(or the inane ramblings of a sixties Islington boy)
Any mention of London's East End to those not familiar with the capital immediately conjure up pictures of Whitechapel alleyways stalked by Jack the Ripper and Ron and Reggie. Either that or bald headed geezers accompanied by shell suited harridans walking about shouting about 'sorting' life's problems. South London brings to mind a no – go area for taxi drivers consisting of vast tower block council estates inhabited by unruly 'yoof's' who speak in a language only they can understand.
West London is synonymous with Heathrow Airport, Sloane Rangers and Notting Hill's leafy lanes inhabited by foppish dandies who are season ticket holders at Chelsea FC.
North London, however does not immediately bring any such vivid scenes to mind.
What is North London? Where is North London?
Well, geographically speaking North London (1963) consisted of the Metropolitan boroughs of Islington, Finsbury, St. Pancras, Hampstead, Holborn and Shoreditch and to that you could probably add the outer areas of Finchley, Barnet, Enfield, Hornsey, Tottenham, Wood Green and Edmonton. These days Hackney is included as being part of North London but that is a matter of some debate. The demographics of North London in the sixties were very diverse. From the huge Irish populations of Camden Town, Kilburn, Holloway and Finsbury Park to the Jewish enclaves of Stamford Hill and Hendon. Wood Green and Palmers Green boasted a large Cypriot population whilst Dalston and Hackney were home to a thriving West Indian community. Let's not forget that Clerkenwell was once known as little Italy. Kings Cross had a selection of 'Scottish pubs' probably due to the fact that the main line station was on a direct line to Scotland. A heady mix of races, creeds and colours! Of course the early sixties were not noted for being very 'politically correct'. The term had not even been invented! So ethnic groups were known by various epithets such as 'Four by two's' (Jews), Malt's (Maltese), Bubbles ( Bubble and Squeak – Greek), Micks or Turks (Irish – Turks? - no idea!), Spades (West Indians), Sweaties (Sweaty Socks - Jocks) The race Relations Act was a long way away!
The diversity of culture was repeated with the distribution of wealth. The up market areas such as Highgate and Hampstead were a million miles away from the mean streets of Kings Cross, Holloway and Dalston. Whilst the wealthy bourgeoisie ( I had to look that up!) were ensconced behind their iron gates in Primrose Hill their poorer neighbours tried to make end meet in the dreary 'modern' tenements of Somers Town, Hornsey Rise and Clerkenwell.
Diverse!! A good word that just about sums up North London in the sixties.
It was into this pot pourri that I was born. A cockney by birth having made my entrance into this world on Highgate Hill ( in a hospital I hasten to add not literally on the Hill!). As all true cockneys know the definition of the term is anybody born within the sound of Bow bells. That is – between Mary Le Bow and the top of Highgate Hill (where good Dick Whittington turned again – Ooooh er missus!). I qualified by a couple of hundred yards!
The Archway/Upper Holloway area was an important spot on the map due to the fact that it was considered the start of The Great North Road (A1). A very busy junction and the dropping off point for countless young lads and lasses that would hitch hike down from North of England and Scotland ( we were always on hand to lend any poor girl a helping hand and protect them from all those coarse cockney layabouts!)
Being of Irish extraction (sounds painful and it was!) my formative years were plagued by priests, nuns, park keepers and the local constabulary! My early years were like any other teenagers filled with happy memories of playing on bomb sites and travelling around the capital on my old bike ( I believe the correct description is re-constituted!) although never venturing South of the river!! I did have a mate of sorts who lived in Biscuitown though!!
Like any other street urchin thoughts of fashion, music etc. were the last thing on my mind! Knee and arse patches on my trousers were the nearest I got to 'hand stitching'! My metamorphosis came at the start of the decade concurring with a realization that girls were not there simply to act as goalkeepers during a kick about! The age of the dance hall had arrived! London post war was awash with dance halls and the advent of Rock and Roll made many proprietors realize that here was a market waiting to be tapped. North London could boast of several dance halls in the late fifties and Rock and Roll was the saviour of many that were heading into decline (although for many it came too late). Soon the sounds of R&R and skiffle were the order of the day at places like the Royal in Tottenham where legend has it that a sixteen year old John Henry Deighton won a national skiffle contest beating off the likes of the Railroaders (John Deighton eventually changed his name to Chris Farlowe and the Railroaders eventually transformed into the Shadows!).
