‘Be childlike and feminine at all times’. This was one piece of advice given to women in fifties Britain. At first glance it was a dull decade, squished between the war and the swinging sixties, but actually there was a lot going on under the surface, especially for women. My new book The Empire Girls is set in the fifties around Tilbury docks near where I grew up and part of my research involved going to the British library in London to read the women’s magazines that my characters would have read. How insightful!
Research is time consuming (three months in total - including three hours just deciding on an orphanage for my characters’ back story) but so important for creating an authentic sense of time and place. I read a lot of social history books, went online for forums and memory sites and talked to people who remember the fifties (the best way of getting those lovely little details, like how the wallpaper would move from the bed bugs nesting behind it).
I discovered that social attitudes were so different such a relatively short time ago. Illegitimacy was shameful to the point that many young women were forced to give up their babies for adoption or were disowned by their families. As a mother of two girls, I needed to explore this issue further. Abortion was illegal, the contraceptive pill wasn’t available and divorce was hard to come by, all things that had a huge impact on the lives of women. Not to mention the horrific ten to fifteen hours of housework women did every day (in 1959 only ten per cent of the population owned a fridge!). When asked about the new mod cons on the market, one man was recorded as saying, ‘I don’t need a washing machine, I’ve got my wife.’
One thread of The Empire Girls story is inspired by the Empire Windrush ship that docked at Tilbury bringing immigrants from the West Indies - people who’d been brought up under British rule, many of whom had fought for Britain in the War, and who thought of Britain as the ‘Motherland.’ As we know, they didn’t receive the welcome they deserved. There were no anti-racism laws here in the fifties, evidenced by signs outside boarding houses saying ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.’ I did my best to imagine how this might have felt. In one scene, my Jamaican character Claude tries to explain to three year old (‘illegitimate’) Laura his country’s history. To illustrate how many slaves there had been around two hundred years ago in Jamaica, they drew chalk figures on the pavement. To find out how long this would take, I took my two daughters and a large tub of chalks to the park. In two hours we managed only ten thousand, nothing like the three hundred thousand people in slavery that there were. It was the most poignant piece of research I did.
The Empire Girls is published by Sphere and available in paperback on May 17th