Hard Mods

Did they really exist?
by John Leo Waters

The term ‘Hard Mod’ has been bandied around for quite some time now and has almost been given credence a sub culture in its own right.

I have been labeled (by others I hasten to add) a ‘hard mod’ so I felt I had a ‘duty’ to try to ascertain just what the label actually represents. So what is a hard mod? Did they really exist or was it simply a convenient label for a hard core hooligan element?

The term ‘hard’ has many different meanings but various dictionaries refer to the term in this context as ‘someone who shows no fear and can look after themselves in a situation’ another definition is ‘naturally tough, strong minded’

In the world I grew up in ‘hard men’ were usually violent criminals who refused to conform or submit to authority, men who would stand their ground no matter what. In fact, the kind of person you would like ‘watching your back’ in a fight.

Of course the term ‘Mod’ needs no explanation but one interesting definition describes Mods as ‘sixties group noted for their clothes consciousness often as a symbol of their alienation for conventional society’ Descriptions such as this merely give credence to the theory that Mods were a gang of delinquents.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of sixties Mods were just normal everyday teenagers who enjoyed dressing up in the latest fashions, dancing to the latest sounds and having a good time generally. Exactly the same behaviour you would expect from teenagers the world over in any era.

The media had a field day building up the myth of the wars between Mods and Rockers. The Bank Holiday invasions were seized upon by the press and given massive coverage depicting Mods as nothing better than a drug crazed mob bent on violence and creating mayhem. Of course, there was a grain of truth in the garbage spewed out by the press. There were a hard core of Mods whose sole purpose in visiting Brighton, Margate and the rest was to create anarchy. I must admit I was a part of that core.

So what constitutes a ‘Hard Mod’ if such a thing really existed and what made them so different from the majority. Well, I can only draw on my own experiences to attempt to answer that question.

I was born in 1948 to Irish immigrants. We lived off Holloway Road in Archway, North London in what was basically slum property. Our living accommodation consisted of three rooms (one on each floor) of a three storey terraced house behind a shop which was shared with other residents. We shared an outside toilet and as was fairly standard in those days there was no hot water, heating etc. My parents were hard working, good Catholics and very strict! The house suffered from infestations of mice, bed bugs and priests!! Although we were poor there was always food on the table and clothes on our backs (although patches were almost obligatory!).    
The area was pretty tough with a large mixed population. We had an Italian Café on one side and a Jewish barber on the other. The Holloway Road area had large Irish population mixed with Greek Cypriots, Maltese, Italian and a few West Indians.

Crime was a way of life for many brought up in this environment. It was passed down through many families. In Peter Wilmott’s Adolescent Boys of East London (Pelican 1966) one sixteen year old is quoted ‘Look at my family – everyone goes inside from time to time. One of my uncles has just come out after doing six years. Another uncle goes in now and then for three months. Another one is selling stolen goods – he’s been doing that for two years and he aint been caught. He’s making loads of money. It runs like that in the family.’

The block we lived on had two ‘rag and bone shops’ (for want of a better word) and a small scrap yard. The scrap yard in particular was always populated with some very ‘dodgy’ looking characters. As a youngster I would, along with a couple of mates, take out Tiny’s barrow (one of the rag and bone men) and make our way around the ‘posh’ houses up in Highgate and Hornsey collecting for the ‘cub’s jumble sale’ then return loaded with our swag to be rewarded. Like all young kids we did our share of ‘scrumping’ and pinching empty pop bottles from the back yards of shops then claiming the deposit around the front. It was de rigueur for young kids to do a bit of shoplifting. I had my first taste of retribution when I was caught stealing diaries in Boots (maybe I was going to write my memoirs!) and was put over Sister Aggie Joe’s knee in front of the whole school and had the leg of my short trousers pulled up and my arse walloped!

It was around the age of seven that I first became involved in a ‘gang’. The area had always had several notorious streets that contained a large number of young tearaways (and quite a few older villains). The most notorious was Campbell St  (known as Campbell Bunk and demolished in the fifties.) but there were several others including Balmore Street.