Tottenham Royal was undoubtedly North London's premier dance hall and was always at the forefront in bringing current trends to its audience. Actor/writer Stephen Berkoff recalled in his autobiography - 'every night at the Royal was dream time. You walked in as if in slow motion and got there early so that you stood a good chance of pulling some sweet delectable creature, had a good dance and swanned around..... The Stamford Hill crowd would stand on the left hand side and the crowd from Tottenham on the right; there would be no mixing unless you felt cocky and wanted to fraternize; in that case you elected yourself to the position of leading luminary and went to pay your respects.' Another well known North London dance hall was the Athenaeum at Muswell Hill where Emile Ford and The Checkmates were resident at one time, later made famous in the Kinks seventies hit Come Dancing although Ray Davies forgot to mention the Kinks were once booed off stage during a talent competition there! Both dance halls were dangerous in as much as local gangs tended to hold court and one had to be careful when off the 'manor' so to speak. The Athenaeum in particular was subject to weekly stand offs between the local 'Mussies' and visiting firms from Finchley and Archway. (Footnote;The Athenaeum was closed during mid sixties and is now a Sainsburys- thats progress for you!)
The Majestic at Finsbury Park was another major North London dance hall which featured everybody from Gene Vincent to the Beatles. Formerly a cinema, in its heyday the Majestic was on the tour list of every early sixties pop star. It suffered a little due to its close proximity to the nearby Astoria (later the Rainbow) which was a major venue on the tour circuit. The Majestic survived longer than most (in one form or another) hosting wrestling shows ( the only show I ever attended was a tag match at the Maj. between The Eagles and Mick McManus/Steve Logan), boxing shows and bingo before closing (Now a Lidl – anyone see a common thread here?) There were several other smaller dance halls in evidence as I grew into my teenage years. Grays Dance Hall in Seven Sisters Road was very popular in the late fifties. Stephen Berkoff once again remembers 'Grays dance hall became my weekly Tuesday night session. A kind of Finsbury park clan gathered there..........it was also the first time I glimpsed the Kray twins. They were always immaculately turned out in dark suits and ties.' I was too young to partake in the 'teddy boy' experiences of the late fifties but as the sixties opened I caught the tail end of the dance hall experience but The Royal, Majestic and Athanaeum were not places to visit too often as they were sited in 'manors' that were none too friendly!
My first venture into a dancehall was at St Joseph's Hall on Highgate Hill. A fairly nondescript establishment run by the local church. It had a small stage and balcony with a good sprung floor and the one embellishment that was de rigeur far any dance hall worth its salt – a glitterball! I can remember strutting my stuff on the floor to the sounds of Freddy Cannon, Marv Johnson, Bobby Darin, The Everlys and of course Elvis. I thought I was the dog's in my first real suit – a mid grey dog tooth with bum freezer jacket, cloth covered buttons and tight pants ( 9 guineas in C&A if I remember rightly!) complemented by a pair of shiny 'semi – points' ( being at school still my mother would not buy me a pair of winklepickers so had to make do).
The down side of dance halls was the violence that seemed endemic as large gangs of youths from different areas would 'stare each other out' across the dance floor. Fuelled by drink and often 'tooled up' there was almost an inevitability that the night would end in violent confrontation. The problem was not new . In 1958 a police officer was stabbed to death by teenager Ronald Marwood after a fight between rival gangs outside Grays Dance Hall in Finsbury Park (Marwood was hanged for his crime) and in 1962 fifteen youths were convicted after a major battle when a large deputation of the 'mussies' ambushed the Finchley boys at a Finchley dance hall leaving half a dozen Finchley boys in hospital – one with major stab wounds.
When talking of North London dance halls it would be remiss of me not to mention the Irish dance halls of which there were several. There was a huge Irish population in North London and they loved a dance hall! There were the Galtymore and Bamba in NW London and the Buffalo in Camden Town not forgetting The Blarney on Tottenham Court Rd. There were quite a few around Islington - The Round Tower - Holloway, Four Provinces – Highbury (where rehearsals for TV's Oh Boy were held), The Boston – Tufnell Park and The Gresham – Archway. The Gresham Ballroom was considered by many to be London's premier Irish dance hall. Ireland's top showbands were booked and every weekend the place was packed to the rafters with young Irish girls many of whom worked at London's largest hospital complex nearby. Although it was not a regular haunt we did venture in on occasion – on the pull! I have many happy memories of the times I had to leg it out of the nurses' quarters ( I always seemed to get a 'good Catholic girl!'). Many of the showbands were excellent and covered the R&R, Soul tunes of the day. Erstwhile Irish 'Soul' band Margo and the Marvettes were resident at one time. The other saving grace of the Gresham was that there was never any trouble inside – a formidable array of door staff saw to that! (Some say that John B. Keane's paean to the London Irish 'The Contractors' was based on The Gresham). The Gresham is now a Sainsburys (What is it with dance halls and supermarkets?)
