We made our own entertainment in those days, says anyone a generation older. It’s just that 50 years ago ‘our own entertainment’ seemed to mean one thing: a Bank Holiday punch up in hitherto dull-as-ditchwater seaside resorts like Margate, Bournemouth, Clacton and of course Brighton. The Whitsuntide 1964 Bank Holiday saw running battles between new, young tribes known as Mods and the Rockers in holiday towns all over the South of England, followed closely by a startling level of media hysteria that added new phrases like ‘moral panic’ and ‘folk devils’ to the lexicon.
Though from the same post-war working class stock, kids deviated into Mods and Rockers somewhere around the mid late 1950s. Your Rocker didn’t believe in style, preferring black leather jackets, motorcycle boots, longer hair and listened to rock and roll. On the other hand the Modernists – Mods for short – were all about the style. In post-war austerity they looked abroad for their inspiration: to America for their music and to Europe – especially France and Italy – for their clothes. A booming economy and full employment meant they had the money to pay for it. A cool Italian suit was £20 and the same amount got you a deposit on a Vespa or Lambretta scooter, the rest paid on the newly available never-never.
The other working class tradition back then was a day out at the seaside on a public holiday, so at Easter 1964 a thousand Mods head to the traditional East London-on-Sea
holiday resort of Clacton for a run and some fun. After all it’s less than 60 miles and two hours by Lambretta down the A12. But Easter was early that year so we had that other holiday tradition: foul weather, the coldest since 1884. On Easter Sunday, it was tipping down, miserable, the tide was in at midday so you couldn’t even go to the beach, all the shops were shut because it was Sunday and on top of that the pubs opened at 12 and closed at 2, even if you could get served. And you had a thousand kids with nothing to do and minds full of mischief.
Alas, at the same time, thanks to the miserable weather a group of 20 Rockers decided to put into Clacton for a warming drink rather than continue their Easter burn up the
coast to Southend. And so the need for a mug of hot tea kicked off the whole violent tradition. Two cold, bored groups of lads met and fought all along the sea front:
deckchairs thrown through windows and beach huts smashed. They did £513 worth of damage and even allowing for half a century of inflation still isn’t that much, to be
honest. No one was hurt but there were 97 arrests but it got in the papers. They hadn’t had much to sound off since Profumo the year before, so this was their chance to fulminate a bit, although the purple prose was mainly made up because there were no journalists there.
The country was in uproar, so by Whitsuntide, the next Bank Holiday, Clacton was ready. Except no one went to Clacton. Instead they went to Bournemouth, Brighton and Margate on a gloriously hot weekend where the beaches in our seaside resorts were packed with normal families. In Brighton, the papers told us 3,000 Mods and a couple of hundred Rockers came to blows along the promenade Marine Parade and on the beach, with fists knives and deckchairs being their weapons of choice. In reality, 3000 people watched about 200 mods trying to attack about two dozen Rockers, despite the fact that they were being protected by police. 76 arrests and and the headlines screamed ‘The Wildest One Yet!’
The smaller battle but bigger story was in Margate. There were 64 arrested, most of whom came up in front of the chairman of the local magistrates, a Dr George Simpson. First up was young Patrick Stoddard from Blackheath. Dr Simpson began:
“It is not likely that the air of this town has ever been polluted by hordes of hooligans, male and female, such as we have seen this weekend and of whom you are an
example. These long haired, mentally unstable, petty little hoodlums, these sawdust Caesars who can only find courage like rats, in hunting in packs, came to Margate with
the avowed intent of interfering with the life and property of its inhabitants. In so far as the law gives us power, this court will not fail to use the prescribed penalties. It will
perhaps discourage you and others of your kind who are infected with this vicious virus that you will go to prison for 3 months.”
Three months! Even the policemen in court whistled with surprise. Everyone had already pleaded guilty thinking they’d get a light fine, not porridge. He sentenced several others to months in prison or detention and handed out heavy fines of £50 and £75 to the rest like they were Purple Hearts. In panic the Government rushed the Malicious Damage Bill through Parliament so that it could become law before the next Bank Holiday in Auguts. They even considered declaring a state of emergency in any and all seaside resorts, although chose not to. They did however put an RAF transport plane on standby, with a cadre of 70 Flying Squad officers so that they could quickly fly off to whichever resort had the most need. After a couple of calm Summer days sitting by the runway eating sandwiches, they were finally scrambled late on Sunday afternoon and flew to Hastings, where a fighting had broken out. After newspaper headlines ‘The Battle of Brighton’ and ‘The Battle of Clacton’, they could finally genuinely use the headline ‘The Battle of Hasting’s – and they all did.
And that was it. Summer was over. Whilst Mods and Rockers spent the winter planning their tactics for 1965’s Bank Holiday battles, so did the police: heavy tactics, even heavier fines. A general diluting of the original mod spirit meant they were barely mentioned. And the fashion moved on, new bands, new drugs and new styles. Me? I’d have been a Mod in 1964 – they had the better suits and much better music – but when it came to the seaside, I’d have been at the back watching rather than fighting. Well, it would have messed my suit up wouldn’t it?