Thursday, 17 November 2011

When I were a lad... 2

A tale of boats and the seaside in the 1960s

From around 1957 to 1968 I lived in Clacton-on-sea.  Whenever I could I would go boating or sailing, sometimes with my friend John who went to the same Technical College I attended.  John lived in Mersea Island and came from a family that was well into the traditions of sailing and boating and we would sail together and muck about in his canoes.  John had two canoes and one was getting a little weathered, so one winter he had started to refurbish it and had found his sailing club commitment was preventing him from finishing the job.  He did not really need two and he realised he was not likely to get it finished in any reasonable time and summer was well on its way, so he decided to cut his losses and sell it.  It was in need of a new canvas upper deck but otherwise was sound.  He was prepared to sell it for a reasonable sum and I eagerly arranged to buy it from him.
It was quite large as canoes go, being a wide two-seater kayak style, with a plywood hull and canvas upper decking and was very stable. I was already familiar with it, having borrowed it once or twice when we went canoeing around Mersea Island and was very pleased he wanted to sell it and I had already decided it was the one for me. I duly parted with the cash and we hoisted it up onto my car’s roof rack and I drove it home. 

It was much too big to go around the back of the guesthouse, so I had to set it on two trestles in the front garden and it only just fitted there. A foot longer and I would have been seriously in trouble. As it was, Mum and Dad, who rather preferred flowers in the garden to a great big half finished canoe, did not greet it with any great enthusiasm, although I think Dad was secretly pleased that I was as interested in boats as he was. I was allowed to keep it there until I had finished the refurbishment but only on the condition that I found a place where I could keep it permanently away from the house. 

A couple of miles along the coast in Holland-on-sea there was a boat club, which allowed members to keep light craft in a locked compound on the top of the cliff, so I arranged to join the club and keep it there, but first I had to finish the decking and re-varnish it.
John had included the material he had intended to use for the top deck when I bought it, which was in fact not canvas but a tough white plastic.  This was fitted by laying it over the framework, cutting around the centre opening where the crew sat and then nailing battens onto the frame with copper pins to grip the edges and hold it in place.  This took very few evenings and soon it was ready for a new coat of varnish. 

Me and my cousin in my finished and seaworthy canoe
During the mid sixties, there were a number of riots reported by the press, taking place at various seaside towns, where Mods and Rockers would congregate at weekends and the rivalries between the two different fashion supporters would occasionally flare up into a small battle fought out on the beaches with bottles, and deck chairs being slung about.
The press found these to be good copy for selling newspapers.  Since it was ‘in the public interest’, the public was informed that major battles were occurring at many seaside resorts and the youth of today were running riot; literally. 
There was a lot of TV coverage as well, and they showed pictures of young men running around in a disorderly fashion on beaches and various seafronts and reported total mayhem.
Because it was good footage (and increased paper circulation), the press had to continue to keep the public well informed, but unfortunately like all trends it would not last long, so something had to be done to prolong these riots for the remaining summer.  For this reason, during the various interviews with the Mods and the Rockers they would slyly ask if they would be attending the next riot, and then name a time and place, insinuating that they knew where the next one would be.  Of course since they were supposed to be spontaneous, no one really knew where they would be least of all the Mods and Rockers themselves.  Once a venue had been suggested by the press, word soon got passed around amongst them that there was to be a good fight at wherever, and so in this way the press made sure that there would be a good turnout of Mods and Rockers at the place of their own choosing. 

