What Dating Was Really Like In The 1930s And 1950s

This piece is an excerpt from Nichi Hodgson’s newest book, The Curious Case of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder.
ML van Dam
ML van Dam

For gay men and women, romantic opportunities were also escalating. The year 1937 saw the publication of a book called For Your Convenience, a euphemistic guide to cottaging, which marked out the best kind of public toilets in which to meet ‘like-minded’ male cohorts.

At around the same time, certain pubs in London became known for their queer credentials, places where both gay men and women could meet and date under the protection of a dogged status. The most notable pub of the era was the Running Horse in Shepherd Market, which had even seen the writer Radclyffe Hall drink there prior to the publication of The Well of Loneliness back in the 1920s. Gay men, meanwhile, didn’t date so much as hook up rampantly.

In the early 1930s, young working-class men would stand at the back of Collins Music Hall in Islington and masturbate one another, pick one another up under the arches of the Adelphi between Charing Cross and the Embankment and in parks London-wide, from St James’s to Hackney Marshes. Meanwhile Lyons Corner House on the corner of Leicester Square saw gay men queue around the block to get in for tea and toast on a Sunday, with the code, ‘Is she TBH (to be had)?’ the way of marking out someone’s sexual availability.

Police officers scouring the city for proof of gross indecency continued to make arrests in these areas of London, with officers routinely rubbing a suspect’s cheek with blotting paper to test for make-up. For many men, who didn’t strictly identify themselves as homosexual, this was just a way of getting a sexual fix when women were reluctant to put out before marriage.

And yet it was also in the 1930s that the divorce laws were amended, in theory making it easier than ever to end a marriage.

Before 1937, adultery had to be proven in order for a divorce to be granted, which meant acrimonious but non-cheating couples had to orchestrate a ‘visit’ from a random lady friend or chambermaid to a husband’s hotel room in order to fake infidelity.

After the Matrimonial Clauses Act of 1937, however, the first major change to the divorce laws since 1857, annulment could be granted on the grounds of non-consummation, being of unsound mind, having epilepsy, venereal disease, or being pregnant by another man. Yet although ending a marriage no longer required a trip to the London Divorce Courts, it was still extortionately expensive and constituted reputational suicide.

The fact that only ninety MPs turned up to Second Reading of the Bill which saw it become law indicates just how taboo divorce would remain. It would be at least another thirty years before the laws were amended again to enable either partner to divorce the other on the basis of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

Given the costs to reputation and wallet, more people separated than divorced, and women’s magazines waged a propaganda campaign to ensure that ladies nearly always held on, even in the most undignified of circumstances, to the man they had so fought tooth and nail to secure.

As the writer Winnifred Holtby put it, in Time and Tide in 1935, ‘Today there is a far worse crime than promiscuity: it is chastity. On all sides the unmarried woman today is surrounded by doubts cast not only on her attractiveness or her common sense, but upon her decency, her normality, even her sanity.’

But there were other women ready to rescue her reputation. In 1937, Marjorie Hillis published How to Live Alone and Like It, an etiquette guide for the single girl. The book is funny, frank and disarmingly modern in its conclusions about life without the hassle of a husband, the key tenet of which seems to be learning not to care that one is alone in the first place.

That’s when the men come flocking – ‘If all . . . refused to talk to a man, they would soon find suitors playing the guitar under their windows.’

The handbook exposes many of the contradictions of trying to live as an independent woman who suits herself, but who might want sometimes to invite the attentions of men.

On the matter of hobbies, for example, Hillis is resolute: ‘there was a time when a hobby was absolutely de rigueur . . . but hobbies are anti-social now; modern men don’t like to be sewn and knitted at; and the mere whisper that a girl collects prints, stamps, tropical fish or African art is, alas, likely to increase her solitude’.

But when it comes to physical grooming, Hillis recommended that a lady groom for the good of her self-esteem in the first instance, enjoying its knock-on benefits in the second: ‘The woman who always looks at night as though she were expecting a lover is likely to have several. (One of the pleasantest things about modern life is the increased range of suitors.)’

Similarly, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to alcohol, covering everything from how to arrange a mini drinks cabinet to how to avoid giving your friends hangovers when you’re hostessing, the overriding conclusion being ‘it’s a wise lady who knows enough to confine her drinking to social occasions’.

On the matter of sex, the book was equally straight-talking. Automatically presuming that single women were indeed indulging their baser instincts, Hillis advised those who were to keep it to themselves: ‘A Woman’s Honour is no longer mentioned with bated breath and protected by her father, her brother and the community. It is now her own affair.’

While we’re mentioning affairs, Hillis recommended they ‘should not even be thought of before you are thirty’.

Similarly, inviting a gentleman friend to stay was perfectly acceptable. A woman should not be concerned with what the neighbours might say if they see him coming and going. Rather, the issue is what he – and you – might get up to if he does in fact stay the night – ‘you probably know him better than we do, but it is our opinion that it usually takes two to make a situation’.

