Monday 18 April 2016

Scuffling Skifflers

Winter Gardens / Co-operative Ballroom,
Heald Street,
Liverpool 19

In 1909 the roller skating craze reached its peak. Needing a suitable venue the Garston Skating Rink Co settled on a site in Heald Street, next to a Welsh Methodist Chapel and directly opposite the police station. They appointed a local architect, T. Townson and his plans for the rink were duly submitted to the City Building Surveyor who approved them on 19 October 1909.

The managing director George Atkin applied for a music and other public entertainments licence on 11 January 1910 but the application was withdrawn as the building was not ready. It was re-submitted that March, and approved on 24 May, at which point the new skating rink opened, just as the skating craze was coming to an end.

To keep the premises open and aware that moving pictures were the next big thing Atkin applied for a cinematograph licence which was granted on 27 September 1910. 

The short lived skating rink was converted into the Garston Picturedrome, a stadium-type auditorium with a seating capacity of 586, for performances of pictures and variety. Records show that further work was undertaken in May 1912 to increase the seating capacity on premises which for a time were operating as the Rink Cinema.

Three years later, under the ownership of the Garston Empire Ltd a plan to increase the seating capacity to 886 was completed by 20 August 1921. However, when the cinematograph licence expired on 31 October 1923 it was not renewed and the cinema closed after only 13 years.

The building continued to be used as a venue for dancing, music, and singing. A public entertainments licence was granted on 14 December 1923 with the premises operating under a new name, the grandiose Winter Gardens.

The new proprietors, Winter Gardens (Garston) Ltd, 19 Castle Street. operated the dance hall until the early 1940s but in 1943 it was closed. The building was used as an A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) depot for the remainder of the war. It did not reopen for dancing until October 1950 by which point it had been taken over by the Garston and District Co-op Society. Locals often still referred to it as the Winter Gardens. 

I wrote on a number of local history sites asking if anyone had memories of that time and Mr Paul J King was kind enough to reply:

Hi Mark, I and my friends lived in Aigburth/Mossley Hill so we only ventured at odd times down to Garston but we did go into the Pub in James St opposite the Empire* and it was nicknamed "The Widows Nest" before we went to Heald St (Co-op Hall) for the dance.

Most of the female clientele in the Pub were early twenties or even younger and willingly told us that their husbands were in the Forces in Singapore etc, etc and that they would be going to the Dance. We did go but kept well clear in case their husbands suddenly came home on leave !! (Paul J King)

The subsequent explosion of rock 'n' roll during the late 1950s would bring a new lease of life to the venue as jiving became popular.  Popularised by American servicemen during the Second World War, by the 1950s the main exponents of jive in Britain were Teddy Boys and their girls. It was not welcomed everywhere.

Wally Hill had spotted a market for it whilst working at the Rialto Ballroom, a respectable venue where jiving was most definitely frowned upon. It was the same story in most of the established dance halls in Liverpool at that time. Couples found jiving would be separated. The manager of the Rialto tried to run ballroom dances at the Co-op in Garston but packed it in after several evenings descended into violence. Hill however, saw an opportunity and with the support of his wife decided to have a go at rock 'n' roll: "We opened for business and it was great".

Despite the Police Station facing the Co-op there was frequent violence.  Liverpool had become the setting for a series of Teddy Boy battlegrounds, rival gangs from neighbouring areas fighting over territory, usually in minor scuffles, occasionally in all out pitched battles. The Garstonites didn't like anybody from outside their area in the dance hall. If a stranger wandered in, he was found in the toilets half alive, if he was lucky.

For the Teds in Garston their sworn enemies were the Teds from the Dingle, who counted among their number a certain Richy Starkey. Not that he'd had a choice in the matter.

We were by the docks in Liverpool and each and every area had its own gang. It was like New York or Hamburg. I was a Teddy boy; you had to be. It was deadly serious - that's what life was about. Where I lived, you had to associate with some gang otherwise you were 'open city' for anybody. If you weren't, you weren't protected and you'd be beaten up by everybody. The choices were: you could either be beaten up by anybody in your neighbourhood, or by people in other neighbourhoods (which I was, several times).  