I saw a few of these alleged riots, which seemed little different to the normal uncouth behaviour of a minority of the Clacton weekend visitors and continued to walk my dog in the sure knowledge that on Sunday evening when the pubs and fish and chips shops shut, they would all head for the A12 and return home.  Clacton was not a refined place, unlike Frinton a few miles along the coast where the residents had even prevented the use of yellow lines on the road to indicate parking restrictions for many years after they had become commonplace all over the rest of the country, because they were 'vulgar',  In Clacton you could expect a bit of boisterous behaviour now and again.
Agate Road Clacton in the 1960s.  
 Meanwhile back at my canoe, one weekend I was busy sanding the hull ready for another coat of varnish when a couple of lads in mod gear ran down Agate road past me and disappeared out of sight. A few yobs at the sea end of the road strolled into view, shouted something unintelligible at the retreating pair and walked back towards the seafront. Although I was aware of this, I more or less ignored them because it was not particularly unusual and I was in no danger. For all I knew they may have been sworn enemies, or just mates arranging to meet later.  None too concerned I finished what I was doing and washed up went in to watch TV or read a book or whatever.
Later Mum and Dad and I were all watching the early evening news on the TV when there was a report of a serious riot that took place in Clacton. 
Of course we were all interested in this, mostly because it was news to us! 
Allegedly there had been total chaos and reports of cars being turned over and set on fire, with running battles all down the sea front. This was supported with a few seconds of film taken at this outrageous riot, of some young men running along a road and as the camera panned around, we could instantly recognise it was Agate Road with the two louts I had seen running away from about four other louts.  The camera was behind the yelling louts, so you could see there were at least six rioters and if the camera had panned a couple of degrees further round, it would have shown me calmly sanding down my canoe unaware that I was in the centre of this terrible riot.  No doubt they had had to cut out that bit, because it did not help with the impression they were trying to make. Over the next few days, we had about four friends and relatives phone us from other parts of the world to make sure we were still alive.
The reports had implied that there had been total war in Clacton and there were few survivors. According to the press, property had been damaged, blood spilled and general chaos had ensued. 
It amazed me how soon that was cleared up, because when I took the dog out for a walk later that evening, the place seemed quite tidy with no damage anywhere I could see, no burned out cars even though I was walking through the alleged site of a major battleground.  Mind you, I did see a chair on its side in the cliff top gardens.

I wonder where they got these statistics from? Maybe they were arrested before they got to Clacton.


  1. I'm not sure if I'm following you or you're following me, but there's a photograph of me on a donkey on Clacton beach dated April 7, 1957. We moved north about a year later.

  2. Wow, unbelievable -- the power of the press! And so it continues....that's all it took to get to this:

    "By October 9 'Occupy' protests had taken place or were ongoing in over 95 cities across 82 countries and over 600 communities in the United States. As of November 4 the Meetup page "Occupy Together" listed "Occupy" communities in 2,464 towns and cities worldwide."

    Without the help of the press,it would probably have fizzled out very quickly.

    Great story, snafu!

  3. Don't get me started about the press -- or rather the media, as it is now! Newspapers are going out of style over here. We all want freedom of speech, but with it comes RESPONSIBILITY. I do believe that it is the media that has made this economic mess we are in. Rant RANT RANT! But back to boats...we do seem to have a leaning towards boats in our family. And as for Frinton, that is where I first saw the sea, ever. It was soon after the war when we went on a family trip from Finchley. I wasn't very impressed. Nobody told me that waves chased you into the beach and I was only about six. There was barbed wire and very large X type bars to prevent invasion of the enemy, all along the beach.

  4. Ah, the press! You and I have spoken before about their proclivity to cause trouble, Snafu!

    Your piece reminded me that I had a hand in making a canoe when I was a teenager, but. as I recall, it was made of fibre glass. I remember laying down squares of the woven material and then painting the acetone smelling resin over, but little else. I've no idea whether I got to have a voyage in the craft... x

  5. Oh how funny! I would have loved that camera to pan around to see you calmly working on your canoe 'in the midst of carnage!'

    Do you remember the comedy show Drop The Dead Donkey? It was all about the ways and wiles of a press office (think it was a television station) and the head news reporter would carry various 'props' with him to set the scene of riots and mayhem, even when the riots and mayhem weren't exactly true. :)

  6. If you are interested, your photos would be greatly appreciated on a facebook page called Memories of growing up in Clacton in the 70's and 80's. It it not soley for that period of time as we post pics of clacton in most decades.
    Many Thanks Linda.