Elephant And Castle, Teddy Boys and Tommy Steele

‘The Elephant was not exactly a classy district.’


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. (Michael Caine)

The Trocadero Theatre at Elephant And Castle was built in 1930 and had 3400 seats but by the 1950s the theatre was renowned for its critical and violent local Teddy Boy audience who threw coins at Cliff Richard and jeered Bobby Darin but idolised Duane Eddy. When the film Rock Around The Clock played there, the Teds famously slashed the seats, rioted in the aisles and two policemen were seriously injured when the ‘juvenile deliquents’ let off steam after watching the film. The incidents made headline news. They also loved Buddy Holly who actually made his UK debut at the cinema and concert hall (strangely with Des O’Connor as the compere) in March 1958.
Elephant And Castle, like a lot of South London, had been heavily bombed in the Second World War (most of the damage occurring over just two nights in 1941) and for over a decade the streets, where once music halls, brothels, pubs and tightly-packed terraced houses had stood, now lay desolate and dilapidated. From this grim and desperate south London district a new phenomenon grew, The Teddy Boys – Britain’s first youth cult. Their style was derived from Savile Row tailors who had revived the Edwardian look after the war, ironically for upper-class ex-army officers wanting a dandyish look, however the fashion was quickly taken up by teenagers in and around Elephant And Castle in the early fifties and the name given to the followers of the fashion movement soon got corrupted to ‘Ted’ or ‘Teddy Boy’. They wore long drape jackets, usually with a velvet trim collar and pocket flaps, high-waisted drainpipe trousers, chunky brogues and later large crepe-soled shoes (known as brothel creepers), white shirts and narrow ‘Slim Jim’ ties. These clothes were mostly tailor-made at great expense and paid for through many weekly installments. The Teddy Girls meanwhile also wore drape jackets but with hobble skirts (these are narrow at the hem and thus ‘hobble’ the wearer) or toreador pants, cameo brooches, and espadrilles. It was possibly the first example of a sartorial protest against authority and post-war austerity and, realistically, the beginning of the British teenager.

PHOTOS REMOVED BY REQUEST FROM THE COPYRIGHT OWNER

small versions of the Ken Russell pictures here

Truly excellent photos of Teddy girls and boys from the mid-fifties by the director Ken Russell

