Cover of Northern Ireland in the 1950s by Peter SmythBangor Historical Society held its latest talk in the North Down Museum on 10 March 2016. The speaker was Peter Smyth who gave a very entertaining and informative talk on Northern Ireland in the 1950s. He reminded us that he had talked to the society about three years earlier and so this time he was focusing on the role of women and other aspects of social life.

He began by commenting on the inequality which faced women in that decade. He quoted different pay rates for women teachers who received a lower salary, despite doing the same work as their male colleagues. When the civil service discussed equal pay in 1954, one women said it was not necessary as the female employees spent their time doing their hair, making coffee and going to the loo!

Housework was harder and more time consuming as the use of labour saving devices was spreading slowly. Washing clothes involved boilers, wooden tongs, scrubbing boards and mangles. Vacuum cleaners and washing machines were more expensive in the 1950s when compared to the average salary. Magazines of the period stressed that women’s place was in the kitchen. Man were good at DIY, but not cooking.

Another different aspect of women’s lives was clothing: this was expected to be appropriate for their age group, whether as a child, teenager or mother. Make up was frowned upon for the under 16s, corsets were worn and slacks were unusual. Mr. Smyth commented upon the idea of social control.

Yet changes were happening. Teddy boys with their draped jackets and very narrow trousers were appearing. Music too was altering. Rock and roll and such stars as Elvis Presley became popular with the teenagers who listened to this music played on jukeboxes. Teenagers with jobs had money to spend and did not come home immediately after work. Dancing was very popular. The older generation saw all this as a breakdown of discipline in the home.

People commented on the growth of immorality. Police raided shops which sold doubtful material and there were protests against the student magazine PTQ. A landmark legal case was the declaration that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene.

Social attitudes were changing, helped by the growth of radio and television. The first TV sets were expensive and the range of the temporary transmitter on the Glencairn Road in the early 1950s was only 12 miles. The coronation in 1953 boosted the sale of sets, although many people preferred to see the film of events in the cinema rather than watch the live coverage in black and white on a 12” screen in a darkened room. Roman Catholic clergy condemned the morality of television while unionists saw the BBC as a pillar of the establishment. ITV came to Northern Ireland in 1959 when Sir Laurence Olivier participated in the launch. It aimed to entertain people with US comedies, games shows etc. Television changed attitudes and provided a window on the world.

The chairman of the society told the members about a new exhibition in the museum about local sailing clubs, organised to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club.