Growing up in Aberdeen. Children of the Nineteen Fifties: A special study.

Growing up in Aberdeen. Children of the Nineteen Fifties: A special study.
2019-06-27

Aberdeen has seen dramatic changes since the 1950s.  The “Granite City” had developed around industries such as paper making, fishing, quarrying and agricultural machinery.  Then with the discovery of oil in the 1970s it was transformed into the oil capital of Europe as new wealth and new people arrived.  Social mobility was accelerated by the influx of new wealth.  A provincial city saw the arrival of new people from around the world. How have these changes affected the lives of Aberdonians? 

We are fortunate to have a unique data set on which to draw to answer questions such as these.  We have been able to follow a complete cohort of people born between 1950 and 1956 through their lives. 12,500 children in primary schools in Aberdeen were given health, psychological and educational tests between 1962 and 1964.  This survey was set up by one of the first Heads of Sociology at Aberdeen – Raymond Illsley.  It was complemented by a survey of teachers and families.  Later on these data were linked up with administrative health records and there was one follow up survey in 2001.  Fortunately, most people remained in the Aberdeenshire region so that their records are complete.  This has proved an invaluable resource for understanding influences on medical conditions through life.  Further information can be found on  https://www.abdn.ac.uk/birth-cohorts/1950s/

The Aberdeen Children of the Nineteen Fifties is a large birth cohort study which at the time of the last data sweep in 2001 still had 7183of the original sample in it.  They are enthusiastic participants in our study and one of the sits on the Advisory Board of the study (as do I).  There is a lively Facebook page and at a reunion meeting in the Elphinstone Hall in February 2016, numbers had to be restricted because so many wanted to come along.

It has not been used very much by sociologists to date - but we are hoping to change that. 

A new/old study about oil in Aberdeen is sent to us. But what was it?

An additional data source appeared unexpectedly two years ago when Isabel Seidel, the Sociology Departmental secretary, was contacted by David Oldman, a former sociologist in the Department.  He is now living in London and whilst moving house found a box of papers in his garage.  It was the data from an ESRC study which used the Aberdeen Children of the Nineteen Fifties in the 1980s to contact families involved in the oil industry as part of the nationwide Social Change and Economic Life initiative led by Duncan Gallie.  The Aberdeen part of it was christened with the unappealing name of “GUANO” - Growing Up in An Oil town (it took us a long time to find out what that stood for) and was led by John (now Lord) Sewell.  But very little was published beyond conference papers and most of these had disappeared.

Alas, the electronic files he sent us were in some antiquated code and were quite unreadable.  The box of papers contained the original questionnaires plus some large sheets of printout from computerised files in fading ink. Was it any use? 

To find out I applied for some pump priming money at the University and Krzysztof Adamczyk spent the summer of 2018 organising and coding it into recognisable machine-readable data.  This small sample of  389 respondents was recruited from the Family Survey sub-sample (n = 2510) of the original 1964 study. It was in fact two surveys – one of 251 parental respondents; and another of 138 child respondents, each with a corresponding parent in the first survey – which asked questions pertaining to individuals’ work history, housing tenure, family relations and many other topics. Whilst this data remains largely unexplored, we do know that, by and large, parental respondents did not join the ‘oil-boom’. Their children, however, benefitted from the oil industry, of which 58% of men and 25% of women had ever had an ‘oil’ or  ‘oil-related’ job at the time of the survey in 1986.

A fantastic source of data for PhDs

In May 2018 Krzysztof Adamczyk won an ESRC scholarship to use the data to look at social mobility.   He employs a mixed-methods approach to examine how individuals understand, experience and evaluate upward social mobility and the effect of social mobility trajectories on their wellbeing. This study investigates three interrelated issues that the discipline of sociology has been grappling with for some time. The first issue is the so-called ‘dissociative thesis’ which claims that upward mobility is a highly disruptive experience which causes psychological distress. Has climbing the social ladder been stressful in any way for the cohort members? Next, this research aims to find out whether there is correspondence, or ‘fit’, between individuals’ subjective experiences of mobility and their ‘objective’ trajectories as evaluated by sociologists and Office for National Statistics. Do those upwardly mobile feel that they experienced social mobility? Finally, inspired by the bourgeoning Bourdieu studies, is the problem of capital composition in social mobility. Is mobility experienced similarly by those who achieved it through acquisition of economic capital alone and those whose trajectory was accompanied by significant increases in cultural capital? It is the aim of this research to find answers to these questions and the cohort study is uniquely positioned to enable an in-depth empirical investigation of these issues.

