is remarkable and thinks if more people today followed their example, they’d be a lot better off.