Like many people, I do my best to keep myself healthy and reasonably fit – for a woman in her 60s! Everyone I know – younger than me, older than me or the same age – does some sort of exercise. The choices these days are endless. There are gyms to join, walking groups, Pilates classes, yoga – the choice is endless. There are the things which don’t need to be done in a group or class like running, walking, cycling. Then there are the sports. Football, rugby, tennis, cricket, badminton – you name it!
What occurred to me the other day was that back in the 1950s, mums and dads, grannies and grandads didn’t exercise. They were probably more active physically in their day-to-day life than we are (fewer cars, no labour-saving devices etc.) but I knew no adults who played sport, ran or walked for exercise. There were hardly any gyms, exercise classes or fitness groups – certainly not where I lived. Perhaps it was different in the cities?
My memory is that, back then, many people enjoyed sport as youngsters when they were in school and maybe beyond that in college or in the forces. Some carried on playing football, cricket, or tennis for local clubs. Then when they got married and had children, they gave it all up. That was more to do with team games and a social life than for the health benefits. Similarly, many people enjoyed a walk in the country at weekends or on holiday but for the pleasure of enjoying the surroundings and the wildlife rather with fitness as the purpose. Walking groups are massive now. What I’m looking back at and realising is that people didn’t exercise simply for the sake of health and fitness.
Cycling has, in recent years, had a massive rise in popularity. The bikes are sophisticated pieces of machinery, clothing and accessories are scientifically developed. Cycling clubs have mushroomed and at the weekends our roads are alive with two-wheeled exercisers. Back in the 50’s, bikes were everywhere. The difference is that people cycled to get somewhere. It was the early days of motoring and many people still didn’t own cars. Men and women cycled to work, children cycled to school, vicars visited their parishioners on bikes, policemen went on the beat on bikes. A man cycling to work in an office would be wearing a tweed suit and a trilby, a workman would be in overalls with a cap on and his bag of tools over his shoulder or in a saddle bag. The bikes were sensible, solid and practical. They were not built for speed or rough terrain.
Sturdy, reliable, hardwearing – the bikes of the 1950s
1950 People cycling to work in Oxford.
My supremely fit son-in-law on his recent Alpine adventure. A very different sort of cycling!
The following two quotes are taken from the Buchanan report ‘Traffic in Towns’ published by engineer and planner Colin Buchanan in 1963.
“There [should be] an allocation of movements to pedal cycles,but it must be admitted that it is a moot point how many cyclists there will be in 2010.”
“Cyclists should not be admitted to primary networks, for obvious reasons of safety and the free flow of vehicular traffic. It would make the design of these roads far too complicated to build ‘cycle tracks’ into them … It would be very expensive, and probably impracticable, to build a completely separate system of tracks for cyclists.”
He had based his opinions on the fact that sales of new cycles had been dropping since the 1950s and reached an all-time low of less than 200,000 by the end of the 1960s (today, 2.5m bicycles are sold each year). This influential report, which guided road building in Britain for decades, effectively squeezed bikes out of our towns.
The next two quotes are from a study carried out based on the cities of Manchester and Glasgow by Colin Pooley and Jean Turnbull
“Use of the bicycle to travel to work between about 1920 and 1950 was particularly notable in smaller settlements,with commuting by bicycle the single most important means of travelling to work in such towns in the 1940s.” (Pooley and Turnbull 2000: 14)
“From the 1950s cycling rapidly declined in popularity.” (Pooley and Turnbull 2000: 19)
One thing I do remember is my mum listening to a lady called Eileen Fowler on the radio. She did a short programme where she talked the listener through various bends and stretches. Since starting this post I have looked her up and she was a fitness instructor from the 1930s so she was definitely ahead of her time. In keeping with the times, the likes of Eileen Fowler focused mainly on improving your shape and looking ‘younger’ rather than exercise for health as we now know it.
I know that there were swimming pools in all towns even then and that people have always enjoyed swimming for pleasure. The popularity of swimming pools in British towns goes back to when most houses didn’t have bathrooms and the swimming local pool (often known as swimming baths) were used as a means of keeping clean. Indeed, many of them had cubicles containing individual baths where you could have a proper warm, soapy soak. We lived nowhere near any swimming pools so I had no experience of that apart from sometimes when we were away on holiday. Even so, I know that the difference now is that many more people take up swimming to get fit which wasn’t really a consideration back in the 1950s when it was looked on mainly as pleasurable and sociable.
As usual, my disclaimer is this. I lived miles from anywhere so my memories will be very different from those of people who grew up in towns and cities. Also, I was a child and I’m talking about my view of the world of adults as I saw it then. These are my impressions and opinions only.
The images were sourced on the internet, as were the quotes. Anyone unhappy with anything I have used please approach me and I will remove the offending item.