Life in Kuwait back in the 1950s – Part 1

Post by Mark

Back in May while doing some research about Kuwait in the old days I contacted a person by the name of John Beresford and asked him if he had any old photographs or videos of Kuwait from back in the old days. Turns out he didn’t have any videos but he did have some photos and more importantly, a treasure of information, mostly stories of simple things from life back then that many people might have forgotten or not even have known about. I’ve been trying to figure out how to share this trove of fascinating info for the past week and just decided I would share it in parts.

This is
Life in Kuwait back in the 1950s – Part 1
by John Beresford

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Ahmadi was built from scratch, power, drains, everything. My father arrived in April 1949 – he missed the last flying boat service by a week which always disappointed him – he fancied the flight from Beirut via the Iraqi Marshes to Shuwaik. One of the people he arrived with got up, walked to the door, looked out and went back to sit down – he did not get off the plane. Dad did and spent 2 weeks in a tent before graduating to a nissen hut, which was far too hot – with limited power there was no overhead fan. He shared with some fairly coarse drillers from Oklahoma who kept a pistol which was passed around in turn to everyone. It was the job of the person with the pistol to go outside at night and shoot any braying donkeys that were keeping people awake. The only thing he kept from the experience was a taste for iced tea and a distaste for drillers.

My parents got married in 1954. Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) gave them a married quarter and equipped it. Furniture, linen, plates, cutlery, aluminium saucepans, were supplied. I still use the cutlery – EPNS from Mappin and Webb, and some for the saucepans and chip pans. They are stamped with ‘KUOCO’. The crockery had a green band around the edge – I don’t remember who made it. You supplied your own curtains, carpets and bedding. There was nowhere to buy such things so KOC had a commissariat and issued such items. Later on, in the 1960’s, it decided to stop doing this and let everyone keep what they had already received. There was a laundry in the industrial area, North of the South tank farm, where items could be laundered, dry cleaned and starched if necessary. I threw away an old KOC laundry box this summer- it had been used to store tools in the garage. The system was pretty much the same as the army used, and most people employees had been in the forces. They had been posted overseas and had little desire to return to the UK as it was cold, depressed and depressing. Quite a few had been in the British Palestine Police and after 1948 moved elsewhere. There was quite a mix of people around; Dad liked playing rugby in Basrah because there were lots of nightclubs and shows populated by white Russian dancers who could not go back home.

house1

In the picture of the front room note:

– The gas fire – every KOC European/US house had a gas fire , and we used it!

– There is an electrical fan on the floor. I don’t know if this means there was no air-conditioning yet. Overhead fans did exist. The air-conditioning was not as nowadays, with individual units to each room. KOC had a central Ice Plant, that produced ice (obvious from the name) and a lot of cold water. This was piped around the European part of Ahmadi (the management/supervisory accommodation) because managers and supervisors tended to be European, and had higher spec accommodation. The Indians and Pakistanis (IPs) had their area and type of houses, and the Arabs had theirs. Arab managers had management houses. The original drains were made of cast iron and the manager in charge of the domestic infrastructure got bored and did a survey to see haw the drains stood up to use. His conclusion was that the drains in the IP areas corroded more quickly that in the Arab areas, and the Europeans’ drains corroded least of all. He attributed this to the diet.

However, reverting to the a/c, the insulated pipes carried the chilled water to the main a/c unit in every house, and from there cooled air was pumped around the houses. It was an efficient way of supplying a/c. The houses had large ducts made of asbestos sheet that cooled most rooms. I don’t know of anyone that has blamed any subsequent cancer on having had their a/c ducts made of it. Of course when my father had been doing some plumbing and had failed to complete it before the ice plant started to pump its cool water around town he had to phone up and tell them to stop the pump until he was all watertight again! As he was by this time in charge of Ahmadi’s services as well as the oil company’s electrics he could get away with a lot.

– The standard lamp is the one issued by KOC. The entire front room looks shockingly similar to the 1950s room in the Geffrye Museum – a small museum in London, North of Liverpool Street Station, that displays the British domestic front room throughout the centuries. So many people had rooms like the one in the museum. Especially the textiles.

oldhouse

The photo above shows the house after my parents had moved in. There is no garden. It was easier to get the fence and other bits from KOC and build your own. Dad bought concrete flagstones and brought them home 2-3 at a time. In the distance another house is being built. This is up in the Ridge area of Ahmadi. Our house backed onto desert (from the photo at this time it seems to have fronted onto desert as well) and at the back were well heads from the Ahmadi field. In 1956 someone took exception to the Suez Crisis and blew one of them up. This really annoyed my mother. I had 24 terry nappies that were reusable and most of them had been boiled and were hanging on the line when the explosion happed. The fire that resulted covered them all in oily soot and Mum never managed to get them white again. The clean up afterwards she never forgot. Things had to be cleaned. If she had thrown them away there were no more to be obtained. This ridge area was covered in houses when we left in 1972. Houses were every 30-40 yards or less. As it started to drop down the long incline to the sea the slope arrived at the Hubara Club, and the golf course, neither of which had been built when this photo was taken.