There were many other music venues/dance halls around North London that we graced during the sixties. Some were pretty well known such as the Manor House (Downbeat/Bluesville) at Finsbury Park. Many well known groups played the Manor House ( I remember Jimmy Cliff and Spencer Davis) but it was another venue plagued by trouble and it was another spot that hosted a gang fight leading to a fatal stabbing. A small first floor dance venue known as The Greenland in Camden Town (Greenland St) was popular for a time. Over in Wood Green – The Fishmongers Arms (previously Wood Green Jazz Club) often featured acts such as John Mayall, Zoot Money and Long John Baldry. The Cambridge on the North Circular over near Edmonton was a good place to hear live bands on a Sunday night and also in Edmonton was the Angel where where R&B bands featured in the upstairs room. Occasionally we would drop in to Finchley Conservative Club which had a great dance floor and featured popular bands (I remember Tony Rivers and the Castaways there). Up in Barnet was the Rock A Cha which was a strange little venue in a terraced street. A small hall which (if memory serves) was once a church or church hall(?). The place used to get packed although it was only a DJ spinning records. Every so often he would have the 'Bonanza' spot! Heralded by the TV theme tune he would then play his record of the week before throwing it out into the audience – inevitably a 'bundle' ensued causing absolute havoc! I remember getting my hands on the Velvelettes – Needle in A Haystack courtesy of the Rock A Cha Bonanza spot! Complaints from the neighbours eventually put paid to the venue.
There were two major live music venues in the sixties – The Club Noreik and The Astoria. The Astoria was a lavish former cinema which had been billed as 'the world's mightiest wonder theatre' when it opened. One of London's premier music venues over the years it had hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. The sixties saw the likes of Chuck Berry, The Beachboys, Ray Charles and the legendary Stax/Volt tour (I missed that!!) grace its stage . It was at the Astoria that the Beatles gave their last live stage performance in London in 1965. The Club Noreik was a very different proposition. Another former cinema on the corner of Seven Sisters Road and Tottenham High Street, it was converted into a club by entrepreneur Laurie Boost (using his son Kieron's name spelt backwards) and opened in 1964. The club was considered to be rather seedy and unpleasant ( I thought that was a requirement set in stone for clubs!). All nighters were held and the club featured the likes of The Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Charlie & Inez Foxx and Little Richard over the first couple of years. A club we never visited as when it came to all nighters deciding whether to visit a club in Tottenham or one of the myriad of clubs in Soho there was no choice!
There were many other 'music' pubs dotted around. The Mildmay Tavern on Balls Pond Road was a popular spot where the Sheratons were resident in '63 before Joe Meek signed them up as the Honeycombs and took them on to brief success. The Archway Tavern opened the large upstairs function room as a music venue for a time and local bands like the Equals (still doing Chuck Berry numbers in those days) often featured. The Gateshouse at Highgate had featured a folk club for some time – it is said that Paul Simon played there but he was a bit like Charles Dickens who seemed to have graced every pub in London! They opened up a dance spot in the rear function room but like the Tavern it was short lived due to problems with teenagers fighting (who me Guv'nor – never!). St Joseph's Hall underwent a revival in the mid sixties for a couple of months culminating in a spot by The Who but again fighting between rival gangs brought the curtain down on the venture.
Another pub we frequented often was the Marquis of Salisbury on Balls Pond Road which featured a great R&B trio called Whisky Mac.
The Fox in Green Lanes had a rear 'dance hall' but could get pretty wild and The Cock on Holloway Road had live bands every weekend. Not to be confused with the second Cock at Highbury Corner (two cocks – Oooer Missus!). Holloway Road was a lively place at weekends. In the space of less than a mile were something like 15 pubs and a couple of dance halls of which 95% were Irish. The 'Rubber Men' as we called them would inevitably be 'beating the bejasus' out of each other up and down Holloway Road every weekend and dodging the flying haymakers was an art form in itself! Once in a while we might fancy a change from the normal and head over to the 'Top House' or the Great Northern Railway Tavern to give it it's full name in Hornsey where some hilarious drag acts were sure to bring a smile to any face. The Dueragon in Homerton often booked good music acts alongside top comics – a strange pub with a Chinese restaurant run by one of London's top drag artists – Gay Travers ( I kid you not!). The Eagle in Tottenham, The Somers Arms in Somers Town, the Favourite on Hornsey Rise (where local young bus driver Terry Parsons was a regular crooner before changing his name to Matt Monro), The Brookfield on Dartmouth Park Hill – all were popular drinking dens at one time or another.
