During the early days of the M1 — Britain’s first significant motorway, which had opened in 1959 — it had no crash barriers, lighting, or hard shoulder, and very little traffic.
Oh, and there was also no speed limit.
At dawn one midsummer morning in 1964, the racing driver Jack Sears decided to test his AC Cobra sports car before the 24-hour race at Le Mans, and made a couple of runs up and down the M1 motorway from Watford Gap service station — at up to 185 mph.
Two policemen did come over to Sears in the car park: they wanted to look round the Cobra.
‘It was more likely they would ask for an autograph than write a ticket — because no laws were broken,’ Sears said later.
Which was true. Furthermore, being a decent sort, he slowed down to about 120 when there was another car — which did not happen often before five in the morning — so as not to give the driver a heart attack. And hardly anyone would have known if someone had not blabbed in a Fleet Street bar, whereupon it hit the papers.
At dawn one midsummer morning in 1964, the racing driver Jack Sears decided to test his AC Cobra sports car before the 24-hour race at Le Mans, and made a couple of runs up and down the M1 motorway from Watford Gap service station — at up to 185 mph
Some blamed him 18 months later when Harold Wilson’s Labour government imposed a 70 mph limit, experimentally at first then permanently. But a more safety-conscious approach was undoubtedly needed on Britain’s roads.
On bank holidays in those days there would be daily bulletins of death tolls, issued by the government and widely reported. The figures for the Whitsun weekend in 1964 were notably dreadful, with a total of 84 people killed. And 1966 would be the peak year — wartime excluded — for road deaths in Great Britain: 7,985, more than four times the 2019 figure.
The breathalyser came into force at midnight on Monday, October 9, 1967, but for many years, being caught over the limit was widely seen as one of life’s little hazards, like sneaky speed traps.
The growth of urban traffic began to drive children’s play off the streets, as did the general notion, which reached its peak in the Sixties, that the car was king.
In narrow residential streets, as house after house acquired their Escort or Cortina and needed somewhere to park, cars also took possession of the pavement. Nothing could impede the flow of the traffic, certainly not the urban 30 mph speed limit, which was neither observed nor enforced.
Some blamed him 18 months later when Harold Wilson’s Labour government imposed a 70 mph limit, experimentally at first then permanently. But a more safety-conscious approach was undoubtedly needed on Britain’s roads. Pictured: In 1969 The Queen meets the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson
One astonishing fact about motoring during the Sixties is that the Watford Gap and Newport Pagnell services on the M1 were considered cool places to hang out, and even eat.
It was into the latter that the 6th Earl of Craven pulled on November 10, 1960. That was the day Penguin Books finally published an unexpurgated paperback of DH Lawrence’s controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
One of the peers most hysterical about the book, the Earl later told the House of Lords that ‘at every serving counter sat a snigger of youths. Every one of them had a copy . . . held up to his face with one hand while he forked nourishment into his open mouth with the other. They held the seeds of suggestive lust, which was expressed quite blatantly, by glance and remark, to the girls serving them.’
Lawrence’s explicit depiction of the affair between Lady Constance Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper was set up to be the first test case for the new Obscene Publications Act. Though it turned out that it wasn’t quite the first.
In 1960, one Frederick Shaw, reinventing a tradition that dated back to Charles II’s day, published a book — the Ladies’ Directory — giving contact details for London prostitutes, a useful service for potential customers since touting for business had been taken away from public view under another 1959 law, the Street Offences Act.
The courts did not think it useful, however. Shaw got nine months for ‘conspiracy to corrupt public morals’, and henceforth the ladies were obliged to post coded messages in newsagents’ windows: FRENCH LESSONS GIVEN or LARGE CHEST FOR SALE.
Across Britain and the rich, free world, the young, and sometimes the less young, let their hair down and took their hemlines up, enjoyed sex with fewer preliminaries and even shared joints at parties
Across Britain and the rich, free world, the young, and sometimes the less young, let their hair down and took their hemlines up, enjoyed sex with fewer preliminaries and even shared joints at parties.
Beyond that, their lives continued pretty much as before. And many suspected the decade was only happening elsewhere. Sociologists interviewing Tyneside shipbuilders found themselves being asked in turn about the free love apparently available in universities.
‘It’s all fun down south, isn’t it,’ said one of the plumbers.
While the Pill rescued working-class women from being baby machines, the normal way to acquire it was through your doctor or the Family Planning Association, neither of whom could be relied on for discreet sympathy.