Women were allowed to invite men to events on the proviso that they develop a devil-may- care attitude about his attendance – ‘the best rule is to make your invitations worth accepting and not to care what the man thinks so long as he comes’.

The year before D-Day might have well as been recast as ‘G-Day’, marking as it did the arrival of one and a half million GIs into Britain – and a much-needed bolster to the morale of Britain’s women on the home front. As Madelaine Henrey put it, ‘They brought into our anxious lives a sudden exhilaration, the exciting feeling that we were still young and attractive and that it was tremendous fun for a young woman to be courted, however harmlessly, by quantities of generous, eager, film- star-ish young men.’

‘Overpaid, oversexed, and over here’, the GIs were a breath of fresh transatlantic air with finances to boot. The average GI received £750 a year, compared with a British soldier’s measly £100. With extra money earned for flying duty and overseas duty, many had never had as much money in their lives.

If they were single, British girls were the spoiled recipients of their good fortune. Gifts included chewing gum, cigarettes, flowers, chocolate and sweets, tinned peaches and the much vaunted nylon stockings.

Many British women were so taken aback by the speech of the GIs that the military authorities even went as far as to prepare a pamphlet for the female staff of the NAAFI canteen to decode it: ‘The first time that an American solider approaches the counter and says, “Hiya, baby!”, you will probably think he is being impudent,’ it pointed out.

Comparably, American soldiers were given a pamphlet advising them on British customs, with the US Provost Marshal even going so far as to issue an extra leaflet entitled, ‘How to Stay Out of Trouble’ which naturally advised against sexual relations. Of course the GIs and the land girls didn’t heed it.

British women loved the fact that the American troops danced, joked, and came armed with luxury food, stockings and make-up, and that they distributed sweets to any children they came across. GIs had charm and knew how to talk to women. British girls had lost their curves on a diet of rations but the GIs complimented their figures anyway. American GIs loved the fact they could exploit their ‘exoticism’, and that, compared to American women, English girls seemed happily passive, eager to please, and professionally unambitious.

As one soldier put it, ‘They [English girls] feel they can attain their goals by being easy on the nerves of their menfolk.’ As Quentin Crisp, who was working as an artist’s model at the time put it, ‘it was the liberality of their natures that was so marvellous. Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few.’

In the early years of the war the GIs had been warmly invited by English communities, entertained courtesy of what were known as British Welcome Clubs. In a June 1944 edition of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, a local entertainer of troops noted, ‘The Americans here are young men and after a good time. They want a nice girl and a dance to take her to, a place where they can give her a meal, and a place to drink.’

Soon the authorities realised the welcome needed to be a more civilised, organised affair and so the WVS and churches set up more than two hundred welcome clubs featuring pre-selected hostesses for that very purpose.

As the war progressed, the soldiers stepped out with local girls themselves, organising what were called ‘liberty buses’ or ‘passion wagons’ to transport the ladies to a dance at the US base. But such was the anxiety about the spread of VD that British girls started to be ‘vetted’ by the local city halls in order to attend dances. Indiscriminate soldiers continued to send unvetted passion wagons at any rate.

Unfortunately, many a British girl swept off her feet by stockings and swing dancing could misconstrue a GI’s intentions – the problem was that ‘dating’ as the Americans practised it had not yet caught on in the UK, despite the influence of Hollywood.

Meanwhile the authorities colluded in keeping the GIs single. Permanent relationships and marriages were to be discouraged at all costs – it was thought that it would distract the GIs from their duties, and there was also particular concern that some might be indulging in bigamous marriages.

In July 1942, President Eisenhower ruled that his men could only marry with the permission of their commanding officers, and the marriage had to be proven to enhance ‘the interest of these European Theatre of Operations forces in particular and military service in general’. Marriage didn’t even secure a British spouse US citizenship. In fact, the impending birth of an illegitimate child was one of the only reasons for allowing a marriage. The off- duty pursuit of British women was considered part of the troops’ ‘rest and relaxation’ and it was many a British serviceman’s job to drive a truckload of rambunctious and horny GIs through a sleepy English village.

A popular joke of the time ran, ‘Heard about the new utility knickers? One Yank – and they’re off.’

Impromptu orgies or multiple sex with the one woman was also not uncommon; with a need to get back to base, seduction and foreplay had to be exchanged for lavish gifts. Soldiers could also be seen wearing coats in the height of summer which they used to wrap around themselves and their female partners during alfresco sex. And then there was the ‘wall job’ which necessitated no coat, just a firm vertical surface to press against, and which British women favoured, believing it protected them against pregnancy; the ‘g-spot’ by any other name.

But there was a threat to the GIs’ sexual prowess – and that came in the form of more than one hundred thousand black American soldiers who found themselves stationed everywhere from Cornwall to Glamorgan. The British government had not wanted them to come to Britain at all – in fact the Conservative MP Maurice Petherick had warned Secretary of State Anthony Eden that their presence would result in mixed- race babies, ‘a bad thing for any country’ – but the government was overruled by the fact that President Roosevelt had sought to recruit one in ten to all aspects of the US military.

