Culture / History

‘I see nothing wrong with rock ’n’ roll, but…’

‘I see nothing wrong with rock ’n’ roll, but there is a time and a place for everything. The time for this is not in school hours. I take a serious view of this.’
Cyril Smith (1957)

This week the long-running stories about Cyril Smith’s sexual abuse of children returned to the news pages. David Steel told the inquiry into child sexual abuse that Smith had acknowledged the truth of those stories back in 1979, but that he (Steel) had not acted on this confession. Steel has now been suspended from the Liberal Democrats, the party that he himself did so much to found.

Meanwhile, the re-emergence of Smith’s name has reminded me of a little-documented episode early in his political career, when he ventured into the moral panic over rock ’n’ roll.

Britain was a little wary of rock ‘n’ roll in January 1957. The previous autumn had seen the film Rock Around the Clock spark riots across the land, and next month the stars of that movie, Bill Haley and His Comets were to land in Southampton, bringing real-life rock to Britain. The consequences were uncertain.

In the lull before the anticipated storm, the spotlight turned on various dancehalls that were running lunchtime rock ’n’ roll events. These were simple affairs: admission cost threepence, tea and soft drinks were available, records were played, and people danced. A good time was had by all.

‘The sessions are the happiest thing you have ever seen,’ said Eric Morley, though admittedly he was a director of Mecca Dancing Ltd – who ran many of the venues – so he wasn’t an entirely disinterested witness. After all, there was decent business to be had. The Palais de Danse in Parliament Street, Nottingham was reported to be pulling in a thousand punters every Tuesday and Friday. And there were bigger crowds still at the Lyceum in London, where admission was sixpence.

Others were less impressed. Particularly teachers. Because inevitably, the lunchtime dances attracted schoolchildren. The licences might state that no one under the age of sixteen could be admitted without their parents, but the venues simply handed out parental-consent forms to be signed, or else turned a blind eye. Similarly, the dance-floor was supposed to be restricted to over-sixteens, with younger patrons confined to the balconies, but the regulation wasn’t always strictly policed.

Education was suffering as a result. When a dancehall licence came up for renewal in Wolverhampton in 1957, local teachers testified that ‘school children were so exhausted by rock ’n’ rolling through the lunch break they could not concentrate on afternoon lessons’.

Mr C.R. Seaton, headmaster of Nottingham Secondary Arts School, rued the impact the Palais de Danse was having on other recreational opportunities: ‘We used to run a lunchtime ballroom dancing session at the school which about sixty children attended. Now it’s flopped completely. Only three turned up for the last session.’ He could see no point to these rock ’n’ roll lunchtimes, saying that they ‘provide no real benefit to schoolchildren in the middle of their working day, and that the atmosphere of the dance hall is not suitable for young people who have to face the duties and responsibilities of school life’.

Determined to take a stand, he banned pupils from attending.

Thomas Gunn, headmaster of Nottingham People’s College, a secondary technical school for the building trade, imposed a similar ban. The response was a demonstration in the playground by boys: ‘They chanted “No rock, no work” and “Rock ’n’ roll or the streets” and chalked slogans on the walls and doors.’ Three boys were threatened with expulsion, though once the fuss died down, none was actually expelled.

The Carlton Ballroom in Rochdale was another that offered lunchtime sessions, and in January 1957 members of the council’s education authority paid a visit to see for themselves what was going on. Amongst their number was the 26-year-old then-Labour councillor Cyril Smith, who was also chairman of the governors of two technical schools – one for boys, the other girls – that were ‘a stone’s throw from the ballroom’.

He was unimpressed. Like Mr Seaton, he worried that this craze was driving out other activities: ‘Rock ’n’ roll is hitting youth club work,’ he said. ‘At the Lea Hall Youth Club we have had to recruit a completely new netball team. The first team are rocking ’n’ rolling on Saturday afternoons. Youth club attendances have dwindled alarmingly.’

Smith’s main concern, though, was the age of the dancers at the Carlton:

The management assured me that only those of sixteen would be on the dance floor, but that was not so, for I recognised many as schoolchildren under sixteen. The girls had changed quickly into dresses from school uniform to deceive the management. And on the balcony, to where the under-sixteens were directed, there were twenty-five couples, many as young as eleven, rocking ’n’ rolling.

His conclusion was that this had to be stopped. ‘I propose to recommend that the premises should be placed out of bounds to schoolchildren during school hours,’ he told the press, and he was as good as his word. The following month, the Carlton’s licence came up before the Rochdale Licensing Justices, and Smith was there to make his objections.

So too was Mr S.J. Harvey, the Chief Constable of Rochdale, who explained that it wasn’t just schoolwork that was being jeopardized: ‘older adolescents went to the sessions and returned to their work late’. Mr A.E.M. West, speaking for the Carlton, took the misguided line that too much was expected of his business – ‘You cannot look after them like babes in arms,’ he protested – and failed to convince the bench. The music licence was amended to stop the lunchtime dances, permitting the venue to open only between 2 pm and 11 pm (or 11.30 pm on the weekend).

Other local authorities were doing the same. It didn’t stop the onward march of rock ’n roll, though. In Nottingham and elsewhere, a Saturday morning session was instituted to replace the lunchtime events. And anyway, Bill Haley was nearly upon us, as he told the Daily Mirror: ‘Yeah man, we are on our way – rockin’ through the ocean and rollin’ through the waves…’

As far as I know, Cyril Smith never returned to his campaign against rock ’n’ roll. His own musical tastes were less contemporary: when he appeared on Jimmy Savile’s TV show Clunk-Click, he gave a rendition of the old Florrie Forde song, ‘She’s a Lassie from Lancashire’, from the days of the Edwardian Music Hall.

He retained his interest in youth activities, however, and by the beginning of the 1970s – now returned to the Liberal Party, whence he had come – he was chair of the council’s Education Committee, its Youth Committee and its Youth Employment Committee, while also serving on the committees of the Rochdale Youth Opera and the Youth Theatre Workshop. Where he had been a governor of two schools, he was now on the board of twenty-nine. And then there was the Cambridge House hostel that he had helped found and that was the site of much of his abuse.


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