Music was everything. Within an area of a few square miles centred around Upper Holloway were ensconced musical luminaries such as Rod Stewart, the Kinks, Chris Farlowe, The Equals, The Gaylords (they had a flat just off Archway Road for a couple of years before changing their name to Marmalade), The Tea Set ( also based at Archway before their better known days as Pink Floyd), Elton John had a bedsit on Furlong Road whilst with Bluesology and of course Joe Meek had his studio on Holloway Road. And lets not forget those Mod icons – The Bachelors who shared a room in Fairbridge Road (six in one room to be precise!).
There were times when it was prudent to escape the raucousness of noisy music pubs – in the company of a young lady perhaps? We had progressed from the bushes in Waterlow Park and the alley behind Woolworths! There were many hostelries popular for impressing the young ladies. Most of these were in the 'posher' climes of Hampstead and Highgate. The Spaniards Inn, Jack Straws Castle,The Old Bull and Bush all were a 210 bus ride away in Hampstead (or a short taxi ride if you thought you were really on to a good thing!) . The Flask in Highgate and the Tally Ho in Finchley ticked all the boxes with courting couples as did the Swiss Cottage. The Cat on Highgate Hill was a nice quiet spot where one could impress the ladies with the mummified remains of Dick Whittington's Cat in a glass display unit on the wall (the guv'nor found the old remains of some stray moggy in the cellar when doing some work!). Of course the back seat of the Odeon was still the tops!
But pubs and dance halls were not the only form of recreation. Snooker was a popular pastime. There was the inevitable snooker club above Burtons at Archway (bookie William Hill supposedly set up 'business' there when he first came to London) and good snooker tables at the back of The Salisbury on Hornsey Road and The Cock on Holloway Rd (back to the two Cock's again!). Our favourite snooker haunt was Holloway Bus Garage! Whilst strictly off limits during the day the snooker tables in the staff canteen were a magnet at night. The garage was open 24 hours and the odd mechanic that was around in the early hours would usually allow us to use a table as long as we behaved. Alexandra Palace (Ally Pally) had a roller skating rink and a boating lake which were always popular at weekends but evenings were off limits normally as it was a popular spot for Rockers to congregate! There was a small racecourse at Ally Pally and a few lads would often spend a few hours blowing their money on the gi-gi's (I preferred blowing mine at all night card games!) Stock car racing at Harringay Arena on Green Lanes was another popular night out and usually involved betting in some form (another way of losing cash!). The stadium was a cavernous place which was well past its sell by date and rarely full. (I remember a sell out 50,000 there when my old man took me to see Roy Rogers and Trigger in 1954!).
Drinking clubs/night clubs would often feature in our nights out. The West End was usually our chosen destination but North London had a few clubs of note. Inevitably these drinking dens attracted quite a few 'unsavoury characters'. There had been a long history of villainy in North London and the twentieth century saw the rise of crime gangs such as the Sabini's in Clerkenwell and the White's in Kings Cross as well as latter day gangs such as The Nash brothers and the Legal and General Gang. At one time Upper Holloway was the London headquarters of Billy Kimber (of 'Peaky Blinders' fame) during his wars with the Sabini's
The Regency Club in Amherst Road was used by the Krays and their firm. We dropped in there a few times. It was not a place to misbehave! We had to be 'sponsored' so to speak by a relation of one of our lads. There was a bar upstairs with a trio playing and you could get a meal and gamble. All very civilized but when time was called you headed down into the basement where the unlicensed bar was! There was room to dance and the music was supplied by records. The City Club at the Angel was another drinking club with a bar and restaurant upstairs that was very popular but again was really just a means of getting a drink after the pubs had closed. The Tempo nightclub at Highbury Corner was an attempt by owner Freddie Fields to bring a little bit of class to the area. He booked top cabaret artists and the décor was plush and comfortable. I can remember Ben E. King starring there on one occasion. But the club was doomed from the start. Freddie had visits from various people asking for protection money. Some of the clientèle were dubious so say the least. There were several incidents in the club including the night that Jack 'the hat' McVitie dropped his trousers in front of the stage where a rather inebriated Dorothy Squires was attempting to sing and asked if she fancied a 'real man'! whilst her husband Roger Moore had to sit at the side of the stage keeping schtum. I think he was still modelling sweaters in those days! (McVitie was a bit of a loose cannon – in another incident he confronted the doorman at the Regency clad only in shorts and armed with a machete!) Freddie Fields eventually called it a day with the Tempo Club after an argument with Reggie Kray resulted in him being shot in the leg. Whilst we were far too young to be taken seriously we did aspire to being 'gangsters,' a kind of mini mod mafia I suppose! The Krays, Richardsons and their like always looked the part and we adopted many of their affectations. Trilby hats, silk cravats and slim panatella cigars were sported to give effect.