London Born by Sidney Day (Fourth Estate 2004) describes Balmore St as ‘a street where there was so much vilainry going on, so many drunks and gambling and Gawd knows what, that at night the police only came down in twos. Eveyrone knew it as Tiger Bay’. It was to the ‘Bay’ that I drifted. I had a few mates that attended the same school as me and they lived in the Bay. There was nothing to signify that the street was such a den of iniquity. Normal terraced houses with basements and an old mission hall at one end along with a small mews at the other. What the Bay did have was an abundance of families that were involved in crime or at very least living on the fringes.

We did all the normal things that young kids did back then. Football and cricket in the street were the most popular pastimes but every now and again we would go to ‘war’ with other nearby streets! The local bombsites and derelict houses were the scenes of many battles between the Bay and rival gangs from Doynton St and Raydon St. I remember one big four storey house on a bombsite where we set up headquarters being raided by the combined forces of both enemy gangs but we put them to flight by hurling slates and bricks down on them from the roof!                 
As we developed into our teenage years we teamed up with other streets and began to congregate around Archway itself where many older teenagers already held court. We had progressed to become part of the Archway mob.

D.M.Downes states in his study The Delinquent Solution (Routledge and Keegan 1966) that ‘the first stage of juvenile crime begins about the age 9 or 10 and persists to 14 – 15, i.e. .from pre to mid adolescence. It involves almost exclusively break – ins and petty larcenies…..The second stage begins around 15 – 16 and persists until 18 – 19, i.e . from mid to late adolescence. It involves taking and driving away, rowdyism, some violence…’ I could not have put it more succinctly!

I had somehow passed my eleven plus and after much praying on my parents part and several interviews I was accepted into St Aloysius College which at that time was a very prodigious Catholic Grammar School. The school was run originally by Christian Brothers and then a teaching order the De La Salle Brothers. I am sure the phrase ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ was invented by St. Aloysius or the ‘washouse’ as it was known!  Many of the masters had a sadistic streak running through their veins and I was became very familiar with the headmasters collection of different canes. At one stage I co-erced my mother , who was a dab hand with a needle and thread, to manufacture a padded seat to wear under my trousers .The uniform was a bright red jacket with green piping set off by a red and green cap. It looked wonderful strolling home down the Holloway Road!!

I had continued to get into trouble outside school also. Fighting and thieving had become almost second nature and finally it was agreed that I should leave (or be kicked out!). There are those who will lay the blame for delinquency on environment, upbringing and God knows what else. I have no answer as to why one teenager goes off the rails and another doesn’t. I am sure resentment plays some part. In my case we lived in a poor area less than half a mile from Highgate and Hampstead where many of London’s rich and prosperous choose to live. There is bound to be some degree of ‘them and us’ when confronted by such prosperity. It is difficult to break out of a poor environment unless you are particularly gifted in some way. Many achieve their goals through sport. I tried boxing and although it was thought I could have achieved some success the dedication involved was more than I was prepared to give. No, it was easier by far to take what I wanted without all the hard work.

I was fifteen years old and the ‘sixties’ were coming into their own. There were jobs a plenty for those who wanted them. I had fifteen jobs in that first year although to be fair some only lasted a day or two! The shortest, in fact, only lasted two hours! I was now a fully fledged member of the Archway and we ruled our ‘manor’ ruthlessly. There were strict borders between the various gangs in North London. Our closest rivals were the Highbury and the Somers Town gangs. The Highbury in particular were our sworn enemies and fights and incursions were commonplace.

By now the Mod revolution had taken off and we were quick to embrace this new revolution. We had been brought up in the austere post war years where ‘make do and mend’ was the ethos our parents lived by. Suddenly there was a life for teenagers! Music, Clothes, Clubs were all accessible – all that was needed was money! Most worked for their rewards but I had decided that work was for losers! There were much easier ways of attaining wealth than clocking on at some Dickensian factory. It was important to look the part. This was nothing new as it has long been the case that one had to look the part.

