East End Memories

DRAIN PIPE TROUSERS - ROCK MY SOUL

Lonnie Donegan Nancy Whiskey   The Vipers

Of the many songs Lonnie Donegan released on record, I am sorry to say that only two appealed to me. These were Rock my soul and Pick a bale of cotton. I was never a fan of his or of skiffle for that matter, although I didn’t dislike Nancy Whiskey and was not adverse to The Vipers. The reason for an affection rather than a liking of these two tunes comes not from Lonnie Donegan’s performance or interpretation, but rather as the result of their association with a particular event that is especially memorable to me.

   
Elvis   Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps   Buddy Holly

Although still quite young at the time, but being both precocious as well as pretentious, I was eager to attend a dance being given by a youth club in Whitechapel. This was at time when rock ‘n’ roll was exploding over Britain and I, as well most kids of my age, was reeling following our introduction to Elvis, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. After seeing Elvis, I immediately started to grow my hair long and mercifully my parents did not complain too much. Naturally, I was slicking it back into a D.A. and combing the front, even if I say it myself, into a remarkable quiff! Naturally both D.A. and quiff were maintained in place thanks to the marvels of vast amounts of Brylcreem – none of that a little dab’ll do it for me!

 

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Brylcreem   Brylcreem   Brylcreem   Brylcreem

Going to the dance was very important to me. After having seen the film Moulin Rouge, my imagination had run riot and I had convinced myself that I would be attending a soiree in some magical place surrounded by tantilizing sirens.   I hoped - and believed - that here exotic dancers would be twirling and whirling about the floor captivating a young gentleman such as I.  I saw myself hypnotized by these beauties  and being helpless to stop myself from being swept along and carried off into the mayhem and magic of the evening.  However before I could accept my invitation to the dance, first and foremost, there were a number of pressing problems to contend with and solve.  Since this was to be the first real dance that I attended,  I had to enter society with a splash. I had to make the most of it and to project just the right image! What is the expression? You never get a second chance to make a first impression! I knew that I had to dress sharp! Therefore, obtaining the perfect outfit for the extravaganza that I hoped the evening would become, was vital.  And I fear that I had to resort to sneakiness in order to achieve the required effect since I knew that there were many treacherous obstacles to overcome first. After all, youthful fashion had undergone a radical change recently, for this was the era of the Teddy Boy.

Teddy Boys

A quick look at my wardrobe clearly demonstrated that serious measures had to be taken if I was to make the intended splash I hoped for. I had recently been given a new pair of trousers. I looked at them and my heart sank for their style was demodé and totally unacceptable for wear at my introduction to society. What I needed was a pair of drain pipe trousers. Naturally, I could not ask my parents directly to purchase such a pair for me. Most parents at that time were horrified by the sight of narrow bottomed trousers and associated the current fashion with rebellion, laziness and a lifestyle that would result in a long stretch in prison. My parents would most certainly dismiss any sudden and somewhat excessive interest in my appearance and tell me that I was far too young for such clothes.

Tragically, youths often have to resort to craftiness, deviousness and cunning, I am sorry to say, in order to get what they covet. I should hang my head in shame at this admission, since being devious is not perhaps the most important quality a young person needs to acquire and develop. However, even as a child, I believed in everything in moderation and saw no harm in being a little devious if it brought me what I wanted. After all, looking sharp was vital. Being a little cunning was a small price to pay to ensure a memorable adolescence.

At that time, I was not the only boy thinking along these lines. All over Britain youths were wanting drain pipe trousers and wondering how to get them. Luckily for me, I learned of some woman who would taper trousers to the required measurement of exactly twelve inches at the ankle for a small sum of money. This enchantress was able to transform old Oxford bags into real drainpipe trousers once her palm was crossed with silver. The woman lived on the top floor of the old walk-up buildings on Brady Street. She used to work in one of the tailoring factories in Whitechapel, but now that she had three small children and about to have another, she could no longer go out to work. She subsidized her husband’s wages by taking in work, which she did at her kitchen table. For the magnificent sum of five shillings (a modest dollar in early 1950s money), she would cut and sew trouser legs to any desired width without question or complaint. At that time, five shillings was far from being a small sum, especially to me, and such an amount would certainly help deplete my money box! However, as the ownership of such a pair of trousers was a necessity, I was left with little choice and made the outlay.

