1953 through the eyes of an Englishman

  BEV stuff:   Warning   Copyright   Contact   Prev   Next   Index   Home  
The BEV Retrospective - 1953.

In January of this year, President Truman, right at the end of his term, announced to the world that the US now had the hydrogen bomb. Over to you Ike - best of luck!

Stalin dead.

On March 5th, Joseph Stalin - the Soviet dictator and Hitler's nemesis - died following a stroke that occurred at what was probably an all-night drinking binge with Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, and Khruschev.

There is considerable speculation that he was poisoned with warfarin, a common ingredient of rat poison, and that Beria may have been the perpetrator, but it's doubtful that we will ever know for sure. It is thought that he was killed because he wanted to plunge into WW3. Stalin was immediately succeeded by Malenkov, supported by, or possibly a puppet to Beria.

A power struggle ensued, and as the outcome, Beria was executed, Malenkov resigned, and though Bulganin became premier, the effective result was that Khruschev, as the head of the communist party, became Stalin's successor.

WW3 was postponed.
Also in March, Jonas Salk announced that a polio vaccine had been developed. This was a big breakthrough in medical science, as polio was one of the most dreaded diseases of the time, and all too common.

On May 29 New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first successful ascent to the summit of Mount Everest.

Pomp and Circumstance.

At home in England, on June 2nd, Queen Elizabeth II was formally crowned at Westminster Abbey following her accession to the throne in the previous year.

At that time, the majority of people in the UK had probably never even seen a TV set, but the coronation was televised, and a large proportion of the population watched it on a friend or neighbour's small black and white television screen.

Sales of television sets in the UK boomed, and it was at this time that the Teale family acquired its first TV. The days of huddling by the radio set in the corner of the room to listen to favourite programs such as "Dan Dare" and "The Archers" were over. The TV nudged the radio and the record player even further into the corner.

In Korea, a cease-fire was established on July 27th. No peace treaty was ever signed, and the line of demarcation as it was at that time, close to the 38th parallel, and close to where the border between north and south was before the war, remained as a kind of perpetual but quiet front line.

In August, not to be outdone, the Soviet prime minister Georgi Malenkov announced that Soviet Union now also had a hydrogen bomb.

In Vietnam, the Viet Minh communist forces were giving the French a hard time. In an attempt to slow them down, French paratroopers took a town called Dien Bien Phu that was strategically placed to cut off Viet Minh supply lines across Northern Vietnam and through neighbouring Laos. The French also intended to use this strategic point to inflict losses on the communist forces, as they felt that the latter would feel obliged to take it back. It was not a good move, as events would prove.


In this year the USSR tested its first hydrogen bomb, and whereas the US 'Mike' test in 1952 had been a 'laboratory experiment', the soviet weapon was a deliverable bomb. It wasn't't actually a true multi stage fusion bomb as per the Teller/Ulam model, but it was a lot more, a lot sooner than the USA had expected, and the real thing would not be far behind.

So by now, both sides had the weapons, but the means of delivery was still problematic. Both sides had heavy bombers that could deliver such weapons, though the balance was tipped in favour of the US in that it had bases available for the launch of these aircraft that were closer to the USSR than the bases the USSR had available to it were to the USA. These bombers though were a rapidly weakening threat. The development of high performance, high altitude, and long range fighter aircraft meant that it would be increasingly difficult for the bombers to get through.

Both side realized than the answer lay in ballistic missile development. Such missiles - the descendants of the Nazi V2 weapon - would be essentially invulnerable to fighter defences, and as such were ideal for nuclear weapon delivery. After WW2, the Americans had abducted the German scientists who had developed the V2, and this group, lead by Werner Von Braun, now worked directly for the US Army. In 1953, the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency launched the first version of the Redstone ballistic missile. This was truly a direct descendant of the V2, with a similar engine, similarly fuelled with alcohol and liquid oxygen. It was to be capable of carrying the megaton descendants of 'Mike' once they had been suitable miniaturized, but still only had a range of around 300km, so it could not yet usurp the role of the heavy bombers when it came to striking deep into the USSR. It was however capable of inflicting a devastating blow on the now much superior Soviet Army if it were concentrated in eastern Europe.

The Russians had also collected samples from the V2 development program, and in any case they had had a team working on rocket development since before WW2. The head of the Soviet program, Sergei Korolev was not impressed with the V2 design, and the development in the USSSR took a separate course that was to be a profound surprise to the US in the not too distant future.

Since it was realized that the miniaturization of fusion weapons was vital if they were to be carried by long-range ballistic missiles, this miniaturisation became a priority in the US, and in 1953, two further devices were tested in Nevada.

Commercial manufacture of transistors in Europe was commenced by Mullard, a subsidiary of Philips, in the UK. They introduced the OC10, OC11, and OC12 transistors for audio applications. However these types were encapsulated in plastic in a way that failed to exclude moisture, and were prone to failure. They would be replaced the following year by the successful OC70, OC71, and OC72 series. These, like the Western Electric types introduced the year before, were Germanium transistors.