The self-styled ‘King of the Teds’ in the late fifties was Eddie Richardson, brother of the future South London gang leader Charlie Richardson. The Richardsons were soon to become infamous for their rivalry with the East London Kray Twins but also for their sadistic methods of torture they dealt out to their enemies. These included being nailed to the floor, teeth being pulled out by pliers (the speciality of their fellow gang member ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser) and being electrocuted to unconsciousness. However the Richardsons were just part of the local tradition and there had been a history of violence in this part of South London for centuries – even the word ‘hooligan’ (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) comes from ‘a 19th century Irish family in south-east London conspicuous for its ruffianism’. The original Hooligan was apparently a Limerick-born Patrick Hooligan (originally Houlihan) and his family who specialised in street violence in the mid Victorian era. By the beginning of the 20th century Elephant And Castle and its surrounding area was perhaps the most lawless part of the capital. The main gang of criminals, led by Charles ‘Wag’ McDonald, were the so-called Elephant Boys. However while the men were heavily involved in protection rackets and organised violence, the local women were experts at shoplifting. A woman known as Aggy Hill, known as the ‘Queen of the Forty Elephants’, and her associates (presumably some of the Elephants, but did anyone call them that to their faces?) would descend on the West End in chauffeured-driven cars and fleece the shops while their cars waited outside. Of course there were no double yellow lines, officious traffic wardens and parking meters to disrupt the stealing.
The Teds pre-dated American rock and roll but they grew to love the rebellious aspect of this new musical fashion, and this part of South London in one way or another produced many of the British stars that were coming to prominence at the time, basically copying their US conterparts. Terry Dene was born above a sweet-shop in Lancaster Road (a street long since bulldozed and demolished) in Elephant And Castle in 1938. He started playing at the famous Two I’s coffee bar where the influential producer Jack Good spotted him and signed him for popular music television show Six Five Special. His first release was A White Sports Coat which was an instant hit but he found the looming stardom, which seemed to his for the taking, hard to cope with and he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and the popular press attacked him – the establishment at the time blamed ‘evil’ rock and roll music for seemingly all of society’s ills. It led to a nervous breakdown and his mental health only deteriorated when he started National Service and because of this he was soon discharged after only two months. This time the headlines were even worse as the press presumed he was just trying to avoid conscription. His career was now in ruins, and although he appeared in a film ‘The Golden Disc’ and joined the talent-spotter Larry Parnes’ stable of stars, he was unable to recapture the momentum and faded from the music scene. There were several unsuccessful comebacks and in 1974 he released a book and album entitled ‘I Thought Terry Dene Was Dead’, unfortunately it didn’t really make any difference and the majority of people presumably thought he still was.
Just ten minutes walk away from ‘The Elephant’ on the Waterloo Road was a cafe called The Cave (so-called because it was under some railway arches). Three young musicians played there in a skiffle group called The Cavemen and named after the cafe. They were Lionel Bart, local boy Tommy Hicks and Mike Pratt. They’d all met at a party at a sort of pre-hippie Beatnik commune called The Yellow Door next to The Cave and over six or seven months they played at coffee shops and cafes around town for up to ten shillings a night. They slowly started finding an audience especially at the Two I’s cafe in Soho where they was spotted by the impresario Larry Parnes who re-christened Hicks ‘Tommy Steele’. Decca Records signed Steele in 1956 and in October the trio recorded ‘Rock With The Caveman’ with the help of some British jazz notables including saxman Ronnie Scott. It became the now solo Steele’s first UK hit. A year later the song ‘Handful Of Songs’ which came from the film soundtrack of ‘The Tommy Steele Story’ (released in 1957 and incredibly made in three weeks) and written by Bart, Hicks and Pratt went on to win a Ivor Novello award for the best song.



Pictures from Picture Post in 1957 – he was still living at Frean Street in Bermondsey.
Tommy Steele soon became a huge success albeit more as an all round family entertainer than a rock and roll star. Lionel Bart went on to write Living Doll – the massive Cliff Richard hit and of course was the writer of the hugely successful musical Oliver! – incidentally Bart couldn’t read or write a note of music and he could barely plonk out a tune with one finger on a piano – so he wrote all his famous songs by humming his tunes into a tape recorder. Mike Pratt, before dying of lung cancer in 1976, eventually went on to strangle Roger Moore in The Saint, gave Patrick McGoohan a severe beating in Danger Man and was the villainous Simey in The Adventures of Black Beauty, but his famous role was when he played Jeff Randall in the fantastic sixties series Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased).
The Trocadero was demolished in 1963 as part of the huge sixties rebuilding of Elephant And Castle. During the previous decade there had been calls to regenerate the violent and filthy district, and in September 1959 ambitious plans to redevelop the area with a shopping centre and housing estates were released by Sir Isaac Hayward the leader of the London County Council. He said ‘With its famous name and history of traditions the new Elephant and Castle offers opportunities one would have to go a long way to better. Here’s a real chance for the South to ‘show them how’ on the north side of the Thames’.
Well the chance certainly wasn’t taken. The new dystopian Elephant And Castle made south London even more of a joke and a seeming irrelevance to north Londoners and the planners managed to finish off what the German bombs had started. They decided to make the Elephant into one enormous gyratory system surrounded by massive, brutal, featureless and ugly concrete estates where the car was king and pedestrians banished to dirty, leaky and poorly lit walkways that became just a labyrinth of fear and crime.
Part of the regeneration, however, included Erno Goldfinger’s Odeon which opened in December 1966 on the site of the old Trocadero. It featured a famous ‘floating screen’ which had no masking at the top and bottom and had two black panels which rotated around from the back of the screen if the aspect ratio needed changing. The Odeon, itself, was shockingly demolished in 1988 for nothing more than a car park.
Buy Tommy Steele stuff here and Terry Dene stuff here
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50 Responses to “Elephant And Castle, Teddy Boys and Tommy Steele”