   
Oxford Bags       Drain Pipe Trousers

Once I had the newly tapered trousers in my possession, I decided that the best way to habitualize my parents to the new style was to just wear them and behave as if nothing had changed. My mother noticed the change straight away. A little surprised, she asked me what had happened to them. Not without some regret, I lied to her. I said that when I had worn the trousers to a friend’s house and that his mother had said that the trouser leg was too baggy for me. I told my mother that this lady had kindly offered to take them in for me. I said that I was somewhat surprised just how much she had done so, but now I could do nothing about it. My mother was not pleased and wanted to know who this woman was since she wanted to give her a piece of her mind. I said that I was sorry and that I should have insisted more strongly that she not alter them. I then set about commiserating with my mother about the trousers. Gradually, I was able to turn her attention away from vengeance and to get her to actually look at the trousers. After willingly walking up and down and back and forth, a performance no self-respecting boy or youth ever enjoyed, my mother began to appreciate how nicely the trousers hung and soon she had to admit that I looked smart in them. She did insist that in future I not allow strange women to undertake spontaneous alterations to my garments without her permission. Naturally, I would have promised her anything she wanted just as long as I was allowed to wear them now.

Once my mother was convinced that this style of trouser was de rigueur for the well-dressed youth of the day, convincing my father was mere child’s play. Initially, my father found them to be too old for a boy of my age, which of course was correct. However, he was no match for the combined force of my mother and myself once our union was forged.

I had recently procured for myself what I took to be the perfect coat for my debut. Naturally, once again the narrow minded and those with myopic vision might have found this particular garment to be far too old for me. The coat could be loosely described as a black blazer-styled coat. While my cohorts of the time and myself would have described this veston as cool and just what a well-dressed young man about town would want to wear at the intended occasion, others might disagree. I shudder now when I think of the shoulders! They were enormous and made me look like a miniature Hercules – the perfect look or so I thought! The lapels were narrow and curved down to the waist where the coat buttoned with a link button – perhaps the ultimate expression of cool at that time! I was very impressed with my reflection in the mirror.

I had found the coat at The Salvation Army for the remarkably low sum of one shilling an absolute steal or so I thought! Naturally, I did not dare tell my mother where I had got the coat. My poor mother had been forced during her early life to wear her stepfather’s discarded clothes, but on rare occasions, she was given a coat or a dress from one of the many charities that helped the poor of the East End of London. Generally it was The Salvation Army that came to her aid. As a result, my mother did not want her child wearing hand-me-downs, not that she was against them, but because of the sad association such garments had for her.
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Today, almost every city has its Thrift Shops where the middle classes will go looking for bargains. When I was young, throughout the East End numerous second-hand clothing shops could be found, where only the poorer members of society went to buy. These shops were commonly called the old rag girl’s, and despite the vital service that they provided, people felt ashamed in patronizing them. Since my mother had bitter memories of these places, she would not have been pleased to know that I had found my coat in one. To save my mother pain and anguish, I told her that yet another kind mother of another friend had given this magnificent coat to me as a gift since it no longer fitted her son. I remember my mother laughing when she asked me so what makes her think it fits you any better? Again, after the required walk up and down and then back and forth a few times, together with the pulling and yanking it underwent from her, she continued to sneer at the coat and decided that I was definitely not old enough for such a coat and anyway, it is far too big for you.

I did my best to dissuade her from her opinion by pointing out the quality of the silk lining of the coat. Such elegance was lost on her and failed to impress her in the slightest. I began to clutch at straws now and groped for anything positive to say in the hope of convincing her of its merit. I said that I would be sure to grow into it eventually. Unfortunately for me, this would not happen before the dance. What finally won her over was when I suggested that I could ask one of the tailors that we knew to take it in for me and perhaps turn up the sleeves a little. After yet more walks up and down and along with further tugs and pulls, accompanied by her constant reminders to stand up straight and to keep your shoulders back, she agreed to allow me to take the coat around to the factory of Mr. G. Since I was now a big boy, I was to take it there myself and ask for his help.

Mr. G. was a great favourite of mine. He was a good natured man and was always very kind to my mother and me. I cover my eyes in shame now that I dared to take that coat for him to see. At that time, I was proud of the coat, but upon reflection, I am certain that Mr. G. saw it exactly for what it was – shmateh. Mr. G. was famous for producing garments of quality and his clothes were made for clients that frequented the salons of Saville Row and Piccadilly. Certainly he must have despised that coat, but being the kindly gentleman that he was, he obviously did not want to hurt my feeling and so said nothing derogatory about it. However, he did ask me where I got it and why I wanted it. I told him about the dance. He smiled kindly and simply said ah, yes, and set about pinning it here and there.