As long ago as 1935 when A.McArthur and H.Kingsley Long wrote No Mean City (relating the tale of the Razor King of Glasgow) they had written –‘vanity is as much a dominant motive in the slums as outside them. Johnnie had little to be proud of except his strong body and reckless spirit. He spent much of his leisure at the Green Gym, and much of his money on his clothes. He was not ill-looking and in the Gorbals men and women too are very much judged by their appearance. A good suit of clothes wins a certain respect for the wearer. His shoes were well polished , a bright  ‘tony-red’. In the language of the Gorbals, he was ‘well put-on’

Reputation was everything. I had taken to carrying a weapon (an axe) and had shown willingness to use it when required. A reported fracas in a local burger bar ended with a guy being injured with an axe. The assailants fled and the injured party was taken to hospital. Some friends of his returned later that evening  looking for the offenders. I was ensconced in a local pub when a member of our little fraternity ran into the pub telling us of the incursion. We were not interested but he wanted to go down with a few others to ‘sort them out’. He borrowed some tools including mine and went off to getting himself arrested in the process. This guy was a member of a well known South London family but as soon as he was given a slap in the cells he blamed everybody else and claimed the weapon was mine!

I was put on an identity parade where a waiter picked me out (after being advised by the local constabulary!). I found myself on a charge of attempted murder! Of course, by the time the case came to court matters had sorted themselves out. The waiter decided to tell the truth and that he was mistaken and our other ‘friend’ told the court he had simply implicated me in a panic. The case was quite rightly thrown out.

This gained great kudos from my contemporaries but reputations have to be maintained and there were many moments when I came very close to being caught by our adversaries but only on one occasion did I come out on the wrong side of a good hiding when I was ambushed by four guys who were aligned to the Highbury mob. I received a few lumps and a badly scored face where one guy had given me a ‘wash and brush up’ with a wire brush!! Having a reputation could as often as not serve as a deterrent to others and if you could  enhance that by waving an axe around whilst screaming and shouting threats then that was often enough to put adversaries to flight! Another of our enemies was – The Mars (named after a café on Blackstock Rd) were known for their devious ways. They would park up around a corner where they could keep sight of their enemies and wait for one member to head home. They would then pull up in front of the poor unfortunate and jump out attacking him with hammers. Of course, it was not enough to ‘talk the talk’ – one had to look the part also. The ‘look’ became all important. The Mohair suit was almost obligatory preferably Tonik and lovingly tailored by the right artisan. In our case this meant Aubrey Morris. ‘Mad Teddy Smith*’ often frequented the Archway as he was related to one of our number and he  initially recommended Aubrey as he and several other members of the Kray firm used and if it was good enough for them…….. 

We had started frequenting the clubs in the West End – The Flamingo, La Discotheque, the Marquee and The Scene. Soho in the sixties was very place different from the trendy ‘village’ it is today. Where nowadays the area is full of bijou restaurants back in the sixties it was full of sleazy clip joints and clubs. The streets were thronged with prostitutes and their punters, pimps, tourists, gangsters and of course Mods. What is now a relatively safe corner of the capital was then a very different proposition.  Stabbings and ‘stripings’ were commonplace. Muggings and beatings were rife whether for cash or drugs or more often where strip joint customers had ‘made a complaint’ about being ripped off!            

In addition we made forays into the East End. Pubs such as The Green Gate, The Two Puddings, The Ship, The Salisbury all featured live bands. Occasionally we might go for something a little different like The Dueragon (live comedians) or the Top House in Tottenham for drag artists. Inevitably we began to mix with what I can only term as real villains. Many pubs such the Carpenters Arms, The Blind Beggar, The Grave Maurice in the east End were favoured by the Krays and North London pubs such the Favourite or Duchess of Salisbury (headquarters of the Legal and General gang*) in Hornsey Rise were frequented by some of London’s top villains.

