Why I Love the ... 1940s

Art gallery and museums expert Simon Hedges  has a passion or the 1940s.

I always think the 1940s must have been a period of unparalleled contrasts, he says.

It was a decade which started with some of the most memorable events of World War Two – both the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain took place in 1940 – and ended with the country finally at peace, and optimistic about the future.

It was already busy planning for the Festival of Britain in 1951 – but still enduring hardships and deprivation that are almost unimaginable today.

Even in the midst of lockdown it’s easy to forget that some foods were still rationed until 1954.

There’s so much to love about that period – perhaps I wouldn’t feel that way if I’d lived through it – but I’d like to talk about just two of them here.

The first is the demob suit. In my younger days I was partial to a demob suit – in the 1980s, the ’40s still surrounded you – it was only 30-some years ago.

It was still possible to pick them up fairly cheaply in charity shops.

I think back then it was just vanity for me, but in retrospect, thinking about what these suits meant and what they were actually for has greater and greater impact: today I find myself reflecting on it more than I did at the time.

I was buying them for just a few pounds back in the late 1980s and ‘90s – today they belong in a social history museum.

For younger readers, ‘demob’ is short for demobilisation – the theory was that most servicemen who went through the war in uniform probably didn’t actually have many civilian clothes left, so as they left their service, they were given a set of ‘civvies’ to help get everyday life started up again.

This included a felt trilby or a flat cap of course. This was the 1940s, everyone wore hats, shoes, a raincoat, a couple of shirts – with matching collar studs – one must keep up standards, you know – a tie and that all-important suit, which had such style: the cut and quality was really high.

Demob suit

They made you feel like a 1940s Hollywood film star: the classic tailored, nipped waist, big lapels and double-breasted, with small armholes, giving you posture. You can tell if a suit is a demob: it has a tiny little black-and-white ‘Pacman’ type symbol stitched into the lining of the left arm.

My other favourite thing about the 1940s has to be the founding of the National Health Service, now more commonly known just as the NHS.

What a stroke of absolute genius that was, what a sign of an exquisitely civilised society, how bold and brilliant. A democratic system that made decent healthcare – the bedrock of a life well lived – available to all.

The NHS has had a fair few knocks over the years – only a year or so ago, it seemed every other news story was about overcrowding of wards, or how the whole system was creaking and couldn’t survive.Today – and quite rightly – we view our NHS workers as the true heroes in an unprecedented situation that’s affecting every one of us.

It all started on 5 July 1948 when Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan visited the first NHS patient in a hospital in Manchester.

Bakelite phone

Thirteen-year-old Sylvia Diggory, who was suffering from a serious liver condition, years later said: “Mr Bevan… told me it was a milestone in history – the most civilised step any country had ever taken.”

Simon Hedges is head of curation, collections and exhibitions at Scarborough Museums Trust. He answers his phone at home on a black Bakelite Ericsson landline that dates from around 1948, but complains about how long it takes to dial a number on it.