Elizabeth: A mod in 1960s Chelmsford
PUBLISHED: 12:10 24 November 2016 | UPDATED: 12:10 24 November 2016
David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, The Who... They were all on the bill in Chelmsford
Someone should make a film about Elizabeth Woodcraft – a working-class girl who becomes a barrister and stands up for Greenham Common protesters, anti-apartheid campaigners and striking miners. Before that, she was a mod in 1960s Essex...
David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Animals, Wilson Pickett, Georgie Fame, The Yardbirds, Zoot Money, Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim and more. It seems hardly credible, looking back, all those names on the posters and bound for Chelmsford Corn Exchange.
Many of them provided the soundtrack to Elizabeth Woodcraft’s teenage years as she and pal Christine regularly slipped away from their housing estate for the Saturday night magic of Market Road. Did their families always know they were off to concerts? Maybe. Maybe not.
Elizabeth – Liz – saw a lot of these shows in the 1960s, but today gives herself a gentle chiding for not noting down more about the bands and singers like Bowie.
“It’s in my diary, but is there anything about what he was like? Nothing! I was interested more in whether Dooberry Doo from down the road would turn up!”
There were other, Cinderella-esque, concerns.
“I had to catch the 11 o’clock bus back. I think I stunted Christine’s life because she could probably have stayed out later! We always had to catch the 311 last bus up Broomfield Road. We’d get off at the bottom of Skerry Rise and walk up into our estate. “The joke is that Wilson Pickett came – turned up late, actually. He’s singing ‘wait ’till the midnight hour’... and we couldn’t, unfortunately! I think we heard him sing one song and then we had to run.”
The Corn Exchange nights drew punters not just from towns such as Colchester and Witham but parts of London. Evenings began with records being played, before the bands came on.
“I’ve only got to hear the first notes – Green Onions (Booker T. & the M.G.s) is the big one – the Harlem Shuffle, Road Runner, Going to a Go-Go, and I’m straight back there, walking through that big, big dusty hall; looking around, eyeing up people and seeing what clothes they’re wearing. They were just great, great nights.”
The Corn Exchange was knocked down in 1969 to make way for High Chelmer shopping precinct...
There’s another Chelmsford landmark in Liz’s life. The Georgian Shire Hall used to hear court cases, before that work was siphoned off to newer buildings. As a teenager, Liz sometimes went to offer moral support to friends accused of misdemeanours. Her father sat as a magistrate...
“He knew that (some of) the boys I was knocking about with would appear in front of him, and he didn’t seem to mind,” she says.
“They (her parents) must have known I wasn’t over at Christine’s, and I went to the Corn Exchange and was riding round on scooters.
“My dad had supreme confidence in all of us” – Liz, her sister and brother – “and felt, I suppose, because we were his children, that we were going to be all right. We were going to go to college. We were not going to get in trouble of any sort. And, in a sense, if somebody thinks that about you, you have a kind of responsibility to justify it.”
Years later, Liz appeared at the Shire Hall herself – as a barrister.
“My second-ever crown court trial was there. My auntie and uncle came and watched. So embarrassing. I was hopeless. We won – but probably because the jury felt the defendant had such a hopeless person (representing them)!
These seem to be the foundations of Liz’s life: friendship (she’s still pals with Christine), music, and an upbringing that gave her a passion to fight injustice.
Music and friendship power her two books about the 1960s. The first was A Sense of Occasion: short stories about the lives of mod girls on a working class estate in Chelmsford. The new one is Beyond the Beehive: highlighting the lives and loves of three girls on... a council estate in Chelmsford. It’s a story of female friendship and the search for love and adventure at a time of social change.
“It’s a book I’ve wanted to write for most of my life, because it seems the world has not paid much attention to the lives of mod, working class girls, and I wanted to redress the balance.”
The story has the boys zooming off to Clacton on their Vespas and Lambrettas, while best friends Linda and Sandra order frothy drinks in the Orpheus coffee bar and talk about Sylvie the unmarried mother.
And: will Danny, Sandra’s intended, get out of jail?
Liz has been writing since she was a girl. She remembers starting a story at the age of 10 about a girl who didn’t go to boarding school. “Somehow, apart from the Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton, there weren’t that many books about children who went to day school. All those boarding school kids had to have their adventures in the long hot summer holidays, whereas in my world we were having adventures on weekdays and weekends.
“I say adventures – I mean writing ‘the local newspaper’, cooking ourselves little restaurant meals, putting on plays for the other kids in the street, and following someone on the estate we were convinced was a spy.”
Those affluent kids had posh names, too. Mind you, young Liz liked a boy in The Famous Five. “I was in love with Julian... in a pure way, an intellectual way – because I knew Julian did not exist. But he was straight and true!”
Writing hit a proper stride after she entered the law and created a fast-talking barrister called Frankie Richmond. Capable but with a rollercoaster life, she’s appeared in two, going on three, books. The first, Good Bad Woman, was shortlisted for a national award.
