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Oral History Workshop at the Imperial War Museum

Wednesday 13 April 2011
Elders from across the London Borough of Lambeth participated in the workshop to share their experiences of what it was like to be a youngster living in Lambeth during the fifties and sixties.   Another group of elders came from Brent.

Bec, Matt and Roman, volunteers who participated in the Training workshop at the BFI and Metropolitan Archives, attended to practice skills learned and to hear stories of ordinary people as part of life, and to gather research material for the project.

Fred Peters, musician and activist from Brixton, described himself as one of the original “rude boy”.  He explained that “our rudeness was being cheeky - artists, musicians -  compared to what is happening now. 

 Fred Peters talked about how Brixton was a draw for famous artists such as: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Beatles, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, the Kinks and the Who– they all used to come to Brixton to listen to reggae bands. Young people used to catch the bus and follow the bands in the 1960s. People from abroad also came to Brixton for the entertainment. Paul Robeson visited Brixton in 1959 to help fundraise for the first black newspaper “The West Indian Gazette”.

Places for hanging out in Brixton in 50s and 60s
The Swan pub in Stockwell (for live music) Historia Cinema; the Brixton Academy; Palladium; Pavilion; Fridge; Express Theatre . "The saddest thing", said Fred, "is the demise of the Atlantic Pub at the corner of Atlantic Road, where everybody met up".  The pub is still there but under a different name.

On Saturdays many people went to the cinema. This was a whole day event - it was a continuous programme then - to see classics such as  Gone with the Wind at the Palladium.
Western films “Cowboys and Indians” were popular.   Hardly any black actors and actresses were seen in a positive role, until Guess Who’s coming to Dinner with Sidney Poitier (1967).
People were beginning to watch TV -  Peyton Place (American soap opera) and Coronation Street.

“We had one outfit which was special and worn on Sundays”.  Then new styles that came in, more flamboyant – wider skirts.   Then feminine pencil slim skirts.
Stiletto heels,  mini skirt,  bloomers to the knee and skirts on top were popular.   “The years go by and the fashion comes back”. 

One Caribbean Elder commented that most West Indian women could sew.  "They didn’t need a pattern – they got the length and width of cloth, and copied styles from the magazines from the fashion house.    Crinoline skirts with frills and shift dresses. West Indians brought colours - not grey".
Ladies were expected to dress in a feminine fashion, when they went out to venues such as the Hammersmith Palais, they had to wear a dresses and look pretty.  One Elder mentioned how she was turned away because she wore trousers. 

Some Elders remembered queuing up to take part in the television productions of Ready Steady Go then Top of the Pops.  Others remembered going to Caribbean House Parties. Fred recalled that going to the West End to clubs such as Whiskey A Go-Go. Marquee, Café Royal and Ronnie Scotts was more liberating than in Brixton, where local people were more cautious.

Not everyone was out partying!  One Elder mentioned that he had a young family and were “busy looking after the family and didn’t have lots of time for pleasure”.  Another spent most of his spare time studying – Maths and English.

Sports and Entertainment
Elders recalled spending a lot of time at the Swimming pools in Streatham and Clapham. Some people remembered a Tram that they took that ran through West Norwood.  They would take sandwiches, flasks of tea and played cricket on the grass and hang out.
In 1959 – 6 carnivals were held by Caribbean communities in halls which gave the ideas for the street carnival. 
An Elder remembered that the first Beauty Queen contest was held at St. Pancras Hotel, Kings Cross.  

Social & political
One Elder stated "There were hard times, good and bad times! There was racism in the work place but some people moved together.  Those who were together were fine; those who were not – you kept apart. There were more comradeship and you had white neighbours who would help".  It was mentioned that many young people from the host community went to Youth clubs and other organised after school activities.  African and Caribbean youths found it difficult to blend in and therefore formed there own places to hang out.

It was mentioned that lots of jobs were available with wages around $10 Shillings increasing to £4.10 a week.  If you worked on the building site you got £8-£9 a week with bonus to make up. 

In contrast to the 1950s which were “doom and gloom”, the 60s brought a freedom, which didn’t exist beforehand –One Elder remarked "West Indian parents were so very strict – but in the 1960s you didn't have to conform; you could go crazy and walk out;  let it all hang out. Flower power was wonderful – people mixed together. People talked about peace and love. It was a time of Mods and Rockers – young men on the motor bikes and tearing around! "

The 1960s was a period of protests songs; artists such as  Bob Dylan sang songs that young people related to.
It was a period when drugs were more openly available and taken – “but it made us them peaceful!" commented one elder.
People became more independent – completely different from parents – more freedom was experienced by young people. The introduction of the contraceptive pill on the NHS was one example of change.
One Elder believed there would be no more war.  Then came the Vietnam War, "I remember – going on a march – from Ladbroke Grove to the American Embassy –in 3 August 1963 in support of the Civil Rights Movement". 

Message to the Young from an Elder
"We paved the way for all young people today – we established the foundation. We need to talk about how we can stop what’s happening now to our young people – take the issues to the councils; local and central government. We don’t want to read about stabbings!"

"This was an unique occasion for Elders from diverse communites to share their experiences of Hanging Out in Lambeth from the 1950s and 1960s"

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