Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on June 2 1953, at Westminster Abbey, in a joyful outpouring of pageantry, fireworks, street parties and all-round partying. This epic knees-up cost £1.57 million at the time (a huge £48.73 million in today’s money), and was held one year after her father George VI’s death, both to allow for a period of mourning, and to give time for the elaborate preparations. But behind the triumphant flag-waving, London was still a city scarred by WWII, littered with bombsites, and faced with the mammoth task of rebuilding after the Blitz. We’ve come a long, long way since then: here are some of the biggest ways London’s changed since 1953.
1. We’ve said goodbye to smog
London used to be famous for its smogs (or ‘pea-soupers’ – nicknamed for their greenish-yellowish tinge), which reached their peak with the literally deadly Great Smog of 1952. The city had five massive coal-fired power stations – Battersea, Bankside, Fulham, Greenwich and Kingston upon Thames – that belched smoke into the air, while many homes burned polluting ‘nutty slack’ (a cheap kind of coal). Today, air pollution is still an issue, but a ban on burning solid fuel has made lethal smogs a thing of the past: if you can’t see two metres in front of you, you’ve only got your drinking to blame.
2. No one wears a bowler hat anymore
‘The possession of the correct type of bowler, hairy, not too large and curly-brimmed, is as essential to the young man about town as a pair of trousers… The most London of all headgear.’ Thus wrote John Metcalf in his 1952 guide to London, aimed at those visiting for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the following year. Now, wearing a bowler hat marks you out as a singular and potentially emotionally unstable inhabitant of this city: attempt one at your own risk.
3. Soho’s not quite as sinful
Metcalf also warned visitors away from wicked Soho, then a den of iniquity where unsuspecting visitors would find themselves ‘drinking filthy cocktails with a rabbit-faced blonde called Rosie, while six large men get larger and larger, and the room smaller’. These days, you’re less likely to get ripped off by spivs, but there are plenty of more pleasurable ways with your cash: the £95 tasting menu at Gauthier Soho, anyone?
4. Food is easier to come by (and tastier, too)
In 1953, rationing was still in place. Yes, the war was over, but Britain’s culinary woes certainly weren’t: the country was too broke to import delicious luxuries like sugar and meat. When rationing finally ended in 1954, members of the London Housewives’ Association held a special ceremony in Trafalgar Square where they burned a giant effigy of a ration book. Now, Londoners can buy an incredible array of foods from around the globe (although you can still eat old-school London pie, eels and mash if you really, really want to).
5. Housing has got pricier
‘There’s still a housing shortage in London. Flats can be found but they tend to be expensive,’ wrote Metcalf in 1953. Plus ça change! Still, his definition of ‘expensive’ might not be quite the same as yours. In 1952, the average cost of a house in the UK was around £1,884, which is just £58,467 in today’s money, a sum that wouldn’t even buy you a Brighton beach hut these days.
6. Pubs have transformed
London’s boozers used to be dark, smoky, male-dominated drinking dens. Now, they’ve got to compete with bubble-tea shops for the public’s attention, so they’ve reformed their ways. They’re scented with the fruity aroma of vapes. Children play among the tables. Brewdog’s ginormous new Waterloo joint even has a giant curly slide. Your average ’50s gent would spit out his pipe in disgust.
7. London’s got bigger, and more welcoming
In 1953, the population of London was 8.3 million. Now, it’s 9 million, swelled by generations of migrants who helped London transform itself from a bombsite-strewn, down-at-heel city into an outward-looking, bustling, international hub. Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s come a long, long way.