The Youngest County
A Description of London as a County and its Public Services
Did you know that by 1951 250,000 people per year were paying a penny to use Greenwich Pier as “a promenade and balcony from which they may watch the busy life of the river?”
I guess it was before the days of the Thames Path, and, short of the five-foot walk, the chances of promenading around Greenwich were fewer than today (but not as many as recently, ahem), but I’m still impressed that people actually paid to get onto the pier. I don’t believe it was any bigger than it is now, though it must have been better looking.
But in 1951 it was the downstream terminus of the River Bus service, as well as being used by all sorts of other vessels, from watermen’s skiffs to pleasure steamers. 600,000 passengers landed or embarked from there. (I can’t find a current passenger figure for Greenwich pier itself, but I did discover in a TfL document that 2008-9 saw 3.9 million people using its total number of piers.)
This is just one of the juicy facts I found in this slightly surreal propaganda book created sixty-odd years ago by London County Council to showcase all the marvellous things it was doing now the war was over.
It covers all aspects of London Life, from the emergency services to sewer maintenance, from traffic management to the thorny problem of what to do with vagrants and tramps, school dinners to a new breed of council house:
The ‘Citizens’ moved in only a few weeks ago. It is still a novelty to take a plate from the fitted dresser cupboard, to wash up in a sink with two draining boards and a shelf above. Hot water in plenty comes from the boiler at the back of the living room fire and the fire itself lights by gas; no more bother with wood and paper.
Before tea is ready Mrs Citizen remembers her son will want a bath and change after his game. She goes to turn on the panel heater in the bathroom, and looks into the tiled bathroom to see that his towel is ready. On the way back to her table-laying she takes a broom from the handy hall cupboard to give a quick tidy up to the living room where they will be spending the evening listening to the radio.
The Youngest County is, by its nature, pretty general, but it carries with it an air of ‘It’s for your own good’ that I don’t think any government publication would dare employ now. So whether it’s giving you a useful graph of how much the fire brigade costs, showing how terrible the traffic congestion around Piccadilly Circus is, a matron reading to blind people who are all gainfully employed or informing the working man how the council will ensure that his pint actually is a pint, there’s a feeling of civic confidence that is strangely comforting. I know it’s a puff piece, and yet I feel I can sleep just that little bit more safely in my bed knowing my council house was designed by a splendid fellow with a pipe:
go to work on a fabulous steam ferry at Woolwich (the upper deck is reserved for vehicles – presumably the rest was freight?)
…and have my lunch served by a good solid dinner lady with a proper tea pot.
It’s also a relief to know that the fire brigade have all the latest equipment. If you look at the chap just right of centre with his back to us in the picture below, you can see he is fitted with an ultra-modern ’walkie-talkie’ set…
Even knowing that this is an idealised vision of how London County Council wanted people to think the capital was run in 1951, it’s still an absolutely fascinating peek at a world that had changed – and has changed once again - in virtually every respect.
It’s relatively easy to find – I got my copy in a secondhand bookshop in Bath (proving once again that the best place to get local books is to shop anywhere but local) and there were two copies in that shop alone. Prices start at 50p on Amazon. Take my tip - spend 50p.
the attachments to this post: