The King's passing and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the decade's constitutional supernova. For the previous decade's war babies, this was their Willly Wonka moment; the penny caramel celebration tin was gratefully received by a nation of children whose sweet-tooth had rarely been indulged by the ration book and austerity of the era. Yet Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the throne took place far from British shores. On 6th February 1952 , Elizabeth's father King George VI had passed away at Sandringham , aged 56. The King had been in ill-health for some time; later it was revealed that he had been suffering from lung cancer, but it was a blood clot to his heart that clamed his life. Returning to the UK, Princess Elizabeth swore the Royal Oath and was now Queen Elizabeth II. Her fatherís death sparked a period of national mourning that saw the House Of Commons suspended and mourners gather by the gates of Buckingham Palace . King George VI was no firebrand, a shy thoughtful head of state, his reign was markedly different to the social buccaneering of his brother Edward , George VI's victories on the throne were that of expunging the sense of shame circulating around the Royal Family after his brother's abdication and staying in London during the Blitz , winning the people over and indicative of his steadfastness during the Second World War.
The Coronation was scheduled for the following summer. While the Royal Family have always maintained a totemic presence in Britain's identity, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II could be regarded as a watershed moment in the sense that the cult of celebrity was nigh as the popularity of the television grew. It was a new medium, an exotic point for the family to muster by. And the Coronation, the highest profile of all Royal events, proved to be immensely popular.
Three million people lined the streets of London. The BBC rallied every piece of broadcast equipment it could find for what would be its biggest outside broadcast to date. Millions were watching at home, or crowded round their neighbour's television set. If ever Britain needed an excuse for a post-War street party then this was it. In addition to celebratory confections, bone china was fashioned into mugs, cups and beakers bearing Royal heraldry, while bunting fringed the streets.
Amidst the austerity of the post-War society, any distraction was welcome. The Coronation was not engineered as a fillip for the nation's spirits but the Festival Of Britain , which opened on 3rd May 1951, certainly was. Not without controversy, the Festival Of Britain was a pick-me-up for a war-weary nation. The regeneration of areas such as London's South Bank was a civil engineering mission akin to the Millenium Dome. Different projects were commissioned to celebrate what Britain did best. An empire built on industry, scientific endeavour, and a nation whose cities and towns were sculpted by some of the world's most talented architects: the Festival Of Britain sought to celebrate all of this. The controversy arose from the costs arising from re-generation projects which saw huge sums of money spent on the festival while Britain was in the midst of a housing crisis thanks to the Luftwaffe's visits a decade previous. Over ten million people visited the festival's attractions. Clement Attlee 's Labour government was heavily criticised by Winston Churchill for pressing through with the festival. But, whatever public sector budget brouhaha it threw up, the Festival Of Britain was certainly a success in terms of footfall, even if it didn't quite make a lasting impression on London's skyline. Of all the buildings to have been thrown up across London's South Bank - including the Skylon building and the Dome Of Discovery - only the Royal Festival Hall is still standing. But British families didn't receive the message of hope they were waiting for from King George VI's address from St Paul's Cathedral , marking the opening of the Festival Of Britain; rather, it was the decommissioning of the ration book that put a smile on everyone's face. But it didn't happen overnight.
Rationing was introduced in 8th January 1940 as the Second World War usurped resources, with the imports of foodstuffs imperilled by the efforts of the Kriegsmarine. It introduced British households to the epicurean delights of powdered fried eggs while robbing them of bananas, sugar and soap. Fuel, too, was another rationed item, and it took a while to reverse this enforced parsimony with such essential household items. Flour came off the endangered species list of foodstuffs in 1948, with Britainís wardrobe no longer restricted by voucher after 1949, when clothing was de-rationed. But as the 1950s dawned meat, butter and soap were amongst the items still under rationing. It wasn't until the 4th July 1954 that the rationing book could be put in the recycling bin - meat was back on the menu London's Smithfield market opened at midnight to mark the occasion. Coal would be the last to come off the ration book on 28th December 1958 . You can't stop progress.
The 1950s saw progress such as the Birds Eye fish finger (debuting on dinner plates on the 26th September 1955 ) reconciled against the testing of the nuclear bomb. Winston Churchill announced on 26th February 1952 that Britain had a nuclear weapon, less than a year after unseating Clement Attlee as prime minister. The post-War political schism between East and West had grown into a yawning chasm of mistrust in which weapons were stockpiled. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fresh in the memory. There was no doubting the power of nuclear technology. Churchill's sophomore residency at Number 10 would not extend long enough to see the bomb tested. This was a new era. The notion of the British Empire as colonial superpower had been on the wane for a number of years. The War had changed the world's political landscape. The 1952 Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya was a protracted military statement against British colonialism, and fatigued Churchill in his career's advancing years. The Soviet Union's partitioning of Germany and their nuclear arsenal rendered colonial housekeeping anachronistic. We were staring into the teeth of the Cold War.
On the 15th October 1957 a British V-Bomber dropped a hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island. Churchill had retired as prime minister on 7th April 1955 after persistent health issues, including a stroke two years previous. Age had caught up with him. But he would have seen the fruition of over a decade's worth of thermo-nuclear research unleash its payload on a remote island in the Pacific, all too aware of its consequences. The nuclear deterrent was always an exercise in brinkmanship. And while the 1950s saw a nation embrace peacetime, the Suez Crisis of October 1956 was an example that Britain's colonial interests were always liable to place her troops in harm's way. An arterial route for colonial trade, the Suez Canal was, symbolically, one of the last fronts on which the British Empire was defended. The region had been growing ever more unstable throughout the 1950s, with a military coup in Egypt changing the political dynamic between Egypt and Britain. Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser looked to consolidate Egypt's position by damming the Suez Canal to irrigate the Nile Valley, while putting military pressure on Britain and Israel. The concern over Czechoslovakian arms being stockpiled forced Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden into a military action. Allied with France, Britain launched an offensive by air and sea on the 5th November 1956. It was widely condemned. Far from securing peace, it further exacerbated the threat from the Soviet Union, and enraged Eisenhower in the White House. A year later, Eden resigned.
As the 1950s drew to a close, Britain was ready to shake off the austerity of its post-war refit. It was ready to dance to a new beat. The nuclear age which had taken root was to be challenged by the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which formed in 17 February 1958 in the political fall-out from Britain's continued involvement in the nuclear arms race. The peace movement would soon gather pace. Two men, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had met. The 1960s soundtrack would be radically different.
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