What Was There For Kids To Actually Do In 1960s London?

By Kevin Mills Last edited 96 months ago

Last Updated 25 May 2016

What Was There For Kids To Actually Do In 1960s London?

A weekly look at Len Deighton’s London Dossier, a guide to 'modern' London published during the height of the allegedly swinging 60s.

Was this one of the few actual fun things for kids to do in the 60s? Photo by Stuart Spicer in the Londonist Flickr pool

They may well be 'children' to the elegantly named Drusilla Beyfus but in his introduction to chapter 8 a defiant Len Deighton calls them 'kids'. You can imagine an almighty editorial battle raging over the use of what was then considered a crude Americanism. But Len won out, although he might have spoiled the moment of victory by clenching his fist and shouting "Yes! Who's the father?"

Len seems to have had a better idea than Drusilla of what kids would actually enjoy during a trip to London. His first suggestion is to go see the torture instruments in the Tower, then head for one of the 'Adventure Playgrounds' (the quote marks indicating the novelty of the concept) that were springing up everywhere. "They look like battlegrounds but they're well supervised".

Alternatively, you could hire a fancy dress costume from Berman's or Nathan's. Yup, they were separate companies back then. Or how about this: "Call Mr Tomasso on PAL 1498 and he’ll hire you out a genuine London barrel organ for the day." How cool would that be?

No mention of whether you get the monkey too. But no matter, because in a bizarre digression Len assures us that there are "no restrictions on the importation of amphibia, frogs, freshwater fish, mice, reptiles or monkeys". Just as well. To an excitable 10 year old, no day out in London is complete without the importation of a perch, spectacled caiman or natterjack toad.

Nothing like a bit of military pomp to excite a young lad. Photo by Antonio Picascia in the Londonist Flickr pool

Battersea Fun Fair was still very popular in the mid-60s, but Len warns against going along expecting a sophisticated Tivoli Gardens-type experience. "This place is brash, vulgar and strictly commercial." The way a fun fair is supposed to be, then. Len's other recommendations include railway stations (this was when trains were big, loud and smoky and didn't all look the same), London Airport (as it then was) and London's museums. "Some kids enjoy museums," says Len, pragmatically.

What about a day out in London with the kids but without the kids, so to speak? Well, you could go to the pub. "Leave the youngsters outside the door with a lemonade and a bag of potato crisps". And then comes this: "The London education authorities have many places which will look after children without charge."

Come again?

"There are 139 play centres (for little ones) and 66 Junior Clubs (for 11-15 year-olds)...There is no charge."

There was a catch, surely?

"Meals will be provided for 1s." (about 65p today).

Surely the places were Dickensian hell-holes where the kids would have been bullied and abused and made to clean smog?

"All the centres are under trained supervision and there is instruction in drama, painting and games."

They were just for locals, right?

"Visitors may use these centres for their children."

Ah, but there must have b…een some kind of ludicrous fee.

"There is no charge."

You read and re-read this brief insight into the progressive and socially inclusive London of 1967 and feel a twinge of regret at what we once had and have now lost. Then you start on Drusilla's chapter itself and you think, if you're going to be a kid in London, you're far better off being one in 2016.

Drusilla Beyfus recommends that girls check out dolls houses, while boys occupy themselves with coal mining. Photo by Suzanne Gerber in the Londonist Flickr pool

Who was Drusilla Beyfus anyway? She was and still is an expert on royal stuff, etiquette and fashion. Not the All Saints end of the fashion market, one suspects. In her biographical notes she says she enjoys cooking, walking and, mysteriously, "reflecting on the general problem of being a woman today".

In London, she says, "there is an extraordinary variety of things for young people of all ages to see and do." For instance? "Few children would dream of missing the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace." What about the few who would? "A trip to Chelsea Barracks provides a more up-to-date concept of Britain's military equipment." Hmm. Was this really the best that swinging 60s London could offer the young dudes of the time? Pretty much, yes. Apart from Len's adventure playgrounds, most of the attractions that Drusilla highlights were the ones that, these days, most kids would only visit as part of some loathsome school trip.

The appeal of this chapter lies in Drusilla's very correct prose style and in her unshakable belief that a day out should be both educational and an opportunity to inculcate children with the glories of Royalty and Empire.

"It is well worth while making the necessary arrangements to visit the Royal Mews to see the gilded state carriages."

"A visit to the Crown Jewels is imperative." Got that? Imperative.

"The major London museums are particularly in tune with the instinctive tastes and interests of young visitors." In the Science Museum, "look out for the coal-mining equipment… children need never again be muddled about the derivatives of coal tar." What? You mean there were kids back then who didn't know that sort of thing? Sheesh. The V&A also gets a thumbs up from Drusilla, or rather a stately inclination of her noble head, before she provides us with a clue as to why, perhaps, she considers being a woman to be such a problem.

"For girls", she writes, "I wouldn't omit a trip to the Bethnal Green Museum. This collection is noted for antique dolls' houses." Yeah, you go look at your dolls' houses, girls, while us boys get down with the coal tar derivatives!

A visit to London Zoo was a sure-fire hit. Photo by Mac Spud in the Londonist Flickr pool

Presumably both sexes would enjoy Regent's Park Zoo and the Chimps' Tea Party. However, "Zoo diet schedules should be checked up on in advance. For example, the lions, tigers and eagles do not get a bite to eat on a Wednesday." Some religious thing, presumably.

What else? "A matinee followed by a sticky tea is a combination of pleasures at which London excels." Family favourites such as Oliver Twist, Peter Pan, Toad and Treasure Island were all being staged around then, but Drusilla has other ideas. "Make a bee-line for any Shakespearian play or see Royal Ballet productions at the Royal Opera House". That sticky tea better be good. But be warned if you are with what Drusilla calls "bib-stage children".

"A number of restaurants have not cottoned on to the fact that babies and toddlers accompany their parents everywhere these days." Shameful. Such a change from these days.

She goes on to recommend healthy sporting activities in her inimitable style. "Ice-skating goes on at Queen's Ice-Skating Club, Bayswater." "Riding can be had in the Rotton Row". Then, finally, she acknowledges the existence of Battersea Fun Fair. "It’s crowded, noisy, colourful and brash", she warns, before conceding — one senses it took some effort — that a visit to the fair is "often the first choice of London children when asked what they would best like to do with Saturday afternoon."

Next time, Adrian Flowers focuses on Photography.

Other instalments

Chapter 1: Teenagers
Chapter 2: Food
Chapter 3: Drink
Chapter 4: River
Chapter 5: Music
Chapter 6: Self Indulgence
Chapter 7: Mood