The double helix.

At Cambridge University in England, Francis Crick and James D. Watson published a description of the double helix structure of DNA, though this was not yet proved. The substance had been known for some time, but was still something of a mystery.

Black Magic chocolates.

My father bought me a chemistry set for my birthday when I was eleven, and my mother came up with an innovative but inexpensive incentive scheme that propelled my education successfully for some years. It was simple. If I was top of the class in examinations, she would present me with a box of 'Black Magic' chocolates. I was top of the class in every class I was in for the next four years.

The chemistry set was woefully behind my reading. I wanted to make high explosives and azo-dyes such as were described in the early 20th century textbooks that characterized chemistry in Bingley library. I wanted concentrated acids, caustic soda, oxidizing agents, exotic metals, metal ores, and a host of things you couldn't get from the chemists shop in Bingley, or for that matter from the chemical laboratory suppliers in Bradford, at least, not supplied to a boy of my age. I improvised, or had to be patient. You could get sodium nitrate and sodium chlorate, and a few other interesting substances from garden shops, and you could find interesting metals in builder's rubble, and behind peoples garden sheds. You could also get reasonably strong sulphuric acid from the local garage, where they sold it as battery acid for cars.

At school John Wordsworth and I would doodle during Mr. Holmes' classes by drawing sectional diagrams of steam engines and internal combustion engines. We would stop and listen if he covered anything that we hadn't already done.

Toward the end of the school year in the spring there was a significant event. In those days there was an examination that you took before you left primary school called the 'eleven plus' exam. The result of this examination determined whether you would go to a grammar school or to a secondary modern school.

A grammar school is, or was - according to the best dictionary entry I could find - 'a secondary school which emphasizes the study of academic rather than technical subjects'. Originally the academic subjects that led to the title were Latin and Greek, and the aim was to prepare students for university entrance.

The modern school was supposed to teach technical subjects such as metalwork and typing, thus preparing boys for an apprenticeship, and girls for an office job. At worst it kept 'less academic' children off the streets until they were sixteen.

The outcome of this exam could thus have profound consequences for ones life for better or worse. Both I and my parents were therefore suitably anxious about the outcome. Why, I'm not sure. The 'Black Magic' policy had ensured that I passed any exam that was put in front of me up to that stage with flying colours. I guess it was just that it was important.

Bingley Grammar School.

School drag.
I passed the eleven plus, and so I can't really tell you what life or the curriculum were like at the modern schools, though I've often wondered. Maybe I could have passed the exam with greater distinction, I don't know and don't remember that one ever got details of the marks you scored, but the outcome was that I would go to Bingley Grammar School. This was a decent school with a suitably long history, but it was not the best school in the area. That would have been Bradford Grammar. It's possible though that there may have been fees associated with attending there that were not within the Teale family means. I don't remember, or didn't know, and I have refrained from embarrassing my mother by asking her more lately. Whatever: the outcome was that in the September of 1953, at age eleven, Bingley Grammar it would be.

According to its web site, the school was founded in 1529, when 'a series of wealthy benefactors from among the people of Bingley provided a trust to support the education of the young people of the town'. It had three 'houses' - the traditional division of such a school into competitive units - Milner (blue), Sunderland (yellow), and Woolmer (red).

Grammar school kids had to wear uniform; in my case a maroon blazer and cap, gray pants and a white shirt. My blazer would have the red badge of Woolmer house on its left breast. To begin with I would wear short pants which were then considered to be proper for a boy of my age. I didn't like the short pants. Most of the boys in the school had graduated to long ones, and short pants really made you stand out as a rookie first former.

During the summer holidays I continued with my current interests. My dad had built a workshop shed in the back garden, under the kitchen window, and initially that was my laboratory. I quickly worked through the things you could do with the chemicals in the chemistry set, and then moved on to pyrotechnics, and from there, in a natural progression to small pipe bombs. Looking back, I'm probably lucky that I still have eyes and fingers.

There was probably some method in my madness though. I took the text books quite seriously when they told you not to mix chlorates with sulphur.
Chlorate and sugar was good, or for a brighter flash, that plus some aluminium powder. I used to test these devices in the field next to the cricket ground when there was nobody around, and with a fairly long fuse.

The problem, of course, was when the fuse burned up to the bomb, and then the thing didn't go off. You'd have to wait for quite a time, and then work up the courage to approach it and throw a bucket of water over it. Eventually I scared myself enough one time that I gave up on that particular avenue of exploration.

I also used the workshop for more creative purposes, such as carving wooden spoons from pieces of beech wood, and making bows and arrows. For some reason my mother was never enthusiastic about the wooden spoons, so they were a bit of a failure.