Some houses were called PMQs others were called Swedes because they were wooden houses, prefabricated and shipped in from Sweden. Ours was made of Basrah brick which is quite soft. Generally the Americans had bigger houses and earned more money because they were Americans. It was said that everything cost more in the USA. If it did then, it certainly does not nowadays. Everyone had their grade of housing – very much like the armed forces. Bachelors had their accommodation in the guest house where we sometime went on fridays to have a curry. Only rarely, but we enjoyed it greatly. Again, the ‘Bachelors’ Mess’ was modelled on the armed forces.

One way or another you could get most things from KOC. After prohibition came in he and one of his staff, who had worked in a distillery, had the fitters in the electrical division make a still, a proper one, with thermostats, electrical heating, a cooled column for fractionalisation with about 800 marbles in it to increase the surface area for condensation, and the distillate was filtered through charcoal. They then distilled it a 2nd time for purity and then converted it into whatever tipple they wanted, usually gin and brandy. A mail order shop in New York sold food colouring and ingredients especially designed for home-made hooch. The cook made the caramel for the brandy (Dad liked the treacly taste of the Cypriot Keo brandy) and to add flavour he threw a handful of white oak chips into each bottle to simulate aging in a cask. Once his shipment got stopped by Kuwaiti customs and he had to explain what it was for to get release; he said that the white oak chips were for smoking fish, and took along an article explain how kippers were made to help. After much scepticism the shipment was released.

I mentioned a cook. KOC gave managerial staff an allowance to be spent on a servant. The choice was an ayah or a cook. We had a cook. He was a fantastic cook. He was a Pakistani and before partition had been a demonstration chef at the Indian Army School of Cookery. He could cook anything well and knew all western culinary techniques, and if he had forgotten he said so, and asked for a Larousse or some such to refresh his memory. He must have been quite old as he remembered being caught in the great Quetta earthquake and that was in the 1920s.

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End of Part 1


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30 comments, add your own...


  1. Awesome article Mark! I recently worked in Ahmadi and loved it, I would drive through the area just to look at the old houses and wonder what life must have been like during the old days, can’t wait to read the next part.

    • Buzfairy says:

      Today I saw a picture on instagram of an Aramco city in Saudi. That picture could’ve been of any suburb in the US. The sidewalks, the lawn, the greenery and shrubbery. Could be any city, USA.

      I think that was also how Al-Ahmadi used to look like before. My mom and aunts used to go there to get snacks and chocolates. Always had the best stock of English grocery items.

      However, these days, even the lovely park in front of the KOC HQ is ruined. Sad. VEry very sad.

    • Nunya says:

      i agree- Great article, can’t wait for the second. I also drive through Ahmadi because it reminds me of the older towns and suburbs of rural Australia. Sorry people of Ahmadi, not stalking or casing the joint, just reminiscing!

  2. Sabah says:

    Excellent view into the past. Ahmadi was the spot in the 80s and till mid 90s for parks, bbqs and greenery in general. It’s still not too bad. Without mobiles and GPS it was quite a challenge getting out if you got lost there though.

  3. Chris says:

    Wonderful read! Can’t wait for the next..

  4. Neo says:

    And that’s why I keep coming back for more…

    Thanks Mark & John ! Great Post !!!

  5. Ber says:

    Nice post!

  6. Rami says:

    Awesome.

  7. BuYousef says:

    Love it. Looking forward to more. After you post them all, may I suggest you put them together into one pdf? text and images.

  8. Abi says:

    Loved reading this. Thank you!

  9. What's in a name says:

    I was born in Kuwait in 66 and as far as memory goes I remember my father having a video camera sort of thing. Yeah, it was not common for an Indian to have that kind of equipment for personal use in those days, but yes he always carried it with him whenever we went to the parks and the sea side. After each roll was done, he would carefully pack up the roll or whatever it was using small packs that had bubble wrap on the inside and post them to Germany for them to develop the film roll. Yes, the postal service back then could really be relied on!

    These films had to viewed using a special projector that projected the output on to the wall. The last time I watched a couple of those films was in 93 just after I got married. You know how parents take pride and enjoy showing their new daughter in law their lil naked kid running around in the park :P

    Well, a couple of years later a thief got into our house in India and went away with our projector :X( I now have a couple of films (carried 2 of them with me to Kuwait on my last trip from India) and am wondering if someone can guide me to some place where I can convert them into digital form. Yes, its likely that they are faded and probably not in any viewable form, but they are my memories … precious memories and I’d be glad if someone can help me salvage whatever possible!

