The Teddy Boys and the Elephant and Castle
Teddy Boys at the Elephant and Castle, 1954.
The Teddy Boys, sporting finely tailored 'Edwardian' clothes and Brylcreemed hair, tearing up cinema seats and generally rock-and-rolling their way across much of the 1950s, were the first of the post-war working class youth subcultures to emerge in Britain. There are a few competing versions of their origins, but the one we like best has them coming out of south east London, and the Elephant and Castle in particular. This is because we're from the area, and our dad was one of the originals - so we should know.
The main magnet at the Elephant in those days was the Trocadero cinema, which hosted the likes of Bobby Darin and Buddy Holly as well as screening movies. Around this famed venue - which had the largest Wurlitzer organ in Europe - sprung up a lively teenage street scene, full of vim and vigour in the somewhat shattered post-war surroundings, and things occasionally got out of hand - as actor/local hero Michael Caine recalls in his autobiography:
'The Elephant was not exactly a classy district. The streets were as rough and dangerous as it was possible to get without anybody actually declaring war, and even the cinema was not without its perils.'
The Teds started as a style cult based on looking good and a love of rock and roll hi-jinks but turned - as these things tended to to thereafter - into a public menace during the 'moral panic' that followed the murder of John Beckley, who was fatally stabbed during a gang fight on Clapham Common in July 1953. This was a huge national story, back in the days when London's teenagers were not yet in the habit of mortally wounding one another with blades on an almost daily basis.
Our dad, who was involved in the scene but thought better of it when the knives and coffins came out and quickly joined the respectable adult world, sort of, is seen in the picture below
sporting an up-to-the-minute early fifties look, which seems to have been much sharper and less caricatured than the popular image, and later Ted stylings - see also the picture at the top of this piece. His overcoat he made himself, having benefited from a tailoring apprenticeship.
For many young lads being a Teddy Boy was a rite of passage in the years between adolescence and National Service and whatever fate had in store in for them Cyprus, Malaya or Suez. They may have been the terror of the milk bars and dance halls but once inside an army camp, all but the very hardest Teds were broken by ferocious NCO's. Quiffs that took years to produce fell in a matter of seconds to the barber's clippers.
But not all the Teds were so easily brought under control. While most left the service and moved into stable family life, having learned discipline and self-control at the hands of said NCO's, some graduated to a life of crime/vigorous local entrepreneurialism, the best example being Eddie Richardson, the one time 'King of the Teds' who went on with his brother Charlie to build a south London operation that rivalled, and perhaps surpassed - at least in terms of actual financial profitability - that of the more famous Kray twins in the East End, on the other side of the river.
But that's a story we'll get to soon, in an upcoming post.
In the meantime, there's a good history of the Elephant here: https://blackcablondon.net/2012/10/23/a-history-of-the-elephant-castle-part-one/