A good opportunity for oral history

 In 2016 I started an oral history project related to this study.  It was part of an ESRC administrative data project currently being carried out at Aberdeen University includes an element of oral history (Administrative Data Centre-Scotland Work Package 3 on Oral History Capture – public engagement, metadata creation, and deep investigation of historical administrative data in the Aberdeen Children of the 1950s, RG12069-10) .  The aim of the oral history part of the proposal was  to provide more insight into the experiences of the Aberdeen Children of the 1950s and encourage wider use of the data.

I talked to 22 people who had volunteered to be interviewed.  We started with their experiences of childhood in the 1960s, when Aberdeen was a very different place to what it is now. 

Most people started life in old tenement houses, often with outside toilets and communal washrooms. They were freezing in winter and often crowded as many families were large. Children shared not just bedrooms but also beds. The coming of council housing, which was widespread in Scotland, meant that better conditions could be offered and people were pleased to move into their newly built homes with modern facilities (and bathrooms indoors).  People of all social backgrounds lived in council estates in those days - not just poor people. There was no stigma to it.

They went to school at a time when the eleven plus was an important way of dividing people between those with educational prospects and those without.  The senior secondary (grammar) schools were regimented and disciplinarian – a regime which benefited some people but caused others to rebel, resign or drop out.  For those who survived it was a ladder into University and beyond.  Aberdeen University was important in this transition because most people stayed at home when then went to University. Many people remember their school days fondly and still remembered the names of their teachers.

An important public institution was the library.  Most families did not have books at home, but children went each week to change their books at the library and therefore had access to many volumes of entertainment and information.

The National Health Service offered vaccinations, health inspections and services for children so that the childhood diseases that had maimed or killed children in the past were banished and most people born at this time could look forward to long, healthy lives.

Meals were cooked by Mum and eaten at home – many came home for lunch as well as supper. But the food was very plain with mince and tatties being a staple diet.  Those with connections to the fishing industry might have had fish regularly and those with allotments got vegetables when they were in season.  Fruit was rare.

Children played outdoors with other children as the neighbourhood was one large playground, with older siblings minding younger ones.  Organised activities included Sunday School, the Guildry, Scouts and Guides and for some people being involved in a sport provided a social life. Otherwise Saturday morning cinema was a source of entertainment for children in a pre-television era.

Did go to Sunday school, everybody went to Sunday school. You didn't mind it too much, we weren't…church goers at all but I imagine it was a way of getting children out of the house on a Sunday and it was okay. Sunday school picnic, I do remember those, they were great fun

Holidays rarely extended beyond Aberdeenshire – they usually consisted of renting a caravan in Stonehaven or on the Moray Firth.  Or staying with relatives.  So people’s lives were very locally based.  Yet people maintained social boundaries and a sense of privacy in the crowded tenements. Social life centred around family and neighbours:

Yes, very much family based though. Part of that …would be mum, I think that was maybe how people were: boundaries were very clearly set, you don't tell your business outwith the family.

People described modest but frugal lifestyles where budgets were tight but people were provided for. Nobody felt poor because their expectations were very limited.   As one respondent pointed out – the outdoor toilet that they shared with other tenement families was always spotlessly clean! Often elderly relatives formed part of the household. Mum’s were mainly at home doing housework and Dad’s were more distanced, being mainly at work (or in the pub).

Mum would say things like… 'we might be poor but we're very clean', washing was a big day, I remember that. Because there was no washing machines then. There was…eventually a twin-tub but even so there was a big sink. Things like our socks in summer, your white socks were always boiled in a pan and things, everything – mum would always be washing.

It is important to remember that we are not talking about the distant past, but about things that happened in the lifetime of the current generation of people reaching retirement.  All the interviewees on the project are entering this phase of their lives in a much better situation to where they had started.  Now they own their homes and usually have more than one toilet!  In a world without TV and without cars (for the most part) the communal institutions of neighbourhood and family were important for shaping lives and these were underpinned by the public institutions of the welfare state in the form of housing, libraries, health services and education.

This was the first generation to have enjoyed these universal services and they were well supported.   Given that many of these services are now being privatised or eroded, will people born today enjoy the same kind of universal opportunities and support? The study reminds us of how important that is.

A  version of this was published in iScot magazine Issue 48 Dec/Jan 2019 https://www.iscot.scot/

Free download of the article: https://ebook3000.biz/iscot-magazine-issue-48-december-2018-january-2019-download/

Claire Wallace and Krzystof Adamaczyk June 2019

Published by The School of Social Science, University of Aberdeen

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