  1. shane says:

    right, so that’s where teddy boys come from. I honestly never knew there was such an interesting story behind it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Rob
    Another good read, I never knew Charlie Richardson’s brother was a style icon, who’d have thought it! Having spent all my working life living sarf o’ the river, it’s nice to learn more about ‘the manor’. Of course, south London has a long tradition of spawning entertainers. As well as the always-mentioned C Chaplin, he started out working for Fred Carno, who had his base just off Coldharbour la. Fred paid his staff, from a table in what is now the Enterprise pub, just east of Loughborough Junction. Then, over towards Myatt’s fields you can find the home of Dan Leno. I’m sure there are others, I should do more research, how do you find the time?

    MarkW

  3. justin bairamian says:

    Hi Rob.
    Great post, as ever.
    Coincidentally, now listening to the latest in Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour – theme of Cadillac, to tie in with a Cadillac commercial Bob’s just done, which of course has every so-called liberal up in arms, again.
    Anyway, in this show he plays a great track by Vince Taylor and The Playboys, ‘Brand New Cadillac’.
    Vince was very much part of the scene you describe, but then descended into drink and drug-induced madness – which led him at various times to believe he was either The Messiah or an alien. He was apparently the inspiration for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.
    He ended up living in Geneva and is mentioned in a late Van Morrison song, ‘Goin’ Down Geneva’:
    “Vince, Vince Taylor lives here, nobody’s even heard of him.
    Just who he was, just where he fits in”.
    Well, thanks to you and Bob, I have.
    Great stuff – keep ‘em coming.
    Justin

  4. Jon Vickers says:

    I used to work at th e2 ii’s coffee bar and personally knew all the stars that you mentioned and more. I often used to tape themon my new reel to reel tgrundig tape recorder.those tapes are out there somewhere and must be worth a fortune now if you could find them.

  5. Jon Vickers says:

    I forgot to add I was one of th ebouncers for Cliff Richard on his first appearance at the Trocadero.
    What a night that was. Screaming girls jeers by the boys and the hoo ha after the show. All “fixed” of course by Paul Licoln, owner of the 2ii’s coffee house. boy do I have tales abolut that place. Regards to Tom Littlewood. R.I.P.

  6. Rob says:

    Hello Jon, thank you for your comments. I’d love to talk about those days. Email me and lets get in contact. R

  7. Mac says:

    Hi Rob
    In reply to Mark W – you can learn more about the Elephant and Castle in my book ‘Elephant Boys – Tales of London and Los Angeles Underworlds’which covers its gangland history, including the story of Wag McDonald.
    Both Charlie and Eddie Richardson were well tailored, we spent our wages on made-to-measure suits, and were not teddy boys, generally we described ourselves as ‘modern, in the era before mods and rockers.

    Mac

  8. colleen says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog & am smitten. Wonderful stuff. Please keep it coming! xo Colleen

  9. Julian Palacios says:

    This is the most extraordinary blog. Such the good read. I used to live in that tower block depicted in the photo. It was a rough neighbourhood, but I enjoyed it. Used to drink at the pub downstairs. I must admit it gave me a bit of a start when one morning I was off to work and there was about an inch deep of shattered glass outside the doors and two pools of blood in the gutter….

  10. Anonymous says:

    Love your blog rob. should be working but can’t stop reading…
    Helen

  11. ally. says:

    blimey those teddy girls look fab – that’s my spring summer 08 look sorted then – thanks awfully
    x

  12. Anonymous says:

    Wow those pictures are AMAZING !!

