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Britain’s forgotten Battle of the Beaches Cultural tribalism has lost its cool

“Up the Mods! Up the Rockers! Down with police violence!” (Credit: Terry Fincher/Express/Getty)

“Up the Mods! Up the Rockers! Down with police violence!” (Credit: Terry Fincher/Express/Getty)


May 18, 2024   6 mins

The headlines were gratifyingly sensational: “Beach Terror”; “Battle of the Beaches”; “Charge of the Mods at Margate”. It was the Whitsun weekend, May 1964, and the national press was thrilled to discover the existence of hitherto unknown tribes of youth, who shared a mutual antipathy and a fondness for fighting in the streets of seaside resorts.

It wasn’t a new phenomenon. It had started two months earlier, on Easter Sunday, when Clacton-on-Sea was invaded by “1,000 fighting, drinking, roaring, rampaging teenagers on scooters and motor-cycles”. But there was no identification then of any specific groups, so they were all lumped in together, headlined “The Wild Ones”, a reference to a 1953 biker-movie starring Marlon Brando that had been banned in Britain.

Clacton had been a big story, but it was Margate, 60 years ago this weekend, that made the most impact — both at the time and in popular memory — because now there were named subcultures. In fact, had the papers been paying attention, the categorisation had already been established.

“Are you a Mod or a Rocker?” Motorcycle magazine had asked in December 1963. The choice of transport was probably enough to answer the question — the greasy motorbike of the rocker, or the neat little scooter of the mod — but in case there was any doubt, you could look in a mirror. If you were wearing a black shirt, blue jeans, big boots and a leather jacket, said Motorcycle, you were a Rocker; whereas a polka-dot shirt, pink half-mast trousers, Cuban boots, and a parka with fur-trimmed hood signified a Mod.

So Mods vs Rockers it was. They had names and they had a rivalry. It was like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story, which gave the papers a reference point for the older reader; three years after release, the film was still being screened in British cinemas, and the soundtrack was still in the album charts.

In the run-up to the August bank holiday, the press were licking their lips with anticipation. “Will it be another Margate?” they hoped, as they reported that 400 men from the Metropolitan Police were waiting at RAF Northolt, ready to be flown into any resort that required additional support. And in Hastings, the disturbances were bad enough for the chief constable to call in this flying squad, to deal with what the papers dubbed the Second Battle of Hastings.

The ripples spread out in unpredictable ways. In Streatham, south London, the local Young Socialists produced a leaflet: “Up the Mods! Up the Rockers! Down with police violence!” and were promptly suspended by the constituency Labour Party, with five members being expelled. There was a general election due, and caution was the order of the day; no one wanted to risk controversy with a leaflet that “was detrimental to Labour Party election chances”. Meanwhile, 22-year-old satirist Bill Oddie released his first single, “Nothing Better to Do”, inspired by the seaside confrontation: “Play, little boy,” he mocked, “there’s so much to destroy.” It was banned by the BBC, he said, because they feared “the gangs would use it as an anthem”.

And at the London School of Economics, a young PhD student named Stanley Cohen became fascinated by the media response to Margate. The fruit of his research was one of the most influential works of sociology, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972). The phrase “moral panic” already existed, and the idea wasn’t entirely new — “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” wrote historian Thomas Macaulay in 1831 — but it was Cohen’s book that formalised and established the concept.

At its heart, it was an understanding that a moral panic is a short-lived explosion of outrage that is rooted in a longer history. The media present an incident as being shockingly new, but it shocks only because it plays into an existing narrative.

In the case of the Mods and Rockers, there was the obvious precedent from the Fifties of the Teddy Boys, and before them, the Cosh Boys. There’d been a rise in juvenile crime in the post-war years, and in 1950 the Daily Mirror had asked its readers to identify the cause. “Films, radio, lack of parental control,” came the answers, together with a call for the restoration of corporal punishment for young offenders. (Judicial birching had been abolished in 1948.)

“At its heart, it was an understanding that a moral panic is a short-lived explosion of outrage that is rooted in a longer history.”

