From The Economist:
Somewhere in britain, half a dozen people gathered at a farmto watch Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on television. “It’s a tiring day for her. Two and a half hours in the Abbey. It’s the whole day really,” said one. “I expect she packs herself up a couple of sandwiches,” commented another. Someone added: “I wish some of the ladies-in-waiting would trip over—give us a bit of fun.” Then: “They put a canopy over her when she’s anointed, that’s nice for her.”
This scene, which was recorded by an informant for Mass Observation (a kind of benign sociological spy network), could be a clip from “The Royle Family”, a 1990s sitcom in which people sit around watching TV, or the more recent variation, “Gogglebox”. In 1953, as today, British viewers could not help but focus on the most mundane matters. Won’t the queen get hungry? Ooh, how nice that she gets a canopy. They were snarky, though stopping short of irreverence. In some ways they have not changed greatly since.
Their country, however, has transformed. In the year of the coronation, Britain’s inhabitants lived and worked in ways that seem as peculiar today as the late Victorians would have seemed to those watching the coronation on fuzzy black-and-white screens. Because Britain has such good historical data, it is possible to see just how different it was.
The young queen ruled over a less populous, younger country. Of the 50.6m people in the United Kingdom in 1953, fully 21.6m were under the age of 30, and just 8m were 60 or older—a ratio of 2.7 to 1. Look at film from that era, and the hordes of children are as striking as the ubiquity of hats. The country has since grown, to over 67m, and aged. The ratio of young to old stands at 1.4 to 1, and falling.
The queen had married at the age of 21 and given birth to her first child, Charles, at 22. In that she was fairly typical of her contemporaries. In 1953 fully 65% of births were to women younger than 30, compared with 40% today. A mere 5% of births were outside marriage; today the proportion is 51%. But Elizabeth went on to have three more children, which made her unusual. She was born in 1926. The average woman born in that year had 2.2 children during her life. Monarchs are wise to overdo it: English history is littered with examples of the havoc caused when the line of succession is unclear.
Elizabeth was also unusual in having a job, albeit a singular one. Women were 32% of the employed population in 1953; today, they are 48%. It was especially rare for a mother of young children to work outside her home. The 1951 census revealed that only about one in six did.
Her first public role, before the speech-giving began, was in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she learned to repair and drive ambulances and jeeps. And she spent much of her life in the company of current and former servicemen. In that sense, she was typical of her generation. In the coronation year the British government still expected men to do national service, and would continue doing so for another decade. The armed forces sucked up an enormous share of state spending. In 1953-54, fully 9% of British national income went on defence—one and a half times as much as on the National Health Service and public education combined.
A few foods, particularly meats and dairy products, were still subject to wartime rationing in 1953. And British diets were unremittingly stodgy. The average person—man, woman and child—ate 63 ounces (1.78kg) of fresh potatoes per week, almost five times as much as they do today. The second-most important vegetable was cabbage. People got through six ounces of the stuff per week, six times more than modern Britons. Kitchens must have smelled sulphurous.
People might not have noticed that, though, because two other smells were everywhere in the year of the coronation. One was burning tobacco. Almost all men and many women smoked: a survey in 1951 found that 87% of male doctors over the age of 35 indulged. A year after the coronation, the same study presented strong evidence that smoking was linked to lung cancer. The long decline in smoking began a few years later.
The other pervasive smell was coal smoke. Coal powered Britain’s factories and trains, generated its electricity and heated people’s homes. In 1953 the country mined 230m tonnes of the rock—more than four tonnes per person. Fully 700,000 people worked in the coal industry. In 1966, when the queen visited Aberfan, a Welsh village devastated by a colliery spoil tip, she was heading to the heart of the British economy. But by 2019 Britain’s coal production was just 1m tonnes.
Link to the rest at The Economist