Belfast Telegraph

Historical Ulster: The Fifties - images from the Belfast Telegraph archives

After the depression of the 1930s and the grim austerity of the wartime 1940s, the 1950s was a decade of affluence.

World War II had opened up the American economy and created a boom but western Europe was shattered and in danger of succumbing to the rising wave of communism.

US Secretary of State George Marshall, with the blessing of his President, Harry Truman, launched a radical aid programme which turned the tide and by the early years of the decade the benefits were being felt almost everywhere.

The mood in Britain was particularly buoyant. Clement Attlee's Labour government, which won a landslide victory in the first election after the war, had nationalised the mines, started a huge public housing programme, set up the National Health Service and laid the foundations for the Welfare State.

Attlee was voted out of office in 1951 but his legacy was secure. For the first time, working people across the United Kingdom could live their lives free of the awful fear of absolute poverty. Unemployment fell, savings grew. Televisions began to appear in drawing rooms and Morris Minors in driveways.

It was a time of vast change, biting at old certainties and sweeping away empires. The most telling moment for Britain came in July 1956 when Egypt's President Gamal Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The resultant military intervention by Britain and France ended in a humiliating climbdown, the resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and the succession of Macmillan.

The sun was finally setting on the British Empire, its demise marked by another famous Macmillan speech in which he spoke of "winds of change blowing through Africa''.

The biggest threat to the decade's peace and prosperity was the Cold War, the ever-present challenge from Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, which led to confrontations around the globe, made particularly frightening by the fear that they might erupt into nuclear warfare.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953, after suffering a stroke at an all-night dinner party four days earlier. The grim joke was that he had died instantly but his guests were too frightened to tell him.

He was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev whose more pragmatic approach began to thaw out the Cold War, although this was not immediately apparent, particularly to the citizens of Hungary whose attempt to throw off Soviet domination was brutally suppressed by Russian troops in October 1956.

In Northern Ireland the 1950s was a decade of remarkable sporting achievement. The 1950 Open was played at Royal Portrush, the first and only time it has been outside England and Scotland. Hopes were high for local man Fred Daly but he could only secure a creditable fourth place. The winner was England's Max Faulkner. Antrim GAA got new headquarters at Casement Park, Belfast, in 1953 but the county won no major trophies that year to display there.

The province came to a virtual halt time after time, as people gathered around radio sets to hear the extraordinary World Cup adventures of the Northern Ireland football team in 1957 and 1958.

Nowadays the results seem barely credible. Northern Ireland qualified for the finals in Sweden by topping a group which contained Italy and Portugal. Fog delayed the arrival of the Hungarian referee for the decisive match with Italy in Belfast on December 4.

The game went ahead but was deemed a 'friendly'. This brought a far from friendly response from the packed house at Windsor Park and captain Danny Blanchflower had to arrange for the Italians to be escorted from the field after the 2-2 draw.

The match was replayed on January 15 and Northern Ireland won 2-1. In Sweden, they got through the group stage, drawing with Czechoslovakia, Argentina and West Germany and beating the Czechs in a play-off. The heroic side, greatly weakened by injuries, lost 4-0 to France in the quarter-final.

Schoolboys learned to rhyme off the entire squad, which was managed by Peter Doherty. Other star players, as well as Blanchflower, included Harry Gregg, Billy Bingham, Peter McParland and Jimmy McIlroy.

he team which had secured a Five Nations grand slam for Irish rugby in 1948 and the Triple Crown in 1949 took the Five Nations trophy in 1951.

Wales snatched the 1950 Triple Crown by 6pts to 3 in a dramatic game before 40,000 spectators at Ravenhill.

But the result was overshadowed by terrible events afterwards when a private plane, chartered to bring home Welsh supporters, crashed while coming in to land at Llandow in south Wales; 80 died, making it then the world's worst air disaster.

There was tragedy at sea in 1953 when the ferry Princess Victoria sank in a gale on her way from Stranraer to Larne.

It was the worst shipping disaster since World War II. Among the 133 dead was Stormont Finance Minister Maynard Sinclair and Unionist MP, Sir Walter Smiles.

Radio was still the most popular form of entertainment in the home. In 1950 the BBC launched a pilot episode of the Archers. The 'every day story of country folk' is still going, the world's longest-running radio drama.

But television was making inroads. Northern Ireland got its first transmitter in May 1953. The mast, at Glencairn, Belfast, was a temporary device to let viewers enjoy the coronation in June of the young Queen Elizabeth II, for many the highlight of the decade.

A permanent transmitter was erected on Divis mountain in July, 1954, marking the launch of a television service for Northern Ireland.

Programmes were in black and white and the sets were prone to breakdown.

But the first colour televisions had gone on sale the year before in America. This was the future, although at $1,175 a set -- about nine months wages for the average worker -- there was no big rush to buy into it just yet.

Belfast Telegraph


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