But even then it wasn’t new. There were reports in 1942 of a group of teenagers being attacked and robbed by a gang of men in south London, leaving one of them dead in the street. The previous decade, before the war, newspapers had noted that “knives, razors, knuckle dusters and sandbags were used by rival gangs in fierce street fighting” in north London. Going back before the First World War, shots were fired “during an encounter between rival gangs”. Further back still, to the days when judicial birching was at its peak, in 1888 the Pall Mall Gazette listed “the bandit gangs of London”, including the Prince Arthur Gang, the Gang of Roughs and the Jovial Thirty-Two. (All available for use by indie rock bands seeking a name.)

These late-Victorian delinquents were collectively known as Hooligans in London, but there were similar groups elsewhere, referred to as Scuttlers in Manchester, High Rippers in Liverpool, Peaky Blinders in Birmingham. What they had in common was low-level crime and street violence, though mostly they fought each other in turf wars. They tended to dress much the same as well: cap worn forwards over the eyes, no collar, a muffler or neckerchief instead of a tie, bell-bottom trousers, hobnailed boots and, in some quarters, a Newgate fringe — a shaved face with a beard running below the jawline, in imitation of where the hangman’s noose would be placed. Then there was the element of clothing as weaponry. “The most characteristic part of their uniform is the substantial leather belt heavily mounted with metal,” read a report in 1900. “It is not ornamental, but then it is not intended for ornament.”

In short, young men have always had a propensity to violence — and each generation discovers this anew when it gets to be old enough to talk about “young people”. It’s the moral panic that keeps on giving, because it’s a reflection of human nature. Also discovered on a regular basis is the shock revelation that this isn’t just a male preserve. In 1906, it was said that the gangs in Glasgow included “young girls of ages averaging from 14 to 17, with very long draggled skirt and hair in tightly twisted pigtail”.

Nonetheless, there was something different about the post-war youth subcultures. “Teddy boys were really narcissistic,” wrote Mim Scala in his memoir Diary of a Teddy Boy. “I mean Masai warrior, Beau Brummell, Bertie Wooster narcissistic…” And that reference to Beau Brummell was significant. It was Brummell in the early years of the 19th century who’d invented the concept of the dandy, using an obsessive attitude towards clothes as an entrée to the highest circles in the land. “A nobody, who made himself a somebody, and gave the law to everybody,” said novelist Catherine Gore, and his inspiration soon filtered down through society.

“Young men have always had a propensity to violence — and each generation discovers this anew when it gets to be old enough to talk about “young people”.”

The young Charles Dickens, with his green velvet jacket, red waistcoat and long hair, was typical of those who aspired to dandy status. “We keep no horse, but a clothes-horse,” he wrote in the 1830s. Later, the music hall had a rich vein of songs that mocked those who came from working-class parts of London and dressed above their station: “The Marquis of Camberwell Green”, “Percy from Pimlico”, “Burlington Bertie from Bow” and more. “Tho’ I’m not worth a groat, I wear a decent coat,” sang Walter Laburnum in “Fashionable Fred”, a sentiment that resonated down the years, recognisable in Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman: “I spend my cash on looking flash.”

What the Teddy Boys did was to bring together these two strands from the 19th century: the street-gang tradition of the Peaky Blinders, and the working-class dandy. And then, with the arrival in Britain of rock ’n’ roll, they added a musical soundtrack.

The subcultures that followed took their lead from the teds. Mods and Rockers, skinheads and punks, metalheads and goths — all defined themselves by dress and by music. That connected them to a wider popular culture and made them national movements, not just local street-gangs as the scuttlers had been. They identified themselves as being outside the mainstream, yet helped to shape it.

The other thing that the fashion and the music did was to soften the violence. According to the police, teds didn’t resist when arrested; they’d spent too much on the outfits to risk damaging them. Despite the press coverage, no one was killed or seriously injured at Margate or in the Second Battle of Hastings. And not even the Skinheads, at their racist football-hooligan worst, were as violent as the Peaky Blinders had been, 70 years earlier.

“You could say it’s a fashion statement, but I think it’s more than that,” said Paul Weller in 2004. “The working-class love of clothes, looking good, rising above your station. I don’t think it’ll ever die. It’s really in our British fibre. These clothes, my haircut, reflect my attitude.”

