THE Whitsun bank holiday 50 years ago saw Britain in shock at what was going on in some of its seaside resorts.
It was the weekend when mods fought rockers – prompting a reaction that gave rise to the term “moral panic”.
Concern about the behaviour of the rival factions had been bubbling since March, when 97 young people were arrested following clashes at Clacton-on-Sea. Watch video of the clashes at Hastings and Margate at the bottom of this story.
On Friday, May 15, the Evening Echo’s front page gave no hint of the trouble to come.
Under the headline “B’mouth blooms for the holidays”, it reported: “Visitors who are expected to throng to Bournemouth this weekend will find the town booming and blooming in the sun.”
The gardens were “at their glorious best” and “there is more entertainment available for Whit visitors than ever before”, the report said.
But the following day, it seemed some people had a different entertainment in mind.
“Police Leave Cancelled!” ran the headline and the paper warned of a “B’mouth smash-up threat”.
Officers’ leave in Bournemouth had been cancelled “in case young hooligans descend on the town in force”.
An anonymous source had told the Echo that Bournemouth would be the centre of a “smash up” on Monday evening by two groups. One would start at Bournemouth Pier, one at Boscombe Pier, and they would meet at the Square to “clash with the police in a big way”.
“One of their targets is to be the Winter Gardens, during a symphony concert and all cars in the vicinity,” he added.
Trouble broke out in other resorts over the weekend, and on the Monday the Echo reported that the police were prepared.
The deputy chief constable, Chief Supt George Gates, said: “We are determined not to permit any ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ or other hooligans to interfere with the leisure and pleasure of the residents and visitors at Bournemouth.”
Trouble did break out, along the lines predicted by the Echo’s source. The paper reported the next day: “In one of the biggest ever police operations in Bournemouth, uniformed and plain clothes officers made a dramatic swoop in the town centre last night to break up crowds of milling teenagers, many of whom were arrested after disturbances.”
There had been several hours of tension after fighting broke out among a crowd of around 30 at the pier, the paper said.
As darkness fell, a gang of around 150 smashed some windows at the back of the Winter Gardens while the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was performing, the report said.
Soon afterwards, trouble flared at the Exeter Road end of the Square. Three young people were taken to hospital.
Around 50 police officers arrived in vans. Officers drove motorcycles and other vehicles through the footpaths in the Lower Gardens to keep the gang moving and began to break it up. The paper added: “A big obstacle to the police was the number of ordinary people who collected in the Square, near the Pier and at other trouble spots, apparently intent on seeing everything they could. Even family parties seemed to be hoping for something sensational to look at.”
By Monday May 25, the first of the arrested young people were in court.
Opening the prosecution at Bournemouth Magistrates Court, Philip Evans said: “There is no doubt whatever in the view of the chief constable, or of his officers who were present at the scene, that large numbers of the public were upset, frightened and indeed, in some instances of very elderly ladies, terrorised by the behaviour of these defendants and others who are not in custody.”
Thirty-three people were due before magistrates that day. Among the first to be convicted was an 18-year-old who was fined a total of £10 and nine shillings. A 20-year-old lorry driver was fined £60 for threatening behaviour, £5 for obstructing police and five guineas in costs.
Mr Evans told the court: “There is no suggestion by the prosecution that this was an organised attack by one gang against another gang. This is a group of young hooligans who have behaved like young hooligans in Bournemouth.”
It was said in court that 150 young people had gone to the bus station in Exeter Road, five or six abreast around the bus station’s footpaths and shoving members of the public out of the way.
They kicked bins, smashed fittings, shouted and screamed, before the police broke them up.
They then made their way through the town centre “wilfully damaging the flowers and shrubs in the Pleasure Gardens and continuing to frighten elderly people”, the court heard.
Eventually, eight young people would be sent to prison or borstal, 27 would be fined and 16 discharged.
Their prosecutions took place in a climate which the sociologist Stanley Cohen would later describe as a “moral panic”.
Bournemouth West’s MP, Sir John Eden, pledged to put questions to the Home Secretary, advocating “the use of judicial corporal punishment” as well as open air camps to deal with “idleness and boredom in youth”.
For years afterwards, coastal towns would worry about a possible influx of mods, rockers or Hell’s Angels and would act to break up any of their holiday gatherings.
Meanwhile, the events were to be mythologised in The Who’s album Quadrophenia and the 1979 film adaptation.
Jon Kremer, former record shop owner and the author of Bournemouth A Go! Go! – A Sixties Memoir, recalled that “if you believed England’s newsprint media in the spring/summer time of 1964, we should head for the nearest Saxon hilltop fortress”.
He said the events were the 1960s equivalent of a phenomenon “going viral” – with young people responding to what had already been picked up by TV cameras around the coast.
“It was never truly some sort of battle. The mods outnumbered the rockers by at least 10 to one,” he added.
The British Pathe news archive contains some fascinating footage of the mods and rockers clashes at other resorts that holiday weekend in 1964 which can be viewed below: