‘…coloured velvet collars and cuffs, trousers that were so tight they couldn’t sit down in them, belts on the back of their jackets, long narrow ties like bootlaces,’ this is of course the style of the Teddy Boys, the British youth subculture which defined the 1950s, as described in the Londonderry Sentinel.
The Teddy Boys, embracing the Edwardian style of decades before, were a threat to the status quo in a way that Britain had never quite seen before. Variously described as hooligans and gangsters by the contemporary press, inextricably linked with rock and roll, in this special blog we explore how newspapers of the time reported on this unprecedented youth movement, and discover if Teddy Boys (and Teddy Girls) deserved their bad reputation.
The Uniform of a New Generation of Gangsters
Where did the Teddy Boy style of drainpipe trousers and cuffed shirts originate? The Londonderry Sentinel, in article entitled ‘The Style the Teddy Boys Killed,’ tells of how it began after the Second World War ‘as a counterblast to the shapeless, wide-shoulders, so called ‘drape’ suits which threatened to become popular.’
Indeed, it was the fashionable tailors of London’s Savile Row who pushed to introduce this revival in Edwardian fashion. But, as the Londonderry Sentinel reveals, ‘Today, no well-dressed man would be seen in such an outfit.’ The fashionable man about town to whom the tailors of Savile Row hoped to sell their new Edwardian styles turned their noses up at the outfits, and as such, the Savile Row tailors cheaply sold their excess stock to other menswear retailers.
Consequently, it was men from a working class background who began to adopt the Edwardian style. And ‘Soon their exploits branded them as hooligans, and Edwardian clothes became the uniform of a new generation of gangsters.’
Pranks and Hooliganism
But were the Teddy Boys deserving of their hooligan and gangster monikers? A quick look into the pages of the British Newspaper Archive reveals a multitude of headlines concerning the antisocial and criminal antics of the Teddy Boys – from petty theft and general rowdy behaviour in public, to more serious crimes of battery.
So much so that since February a policeman has been in attendance every Monday to deal with hooliganism. Favourite pranks of the gangs of youths and their girl friends are expressing in no uncertain terms their disapproval of certain films, creating disturbances across the hall to their friends, and even trooping in groups around the hall talking to their friends and creating chaos in the aisles just as the staff are at their busiest showing new arrivals to their seats.
Meanwhile, one Peterborough youth who ‘associated with a gang of Teddy Boys’ pleaded guilty to ‘taking away a motor-cycle, an Austin car and a motor-cycle combination’ (Peterborough Advertiser, 28 February 1956).’ Whilst in 1958 two Birmingham Teddy Boys ‘admitted to stripping lead from a castle roof when they appeared before Kidderminster Juvenile Court.’ These two might be forgiven for their crimes, as the castle had been abandoned and ‘they thought it did not belong to anyone, they told the police’ (Birmingham Daily Post, 23 May 1958).
Teddy Boys Terrified Trippers
Elsewhere in the press, there is a clear undercurrent of paranoia, such as this Birmingham Daily Post headline from June 1957 – ‘Teddy Boys Terrified Trippers.’ The article explains how 30 or 40 youths (‘all in Teddy boy clothes’) headed to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they deliberately barged into passers-by. The two leaders of this gang were hauled before the courts, admitting to ‘being drunk and disorderly’ and damaging a glass panel on a menu holder.
The main source of this terror does appear to hinge on the smashing of the glass menu – but when the two were arrested they were found armed with a knuckle duster and a razor blade, carried for protection. The two Teddy Boys were fined £20 for carrying an offensive weapon, although one of their fathers rallied to his son’s defence, saying that ‘his son was one of the best in the world and…he was not used to drink, and had gone a little bit above the limit.’
Towns elsewhere in the country took ‘precautions’ against the Teddy Boys, the Sussex Agricultural Express detailing in 1955 how a report of Brighton Teddy Boys coming to Lewes set the police into a frenzy of preparation, in order ‘to prevent any possibility of trouble.’ In this instance, the Teddy Boy invasion was well controlled, and the youths visited a funfair without any issues.