Black troops who arrived in East Anglia to build airfields were carefully segregated from white using a complicated rota system. Yet English women were as ready to dance with them as the whites, oblivious to the institutional segregation that formed a part of American military life, even if it was evident in small acts such as the ban on photographs taken of black soldiers dancing with white women.

But the white GIs soon sabotaged their fun, spreading rumours that the blacks carried knives and that they were out to rape all the women they encountered. They then openly fought with them over British women in the streets of Bristol, Preston, and finally Launceston in Cornwall in a battle over a ‘black’ and ‘white’ fish shop and black and white dances, reports of which the authorities were quick to quash.

As a Home Office circular from 1943 read, ‘the morale of British troops is likely to be upset by rumours that their wives and daughters are being debauched by coloured American troops’. What’s more, under no circumstances were black GIs and white British women allowed to marry.

But as the author Barbara Cartland, once a WAAF welfare officer, observed, ‘it was the white women who ran after the black troops, not vice versa’.

Still, as the Woman’s Own agony aunt Leonora Eyles explained, replying to a letter she received about friendship with a black soldier, mainstream society was simply not going to accept mixed race relationships: ‘Although coloured people are just as good as white ones, you must see that marriage between you would stand little chance of happiness for either of you; his race does not like her, and her own people don’t like him, friends are difficult to find, and if they have children they are often unhappy. I think you would be very wise to end the friendship.’

The trouble came to a head in 1944 when a 33-year- old woman from Combe Down near Bath claimed she’d been raped at knifepoint by a black GI she’d led along a path near her house after he’d called asking for directions. His counter-claim was that he’d already visited her previously and paid her for sex, which she now denied in order to save face, mainly because she was married.

Whatever the truth of the story, when the case was heard, the jury thought it odd that she claimed she’d gotten out of bed where she lay with her husband and actively led the GI down the road, rather than merely point him in the right direction.

Still, he was sentenced to death by hanging. But when the case reached the papers there was a public outcry, and 33,000 local citizens called for his reprieve. He was let off and returned to his unit, but the episode remained a cautionary tale about sex and race in wartime Britain.

When the American troops left after D-Day, the US army postal service recorded that over a quarter of letters mailed by GIs from France during the first four weeks were posted to British addresses. Some twenty thousand British women had applied to be American wives. The transatlantic dating die had been cast. But some women were left with more than just memories.

Having a little adulterous fun may as it be, but finding yourself pregnant during wartime was the worst case scenario for any service woman, who would be duly issued a ‘Para 11’ and dismissed.

Thankfully this is where the unbecoming uniforms could actually come in handy – hiding a pregnancy until the late stage was possible under the surplus folds of fabric, and being sent out to hospital with a case of ‘severe constipation’ one possible work-round.

As for those wives that had strayed, as Barbara Cartland noted, ‘I was often sorry for the “bad” women . . . They started by not meaning any harm, just desiring a little change from the monotony of looking after their children, queueing for food and cleaning the house with no man to appreciate them or their cooking.’

In fact, by the end of the war, so many couples had had adulterous affairs that one English bishop actually proposed a blanket pardon for all, given the unprecedented circumstances. The Archbishop of Canterbury couldn’t agree, instead calling for a rejection of wartime morality, stating, ‘People are not conscious of injuring the war effort by dishonesty of sexual indulgence.’ It was at once attenuating and accusatory. But it was also, in many cases, too late.

Seven thousand nine hundred and ninety-five divorces in 1939 became more than sixty thousand by 1947.

Publicly funded marriage guidance became ever important to the government and matrimonial agencies and friendship agencies flourished. By 1946, the National Marriage Guidance Council had been formed and reports on its regional units flooded newspapers.

In an October 1947 edition of the Gloucestershire Echo, the Cheltenham Marriage Guidance Centre had noted that the chief causes of disharmony amongst those that had used the service were due to incompatibility, lack of cooperation, stress of modern life, long periods apart during the war years and unsatisfactory family background in childhood.

Housing, mental illness and infidelity also featured. The solution, noted the local rector, was with the younger dating generation who ‘were taking a more serious view of life than their parents ever had’, and would find it nothing but normal to consult medical and counselling professionals should they ever run into trouble in later life themselves.

With women’s reversion to their pre-war roles as mothers, wives and homemakers, they began to date with a cyclopian view to wedded bliss, and everywhere they turned, culture reflected this back at them.

Brief Encounter, one of the most popular films of 1945, hammered home the message that it was time for women to turn their backs on romantic flights of fancy and instead step up to their spousal responsibilities.

To be known as a ‘bolter’ was the ultimate insult. With war over, their foreign lovers gone, and a new conversation about marital bliss opening up, the best thing to do was to embrace peace time, be thankful for your risqué memories, and focus on the fact stockings would soon be readily available once again.

After all, what more could a woman facing the 1950s want? TC mark

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