Motorways, space travel, TV: How the world has changed in the Queen's 70-year reign

A British Empire of 70 overseas territories. Roads with no speed limits. Mario Lanza topping the charts. And if you wanted to celebrate the accession of the new queen with a packet of wine gums, you would need to dig out your ration book.

A family watching the Coronation of the Queen in 1953 on television
A family watching the Coronation of the Queen in 1953 on television

Britain – and indeed the world – has changed a lot since the Queen first took the throne.

When Elizabeth succeeded her father King George VI in 1952, she became sovereign of more than 70 colonies, including large swathes of Africa. This role continued largely into the 1970s, with Middle Eastern nations such as the United Arab Emirates, then called the Trucial states, Bahrain and Qatar all British territory. Today the UK still has 15 overseas territories, but today this role is mostly symbolic.

While the Queen may have – in theory at least – become the most powerful person in the British Empire, it would be a couple more months before women were entitled to receive equal pay in the workplace. It was not until May, 1952, that Financial Secretary to the Treasury John Boyd-Carpenter announced that such measure would be introduced in stages.

Back in 1952, there were about four million cars on the roads, compared to about 37 million today. But those lucky enough to own a car did not have quite so much legislation to contend with as they do today – while roads in urban areas had been subject to a "temporary" 30mph limit since 1935, rural roads were subject to no such restrictions. It would be some 15 years until the breathalyser was introduced, but there were no motorways either – the Preston Bypass, later renamed the M6, did not open until 1958.

nostalgia pic. The Preston bypass, which opened on December 5, 1958, and was Britain's first motorway (later part of the M6). This picture taken from the internet which credits it to the PA Archive. Library code: nostalgia 2018.

The space age was yet to arrive, either. While Nasa claimed its Bumper-WAC to be the first man-made object to enter space in 1949, it was not until 1957 that Laika, a stray mongrel from the streets of Moscow, became the first animal to orbit Earth. The Russians took another lead in the space race when Yuri Gagarin became the first cosmonaut in 1961, but the Americans seized the initiative eight years later when Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon.

Sweet rationing was still in place in 1952, a remnant from the Second World War, when people would supplement their coupon allowances by buying on the black market. Whereas a couple of years ago, modern-day spivs tried to make a fast buck by selling hand sanitiser and toilet roles on eBay, as panic buyers caused self-inflicted shortages by raiding the shelves.

Of course there was no such thing as eBay 70 years ago. While the term "internetted" – meaning "connected" was actually coined during Queen Victoria's reign in 1849, the Worldwide Web was devised by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989.

In 1952, only 14 per cent of households owned a television, although the coronation the following year saw a surge in sales, with 20 million watching the spectacle on tiny screens. By the end of the 1950s, the number of households with TVs began to outnumber those without. Today, approximately 95 per cent of households hold a TV licence.

Laika became the first animal to orbit the earth in 1957

Back then of course, there was just one channel, with ATV independent television not reaching the Midlands until February 1956. Colour TV came along in 1967.

But while TV was yet to catch on, radio was very much the dominant form of home entertainment in 1950s Britain. The Goon Show broadcast on the BBC Home Service represented the cutting edge of anarchic comedy, with Midland-born comedian Tony Hancock enjoying huge popularity when his radio show Hancock's Half Hour was launched in 1954. On the other hand, The Archers, Woman’s Hour and Desert Island Discs still have a loyal following 70 years on.

And while we might be in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis at the moment, with the average energy bill reaching about £37 a week, life was much tougher at the start of the Queen's reign. Back then, the average energy bill was only £1 a week, or just over £20 a week when adjusted for inflation. But that was largely down to the fact that few houses enjoyed the luxury of gas central heating, and there were still many properties without mains electricity.

Mario Lanza topped the charts when the Queen took the throne

More to the point, in 1952 the average man earned just £9 a week – about £182 in today's money, and the average woman just £5, or £101 when adjusted for inflation, compared to £556 today. So while energy accounts for about 6.65 per cent of the average income today, it would have been around double that 70 years ago.

A pint of beer would have also been much more expensive, at 6d – £5.05 at today's prices, compared to about £4 today.

Sadly, one thing that does not seem to have changed much is the antagonism between the East and the West. Back in 1952, tyrant Joseph Stalin was still ruling the Eastern Bloc with a rod of iron, brutally suppressing anyone who stood in his way right up until his death in March, 1953. Seventy years on, the West is once more at loggerheads with Russia, following this year's invasion of the Ukraine.

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