Reading: The 1950’s

Stuart Hylton (The History Press, 2013), 233 mm x 156 mm, perfect bound, 127pp.

Stuart Hylton is a freelance author who has written several books on Reading, as well as three books on post-1945 social history. Here these two topics with which he is familiar are combined to give an insight into the town of Reading, its changes and development and of its people during a period of transition from wartime austerity to our modern consumer society. This book was first published in 1997, but is now issued as a new 2013 edition.

In many ways the 1950’s form a watershed in modern social history. At the beginning of the decade there is the rationing and shortages continued from the 1940’s, and a general air of drabness and end of empire decline. The decade ends with a feeling of optimism for the future, with new cars, foreign holidays, and labour saving appliances. The physical face of the town reflects these changes too, with new house and road building, and an increasing pace of re-development.

The book is divided into ten chapters, one for each year of the decade, and set out in chronological order. It draws heavily on the Berkshire Chronicle newspaper for reports on various facets of life during the period, and for contemporary advertising illustrations. The book also has many photographs of the town, its people and their activities of the time.

Each chapter contains descriptions of the local activities, events (tragic, comic or just strange) and of the newsworthy people of that year. The use of contemporary reportage means that the general voice of the book is very much that of the town’s local paper rather than that of the author – although the latter does throw in the occasional wry observation of his own! Inevitably some topics occur in several (in some cases all) chapters – the outspoken and colourful MP Ian Mikardo’s latest words, the perennial roller-coaster of Reading FC’s fortunes, council concerns on road traffic and building, the latest fashion advice from the Woman’s page, and the more notable reports on petty crime and motoring offences ( I liked particularly a motorist’s rebuttal of the charge of drunk driving on the grounds he was too drunk to get into his car, let alone drive it!).

This book is very much the story of an ordinary town and its ordinary population during a time of rapid change. But in 2013, living in and around one of the nation’s most prosperous and vibrant communities, we can see how far off the mark was Dr Mendelssohn’s comment in 1951,

“There would be no protection against an atomic bomb dropped on Reading, except that such a bomb was expensive and Reading might not be considered a sufficiently worthwhile target.”

For past and present Redingensians, and local Reading historians this book is an entertaining and interesting read.

Tony Roberts

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