I was significantly into the bows and arrows thing, and made many of them, of gradually increasing quality. Wood was a problem for the bows. I knew from what I'd read that I should have been using Yew, but Yew trees weren't common in the Cottingley/Bingley area, and where there were any, they weren't necessarily in places that made it straightforward to lop branches off them. They'd always be in places like Church yards or other peoples gardens - very inconvenient.

I tried various kinds of wood. Sycamore was pretty useless, and prone to breaking. Willow was durable, but lacking in power - it just bent too easily. Ash wasn't bad, but I found it also tended to break. Elm seemed to do as well as anything with its tough fibrous quality, and I eventually made bows from elm that could fire an arrow about 90m. This wasn't very satisfying when you read that English archers in the 13th century could fire heavy armour piercing arrows about 230m, but at ten or eleven years old I wasn't making bows that pulled 45kg. Eventually my dad bought me a lemonwood flat bow that pulled about 11kg from a sporting equipment shop in Bradford for my birthday, or for Christmas. That would fire further, but it didn't exactly put my elm bow to shame.

Initially my arrows were made of half round section pine sticks that you could get at the gardening shop for use as stakes to support plants. They didn't have flights - the feathers at the back - but rather a small quantity of lead wrapped around the front of the arrow. This had a similar effect and stabilized the arrow in flight. You made the knock for the bowstring so that the round side of the wood slipped over your hand at the side of the bow. Arrows made like this were cheap, and could therefore be plentiful, so it didn't matter too much when you lost them by firing them over the river or into other people's gardens. I dare say that under those circumstances they reverted to their original purpose.

Going to Bingley Grammar in September was, of course, another expansion in my horizons. Its catchment area included Bingley and Cottingley, but also extended up the valley, past Crossflats - the next small town or village to the west of Bingley, and down the valley to include Saltaire and Shipley, and the small town of Baildon to the North of Shipley. These towns defined the general area, but the catchment also included the surrounding villages.

A road runs south over the river from Bingley, climbing up a steep and winding section known as the 'Twines'. Where it levels out into the valley of a tributary stream - Harden Beck - it comes first to the village of Harden, and from there you can branch left to go to Wilsden, or go straight up the valley to Cullingworth.

To the north, following Park Road out of Bingley, you come to Eldwick. From there, roads along the edges of the moors take you east to Baildon, and west to East Morton and Morton perched on northern slope of the valley above Crossflats.

Any further west than this area and you'd probably get caught by Keighley Grammar. (That's pronounced Keithley by the way, and is a town name that is traditionally pronounced incorrectly by outsiders.) Any further east and you'd get caught by a school in the west Leeds area or in Bradford.

The Druids Altar Rock.

As I already noted, the Aire runs in a rather steep and narrow gorge through Bingley. It continues in this way past the school, where the gorge is even steeper and deeper.

On the south side of the gorge where the slope levels out somewhat there are the grounds of a country house called St. Ives, which now as then is owned by the Bingley Urban District Council. Overlooking the gorge, and more or less opposite the school there's an outcrop of millstone grit rock that you can scramble out onto for a rather spectacular view of that whole section of the Aire valley.

It was dubbed 'The Druids Altar', probably by some Victorian wit. I'm sure the name is quite fictitious, but nonetheless, it's a famous vantage point and is engraved with the names of innumerable pairs of lovers spanning the last couple of centuries or more.

I enjoyed the new school, and the 'Black Magic' policy continued to be effective. When term ended at Christmas, I was top of the class in the first form, with John Wordsworth as a close second.

The Robe poster.

OK, this year delivered a slew of pretty good movies, some of which I saw at the time and some not too much later.
The award winner - also number 3 on the box-office list - was "From Here to Eternity". This rather famous movie is a somewhat seamy story (for the times) of the life of US servicemen in Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The content of the film had to be toned down considerably from the original book to get it past the film censors.

Box-office top movie was "Peter Pan" from Disney. I saw that at the time. Second was "The Robe", a historical/religious epic story about the commander of the Roman military unit that undertook the crucifixion of Christ. This was the first 'CinemaScope' movie to be released.

Also near the top of the box-office list were the famous western "Shane", "The Glenn Miller Story", and the first films in which Marilyn Monroe really made her mark - "How to Marry a Millionaire", and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes".

A well loved British film of the year was "Genevieve", a light hearted comedy about a vintage car and its owners participating in the London to Brighton run.

On US TV in this year, 68% of all sets were tuned to the "I Love Lucy" episode that featured and coincided with the birth of Lucy's baby. Also in this year, the first colour television sets would go on sale for about $1,175.

In the US music charts, the tunes that held the number one spot longest were the revolting "How Much is that Doggie In The Window", and "Song From the Moulin Rouge" by Percy Faith & his Orchestra.

UK pop music was almost non-existent at this time.

There were a couple of interesting firsts. Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, "Casino Royale" was published in the UK. In Memphis, a young man called Elvis Presley went to Sun Records' Memphis Recording Studio and paid to record "My Happiness" with "That's When Your Heartaches Begin".

Top of Page