We looked up to these people. They seemed the epitome of cool. Always ‘booted and suited’ and as often as not sporting Crombie overcoats, hand made shoes and shirts, they seemed to have money to burn and above all they commanded respect (albeit through fear!). It wasn’t long before we began to visit drinking dens (or nightclubs as they were called!) such as The Regency Club, City Club and ill fated Tempo Club*.

We combined the ‘gangster look’ with our own Mod fashions. Velvet collared overcoats were popular although we fell well short of being able to afford true Crombies. I took to wearing a pork pie trilby. A nice white silk cravat with matching silkie set off the effect nicely. We may not have been able to afford Anello and Davide but we could afford to do the next best thing and shop at Ravel!

Looking good cost money and we became increasingly involved in criminal enterprise to support our lifestyle. By now I moved into a small flat in Highgate and had embarked on several small scams locally which brought in enough money to pay the rent and living expenses. I had become ‘friendly’ with the owner of a café on Highgate Hill and was welcomed every day with a slap up steak meal including change of a pound for ten bob! So although we paid for little and had a fairly comfortable life style the lure of the pubs, clubs and the all important ‘look’ required much more. I moved into what can only be described as ‘a little more serious’ criminal activity. I was an excellent thief and housebreaking was my specialty. We would scour the streets if Highgate, Hampstead and Hendon where the pickings were rich. I often laugh when so – called villains say they never steal from old ladies or ‘their own’! The only reason they do not is because they have nothing worth stealing!! There is little honour amongst thieves and one had t be very careful who you went ‘drumming’ with. I added to my criminal resume with my proficiency as a thief. I was recently reminded by an old colleague that I held some sort of a record for turning over twenty five houses in a week!

A local villain  had found a willing supplier of Dexedrine. He purchased several thousand and rather than take the risk of pushing himself he asked us to undertake the task. We spent many happy hours counting and packaging up ‘tens’ in little envelopes which we duly supplied to hungry recipients ‘up West’. Of course the arrangement could not last and after a couple of months the supplier found himself in trouble where he was employed and ‘did a runner’.

We had moved on from burglary to raiding ‘lock – up’ shops. These were small ‘stand alone’ shops which had no accommodation above or behind. Many of these were tobacconists and usually yielded a good haul which was easily disposed of. Wage snatches were very popular as almost all companies would send a couple of employees around to the local bank to collect the wages in those days. Close circuit was yet to arrive and the police response time was considerably slower than today! Almost all transactions were carried out in cash and milkmen, rent collectors, and ‘tally’ men were all considered fair game. London fogs were still quite prevalent and would give an excellent opportunity to carry out ‘smash and grabs’ when the covering fog would make the risk of being spotted much less and help deaden the noise. We even tried our hand at safebreaking! A little team broke into an office in Highgate and attempted to blow the safe. They were disturbed and were forced to abandon the attempt. The local paper quoted a police inspector as saying that there was enough explosive packed around the safe to ‘blow half of Highgate off the map!!’

There were times, of course, when we let our ‘hair down’ so to speak. On Bank Holidays we would dress in something a little less formal like levis and Fred Perrys. We would catch a train down to Brighton or maybe head up to Hampstead Heath fair. In Brighton we would indulge in mindless violence fuelled by drink and drugs. Mindless rioting was the norm at the expense of any poor unfortunate who happened to get in the way.

Hampstead Fair was similar in that we were simply looking for trouble. As often as not it would be with rival gangs but occasionally a gang of Rockers might put in an appearance and we would all join forces to fight the common enemy. Most fights were no more than a lot of ‘posturing’ and we would be put to flight by the local constabulary before any real violence occurred but there were odd skirmishes when blood would be spilled!