There was a terrible thing in Liverpool were you'd walk past somebody and they'd say, 'Are you looking at me?' If you said 'no' they'd say, 'Why not?' and if you said 'yes' they'd get you anyway. So you couldn't win. There was no answer to that question. If you were in a gang, you were safe. 

It must have been difficult for John, Paul and George because they were never in gangs. None of them were Teddy boys, really. (Ringo Starr, Anthology and Interview by Elliot Mintz, April 1976)

I was fairly tough at school, but I could organise it so is seemed like I was tough. It used to get me into trouble. I used to dress tough like a Teddy boy, but if I went into the tough districts and came across other Teddy boys, I was in danger. At school it was easier because I could control it with my head so they thought I was tougher than I was. It was a game. I mean, we used to shoplift and all those things, but nothing really heavy. Liverpool's quite a tough city. A lot of the real Teddy boys were actually in their early twenties. They were dockers. We were only fifteen, we were only kids - they had hatchets, belts, bicycle chains and real weapons. We never really got into that, and if somebody came in front of us we ran, me and my gang.
(John Lennon, Anthology, from a 1975 interview)

The washers and the buckle on the belt would be filed down sharp, and a whack from that would really hurt - all that Teddy-boy madness. People would have razor blades behind their lapels, so whoever grabbed them would get their fingers chopped off. It was deadly serious, because that's what life was about.

One time, Roy (Trafford) and I decided to go to the Gaumont cinema. When we came out, we walked up Park Road and saw the gang who used to meet on the corner. We knew them, but they said: 'Come here.' So we did, and they said, 'We're going to Garston to have fights, so just hang out till we go.' You knew immediately that you could either say 'no', and the whole gang would beat you up there and then, or you could go to where the fight was going to happen and take your chances. You could mingle with the crowd, rip your belt off, just look OK and hope to God that the big guy in the other gang didn't pick on you. There were a lot of really angry people around: Liverpool working-class, tough-gang shit. (Ringo Starr, Anthology)

Years later Ringo was asked what was the most important piece of advice he ever received in Liverpool. He wasn't being facetious when he replied "Run!"

We were into area fights. I wasn't a great fighter, but I was a good runner, a good sprinter - as I still am - because if you were suddenly on your own with five guys coming towards you, you soon learnt to be. There was no messing about; it was, 'You! Come here!' - bang, bang. I didn't knife or kill anyone, but I got beaten up a few times - mainly by the people I was with. It's that terrible gang situation where if you're not fighting an outsider you get crazy and start fighting among yourselves, like mad dogs. It was quite vicious. I have seen people beaten up with hammers.

The gangs didn't have names, but there were leaders. We were the Dingle gang. There were several gangs in the area and you'd walk en masse to try to cause trouble; 'walking with the lads', it was called. But all you'd do was walk up and down roads, stand on corners, beat someone up, get beaten up, go to the pictures... It gets boring after a while. I wanted to leave all that, and I started moving out of walking with the lads when I started playing. Roy and I wanted to be musicians, and we started leaving the gang life. Music possessed me and I got out. I was nineteen when I finally made it out, thank God (Ringo Starr, Anthology)

In addition to Wally Hill's  rock 'n' roll promotions the Co-op held regular auditions during the skiffle explosion in 1957-58. 

Rod Davis, banjo player with the Quarry Men remembers them venturing into the Teddy Boy domain on several occasions during this period, usually with one eye on the exit.