By far the most popular hang- out were the cafes. There were two distinct types – firstly the coffee bar and then the 'greasy spoon'. We inhabited a series of greasy spoon type establishments. These were normally run by Greek Cypriots ( sometimes under the title of 'social clubs') and there were three very important pre-requisites – a juke box, table football and pinball machine. We had to have music and table football was a passion with the Greek Cypriots. Some of the things they could do with those machines defied logic. The only problem with these cafes is that there were usually a percentage of Greek records on the juke box and we would have to listen to some young Cypriot singing 'S'agapo' or even worse dancing around the floor (mind you some of the dancing was pretty impressive – all that shoe slapping etc!).
We used the Regal Cafe on Holloway Rd, The Sussex on Sussex Way and Chris and Tony's in Junction Rd. Chris and Tony's was a particular favourite as it had a basement room which was almost club like. The main coffee bar at Archway was DeMarco's. A classic layout with booths, lots of formica and lemon and green vitrolite walls with lots of mirrored tiles. Brothers Hugo and Luigi ran the establishment – always attired in white coats, shirt and ties. There was the inevitable Gaggio coffee machine – gurgling and spluttering and an ice cream window, of course. We spent a good portion of our days in DeMarco's – the fact that there was a couple of lovely young Mod girls serving (Doreen in particular!) helped.
Eating out had not been invented as such. Takeaways were strictly served up in newspaper and Manzie's pie and mash was as exotic as food got. Wimpy's had arrived but our nearest was down at Nags Head which was venturing into enemy territory. We did have an equivalent in the Jiffyburger on Holloway Road which served up a good hamburger. We had an 'agreement' with the manager who allowed us to store a stash of weapons behind the counter!
Of course we did not spend all our cash on entertainment. Looking the part was equally important. Although the shops of the West End were where we purchased most off the peg clothes there were one or two half decent clothes shops around. Connicks in Dalston was a good place to shop and we had a half decent mens shop at Archway called Arnold. Harry Fenton was always good for shirts and casual wear. Shoes were more of a problem as all the best shops (Annello and Davide, Ravel etc.) were up West but there was a shop called Oxford shoes on Holloway Road which had a good stock of fashionable shoes. There were branches of all the usual suspects around when it came to tailoring – Burtons, John Collier, Weaver to Wearer, Hepworths etc. but when it came to suits we the pick of some excellent Jewish tailors . There were Barrie Yarrow and N. Berg down at Finsbury Park. Dave Wax at Newington Green was very popular as was Bert Klass at Archway. But far the most popular was Aubrey Morris at Highbury Corner. Hair had to be done by Italian barbers and a trip to the barber was a real ritual involving cut throat razors, singeing, hot towels – the full monty in fact.
Buying records was another important pastime. We were lucky in that there were a couple of good shops locally. Broadmeads on Highgate Hill had a young lady called Sheila running the record counter who was an avid fan of Stax, Chess, Atlantic etc and would order in copies of all the new releases. A couple of hours every week could be spent in the record booths listening to the latest Soul sounds courtesy of Sheila. Further down Holloway road was a tiny little record shop on the corner of St John's Villas. It was run by a little gay chap (that wasn't how he was described in those days – we were not very politically correct I am afraid!). He sported a terrible rug which was never very straight but his one saving grace was a passion for Ska. The only problem was that his main source of income was the local Irish community. He loved playing all the latest output from the likes of Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan but it would be interspersed by the warblings of Larry Cunningham or Bridie Gallagher!! The local Co-op had a record bar which was right in front of their coffee counter so that became a place to hang out on a Saturday morning consuming endless cups of tea until the management would get fed up and ask us to move on!
I consider myself lucky to have grown up in time when people took pride in their appearance. Their homes and surroundings may have been poor but they were clean. Poverty existed but people still made an effort to maintain standards. I loved North London ( still do I suppose) but when I travel back these days I am confronted by no-go estates, filthy streets and the stagnant malaise of depression is everywhere.
No, I was very lucky to have witnessed the birth of teenage emancipation and North London was definitely the place to be!
I 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.