I returned to Mr. G’s the next day as requested. I had passed a miserable evening along with a poor night’s sleep spent in anticipation of how my coat would look. I had dared to confess to Mr. G. my wish to look cool. Mercifully, as his mouth was full of pins, his only response to my babblings was an occasional nod of his head. When I entered the factory, Mr. G. greeted me as if I was an important customer and held up the coat for me to try on. I was happy to see that he had retained the link buttons, which I am sure must have horrified him. With mild embarrassment, I slipped into the coat and following a few gentle pulls, tugs and sweeps down the back with a very soft bristle cloths brush, I was requested to walk up and down and then invited to admire myself in the mirror. What I liked about Mr. G’s factory was that all of the walls were covered with mirrors, so one got a good view of oneself from all sides. I was very taken with his alterations and I had to confess that the shoulders, although still somewhat big, were now less so, yet retaining that Herculean look, which was now more in line with my actual height and size.

As I admired myself, I noticed Mr. G. smiling slightly to himself. His smile was not one of mocking, but rather one of understanding. Although he knew and understood my wish to grow up far too quickly and may not have liked it, he did not laugh or criticize me for it. He was a wonderful man. I thanked him profusely and then asked him how much the work would cost me. My mother had given me several pound notes, which she had folded over and over and which I carried in my gloves for safety. He told me that it had been a pleasure to make the alterations and that I should consider them a gift. After all, he said, it wasn’t every day that one went to their first dance. I was overjoyed. I thanked him again and again for his kindness. I could not wait to leave, as I wanted to show off my new ensemble as quickly as possible. As I was leaving his factory with my coat now neatly folded and placed in a brown paper carrier bag, Mr. G. called to me and wished me a happy time at the dance and also reminded me to be sure to greet my mother for him. I smiled back and promised him that I would and then quickly turned and was gone.

I remember that I did not go straight home as directed by my mother, but instead I went up to Paul’s stall, since I wanted to show off my new coat to him. When I got to the stall, he was in his usual place behind the stall with a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth. His hands were thrust deeply into his pockets and he was shivering slightly. When he saw me, he nodded, raised his eyebrows a few times and gave me his customary wink. I showed him the coat. He mumbled something that I could not hear, but he nodded his head back and forth vigorously, which I took to mean approval. I wanted to try it on to show him how grown up I was, but he would not allow me to remove my overcoat since it was a cold day. I went away off home happy as I had the approval of both of these men, whom I liked and admired very much.

The dance was held at a local youth club, which I had been going to for a while. This was a normal club of its day where one played five aside football and table tennis and learned various things. It was quite nice and allowed me to meet and get to know kids from the area. Since I was going to school in the City of London now, I was not meeting local kids. A friend of my mother’s suggested that I go to the club and my mother had reluctantly agreed. She had not wanted me to mix too much with the area kids. It wasn’t that she was a snob, but rather she was afraid that I would learn bad habits and get into trouble and so ruin my future. She only agreed to my joining the club since it was associated with a mission and a chapel and so was supervised by a member of the clergy.

Click on the collage to Come Dancing!

It was at this dance that I met a young girl of the area. I liked her from the instant I saw her. Since young boys, despite their wishes and intentions, tend to be shy of young girls, there was little dancing at the start of the evening’s entertainment. As a result, in order to get things moving and to encourage mixing, the older girls and boys were asked to choose amongst the younger member as dancing partners. I was lucky enough to be chosen by her. I suspect that she chose me more because I was there rather than an overwhelming desire to meet me. This distinction was lost on me at the time, since I was happy at being her pick.

Although I had been brought up to sing and dance, I was not versed in the more formal dances performed by men and women as partners on the dance floor. Being a little older than me, I found her to be quite worldly. She was very nice to me and taught me how to jive, a skill that had not been high on the list of things to learn until that very evening. I was soon quite captivated by her. She had wonderfully soft small hands, which I liked holding as we danced. I enjoyed our twists and twirls and especially enjoyed it when she danced close to me. I found her hint of perfume to be quite intoxicating.

   

Click on pictures to see more dancing

As the evening wore on, we were expected to take part in all kinds of games that were common place at dances. For example, we were expected to dance and then freeze when the music stopped. If you moved in the slightest and were spotted by the judges, you found yourself eliminated from the competition. The last remaining couple won a prize. We did not win, but that did not matter. There was also the spot prize. Here couples danced and when the tune was over, everyone remained still and the couple standing beneath something particular on the ceiling was deemed the winner since they were standing on the spot. There were prizes for best dancers and various other competitions, none of which we won.

Click on the picture to 'Dance in the Dark'

As the evening wore on, the clergyman went on a break. He had left some of the older boys in charge during his absence. This was the sign for the lights to be dimmed and for dancing to become closer between the couples. This was very nice as I got to hold this girl and to inhale her perfume some more. I remember that as we danced or rather moved slightly to the music, she turned to me and before I could do anything, we were kissing and sharing my first proper French kiss.