By then, however, the phenomenon had ceased to exist. Vestiges of the old world remain, frozen in time, but they’re museum pieces, not new creations; they’re the punks who hang around Camden Market in north London, selling themselves for tourist photos. Street gangs still exist, but they’re more akin to scuttlers than teds, fighting turf wars that are certainly more violent than their 19th-century predecessors.

What is long gone is the great British tradition of creating a new subculture every four or five years, along with a new form of pop music. Maybe it’s because music is no longer a badge of identity, but a massive online jumble of everything that’s ever been recorded. Clothes mean less, as well, in an era of body modification, from tattoos to piercings to surgery. Maybe it’s because there isn’t a shared culture anymore, and it’s hard for a group to define itself as outside the mainstream if there’s no mainstream in the first place.

Tribalism hasn’t disappeared, of course, the wish to belong, to go where the in-crowd goes. It’s just that, lacking a cultural escape-valve, it finds its place in internet “communities”, where identity comes with the political slogan and the hashtag. It’s much the same as the polka-dot shirt and pink half-mast trousers, but not as cool. 


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

“Maybe it’s because music is no longer a badge of identity, but a massive online jumble of everything that’s ever been recorded. Clothes mean less, as well, in an era of body modification, from tattoos to piercings to surgery. Maybe it’s because there isn’t a shared culture anymore, and it’s hard for a group to define itself as outside the mainstream if there’s no mainstream in the first place.”

I don’t think there’s any maybe about it. When everything is available at once there’s just no need to have a current fashion, whether that’smusic or clothes. Sad in a way but I expect people that are young today think it’s crazy that things like goth or hippies defined a particular time.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

Why wait for a Bank Holiday? Football is on every weekend. That’s why football hooliganism took over.

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
1 month ago

The youth of today dress appallingly and cannot even engage in hand-to-hand combat, I doubt that they even leave the house armed! It’s disgraceful. Bring back corporal punishment and national service, I say.
N. Cohen (Phd).

Spencer Dugdale
Spencer Dugdale
1 month ago

There may be no mainstream anymore, but one is coming: Islam.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 month ago

Congratulations on the first shoehorn of the day.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

To bring it back on track, when I lived down south, in a culturally mixed district, there was an annual carnival and knees up in the local park. Usually good fun, if you could tolerate all the leftist/hippy crap in the parade, CND stall, etc. Long before today’s shouty activist types and still the preserve of earnest, drippy men with beards and women who looked like they had been dragged through a hedge backwards.

Final time I attended, the event descended into a brawl between the Pakistani/Bangladeshi Muslim lads and the Afro-Carribean (probably Christian) ones. The theme of the day was, of course, Celebrating Diversity. Perhaps another way of looking at it is that these two immigrant communities were reviving a tradition that had been lost to the current generation of indigenous working class white kids. Cultural assimilation works in mysterious ways.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Why has my comment disappeared? Merely noted a fight that I witnessed between two groups of youths from diverse backgrounds at an event ehich was supposed to ‘celebrate diversity’. Censoring my comment doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 month ago

Neo Country Yellowstone Cowpokes

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

Question:
Did Goths rumble?
It’s hard to imagine.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 month ago

Perhaps they just looked nastily at the Emos?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

As i saw it there were two broad types of goth back in the 80s – a leather clad type that probably didn’t go looking for fights but could likely handle themselves if need be (and probably had to when more mainstream types hassled them), and a hippyish type that certainly avoided violence.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
30 days ago

They had staring contests

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
1 month ago

Today’s yuff prefer to do battle online with fictitious foes rather than getting their knuckles bloodied.
It’s their loss, the adrenaline rush of facing a real foe, and knowledge you could get battered, cannot be experienced tucked away in a bedroom on an Xbox.
It was part of growing up, and maybe why so many young adults these days are such snowflakes.

Primary Teacher
Primary Teacher
1 month ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

I am not so sure Jake. The nine year old boys in my class are often fighting and seem to think it is great fun once their tears have dried. It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next 10 years.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

In 1962 newspapers reported that 30 teenagers had been arrested for sleeping overnight in railway carriages parked in sidings at Margate. Forgotten days indeed.

