Change seems to have been a theme for the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Some of its greatest figures saw their time end, and other individuals took the baton. From political transformation to cultural shifts, the 1950s saw all manner of new dignitaries, music, transportation, and entertainment. Of course, not all this change was good, but each event on this list helped make the United Kingdom was it is today. If there’s an important event you think we left off from this decade, you can let us know in the comments.
1951 – Festival of Britain
A centennial celebration of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival of Britain offered a look at recovery and Britain’s future after World War II. From new developments in cinema to the advent of international modernist architecture in the UK, the festival gave hope in a time when it was most needed. One of the buildings constructed for the Festival of Britain, the Royal Festival Hall, is still standing.
1952 – King George VI Dies, Queen Elizabeth II’s Reign Begins
It was truly the end of an era when King George VI died in 1952. He had presided over the constitutional crisis that put him on the throne and guided the country through the dark days of WWII. His daughter then became Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in the country’s history and one of its most transformative figures.
1953 – Discovery of DNA Structure
Undeniably one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th Century, American biologist James Watson and English physicist Francis Crick cracked open the mystery of DNA in 1953. The two Cambridge scientists were able to discover the structure of DNA and how it served as the building blocks for all life.
1955 – First Commercial Television Broadcast from ITV
The Television Act 1954 allowed for non-state-owned television networks to form, the first of which was Independent Television, or ITV, in 1955. The network began with six franchises spread across Britain and has been responsible for some of British television’s best-known programs such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Avengers, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, Space: 1999, and Upstairs, Downstairs, among others.
1955 – Winston Churchill Resigns
By the time Winston Churchill came back to power as Prime Minister in 1951, he was 77 years old, and his health was on the decline. He had suffered several small strokes, including one in 1953 that left his left side temporarily paralyzed. It took nearly another two years for him to finally admit that his health could not keep up with the stress of the job, and he turned over the premiership to Anthony Eden, who suffered from his own health issues.
1956 – Suez Crisis
When the President of Egypt, General Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, it would be an understatement to say that UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden took it badly. Believing that Nasser had violated a treaty between England, France, and Egypt and could become another fascist dictator, he partnered British and French armed forces for an invasion of the country to take control of the canal back. The invasion, under the disguise of acting as a peacekeeping force between Egypt and Israel, was roundly condemned by Britain and France’s allies all over the world, forcing them to back down.
1957 – Anthony Eden Resigns, Harold Macmillan Becomes Prime Minister
While Eden had always had a great reputation for international diplomacy, this took an unrecoverable hit thanks to his mishandling of the Suez Crisis. Between this and his worsening health, Eden opted to resign rather than face further humiliation or a health crisis. He was succeeded by Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan, who had managed to escape the Suez Crisis unscathed and would become a major figure in British politics in the 20th Century.
1958 – Motorway System Opens with the M6
The plan to have a series of high-speed roads throughout the United Kingdom was first thought up during World War II, but the government lacked the power to build roads that were not automatically rights of way until the Special Roads Act 1949. Known as the Preston Bypass when it was built, the M6 was the first official motorway in Britain. It is still the longest in the country at 230 miles from the Midlands to the Scottish border.
1959 – The Mini Hits the Streets
The Mini is one of the most iconic British cars of all time, and it first appeared on the market in 1959, courtesy of the British Motoring Corporation. Its creation was the result of a fuel shortage caused by the Suez Crisis, with its small size meant to help conserve gas. It became a symbol of the 1960s and exploded in popularity after its use in the 1969 film The Italian Job.
1960 – The Beatles Form in Liverpool
Closing out the decade is a moment that would reverberate for the next ten years. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison had been playing together since 1958, but it wasn’t until they added Stuart Sutcliffe joined in January 1960 and suggested the name “Beatles” that the future musical sensation began to take shape. Later in that year, they would change their name to the Silver Beetles and then Beatles before taking up their first residency in Hamburg, a period that would see them become the band we know and love today.