At the FPA, women had to fill in a form asking how often they had sex. If the answer was more than three times a week, a husband was liable to be called in for a talking-to. And there did have to be a husband, or the FPA would have nothing to do with you. The upshot was, as with medical abortions, that the rich might find a back door where the poor would struggle.
At the FPA, women had to fill in a form asking how often they had sex. If the answer was more than three times a week, a husband was liable to be called in for a talking-to. Pictured: Fashion designer Mary Quant
As this suggests, Sixties Britain was far less progressive than we might imagine.
At Oxford, female undergraduates were warned not to wear mini-skirts into exams for fear of distracting the men; at a Catholic secondary school in Kent, the headmaster decreed that they ‘bordered on immodesty’ and that the more extreme variant, micro-skirts, ‘bordered on indecency’; at a Dickens festival in Broadstairs, a barmaid appeared in the streets in a ‘Dickensian mini-skirt’.
‘We think it’s excessively bad form, very stupid and not funny,’ said the festival secretary.
At first, there was a practical reason in favour of the mini. Purchase tax on adult clothes was determined by length — hence minis were significantly cheaper. The fashion also had a curious effect on men, prurient interest aside. Once the hemline climbed several inches above the knee, stockings and their attendant suspenders became unfeasible. So women turned to tights, a trend that proved permanent.
These required much more nylon; and the makers of men’s shirts found they had a shortage. Nylon shirts had become widely worn in the 1950s, mainly because they needed no ironing, never mind them being sweaty and uncomfortable.
Perhaps it was the sweatiness that made men more self-aware of their personal habits in the Sixties. ‘When I first joined the Middlesex dressing room in 1961,’ the cricketer Mike Brearley told me, ‘anyone who wore deodorant or after-shave would have been seen as a fancy-dan. Four years later the stuff was everywhere.’
In 1951 only about 3 per cent of British households had television sets, but that had risen to 80 per cent by 1963. And most people, most of the time, were watching the BBC’s commercial rival
One suspects ITV was probably the main culprit. In 1951 only about 3 per cent of British households had television sets, but that had risen to 80 per cent by 1963. And most people, most of the time, were watching the BBC’s commercial rival.
Old Spice were big advertisers and so was Lifebuoy soap, with its accusatory slogan ‘Someone isn’t using Lifebuoy’ followed by the whisper: ‘B.O.’
Advertising and marketing were becoming more pervasive and more professional but also more aspirational. The classic case was After Eight mints, launched by Rowntree in 1962.
They competed on price — by being deliberately expensive: about nine times the price of a normal bar of chocolate. The name, the box, the design, the individual wrapping, the thinness of the mint: it all oozed class.
Nervously, falteringly, abetted by the supermarkets offering a wider range of produce, the British became a little more adventurous in their eating habits.
The UK’s six Indian restaurants in 1960 became 1,200 in 1970, and the British version of a hamburger joint, the Wimpy bar, was soon everywhere.
Wine consumption increased steadily in the Sixties, though the big leap was still to come. And with it a new form of class distinction gradually developed: those who drank wine felt superior to those who did not. Those who bought drier, dearer wine, and sniffed it knowingly, looked down smugly on those who drank cheap and nasty Blue Nun and Asti Spumante.
In the home, the new generation of housewives — middle-class ones, anyway — were far more willing to experiment than their parents had been. It was chic to have prawn cocktail, Sole Véronique, fondue, spag bol, paella (but not yet pizza), plus infinite ways of having the former special-occasion dish, chicken. There was Chicken Maryland, chicken-in-a-basket, chicken chasseur and coq au vin (sometimes translated as ‘sex in the back of a lorry’). And if that was not followed by Black Forest gateau, it might just be profiteroles.
For the really modish dinner party, garlic, sold in a single shop in London just after the war, became respectable instead of foreign and smelly. And olive oil became available other than through chemists selling it as a remedy for earache. Progress indeed.
In other spheres of life, tradition prevailed at first. The national anthem was still played in cinemas at the end of the evening showing, but the rush to escape beforehand to catch last orders or the last bus was turning into a national joke.
By 1964 the ABC chain of cinemas was experimenting with playing the anthem before the film started, but this never caught on and the whole custom just withered away.
The sporting world was also groping towards the future. In 1962, a fortnight before the annual Varsity match, the Cambridge rugby team was ordered to go on the wagon.
