Features History

Feature: Take them down!

Judge's gavel
Judge's gavel
Note that I independently write and research everything in this article. But it may contain affiliate links.

Being sent to borstal wasn’t much fun, but you could still retain your identity as a mod if you tried. John Waters looks at life behind bars for a young offender.

Judge Melford Stevenson peered over the top of his spectacles at the two unfortunates before him in number two court of the Old Bailey. “I have no option in view of the seriousness of the crime but to sentence you both to borstal training. Take them down”

I looked at Vic next to me. He was the epitome of cool. Dressed impeccably in a dark blue tonik mohair suit, white button down shirt, plus red tie and silkie in his top pocket. Jesus Christ he was laughing! Not surprising really as he had already served one borstal sentence and had been expecting at least a five stretch.

I tried to appear nonchalant but my stomach was churning. Borstal was no surprise in view of the charges and the fact that I had been on the run from approved school for almost a year. I brushed a speck of dust off my mohair and smirked at the screw.

We were roughly led down into the bowels of the Bailey to await transfer to the Scrubs. There were six of us packed into a holding cell. One of the company had just received seven years for burning down a couple of synagogues! He looked a real creep. Apparently they had found all sorts of Nazi memorabilia in his flat. He definitely looked a case for Broadmoor. Dressed all in black and smiling to himself smoking Russian cigarettes in a long holder, he wouldn’t last long in a prison…a prime candidate for topping himself!

Wormwood Scrubs B block was a revelation. Assigned for borstal allocation, it was a teeming mass of humanity. The stench was oppressive…body odour and piss was in the air everywhere. The cells were infested with cockroaches and the blankets were discoloured and stained with the remnants of previous denizens. Thank God I was assigned a single cell owing to being NOC (nature of charge – signifying a crime of violence). I was assigned to work in the woodshop chopping firewood. Somewhat of a contradiction in view of the charges I had gone down for!

I was on the threes landing. Home from home! As well as Vic there was Tucker in the cell next to me and Johnny B along the landing all of whom came from the Archway. Tommy B and Cecil from the Flamingo were also on the landing along with a couple of lads from the Highbury mob and Nicky M from the Torriano. Although we may have been deadly enemies on the outside we soon teamed up in the face of the adversities we had to face on the inside.

We were forced to wear grey flannel trousers and navy blue blousons with a striped shirt and tie. Not exactly cutting edge fashion! All the clothes were in a real state and I doubt they had seen an iron in years! We were allowed one change of underpants and socks a week. These were handed out after the weekly shower and you were very lucky if you were the possessor of a pair of socks that actually fit. The less said about the underpants the better.

It was almost two months before I received notice of my borstal assignation Wellingborough was a new purpose built borstal. It was accorded the grand title of a maximum security educational establishment. I’d never even heard of Wellingborough before! Vic was sent to Portland, a certainty from the off being his second term. Nicky M was also going to Wellingborough which was some consolation.

Wellingborough! We hit the ground running! The first month was ‘induction’ This meant everything done on the double, knees pumping at 45 degrees and circuit training every day. 6am we were out on the parade ground in vests and shorts with army boots for a circuit of the wire. Back to change then down to breakfast and out on the parade ground for half an hour drill. Work consisted of scrubbing toilets and polishing floors with a bumper (a wonderful invention consisting of a polishing block on a long swivel handle).evenings meant classes or circuit training then banged up at 8.30, lights out 9.30.

The clothes were little better than the Scrubs. I made some attempt at smartening things up a little by running the edge of a soap bar down the inside of the trouser crease and laying them under the mattress for the night.

After a month we were allocated to a block. Block B was mine. The cells were almost brand new which suited fine. These were inspected every morning and all clothes had to be laid on the bed in perfect symmetry. folded correctly so that the article measured exactly eight inches across. Even the brickwork was inspected for dust!

