GUEST BLOG: Visiting 1950s London
8th April 2013 - Sara Sheridan
London Calling is the second in the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries series, set in 1950s, following on from the bestselling first, Brighton Belle. In reasrching the period, Sara Sheridan has found that pockets of the 1950s still remain all over London. Here she picks out some of her favourite post-war locations.
Since starting to write the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries I've become fascinated by the 1950s. It was an amazing decade when the entire country recovered from the ravages of WWII. At the beginning it was a grey time of rationing and bereavement but by the end as we slipped into the Swinging 60s, psychedelic hotpants and newly available contraceptive pills in tow, Britain had changed beyond imagining.
Part of my job as an historical novelist is to go in search of the 1950s, particularly around London where Mirabelle spends part of her time - the books are set in the capital and in Brighton. There are lots of places where you can still time travel, if you have the inclination. So, for your delectation, here's my guide to Mirabelle's London.
Go to Duke's Hotel for Martinis
This is where Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond used to go for his. Just around the corner from Buckingham Palace and stealth wealth to the point of obsession, the bar in this gorgeous hotel was the drinking hole of choice for the palace's military officers as well as debutantes and other Belgravia and St James's staple characters, both today and historically. Today the barmen are slick and Italian but the martinis are just the way Mr Fleming liked them...
Hit the Masonic Museum in Great King Street
Yes, you read that right. Built after WWI as a monument to peace the HQ of UK's Freemasonry has a museum. Take a guided tour and you'll get to see some of the ceremonial rooms and social spaces used by London's 20th Century masons - some of whom were royal. It's fascinating and after the tour they let you sit in their public lounge for a while and just watch it all go by. You'll recognise the interior from sundry movies but what I like is the sense of an institution and the original unspoilt touches like the telephone booths in the hallway from a time when not only did people not have their own mobiles but whole offices shared a phone...
Maison Bertaux in Greek Street
Cake was a treat in ration bound 1950s but as the decade progressed and foodstuffs came off the coupon, Soho buzzed with coffee shops. Maison Bertaux is just the kind of place that Mirabelle would recognise - old fashioned to us now but hip for 1955... get good and hungry and then treat yourself.
Daunt's Bookshop, Marylebone
We won't dwell on it because naturally, we LOVE Foyle's best, but Daunt's in Marylebone was a purpose built, old fashioned bookshop that would have been in its heyday when Mirabelle's contemporaries pounded the streets. If you must go to another shop, then buy Penguin Classics here...
Fish and chips
Homelessness was a massive problem in 1950s London. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners had their homes destroyed in the Blitz and rebuilding took a while, so people roomed up in cramped bedsits in the kind of make-do-and-mend living conditions that would send modern-day Channel 4's interior design shows screaming into the night. Lots of people didn't have kitchens so if you wanted a hot meal it was fish and chips. There aren't many genuine 1950s fish and chippers left these days but Seafresh near Victoria was established in 1965 and you can see how it would be been and there's Poppie's in Spitalfields which isn't 1950s really, but is a good reproduction.
Denis Severs Museum in Folgate Street
Times were tough and people were poor. There was a lot of slum housing and people rarely build museums to that kind of thing. So I came here, to the house of the late Denis Severs who lived in this tiny Georgian gem near Liverpool Street Station. He kept the house just as it was when it was occupied and different floors are set in different eras. It's not 1950s but it's what we'd call a slum today - no heating bar an open fire, no running water or indoor toilet etc. Squint past the Georgian clothes on display (now worth a fortune) and you can see very clearly how crammed 1950s slums must have felt.
The yucky stuff
The NHS had only just been founded in the 1950s and some of the statistics of its early years offer a terrifying glimpse into medical reality for London's poor. There was a rush at the start not only on NHS glasses (how many people hadn't been able to see?) and on dental care (ouch) but also on prolapse operations for working class women (that's prolapse of the womb - I warned you.) People were wandering around in a bad way. You can visit any of London's Museums of Health and Medicine and arrange to take a tour with a qualified medical historian - from Great Ormond Street to the Wellcome Centre. Not for the squeamish but it will give you new respect for your granny.
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Sara Sheridan; Margaret Chamberlain
Sara Sheridan; Simon Manfield