  13. Dirk says:

    Your post Elephant And Castle, Teddy Boys and Tommy Steele was very interesting when I found it over google on Sunday by my search for duane eddy. I have your blog now in my bookmarks and I visit your blog again, soon. Take care.

  14. KIt Richardson says:

    What an interesting page, I used to go to school at St. Mary’s elephant and Castle in 1953/4. As a smaller child went to the Troc and the Regal every Monday with my Mum , Dad and sister Had some brilliant shows with big name stars in the 40′s at the Troc.

    I knew Terry Dean, we all went on a Beano to Southend with a made up skiffle group and Terry got up to sing at the “Gunn” pub and did fantastic impersonations of Kay Starr, I think he was about 17 then.

    Was a Teddy girl in the 50′s and went to some fantastic Rock and Roll parties and dances. What wonderful teenage years wouldn’t swap them wonder how my other Elephant and Castle friends have got on.

  15. Kate says:

    i was born and bred in the elephant & castle, and lived off of new kent road (pollock road). It was a real rush to see the picture of the trocadero, as i had to leave in 1959, before they “modernised it”. when i went back 1965/6 i was horrified to see what they had done to the area, It was great to go down memory lane. Thank you.
    Kate

  16. Jim says:

    Brilliant photos, I’m a modern day Teddy Boy and the british singers of the 50s are easily the best, Tommy Steele being no 1

    Rockin Regards

    Jim

  17. gary says:

    what a dump the elephant is , was there bout three months ago and well the word boring comes to mind. I went to that odeon once .

  18. colin says:

    Hi, I have just red the book ‘Elephant Boys’ by Brian McDonald and noticed that Brian left a reply, a couple of years ago, on this blog. Does anone know a contact e-mail etc for him? My e-mail address is :
    smithc424@sky.com
    many thanks
    Colin

  19. Mac says:

    Brian McDonald has followed up ‘Elephant Boys’ with ‘Gangs of London’, published in December 2010 by Milo. It has been widely quoted on websites latching onto the Forty Elephants articles in the Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, etc. Talk of a film too.

    Mac

  20. Den says:

    Good read. dont know how I have not found it sooner.
    Well, I have to confess…I was one of those who threw coins (old Pennies) at Cliff & the Shadows!!

  21. Mac says:

    Sad to see that Henry Cooper has died. I used to see him a lot around the Elephant in the 1950s. He used to train at the Thomas ‘a Beckett pub/gym on the corner of Albany Road and Old Kent Road. He was a real gentleman.

  22. Always a great read. Was having a debate about the Elephant, (with a North Londoner), the other day. She was coating the manor. Saying how it is and always was a khazi and couldn’t understand my feelings for it. I tried to explain but she wouldn’t have it. I concluded that If you’re not from South you can’t really appreciate the Elephant’s meaning. The place itself, (and even the people), have changed beyond recognition since the 70′s and 80′s, (when i spent my youth there), but I still feel a sense of being ‘home’ when I reach the Elephant. It will always be the gateway to and hub of London for me.

  23. p.s Mac…just like to take this opportunity to commend ‘the Elephant Boys’. Read it when it came out…EXCELLENT book. My grandad won the Beckett in a card game back in the late 50′s early 60′s. (He ‘gave’ it back the same night). He was a, (post war), South East London face who ran with the MANY and varied players South, (and East), of the River. I think you would agree that NO one firm ran South London. How could they it is FAR too big. Completely different North of the Thames which is tiny and MUCH easier to ‘own’ in comparison. All the firms North of the river NEVER came South. Too dangerous.

  24. tonyblue says:

    Bob… you’ve done it again… a blinder !!

  25. tonyblue says:

    Yesterday I recommended the site (again) to all the members of the Original Modernists 1959-1966 site/group. So if you notice a spike in traffic you know where it came from….

