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KEVIN DIXON: Torquay's Beatniks and the Generation Gap

By This is SouthDevon  |  Posted: December 05, 2012

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"I did not think that in the twentieth century we would have people who would walk about literally stinking."

The President of Torquay Trades Council, September 1964

The 'Generation Gap' was a term that emerged during the 1960s to refer to differences between people of a younger generation and their elders, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.

After the Second World War rapid change widened the gap between the generations, particularly in musical tastes, fashion, culture and politics. The size and affluence of the young generation during the 1960s gave it unprecedented buying power and a willingness to rebel against societal norms.

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In the US the counter culture headed for California. In the UK the destination was Devon and Cornwall - first the Beatniks and then the Hippies. This gave Torquay a great artistic tradition which found a base in the Melville Inn (now the Clipper Inn) and then the Rising Sun (now the Old Mill), with folk singer Donavon being a notable product of the scene.

However, there was resistance to the influx of unconventional young people. In September 1964 the representative body of Torquay’s trades unions, the Trades Council, received a motion from the Bay’s branch of the National Graphical Association calling for action to be taken against the rising number of Beatniks in the resort.

The motion condemned

"Bohemians and their unhygienic habit of sleeping rough on the beaches, in their personal appearance and ganging together to block pavements to pedestrians. The holiday season had always attracted a small number of the begging fraternity... now there were more requests from unshaven shabbily dressed and unwashed gentlemen for the price of a glass of coffee.

"The young people seen about the town sleeping rough on the beaches and lounging on street corners, wearing al fresco attire and no shoes have come to Torquay for a Bohemian holiday. They toil just a little bit but spin rather a lot, picking up a job here and there, lounging in the sun and trimming subsistence.

"They sleep under the stars or under carefully-erected Corporation deck chairs, the Beacon Quay car park or on the tow path seats flanking the harbour."

It was suggested that a new influx had been inspired by the Torbay-set Oliver Reed movie 'The System'.

In the debate that followed, the language was anything but temperate:

"Nothing but harm would come to the name of Torquay... vagrants... open air doss house... semi-hobos... filthy undesirables... young who shirked the whole responsibility of life."

The motion to work with the police and the Council to rid Torquay of the Beatniks was passed. However, the Trades Council’s secretary M Vango resigned in protest saying that anyone who wanted to asleep rough should be able to do so:

"No one has the right to set up to be a judge on anyone else’s character and position in society. These people are not sick... society is sick in not being able to provide enough decent houses at decent rents".

It may be significant that Mr. Vango was 21 years of age.

In response, the following week seven “self-confessed Beatniks” visited the Torquay Times office to defend themselves. They were described as “well spoken and intelligent”, and complained that they had been banned from most cafes and made to sit outside pubs. In their later teens and early twenties and originating in Scotland, London, Liverpool and Derby, the seven explained

"We do wash... Our clothes may be dirty but it’s the sensible attire to wear walking around. We chose to live this way and we keep ourselves to ourselves and not get involved with other people. We reject society and try to assert ourselves as individuals."

Meanwhile, Beatniks were also having a hostile reception from locals in Newquay. Here’s a report by Alan Whicker for BBC's Tonight programme in 1960:

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