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 to be 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 wherewithal to be a Ted. For those unfamiliar with these terms, although wheeled transport was of 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 Yorks. 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 19/12/2007.
Comments about this page

I remember the Penny Farthing and the Cottage! And it was the Caribbean in Queen's Road, where I mostly went. The Cottage used to do a great spaghetti bolognese, I , seem to remember, although that would have been in the daytime, not in our exciting coffee-consuming evenings. There was also Tiffany's, up in Kemp Town.

Thank you for this - it brought back a lot of Brighton memories.

By Honor Wimlett
On 09/03/2008

I thank you, Roy, for jogging my memory.
Sammy Gordon's! What days they were!
There are though some differences in my memories from yours. This might be that having reached the drooling years we are having trouble with some of the details!
I am puzzled that the Teddy Boy years, in your account, coincided with the days of Mods and Rockers. The Teddy Boy culture which began in London emerged in Brighton a bit later, from '54 to '57 at it's height. The Mods and Rockers appeared nearly ten years later, see;

The short period of Italian suits was between these fashions - '57 to '60. I'm sorry to be so picky here but let's set the record straight!
The Neo-Edwardian style was adopted by middle class London dandies 1948 and was admired by the tailors magazines of the day - they had articles about how to cut the cloth of the long jackets but as soon as the style was adopted by rebellious working class youths the attitudes changed.

The coloured drape suits with velvet collars, the crepe-soled suede shoes and exaggerated quiffs were not the Teddy Boy styles of the mid-fifties; these were the affectations of imitators after the actual fashion had passed. Waisted suits in black, pointed black shoes and fancy waistcoats were the keynote fashions of the original Teddy Boys.

I was one of those young men leaning insouciantly on the jukebox in the darkened basement of the Whisky-a-Go Go. It had been called The Mogambo until about 1955. Mama, from behind the counter, would call, 'This is a respectable place, boys!' when trouble broke out. If it had been a 'respectable place' I suspect we wouldn't have been spending so much time there. A Tony Curtis haircut would cost 7/6 at the barbers in Boyces Street, dancing was called 'bopping' and cool was the rule.

History gets distorted so easily. Here is Jeanette Winterson with a slip showing;
In the 1950's, West Pier held little interest for the Teddy Boys tearing down to Brighton on gleaming Vespas.

By Ian Tracy
On 29/04/2008

Hi Ian
You are perfectly right about Teds pre-dating Mods & Rockers, but in my tender youth I was unaware that the fashion had already peked. My not possessing funds to be a Ted (getting a weekly £2 16s 2d clear as an apprentice at Allen Wests in 1957) was just a statment of what could have been. By the time my financial status had improved for me to spend on myself rather than give the bulk of my wage to my mother, Itallian suits were in, but that was not 10 years later, it was 5 at the most.

By Roy Grant
On 14/11/2008

slightly more upmarket was Bernard Lupers tailors shop
at the top of trafalgar street,there was also a popular tailors in little east st. thanks for the memory

By tony bird
On 06/03/2009

Hi Roy,
Lovely bits of nostalgic memorabilia. Thanks! And misplaced Gondola coffee bar was way down my thin end of the world, in Hove, on Church Road.
Now I live on Maui, so a big aloha to you.

By Alan Lowen
On 27/11/2009

Such sweet memories! Just one thing, it was The Zodiac at the bottom of St. James's Street not the Oriental. It was run by a lovely couple, Pam & Eric and were the spitting image of Nina & Frederic. Now that shows my age!!!

By Alan James Piatt
On 04/03/2011

I used to spend loads of time in the Zodiac in st James's street. They had a great juke box. I remember playing Mystic Eyes by Them over and over. You could nurse a coke for hours in there! Would spend the afternoon in there then go over the road to The Icecream Parlour for a cheese Sandwich for tea (you read right) then back in the Zodiac for another coke for the evening. it was a cool place to meet girls at the time.and a cheap night out.this would have been around 1964/66 period.

By David deacon
On 25/07/2012

Eric and Pam from the Zodiac coffee bar are my grandparents! Nice to hear people remembering good times there :)

By Ness
On 24/10/2012


On 31/10/2012

Does anyone remember The Four Aces in The Lanes? We spent many good nights there!

By Linda
On 06/02/2013

Hi Linda My wife and I, whose name was also Linda, used the place quite regularly. The food and service there was always excellent. I did though once make the mistake of ordering a very fine cigar there a "Romeo and Juliette" only to find that it cost me as much as the meal did.

By Keith Chambers
On 06/02/2013

These stories bring back many a happy days living in Brighton and spending times in a few coffee bars, but mainly the Whiskey a go go, and the Zodiac which was above the shoe shop.

Pam and Eric always had a good smile for us boys and girls when we went in for a coffee and hotdog, are they still about i wonder.

A story to get on with was when Harvey had the Blue Gardenia up for sale and wanted to impress buyers, he would offer  those that looked old enough a free coffee if we went upstairs to make the club busy.

At 73, I still jive and will do so until I am unable to walk.

By Tony Lago
On 03/02/2015