Withnail Returns
Withnail Returns
1 month ago

I enjoyed the essay, but The Who’s epic musical interpretation, Quadrophenia, the coming-of-age story of Jimmy amidst the ultimately senseless battle of identities between the Mods and the Rockers, is notable by its absence.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
30 days ago

First thing I thought of. Classic album.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
30 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Half of it’s really good, the other half is plagued by repetitiveness and wankery.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

“Maybe it’s because music is no longer a badge of identity, ”
Maybe it’s because music has become formulaic and commercialised and no longer attracts the reverence that it used to? 

David Morley
David Morley
30 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Not really. Most of it always was. It was the rejection of that mainstream blandness that was part of distinct youth cultures.

Michael Ferris
Michael Ferris
1 month ago

I wonder why Messrs Daltrey & Townshend weren’t interviewed?

j watson
j watson
30 days ago

Prompted some nostalgic sentimentality for the past so welcome read over the weekend.
An interesting juxtaposition with todays ‘identity’ politics. My generation had it in our clothes and the album cover you carried under your arm for all to see. The yearning to create an identity and the oscillating journey one might take.

David Morley
David Morley
30 days ago

What is long gone is the great British tradition of creating a new subculture every four or five years, along with a new form of pop music. 

To be honest there is no kind of subculture or counter culture of any real kind. Middle class subcultures (hippies, beats etc) were skipped over in this piece – but they are absent too. We live in what is very much a bland monoculture. Everybody just wants to be middle class. There is no visible rejection of the mainstream. I’m not sure what that tells us, but it seems significant.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
30 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

iPhones have become modern-day pacifiers.

David Morley
David Morley
30 days ago

No mention of Northern Soul!

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
28 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Plenty of Northern Soul round here. Bath Soul Club and Bristol Northern Soul Club.

David Morley
David Morley
30 days ago

Never has our mainstream culture been so bland, so crass, so risk averse, so pathetically conformist, so subservient in its tastes, so petty ambitious, so lame and yes, so badly dressed. It’s practically crying out for a (metaphorical) knuckle sandwich. Where are the young people shocked by its awfulness? Why are they not showing themselves?

David Morley
David Morley
30 days ago

Perhaps we can look forward to beach fights between homies and renters. That is, young people who are trying to buy homes they can’t afford, and those paying exorbitant rents they can’t afford either. The clothes will be terrible of course. Who can afford nice clothes?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
30 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Older folk who used to go scrapping in suits that cost a months wages berating the young for not being able to afford a house because they’re wasteful with their money

David Morley
David Morley
29 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I assume you don’t think I’m doing that.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
30 days ago

I was coming into my teens when the Mods and Rockers took over the British imagination. It was so exciting and liberating for a teenager, even if all you did was watch. We were threatened with expulsion if we attended a Rolling Stones (classic Rockers) concert in Sheffield. The Beatles (classic Mods) were tolerated on our gramophones. England was heading into new a New Age, and we couldn’t get there soon enough.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
30 days ago
Reply to  Ben Shipley

While the Beatles looked like Mods, George was asked whether he was a Mod or a Rocker and he replied, “I’m a mocker.” Genius.

Michael Miller
Michael Miller
30 days ago

Interesting observations .Stanley Cohen was the author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Maybe you (also) had in mind Norman Cohn who wrote very engagingly on the formation of groups and mimetic behaviour ?

Estes Kefauver
Estes Kefauver
30 days ago

The internet has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. It has de-boned one generation and is soon to incapacitate a second. We are just clicks away from the overthrow of our culture, and we will go out with barely a whimper, as long as we can share it online..

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
29 days ago

‘Long forgotten’–yes, very much so, and now little to do with anything, except perhaps nostalgia. And nostalgia, as Goldwyn wisely said, is not what it used to be.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
29 days ago

I suspect the process of creating new sub-cultures has simply moved online, with music being replaced by an ever-expanding range of identity markers.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
29 days ago

So, even back then the police were at that overtime fiddle.

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
28 days ago

a polka-dot shirt, pink half-mast trousers, Cuban boots, and a parka with fur-trimmed hood signified a Mod.

That’s not how I remember it. Chelsea boots yes, plus mohair suit and Ben Sherman shirt, tab or button-down collar. Parka over the top, purple hearts in pocket. Vespa or Lambretta scooter with multiple mirrors and headlamps, and an aerial with a tiger’s tail attached, acquired at an Esso “put a tiger in your tank” petrol station.