Inevitably perhaps, my criminal career came to abrupt end when I was arrested on several counts and ended up at the Old Bailey where I was sent down for Borstal training. I have read several theories that the ‘hard mod’ originated in Detention Centres and Borstals. That is a misguided conception. These institutes were full of Mods and Rockers and everything else in between! The inmates arrived fully equipped with their share of attitude rather than obtaining it whilst inside! I was ensconced in a maximum establishment where we were initially subjected to a harsh regime which was meant to break the spirit of any so called ‘hard nuts’. It was very hard, of course. Getting up a six o’clock and running around the snow laden parade ground in vests, shorts and army boots was not my idea of fun!

Of course the Mod population tended to group together. Their similar tastes in music, clothes and lifestyle were a great bonding tool. Obviously it was difficult to maintain an ‘appearance’ inside but a little tobacco here and a ‘bob or two’ there ensured that there were decent creases in our trousers and haircuts were neat and tidy rather than ‘basin’ style. Old habits die hard and I was soon involved in several little schemes to make life a little more comfortable!

I was released in 1967 to find that things had changed drastically! Gone were the clubs – many had been closed by the police and others had morphed into psychedelic palaces belting out weird electronic noises and screeching guitar solos! Many ‘Mods’ had turned their back on their lifestyles and joined the ‘flower power’ movement. Even the bands I had regarded as heroes had eschewed their roots and taken the road to ‘peace and love’!

The street gangs had almost ceased to exist and to my horror I found that many of my compatriots were out drinking with lads from the Highbury Mob! I was mortified. So many former gang members had moved on to other things. A few had settled down with girlfriends, some had moved literally and quite a few more were banged up! The Krays and Richardsons had long gone and most villains seemed to be taking a short hiatus for the moment. In short, most of my former running partners had ‘grown up’. Not me though!

I made a decision to move up to Newcastle where the nightclubs were still in full swing and I could enjoy a few more years of ‘walking the walk and talking the talk!

So, was there such a thing as a ‘Hard Mod’? Well, certainly there were plenty of Mods who could be considered to be ‘Hard’. It very much depends on what your conception of the term is. If, as is generally accepted, it means somebody who is able to look after themselves physically then yes, the term certainly has validity. However, if the term is to be applied to a sub – culture then I would have to disagree. I do not believe there was a specific genre that could be termed thus. The fact is that there have always been gangs of delinquent teenagers. They may have been Teddyboys or Punks in the past or Hoodies today but they do not constitute a culture in their own right. They are simply one small part of a whole rather than a body in their own right.

John Leo WatersI know John would love to hear any feedback on this article. You can discuss it with him in the forum here or I will pass on any messages to him using the contact address.

John is also very kindly sharing this tale of his very eventfull Mod years. The first part of his story can be found here.

The work is the copyright of John Leo Waters. The views expressed are purely those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or institution.

* ‘Mad’ Teddy Smith was convicted of shooting a man called Isaacs back in the day. He was certified insane and spent time in Broadmoor. A long term member of the Kray firm he was a  homosexual who  figured strongly in the Driberg/Boothby affair. An impeccable dresser he was a very intelligent man who could speak several languages but ‘could not tell the truth in any of them!’. He helped Frank Mitchell escape from Dartmoor but was rumoured to have fallen out with the twins and ‘disappeared’.

*The Legal and General Gang was run by career criminal Reg Dudley. In 1977 he and Bob Maynard were convicted of the murders of two other criminals Billy Moseley and Mickey Cornwall. At one stage the thawing head of Mosely turned up in an Islington public toilet! Their convictions were overturned some years ago.

*The Tempo Club was opened at Highbury Corner by east ender Freddie Fields and was meant to be an ‘up market night club’. It was beset with problems from the offset. There was the infamous incident when a very drunk Dorothy Squires was attempting to sing on stage when Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie dropped his trousers in front of stage and offered his services to Dorothy in front of her embarrassed husband Roger Moore sitting side stage! Freddie had several visits from local ‘companies’ offering insurance and there was an incident when a shotgun was blasted through the door one night. The final straw came when Freddie had an argument with Reggie Kray and he ended up getting shot in the leg. He closed the club down and ‘disappeared’.