    Thanks for any guidance :)

    • cheriyan says:

      Hi, The film that you are talking would possibly be super 8 or 8mm and these days it could be converted quite easily in most countries. If you need help there are places in London that convert them into videos or discs. I am a 1956 product and lived in Ahmadi and went to the India-Pakistan School with Ms Ryan as our headmistress. Lots of fond memories of Ahmadi, Unity Club and the social and cultural scene within the Indian community. I am settled now in London. It will be good to exchange memories. Best wishes

  10. Nm says:

    Beautiful article!!! So nice to get a glimpse of our past!

  11. Bader says:

    survey to see haw the drains
    survey to see how the drains

  12. aaa says:

    I love hearing stories of what it was like 50 years ago or so. Reminds us that as much as we complain, we’ve actually come farther than we thought in that time. The average KOC employee back then lived better than most of the rich Kuwaitis, from the stories I hear AC was not common in homes in the 50s.

  13. Guss says:

    Nice Article. I think John had a brother called Simon. I knew a Simon Beresford who was in my class back in the 60s at the Anglo Amercian School

    • Jane Chertemps(née Beresford) says:

      Yes, Simon is John’s (and my) brother, we’ve got some of the old A A school photos but have forgotten a lot of names

      • Tamsin says:

        Hello Jane. You were our next door neighbours! My brother was Simon too. The Willcocks’ Good to hear John’s memories. Tamsin

      • Carolyn TROY (Aitken) says:

        Hi Jane, remember me ? We were in the same class at the AA school. Hope you are well.

        Best wishes Carolyn

  14. Walid says:

    Lovely article..looking forward for more..

  15. gabby says:

    Veru interesting article…

  16. s says:

    Mark, a kuwaiti mogul built ahmedi on british standards. houses in samiyah (block 9, overlooking the volcano looking fountain) have been built for the said contractor as his private residence by the left over bricks.

  17. s says:

    Also, I have many info and pics to prove it.

  18. Tamsin says:

    John! You were our next door neighbours! The Willcocks :) Long time no see….

  19. Corinne Brown says:

    Fabulous memories. Dad Bob Leask was chief refrigeration engineer and I remember him putting air-con in our cooks quarters behind the garage.

  20. Cheryl McCarthy says:

    I arrived in Ahmadi in May 1950 as a six-week old baby with my Mum – my father had already been there for 2/3 years. He did in fact arrive by flying boat. He said it took three weeks, presumably they only flew in daylight and hopped around the Med.
    I was told I was the youngest baby to fly that BOAC route back then. I often think how brave my Mum was to fly all that way (goodness know how long it must have taken,on a Constellation or Viscount? Perhaps someone here might know) with a tiny baby, to a completely unknown country far from home. They married in May 1949 on one of Dad’s long leaves, had a 2 month honeymoon then he had to return. It was thought better she remain in London to have me — although my friend was born in Kuwait at Magwa hospital at that time. My brother was also born at Magwa in 1953.
    When we arrived in Ahmadi we were given a temporary house, called a ‘summer-bride’ near the Hubara Club. It was very nice, one of the older houses in the town, with ceiling fans.
    We later moved into the first of three separate houses, all on 12th St North, grey brick ones with garden and servant’s quarters. The aircon was fabulous, really efficient! I also remember we lived in an Arcan/Aloominum (sp?) house on or near the Ridge at one time around 1953 and there was absolutely nothing around it. It looks desolate in the photos.
    I’ve seen our house on 52/12th St on Google Earth and it’s still right on the edge of town, with the desert just yards away. The main difference I can see is that the vegetation has grown considerably – AFAICR it was mostly oleander bushes and tamarisk trees. I too still have some KOC cutlery and crockery with the green and gold rim!
    My parents had quite a few American friends, mostly drillers and toolpushers that Dad worked with, they were fun and they certainly knew how to live it up! Barbecues, chilli and beer (home-brewed and ‘flash’ or white lightning after Kuwait went dry…. )
    We had several cooks and ayahs over the years, mostly from Goa,(they were Catholics) plus a houseboy /’sweeper’.
    Our area was very nice in that it was quite mixed – we had neighbours who were Kuwaiti, (Ahmadi fire chief Hussein Asad), the Askouls who were originally from Palestine I think, a Lebanese family and an Indian one. I was also great friends with Hanaan Sabri Samaan who lived nearby and whose family was Palestinian before becoming Kuwaiti citizens. Sadly we have lost touch. Does anyone know the Sabri Samaans?

  21. Paddy O'Shaughnessy says:

    Mark, well done putting this together. My dad, Pat O’Shaughnessy worked at C&MP from ’48 to ’63 before retiring to Australia where I started working on drilling rigs. Coincidentally I spent all of 1991 in Kuwait when I took two French firefighting teams in to tackle the blown out wells in Raudhatain. Kuwait was in darkness from the time I got there till about July when enough wells had been capped to reduce the smoke cover and allow the sun to peek through. One of the few un damaged structures back then was the Guest House in Ahmadi where all the firefighters ate their meals. Again, thanks for the memories, all the best…


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