Click on Rodin's Kiss

I remember that I used to see her around and about the area right up until we moved. She was always nice to me when I saw her and always said hullo and stopped to talk for a minute or two. She never gave me the impression that I had been a burden to her that evening. Unfortunately I never saw her again after we moved out of the area. However, to this very day, years later, whenever I go back to Whitechapel during a visit to London, I still look for her, but naturally I do not see anyone resembling that sweet young girl. I always wonder what became of her. Did she marry? How many children did she have? Whatever happened to her, I hope that she found happiness in her life.

Let's just kiss and say goodbye

(Click on the picture)


AFTERMATH


Once the Second World War was over, young people began to enjoy some prosperity. Now with a little more money to spend on themselves, many chose to spend it on clothes. However, they did not choose to buy them from the High Street Tailors. Instead, they chose to break with tradition, causing a fashion rebellion and the birth of the Teddy Boy. This fashion reached its peak in the early part of the 1950’s, but has continued to exert an influence ever since.

The fashion was based on male Edwardian attire. Devotees of the style were unifiedinto a brotherhood.  Their dress was since to express their philosophy of life that was viewed by older people as rebellious. Although the style allowed for much variation in expression, certain necessary accessorieswere vital to each in order to allow entry to the brotherhood. First and foremost of these were the wearing of a jacket with a velvet collar and drainpipe trousers.

Most Teddy Boys wore suits with jackets with black velvet collars. Some variation was allowed in the colour of the velvet, which depended on the colour of the suit. However, the colour of the velvet had to be darker than that of the suit. The cut of the jacket was often draped, which meant that it was long, but was tapered down to the waist. Shoulders were invariably excessively padded, but not always. The lapels were generally wide and disappeared just above one or two buttons. When one button was chosen, it might be linked. Many of the more flamboyant wore a folded white handkerchief in the top breast pocket.
 
The shirt was invariably white in colour, since coloured fabrics were not readily available at this time. The tie was also characteristic. It was black in colour and would be markedly thin or even ultra-thin and was often known as a bootlace tie.

The trousers were of the utmost importance in defining the style. They were cut in a characteristic manner, with no room for variation, and became the source of controversy and disagreements between those that sported them and authority figures, such as parents and school headmasters. The trouser was long and thin and was dramatically tapered to become twelve inches or less in diameter at the ankle. This style soon became widely known as drainpipe trousers. In the early days of the style, turn-ups were present.

The style of shoes worn was variable, however for true devotees of the style, only one type truly complemented the ensemble and this was the crepe shoe. Such a shoe was unique and was not taken from another era. It was a lace-up shoe with a characteristic thick sole and heel made of a synthetic material known as crepe.

Although clothes very much classified the wearer as a Teddy Boy, the effect and the look was not complete unless his hair was worn in a particular manner. Teddy Boys went against the flow of society once more and grew their hair long. Hair had to be well-greased with a white slightly scented cream, Brylcreem, that when applied copiously to the hair, allowed it to be combed into a particular style, generically known as a DA.

The exact meaning of DA is one of debate. Some will say that it stands for Duck’s arse while others will say it stands for District Attorney. Whatever the derivation, the look was unique and essential. It was one much cultivated by true devotees as well as wannabes. The look consisted of the combing of long well-greased side hair back around to the back of the head where both sides would meet, thereby forming the characteristic DA. The front or fringe hair, being equally as greased, would be swept back with a comb and then pushed forward to form another characteristic of the look, the Quiff. At times the quiff was sacrificed and the hair allowed to form a large curl that cascaded onto the forehead. Finally, long side burns, often called side boards in the East End of London, were worn.  Moustaches and beards were not popular amongst devotees.

Although the extreme form of both dressand hairstyle did not last for long, there are still small pockets of devotees lingering on throughout the country. There are still small enclaves of people dedicated to the tradition in just about every city, town and village in Britain.  They are often seen wandering down a street dressed in their finery and are totally oblivious to the passage of time.

Teddy Boys were also the first to embrace the new music that arrived in Britain in the early 1950’s.  Rock ‘n’ Roll was raw, wild and above all exciting.  It was like nothing else heard until then.  Ask any Teddy Boy from that time and he will be able to tell you the exact minute he heard Heartbreak Hotel for the first time.  He will also be quick to tell you that the tune sounds as exciting today as it did in 1956.

Despite having developed additional musical tastes, call me a relic, call me old fashioned or what you will, but I cannot help but agree whenever I hear the request to be given that old tyme Rock ‘n’ Roll!

Submitted by a visitor to the website


I enjoyed your piece on the Teddy Boy scene - Drainpipe Trousers.  My mum only seemed to be able to take in the bottom of my trousers by a few inches, so I finished up wearing trousers looking like clown's pantaloons!

Steve Walker


 

DEDICATED TO SERIOUS CHARGE - Rob Humphreys, 1959, age 17

   

Click on the EP to hear the theme from the film




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