All froth and no coffee

Brighton in the '50s

By Roy Grant

Having read Pam Piercey's account of life in Brighton before television, I am caused to reflect upon my own youth in the town half a century ago. I was one of those fortunate enough to have my own motorcycle and the loan of my elder sister's Lambretta, enabling me to adopt several guises. I could either go casual or be a Rocker or a Mod, but unfortunately, I never had the weekly ware-with-all to be a Ted. For those unfamiliar with these terms, although wheeled transport was an advantage, primarily it was a matter of dress. Rockers wore studded zipped up black leathers and motorcycle boots, Mods had sharp Italian style suits from Sammy Gordon in Trafalgar Street and winkle pickers (very sharply pointed shoes), and if you were brave enough and could afford it, you were a Ted. Teddy boys had their hair done almost weekly with a Tony Curtis "kiss curl" at the front and DA at the back, wore a ¾ length Edwardian style drape jacket with felt trim on the pockets and lapels, tight drainpipe trousers and beetle crushers (thick crepe soled shoes). I had a preference to be a Mod, for the suit had the added advantage of a false handkerchief consisting of 4 linen points stapled to a white card. This was ideal for jotting down names and addresses of girls you met at Brighton's Montpelier Rooms, Chinese Jazz Club or the Regent Ballroom. The latter had a marvellous sprung floor that was like a trampoline and every Thursday night, when Syd Dean's band broke into "The March of the Mods," you just had to get up, form a line and stomp around with everybody else.

For some of that time fashion for girls dictated that they had heavily lacquered beehive hairstyles and Connie Francis short nylon frilly petticoats, and were not considered objects of sexual desire, but fashion accessories. These petticoats (I am told) gave off sparks of static electricity if ever interfered with in the double seats in the back rows of the Gaiety or the Duke of York's. Furthermore, it was not the pubs we visited, but the coffee bars, where we drank coffee that tasted of nothing but warm foam. The experienced however, could make a single cup last for hours.

How many are there that can still recall names like the White Pigeon or Margo's off Waterloo Street, Hove, the Lounge in North Street, the Oasis in West Street, the Penny Farthing in East Street, the Cottage in Middle Street, the Chef in Marlborough Place, the Caribbean (or was it the Gondola) in Queens Road and the Oriental over a shoe shop at the bottom of St James Street? Lastly, and certainly in a class of its own, in the basement beneath the Blue Gardenia Club in Queen's Square, was The Whiskey. The club door was fitted with a sliding porthole that enabled a burly doorman to inspect you before you were allowed to enter and to this day I am convinced, the more disreputable you looked, the more likely you were to gain admittance. Inside the seats were on small barrels weighted with sand to stop the friendly clientele throwing them about during the occasional disturbance. I recall sitting one of these disturbances out beneath the pintable while the plate glass top of it shattered above my head.

Most of these establishments were cramped and music came from enormous Wurlitzer jukeboxes, which for the princely sum of six old pence (2.4p) played the latest singles. Having no dance licences, and being fairly law abiding, some female customers sat in girlie clusters and used "hand jive" as a form of musical expression. Peculiarly, my favourite record was one that became known as "Songs from Trappist Monasteries," for your sixpence could also play a blank record giving 3 minutes worth of total silence, enabling you to actually talk to someone. Invariably someone else would jog the machine about 20 seconds into it, the record would be rejected, the money lost and 'the music' started once again. One regular who seemed to be present in all these establishments was a weedy little guy in a sharp Italian suit and pork pie hat who was only known to everyone as Tony. He would chat to the owner for a while and then move on. I often wondered whether he had Mafia connections and was selling or collecting some sort of insurance?

Call me a wimp if you like, but if I consider my time in Brighton some 50 years ago and compare it with more recent reports in the local media which focus on today's youth indulging in an over excessive alcohol consumption resulting in unwise sexual experimentation with a multitude of partners, coupled with pointless aggression and vandalism, in my opinion, being young in the Brighton of the past certainly had an awful lot going for it.

This page was added on 18/04/2008.
Comments about this page

As a very young child I lived in Hervey Road but still have lots of memories. With regard to "beetle crushers" I remember them being referred to as "brothel creepers"

By Robin Muzzall
On 15/10/2010