Liz’s mum sounds a card. She died only in January, aged 91. Peggy worked at Cromptons in Chelmsford and it was there she set eyes on Alf Woodcraft, 12 years older and the local rep for the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU).
They got married in 1947 and moved to a crescent off North Avenue in Chelmsford. Daughters Teresa and Liz were born there, before the family moved to the Woodhall Estate when Liz was about 18 months. They added son Edward.
Alf became district secretary of the AEU. His wife later got a job as a clerk in Chelmsford prison and then County Hall. In the 1970s she became a social work assistant in Braintree.
Peggy was religious – a Congregationalist; “almost as simple and austere as you can get in a religion”, says Liz – and taught at Sunday School, “so the space under our stairs was always filled with pieces of paper and crayons and glue and the cardboard centres of toilet rolls”.
A committed member of the Labour Party, Peggy was also a feminist, “and caused some consternation in North Avenue church when she would change patriarchal words in hymns and prayers to include women”.
How so? “When she sang those words, you would hear them. ‘She this’, ha ha ha. ‘Her that.’ But people don’t like it!”
Peggy was a member of Chelmsford CND, too. In 1958 she went on the first Aldermaston march. (Aldermaston was home to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.) “She wouldn’t let us go on the marches until we were 12 for fear people would think we were being indoctrinated.”
Later, her mum became a member of Braintree Women’s Aid. She visited Greenham Common peace camp, “where she had her first cup of herb tea, sitting round a camp fire”.
And Alf, who was well known locally and always wore a hat? “He was great. A very nice man, and funny. Used to tell jokes. He was an all-round laissez-faire man.”
He was, though, poorly paid – quite often earning less than the men he represented. “I was very conscious that we were very poor,” Liz admits.
“We had a hole in our carpet in the middle of the living room and I was so embarrassed.”
And mods? It was Christine’s sister who first became part of the scene – later selling clothes on to Christine and Liz... by which time they were much less fashionable!
What attracted Liz was being part of a movement. “The magazines are starting to show pictures, Ready Steady Go! came on television – and they were so cool – and then we had the music. You wanted to be a part of a group who owned that music.
“And then the clothes... the shapes were nice; they were fitted; they were slim. I have never ironed so much in my life as during that period when I was a mod, because you had to iron everything, even if it didn’t need it.
“I didn’t iron my hair to get it straight. My sister did. I never iron anything now... but hey. There’s only a certain amount you can do in one life, and I did mine between the ages of about 12 and 15!”
Liz was just 13 when she began going to the Orpheus, a basement coffee bar under two shops in London Road and centre of the mod universe in Chelmsford.
She’d passed the eleven-plus and gone to Chelmsford County High School for Girls, a grammar school.
During those teenage years she’d walk home from school, have tea, tell her mother she was going to Christine’s – “she’d tell her mum she was coming over to mine” – and they’d catch the bus into town Liz was 15 or so when she got a Saturday and school-holiday job at Wainwright’s milk bar, in Tindal Street – “making cups of tea and Horlicks” and always hoping The Beatles would play in Chelmsford and drop by. They never did...
She was 14 or 15 when she began going to the Corn Exchange of a Saturday night.
“It lasted until I was about 16 and then started to fade away. The hippies were coming in.”
In 1966 she left school and did A-levels at the technical college in Colchester before reading philosophy at university in Birmingham. Liz taught English in Leicestershire, and lived in France for a year. Back in England, she worked for the National Women’s Aid Federation as national co-ordinator.
That included helping MP Jo Richardson with a private member’s Bill that became law as the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976. It gave the police powers of arrest for breaches of injunctions in cases of domestic violence.
When her contract was up, in 1977, Liz decided to read for the bar. She qualified as a barrister in 1980. “It was a fabulous time to be a barrister who wanted to do radical work. I represented the Greenham Common women (protesting against the siting of US cruise missiles in Berkshire), miners during the miners’ strike, anti-apartheid people – there was a 24-hour demonstration outside the South African embassy.”
There were other battles: on behalf of battered women, children who suffered sex abuse, and gay parents seeking parental rights.
Life has improved greatly, since then, for many people, but Liz is worried “lots of things are going a little bit backwards now”. Such as? “I think young women have a difficult time, now, with expectations of what they should look like, what they should be, what they should do.”
We still don’t have enough female judges, or women in the top echelons of companies. The treatment of black people in America is sometimes terrifying, she says, and poverty here appears to be on the rise.
What to do? “We need a revolution,” she half-laughs. “We need John Lennon back, to write another song...”
Perhaps that’s why we enjoy reading about the kind of optimistic times that inspired Beyond the Beehive.
“I hope I’ve captured some of the essence of the excitement of Saturday nights, walking into a dance hall in time to the rhythm of Green Onions or the smell of Wishing perfume by Avon, or seeing people you knew wearing parkas and leather coats, swooping along the road to park outside the mods’ coffee bar.
“It was a great time.
• Beyond the Beehive is published through Ladder Press and should cost about £8.99