A boy of eighteen was attacked by a gang of twenty youths at the week-end. He was kicked, beaten and thrown unconscious into the road. Then a passing car ran over him.
The poor boy’s sister related how ‘the trouble started’ when her brother asked some Teddy Boys if they had seen his friend. This innocuous question resulted in his savage beating. Meanwhile, a senior policeman under the cover of anonymity paints an equally disturbing picture of the Teddy Boys, describing them as being ‘full of fight and alcoholic viciousness’ (Liverpool Echo, December 1955).
You’ve Got to Rock’n’Roll With the Times!
What should be pointed out, however, is that these displays of serious violence on the part of the Teddy Boys was rare. Andre Drucker, writing for the Liverpool Echo in March 1958, condemns the Teddy Boys and Girls as ‘rock n’ roll addicts, intellectual and spiritual morons, the also-rans.’ But even he is generous enough to note:
As for character, there is remarkably little wrong with them. The real Teddy boys, bashers and coshers, are a very small minority. The teenagers dress like them ‘to feel big.’
Indeed, for many young people, dressing like Teddy Boys or Girls was a way of fitting in – to either feel accepted, or to submit to the potency of peer pressure. In 1956, one Priscilla wrote to the Daily Mirror, detailing her dating dilemma:
I’m seventeen and what is generally termed a ‘nice girl.’ I don’t smoke, drink or swear. I like dancing, but my main interests are outdoor activities. Like other girls of my age I want a boy friend, but it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Yet Teddy girls who dress and behave cheaply have boy friends galore. Is it worth being a sweet old-fashioned girl any more?
The Daily Mirror offered a startlingly unsympathetic response: ‘Apparently, miss, you’ve got to rock’n’roll with the times!’
A Teddy Boy’s Picnic
But Teddy Boys were not always badly treated by the press, and this was most often the case when a member of the older generation reached out to try and understand them a little better.
The same Rex Cinema in North Shields, which saw its weekly Monday night disturbances from the Teddy Boys, was home to a remarkable incident in 1955. At a showing of the film A Man Called Peter, the Teddy Boys and their companions were silent – ‘almost reverently so.’ Apparently transfixed by the film, at the end of the performance cinema owner Mr Millar ‘went on stage to thank the youths for the marvelous way in which they received the picture:’
Clothes did not make the man he told them. He could have barred youths in Teddy suits, as had been done at other cinemas, but he did not want to do that. His decision has been justified. The film, he said had given them a lot to think about. He hoped they would behave equally well on other Monday nights.
One Baptist minister from Leamington went a little further however, offering an open invitation to 100 Teddy Boys and their girlfriends to a church social, a Teddy Boy’s Picnic. Although ‘Behaviour was a little unusual for a church event’ – cigarettes were being passed round during the hymns, girls sat on their Teddy Boy boyfriends’ laps and pop songs were sung on the porch beforehand – the event, according to the Birmingham Daily Post, was a great success.
One church worker described the guests as ‘the nicest young folk you could hope to meet.’ Indeed, the Teddy Boys helped to hand round tea and cakes, applauded the church singers, and offered their seats to those in need.
‘There were shouts of ‘See you next week Guv’ as the visitors left,’ meanwhile some of the Teddy Boys visited the kitchen to say thank you for the refreshments which were provided.
The Reverend James Begg, who organised the social at the Warwick Street Baptist Church, reflected on the evening’s proceedings:
This has been a huge success. It was my first close acquaintance with some ‘Teddies.’ I was agreeably surprised and hope they found us not the kill-joys they might have imagined. I arranged the ‘picnic’ because I believe the Church can offer these youngsters the security they unconsciously seek. In view of the response I shall invite the Teddies to every Sunday social. I know many of them came for a lark this time but I believe they could find religion more satisfying than Rock n’ Roll.
So, in conclusion, Teddies were not all bad. But some, of course, were engaged in more serious crimes which served to tar the wider group with the same brush. And what cannot be discounted in the portrayal of the Teddy Boys in the press at the time is the fear that the older generations must have felt at this brand new, never seen before, youth culture – which delighted in everything new, like rock and roll and outlandish hairstyles.