In the early to mid-1960s, thousands of British teenagers aligned themselves with one of two groups – Mods and Rockers.
It was about seeking social identity, defined by the way you dressed and behaved, and the music you listened to. But dividing youths into essentially two huge gangs with very different outlooks on life was never going to end well.
As rivalries between Mods and Rockers developed into physical confrontations, the older generation became increasingly alarmed about “lawless louts” running riot with no respect for authority. Frequent press reports helped to fuel a moral panic.
The Mods versus Rockers phenomenon reached its peak on May 18th, 1964, when scores of youths were handed prison sentences and fines following a Whitsun weekend of violence in several south coast resorts.
Mods wore smart suits under long fishtail parkas and rode Vespa or Lambretta scooters, often festooned with mirrors and other accessories. Some carried coshes and soon-to-be-outlawed flick-knives. Rockers were less well-groomed, favouring leather jackets and denim jeans, often stained with oil from their powerful motorbikes, which they rode at speeds up to 100mph. They greased their hair, listened to rock ’n’ roll and sometimes armed themselves with knives, knuckledusters and bike chains.
On the 1964 Whitsun weekend, thousands of Mods and Rockers flocked to the south coast, many in large groups on their bikes and scooters, but also by train and bus. These were a new breed of teenagers, freed from the discipline of National Service, with money in their pockets and, very often, alcohol in their hot blood. It was a powder keg just waiting for a spark.
Margate saw some of the worst violence, with running battles on the beach between up to 400 youths and hastily drafted-in police officers. Bottles and other missiles were thrown, with two of the outnumbered police officers injured. Later, around 40 young men went on the rampage along the high street, smashing windows in council flats, ransacking a pub and smashing up a hardware shop, stealing tools to use as weapons.
By Sunday evening there were still hundreds of young men and women roaming around Margate long after the last train had left. Police stepped in to prevent more violence by intercepting a gang of about 30 young men in leather jackets marching up the prom and chanting “Up the Rockers!”.
There were similar clashes in Bournemouth and Clacton-on-Sea, while in Brighton hundreds of rival teenagers gathered in two large groups outside the Palace Pier, chanting and jeering at each other and hurling pebbles from the beach when police tried to disperse them. When officers with police horses and dogs arrived to move the crowd on, they staged a mass sit-down and refused to budge.
It was estimated up to a thousand youths were involved in skirmishes on Brighton beach, its promenade and in the town. They threw deckchairs, broke them up to make bonfires, shouted obscenities at each other and left ordinary holidaymakers and residents terrified, many afraid to venture outside their homes or B&Bs. Most seafront businesses locked their doors and pulled down their shutters.
Although initially outnumbered, the police soon drafted in reinforcements from across their own areas and neighbouring forces. Plenty of arrests were made and the following morning scores of sobered-up and shamefaced youths found themselves in the dock at local Magistrates’ Courts. Determined to stamp down on the uncontrolled violence and send a message that it would not be tolerated, the magistrates were not shy in handing down custodial sentences and heavy fines.
In Margate, where two youths had been hospitalised with knife wounds, magistrates jailed four men and imposed fines on 36 people totalling £1,900 – more than £36,000 in today’s money. Five offenders who were too young for prison were sent to detention centres for up to six months.
Widespread press coverage of the weekend’s violence led to calls for action against the young hooligans, and police forces who had been caught off-guard made sure it wouldn’t happen again. Although there were other skirmishes in seaside towns over the summer, including one in Hastings in August, none were on the scale of the Whitsun weekend and most were soon quashed by the better-prepared police.
As with all crazes, the Mods and the Rockers began to fade away, with only the die-hards remaining by the time the more laid-back and peace-loving hippie movement arrived in the summer of ’67. The Whitsun weekend violence in Brighton was later dramatised in the 1979 film “Quadrophenia” and while ageing Mods and Rockers can still be found today, they get on with each other a lot better.