The block consisted of about 60 inhabitants roughly divided up into two types – the cognoscenti and the plebs. The former numbered around fifteen or so Mods mainly from London with a couple of Brummies and Malcolm from Nottingham (he never shut up about the Dungeon).The remainder were from all parts of the country and were in the main a sorry bunch made up of petty thieves, dossers and general losers, many of whom should never have been sent down in the first place. We considered ourselves to be a cut above the majority as being mods we kept ourselves as smart as possible.

The laundry was considered a good number as that was the place to be to get the pick of the clothes. I easily wangled a job on the presses where we could pick the best shirts, trousers etc. A little starch and they could be ironed/pressed to produce knife sharp creases on the trousers and smart looking collars and cuffs on the shirts. Most of the laundry staff were mods and they could be picked out easily from their appearance which suited us nicely.

A few bob could be made by supplying other inmates with smart clothes for visits simply by changing clothes with them the night before and picking some more whilst in the laundry. This was a lucrative little business earning a few extra bob which we put to excellent use. Sid White was allocated the job of supplying tea and biscuits in the visiting room. This was a top job. Visitors would leave just enough tea or coffee in the cup to cover a few bob which was duly extracted by Sid and passed on later minus a small commission! Sid was from a highly respected East End family.

We decided to form a ‘record club’. The association room had an old stereogram donated by one of the screws. We signed up about a dozen members for the club and ‘collected’ a small percentage of their meagre weekly wage to purchase records. The fact was that we were collecting next to nothing but donating a wedge of our takings from the laundry and visitor room scams . In this way we managed to get a couple of decent Soul/Tamla records every week and the screws would even purchase them for us in their spare time!
A few of us had some LPs sent in and in no time at all we had a nice little collection built up including ‘Riding High’by the Impressions, ‘Four Tops On Top’ and some Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett that I had sent in.

Problem was we were not allowed to take them out on leaving. We would congregate in the association room every evening whilst the huddled masses would be in the TV room watching Top of The Pops or some other ‘cutting edge’ load of rubbish.

Biggest problem was Saturday night. The only way to do your bird without cracking up was to isolate yourself completely from the outside and take each day as it comes. This was easier said than done and there were many who could not handle it. Saturdays tended to be the worst. I knew the chaps on the out would be clubbing it up West or sinking a few pints down the East End.

A couple of the West Indian lads would manage to get some ‘weed’ in from time to time but this didn’t go far. One of the lads working on the farm brought back some really powerful glue one evening. He reckoned they used to repair punctures on the tractor tyres! There were a few faces that were as high as kites on the wing that evening!

Time passed quickly enough as the days were kept busy with work and evenings usually had a couple of classes worth attending. I put down for economics because the student teacher was a real stunner!

A couple of us used the gym on a couple of nights to do a bit of sparring. The screw in charge was a real boxing fan and it turned out he was once a member of the St.Pancras Club in Kings X which I had used frequently. This assured us of a few extra smokes and the odd magazine.

Escape was almost impossible. The cells were out of the question. Steel doors and barred windows. Then there were the steel doors at the end of the corridors and the same exiting the block. There was a small wall around the borstal and a couple of high fences topped with barbed wire. The only way was to go during work time. Two of the lads – Togie and Pete – managed to cut through the wire and make their escape only to be returned three days later battered and bleeding.

They went straight to the chokey block where they suffered more beatings over the next thirty days before being returned to the wings. I had some history of escaping but decided that it would be easier to serve my time in this instance.

The fact that we were mods gave us some form of identity and we could relate to others simply because they were of the same persuasion. There were countless heated arguments over whether the Flamingo was better than the Disc or the Scene and the merits of Brummie groups like Spencer Davis over Georgie Fame or Chris Farlowe.

I came out with the knowledge that there was more to life than London. There were countless other like minded souls spread throughout the country. I had developed a sense of camaraderie which had not existed before. Learned that the mind is set correctly then the spirit cannot be broken.

In this world there are two groups, the winners and the losers. I would always consider myself a winner. I might not have a pot to piss in but I would always ‘walk the walk and talk the talk’. Appearance is everything and knowing the right places to be seen and which clubs were playing the right sounds would dominate my life for many years. After all isn’t that what being a mod is all about!

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