    By the way, one photo – the one of the three teds leaning against a wall with a bill-board(?) displaying “picture house Old Kent Rd” is an absolute nugget. Have you ever heard of The Brick? It’s the shortened name of a complete, functioning community with all/every facilities centered on the Bricklayers Arms. The “picture house” caught in the photo was The Astoria I believe. One day they tore the whole bloody lot down and put up a fly-over (sounds like a cue for a song).

    For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of doing something to promote The Brick but, frankly, can’t be arsed when I trawl the web and see some of the trash posted. Your site always perks me up… thanks

  26. tonyblue says:

    @ Liam. “winning the Beckett in a card game” True. I also recall the night I chauffeured your grandad on a meet with a character called Russian Bill at the Thomas ‘a Beckett. x

  27. tonyblue says:

    @Rob… as in “Bob”… sorry

  28. Mac says:

    There was a Russian Bill who was an associate of Billy Hill the ‘Boss of Britain’s Underworld’ in the 1950s, when he rivalled Jack Spot who liked to be called ‘King of Soho’. Aggy Hill, who was the wife of Billy Hill, was never one of the Forty Elephants, it was Hill’s sister Maggie who sometimes bore the title Queen of the Forty Elephants, which was mostly applied to Alice Diamond who was born near the Elephant and led those great shoplifting sprees in the West End in the 1920s/30s.

  29. Mac says:

    If you google ‘Forty Elephants girl gang’ you can read articles drawn from Gangs of London relating to the girls side of the Elephant and Castle gang.

  30. dennis says:

    I lived in the Pullens estate just off the Walworth road..two minutes from the elephant..did anyone notice in the movie “The Kings Speech” with colin Firth,,that when the king goes to meet the therapist at his own house..the exterior shots look a lot like the Pullens estate…is I right?

  31. Jane G B says:

    I lived in Guiness buildings near Elephant & Castle as a child,in the 50′s and i can’t wait to visit it again. I am going down to visit my old school etc next week, I will also try to gather info and photo’s of Elephant and Castle in the 50′s. I have been looking at web site’s. I can’t believe the changes. I remember Pauline S, Iris F, and Bill S, Donald S, David E and Colin D.who, was in my brother Donald’s class at English Martyrs school in Flint Street.

    50′s happy memories, but, also sad.

  32. Jane G B says:

    would like contact

  33. paul ives says:

    yes pullens was used in the Kings speech. My uncles bedroom as a boy is in one of the shots as the window is still cracked from when he was a lad. All my family (ives harrisons and baileys lived on the estate from the 1950s to the 1970s.

  34. Jane (Jean) GB says:

    visited Elephant and Castle in May, loved every minute of it, also visited my old primary School English Martyes Flint st, and John Harvard Library. also had a walk round East Lane Market. and various other places.
    The cinema’s are terrible, so are the changes in the area. Modernised it as they did took the charactor out of the area. It was a very emotional time for me during my visit. But, i wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
    going back next year would like to get intouch with Iris Frances who stayed in Brandon Street SE17 London.

  35. Jane (Jean) GB says:

    Hope to hear from anone who stayed in Brandon Street SE17

  36. Paul says:

    Great article on an area I lived in from the mid-eighties. I remembered the Odeon. There were always rumours of rats in there, but I remember the giant screen and luxurious interior. Elephant is one of the strangest parts of London and something of an inspiration for me. Sad to see the cinema across the road from the Odeon, the Coronet is now a music club. I remember seeing Blue Velvet there and the words FUCK YOU had not been properly painted over on the screen.

  37. Mac says:

    Sad to see the passing of Charlie Richardson. He and his brother Eddie were ‘faces’ at the Elephant and the West End in the 1950s and ’60s. They grew up at the Camberwell end of Walworth Road, although Charlie was actually born in Twickenham of a Camberwell family. There can be no doubt that both were tough characters, very much a product of their times, when to get on in the rougher parts of London, ambitious young men had to fight for an opportunity.

