My parents had grown up in poverty during the worst years of the 1930s Great Depression. My mother was one of four children and as her father seldom had work, the family often relied on the Little Sisters of Charity for their food. Life improved as she and her siblings reached adulthood and started to earn. As in other families, they remained in the family home until marriage or the need to move for work took them elsewhere. Whilst they lived at home it was expected that most of their earnings would be handed over to their mother for ‘board and lodgings'. Whatever remained was the money they had for their own needs. Any savings would have to be made from this small pot. This meant that many young couples, like my parents, began married life living with their in-laws. Even when the chance came for a place of their own, young couples had very little by way of furniture to take with them. It took time to furnish a home and so for my parents money was never plentiful.
One of the main sources of worry for any family was a large, unexpected bill – for anything - gas, electricity, repairs of any kind. Even for those who were paid monthly there was no straightforward means of deferring or staggering payment of a bill. Credit cards, direct debits and standing orders didn’t yet exist. Even for those who had a bank account, an overdraft facility was not a given. It was an acknowledgement of sound financial habits or personal wealth, not an incentive to overspend at will. Without savings, anyone who faced a big bill faced a very big problem. This was why my parents were infuriated by lights absent-mindedly left burning or clothes damaged or belongings lost at school.
My father was paid monthly and his salary arrived in his bank account at the end of the month. My mother didn’t have a bank account because most of the work she did was occasional ‘temping’ for one of several Manchester bureaus. Whatever the job, she received her pay each week in a small, perforated heavy-duty envelope. It contained her wages in cash as well as a slip of paper showing the amount deducted for tax. For full-time employees, their wage packet was issued weekly on Thursday or Friday by the company’s cash office where staff would have spent the day carefully counting out and making up the contents of each envelope. (When she left school that was one of my mother’s first jobs.) For weekly paid workers, whatever the amount in the wage packet was then the inflexible total of money available for absolutely everything for the next seven days. It had to cover rent, gas, electricity, toiletries, cleaning products, food and drink and any luxuries.
Uncle Arthur was my father’s closest friend. I remember his wife, Auntie Jessie, telling me about one of the first weeks after she and Uncle Arthur were married. They got to Friday morning and all there was left to eat was a slice of bread and an apple. Borrowing money to buy food was unthinkable - it would have been an admission of abject failure. That night, after they were paid, they went out and feasted on fish, chips, mushy peas, meat pie and gravy. This became their standard Friday night treat dinner.
Savings, then, were the essential cushion against an unexpected bill and there were a few choices available to keep money safe. Post office account holders were provided with a small blue book which held a record of their wealth. The post office staff counted the money in and out and recorded the details of every transaction by hand. With a final flourish they would then date stamp the record in the customer’s blue book. Miraculously these people added and subtracted the pounds shillings and pence without any form of calculator or machine to count coins by weight. They were not very patient, though, with children like me who arrived with a toffee tin full of small change which they hadn’t counted. Thinking about it I can’t quite see why. They had to count it all anyway and I certainly wasn’t going to argue with them about the total.
A building society savings account was another alternative; always useful if the saver might be planning an approach to that organisation for a mortgage at some point. At that time the crucial evidence for creditworthiness was a good savings record!
A bank savings account was a possibility but that was a daunting prospect for many people. Setting it up would have involved going into an imposing building and having to talk to someone, maybe even the manager! Many people, both my grandmothers included, never had a bank account at all. They collected their pension weekly from the post office where they knew the counter staff. Nana was also a regular customer for stamps because, although we saw her quite frequently, she often sent letters to me and to my cousins, sometimes including a sixpence wrapped in tissue paper.
Saving was encouraged at school. Once a week we were able to buy savings stamps carrying a picture of a very young Princess Anne for sixpence each. (Some people bought the more expensive stamps with a picture of Prince Charles) They were the size of a normal postage stamp and we stuck them into a long, narrow savings book with orange writing on the front. The money was redeemed by taking the book to the post office where each picture of the royal child would be date stamped, and the cash would be handed over. I have absolutely no idea what became of mine.
On my seventh birthday, I did get money in some of my birthday cards but for once I didn't use it to buy books. I also had a piggy bank that my Uncle Bert had made for me in his pottery classes. I emptied the contents of my cards and my piggy bank into a syrup tin and took them to the post office where I bought two of the new Premium Bonds. I was so excited - quite convinced that I was about to transform my family’s fortunes. For a few months, I scanned the papers to check, but my numbers were never selected by ERNIE and after a while, I forgot all about them.
My mother was no luckier with her weekly Vernon’s football pools predictions. I think the top money to be won that way was about £75,000 which would have kept my parents in luxury for the rest of their lives!
A small aside whilst we’re still in the realms of football, I was just wondering what footballers’ pay was like in the 1950s. It turns out that footballers did make some financial progress during that particular decade. The Committee of the Football League finally decided to allow a series of pay rises. The maximum weekly wage was increased to £14 (1951), £15 (1953), £17 (1957) and £20 (1958) – my how things have changed!