The Quarry Men in 2015 - Rod Davis and Colin Hanton (above) and Len Garry (below)

You'd go and play at the dance hall, and the real Teddy boys didn't like you, because all the girls would be watching the group - you had the sideboards and the hair and you're on stage. Afterwards the guys would try and kill you, so most of fifteen, sixteen and seventeen was spent running away from people with a guitar under your arm. They'd always catch the drummer; he had all the equipment. We'd run like crazy and get the bus because we didn't have a car. I'd get on the bus with the guitar, but the bass player - who only had a string bass with a tea chest - used to get caught. What we used to do was throw them the bass or a hat and they'd kick and kill it, so you could escape. (John Lennon, Anthology, from a 1975 interview)

Quarry-mania in full flow inside the Heald Street Co-op.(allegedly)

A regular attendee at the Co-op was a local railway clerk named Bob Wooler who offered his services as disc jockey and MC (master of ceremonies). Hill accepted, probably liking the idea of a gimmick as at that time it was unusual for someone to announce the records and take requests whilst the groups were changing over on stage.

Through his lifetime Bob was a great hoarder which meant that many years later he was able to show author Spencer Leigh a list of records he had played at the Co-op in 1958:

·         I Got Stung - Elvis Presley

·         Say Mama - Gene Vincent

·         Love Makes The World Go Round - Perry Como

·         The Day The Rains Came - Jane Morgan

·         Hoots Mon - Lord Rockingham's XI

·         Wee Tom - Lord Rockingham's XI

·         Mason Dixie Line - Duane Eddy

·         Stood Up - Ricky Nelson

·         To Know Him Is To Love Him - The Teddy Bears

·         Real Love - Ruby Murray

·         Problems - The Everly Brothers

·         The Diary - Neil Sedaka

·         Break Up - Jerry Lee Lewis

·         Livin' Doll - Cliff Richard

·         Chantilly Lace - Big Bopper

·         Beep Beep - The Playmates

·         Baby Face - Little Richard

·         Gotta Travel On - Billy Grammer

·         Tom Dooley - Lonnie Donegan

Bob Wooler: That was the start of things. I was known as the Daddy-O of DJs on Merseyside because I was the first person to do an Alan Freed and specialise in playing rock 'n' roll records

As the Co-op was way out of their area, it's tempting to think that the Broad Green based Al Caldwell and the Ravin' Texans had been tipped off about the possibility of bookings in Garston by the Quarry Men*. Al Caldwell and his skiffle group approached Bob Wooler looking for work.

Bob Wooler: The first time I met Rory was at the Winter Gardens, Heald Street, Garston, when he was still Al Caldwell and his group was Al Caldwell and the Ravin' Texans. He wanted to play some dance halls and as I was handling bookings at the time, I sorted something out for him.

This was a pre-Ringo Starr incarnation of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes - guitarists Alan Ernest "Al" Caldwell (later Rory Storm) and Johnny Byrne, Reginald "Reg" Hales on washboard and Spud Ward on tea-chest bass.

Al and his group made one recorded appearance at the Co-op on August 15, 1958 apparently without their bass player as Spud Ward was busy elsewhere that night.

Further bookings may have been planned but never fulfilled. Tired of the regular bouts of violence pouring out of the hall and into Heald Street under their very noses  the police successfully pushed to have the venue closed in December 1958.

57 years to the day since George Atkin had applied for a music and public entertainments licence, plans to turn the premises into a discount store - the Garston and District Co-op Society - were submitted on 11 January 1967.

By April 1982 the building was sold, becoming a Government YTS centre the following year. In 1993 it became the property of a furniture manufacturers.

The premises have now been demolished and flats stand on the site (see below).

Heald Street today with the Police Station on the near left. Just past the Chapel on the right is the former site of the Winter Gardens.


* although they had played in Garston two months earlier at Wilson Hall on 20 June 1958. The Quarry Men and Al Caldwell's group had first crossed paths in early 1958 at the time of Al Caldwell's "Morgue Skiffle Cellar".


Picture Palaces of Liverpool (Harold Ackroyd)


The first two are (c) Philip G. Mayer

Last photo of the old building (photographer unknown)

For the Teddy Boys among you here's a link to a site where you could lose hours

No comments:

Post a Comment