  38. Brian Pedley says:

    Hi all I am 67 now but my MUM Annie Davey had me at 56 Holy oak Road and my friends , Carol D John D Reg D and Barbra D then there was Allen H and David H also Tommy F all lived there for years all happy . I just want to join this group and whats this Blog you are all talking about , I’d like to know how to view it please .

  39. George says:

    Hi there,

    My name is George Miller and I am working on a documentary film about the community of Elephant & Castle. I found an article in the Southwark news about the Elephant boys and read that you were a contributor, so I decided to get in touch.

    Do you have any idea where we could find any remaining Teddy boys from the Elephant & Castle region? Or perhaps any contemporary Teddy boy associations we could contact to find out more. It’d be a great element to help illustrate the dynamic history of the area. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    All the best,
    George

  40. Angelica says:

    Hi, My uncle is one of the remaining teddy boys, he was interviewed by Ludovic Kennedy at the Teen Canteen a club at the Elephant and Castle, he’s still going strong and is now 71. the old footage of the interview was featured in the recent BBC programmes about Londons history, I only realised it was him as he had a tatoo of and elephant and castle on his hand. Angelica

  41. Angelica says:

    You should look at a book called ‘The Soho Don’ it about Billy Howard, the REAL boss of Londond underworld in the 40′s to 60′s….its very interesting and gives insight in the Elephant area and the West End scene, he was also a good friend of my old grandad who was a professional fighter from the mid 20′s onwards…. Angelica

  42. Mac says:

    George

    If you are producing anything on the Elephant and Castle, you must look at Elephant Boys-Tales of London and Los Angeles Underworlds (the 2000 edition has photos) and Gangs of London – 100 years of mob warfare. This precedes the Teddy Boy era, but is essential background reading.

  43. Neil Foster says:

    Hi. Found your site by accident. Fascinating stuff. I am 73 years old, a rock’n'roll fan since 1955 and have been a “revivalist”Teddy Boy only since the 1970′s. And I’m from the North!(You know: that place that still has steam trains, smog, and outside toilets? ) Just thought I’d mention that some of the Krays came up to Liverpool once, intending to start a branch of their family business. The local villains heard about this and gently escorted the nice men to Lime Street station and made sure they caught the train back to London. They never returned… Don’t think I am anti-London but please read Brian A. Rushgrove’s book “Fashionable, Foolish or Vicious” where he produces evidence that the Teddy Boy fashion did not start in the Elephant & Castle or anywhere else in London. Was interested to hear of the popularity of Duane Eddy down South – I saw him live in the early 60′s and had a chat with him. Very nice guy and his guitar sounded just like on his records(but he didn’t have nor needed an echo chamber!) Will keep watching your site and thanks for all the info. Fifties Forever!!!

  44. Derica says:

    Hello everyone,

    What a great blogpost and set of comments!

    My name is Derica and I’m doing some research for a feature film project about 1950s London. We’re looking for former teddy boys and girls who’d like to tell their stories and share memories of the time.

    If that’s you, or you know someone, please get in touch! derica.shield[at]gmail[dot]com

    Warmly,
    Derica

  45. maggie says:

    can anyone tell me if Tommy steel had uncles called patsy and alfie hicks my family were born in bermonsey my dad had a friend called patsy hicks and wondered if he was related to tommy

  46. i use to belong to a gang from the brick and i was also at the troc when bill haley played i also new charlie richardson

  47. Terry Waghorne says:

    Hi
    Went to St Marys School. Left in August 1964,
    Which was when this school closed down. Any old
    friends I would like to here from

  48. DTH says:

    I really enjoy this excellently written and researched blog. Just wish the author wrote more often!

  49. Joyce Larden says:

    I was a Teddy girl in the 1950′s, does anyone remember the Boutcher school which I attended late 1940′s.
    Would love to hear from anyone who knew the Kirks who lived at Grange Road.
    I used to live at Abbey Street.

  50. Robert Baker says:

    Hi Joyce – I would love it if you could get in contact. I’d like to speak to you about those times around Bermondsey.

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