Their opponents were disdainful of this untraditional approach: ‘We believe in a good old after-the-match thrash at the bar,’ said Oxford captain Joe McPartlin. ‘My team are very happy and light-hearted.’ Ominously for devotees of sport as fun, Cambridge won.
British tennis players could be equally casual. In 1967, the reigning Wimbledon champion, Spain’s Manuel Santana, was knocked out by the unknown American Charlie Pasarell, who explained to incredulous reporters: ‘For the last few days I have been training in the locker room — skipping and doing press-ups.’
‘I don’t believe in training,’ responded the most talented British not-very-hopeful of the era, Bobby Wilson.
In 1967, the reigning Wimbledon champion, Spain’s Manuel Santana, was knocked out by the unknown American Charlie Pasarell, who explained to incredulous reporters: ‘For the last few days I have been training in the locker room — skipping and doing press-ups’
In football, hooliganism was becoming a serious problem. British Rail stopped all football specials from Merseyside; referees threatened to boycott matches at Millwall; and Tottenham Hotspur banned four youths for life for obscene chanting.
Not everyone involved could be described as the usual suspects. Ex-soldier Bill Brown invaded the pitch to join in a punch-up during a non-league match at Lytham in Lancashire. It was his 82nd birthday. ‘I never could resist a scrap,’ he said.
And when scuffles broke out after a West Ham–Stoke match, Essex housewife Sheila West left her two children in the stand while she went down to punch the referee. Mortified, she went to Swansea the next day and knocked on his door to apologise. ‘A real gentleman,’ she said.
While England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup was watched by 32.3 million people — over half the British population — the coverage was in black-and-white and it was the Wimbledon tournament the following year that marked the debut of colour on TV.
It was also the last all-amateur Wimbledon. The next year’s prize money was £2,000 for the men’s champion, £750 for the women.
But there was an understanding in Britain that money did not necessarily bring lasting happiness. The cautionary tale throughout the Sixties was Vivian Nicholson, a Yorkshire miner’s wife who first came to attention when her husband Keith won £152,000 (around £3 million today) on the football pools and brought forth the phrase that stuck to her: ‘I’m going to spend and spend and spend.’
While England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup was watched by 32.3 million people — over half the British population — the coverage was in black-and-white and it was the Wimbledon tournament the following year that marked the debut of colour on TV
She kept her word and her descent, involving three more short-lived marriages, was long, pitiful and penurious.
Fate was equally unkind to David Threlfall, a 25-year-old bachelor from Preston who had placed a £10 bet on man landing on the Moon before 1971, at odds of 1,000-to-1.
He was presented with his £10,000 cheque in the ITV studio as soon as the Eagle landed. It was a huge win — worth at least 16 times that 50 years on but he died in a car crash only a year later.
The Moon landing had been an important victory for capitalism and liberal democracy, but hardly a British victory. We had come closer to any other country to conquering planet Earth; it fell to other nations to blaze a trail to other worlds.
The British Empire was perceived to have been laid to rest more than four years previously when the long-planned Operation Hope Not had to be activated: Sir Winston’s Churchill’s funeral.
In November 1964, the world celebrated his 90th birthday: thousands of cards arrived at his home, plus 120 cakes.
Six weeks later Churchill had a stroke and, over the next nine days, slipped inexorably away, and before a cold January ended, the world’s great and (mostly) good made their way to a frigid London for the state funeral.
The British Empire was perceived to have been laid to rest more than four years previously when the long-planned Operation Hope Not had to be activated: Sir Winston’s Churchill’s funeral
Most famously, the dockside cranes lowered the jibs in Churchill’s honour, as the barge carrying the coffin passed by.
The coffin then left from Waterloo station, although Paddington would be the normal station to reach Sir Winston’s burial place in Bladon, Oxfordshire. The choice may have been dictated by proximity to the river but the version that Churchill insisted on Waterloo so the station name would annoy General de Gaulle, the president of France, is too delicious to ignore.
Still, de Gaulle had the last word. ‘Now Britain is no longer a great power,’ he said.
That was a sentiment echoed by many others, among them Churchill biographer William Manchester, who wrote: ‘They mourned not only him and all he meant but all that they had been, and no longer were, and would never be again.’
- Adapted from The Reign — Life In Elizabeth’s Britain. Part I: The Way It Was, 1952–79, by Matthew Engel, published by Atlantic Books at £25. © Matthew Engel 2022. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 22/10/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.