In the 1950s and early 60s, North Pole Road and surrounding area was a café-free zone. Teenagers could buy a bottle of pop from Kent’s and drink it hanging around a shop doorway, or venture into the North Pole pub or the Pavilion, feeling uncomfortably youthful amongst the regulars. But for a taste of sophistication or simply to spend a relaxed evening drinking coffee or tea, teenagers had to go as far as Scrubs Lane or beyond.
Location of the cafes in 1959 (Author). Not to scale
Harry’s was a large green shed with a paved floor on a cinder patch on Wormwood Scrubs near to the North Pole Road junction. The patch was used as a parking area for cars and trucks. It was close to the football pitches used by the Saturday League teams and their spectators. There were rudimentary changing rooms and cold taps in a building beside the cafe.
The Scrubs had a long association with football: Queens Park Rangers used the Gun Club area for home games in the 1890s and it’s likely that for some time after QPR moved on, players and supporters from other teams would gather at the North Pole Dining Rooms at 22 North Pole Road. A 1911 photograph of the Dining Rooms shows a large sign across the window: ‘Good Convenience for Footballers.’
Harry’s was the obvious successor to the North Pole Dining Rooms, cavernous enough for cycle speedway riders and spectators as well as the football crowd. It was open seven days a week, daytime only, and on weekdays, when the sporting crowds were absent, it was popular with truck drivers who had space to park on the cinder patch.
Inside there was the constant chatter of groups of men sitting around tables, shouting to newly-arriving mates to join them, the clatter of football boots and the clacks and dings of the pinball machine.
Harry’s was a self-service caff. You collected your large white mug of dark brown tea, moved along the counter to help yourself to milk and sugar and paid at the till at the end of the counter. You could have a cooked breakfast and/or a pie. There were sandwiches and cakes, too. I loved the squashy moist bread pudding and the cheesecake. Harry’s version of cheesecake was a pastry case, topped with a layer of jam and an iced frangipane filling finished with shredded coconut on top. So, no, there was no cheese in this cheesecake, but then in the 50s, how many of Harry’s customers would have seen what we now know as cheesecake? Remembering this speciality recently, I began to wonder if memory played me false. But a quick Google search reassured me: the cheese-less cheesecake still exists, now known as London Cheesecake. (Sadly, it is not available in Lancashire)
Outside Harry’s was a grass covered hill on the otherwise perfectly flat Scrubs. It had deep tracks worn into the surface by cyclists who got a thrill from racing down the steep sides. Its history was a mystery to us, but we heard rumours that inside the hill was an abandoned air raid shelter.
The cinder area around the café was used as a truck park for drivers calling in for their breakfast fry-ups or mugs of tea. Some nights the whole area was bathed in lights so bright it could have been daytime, illuminating trucks and hordes of people milling around, to the background noise of thrumming generators. This was when films and TV crews were filming night-time scenes on the Scrubs, popular shows such as Z cars, for example. I remember seeing the white Ford Zephyrs and the actors from the Z cars parked there on several evenings.
At the end of the 1950s a taste of West End sophistication arrived in the area. Rosa’s Café opened in Caverswall Street close to the Pavilion pub at the junction with North Pole Road. To the teenagers of the area the steaming chrome plated coffee machine hissing and burbling on the counter was exotic but welcoming.
A small corner café, it was run Rosa and her Italian family. Rosa was short, dark haired and motherly. She ran the place with a firm hand – no swearing, no sitting too close to girls – calling out in strongly-accented English to anyone breaking the rules. She knew us all by name, knew how we liked our coffee, and knew who was most likely to need shouting at. We made one glass cup of frothy coffee (price 9d) last as long as we could. We listened to the juke box – a three-penny bit for each play or one shilling for five plays, mostly hit parade pop: Cliff Richard, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Marty Wilde etc. The juke box played 45rpm discs with the centre pushed out. We could buy old records cheap and buy a plastic disc to fill the centre so that they could be played on a Dansette record player at home.
Rosa’s was a good meeting place for boys and girls. We could chat and flirt until Rosa decided that we had outstayed our welcome and demanding that we bought more coffee, which was fair enough really. The café was always busy, cool in the summer evenings with the doors open, warm and steamy in the winter. We all knew each other and it was a happy, homely place to be on winter evenings, much nicer than huddling in Ellington’s door way in North Pole Road.
Along Scrubs Lane towards Shepherd’s Bush and up a short hill was the A40 Westway, in those days a relatively quiet road. Jack’s café was on Westway where it joined Scrubs Lane at the end of a short parade of shops. Jack’s was modern with large windows, a long counter and a large coffee and espresso machine. There was a juke box but if you wanted the Top Twenty hits, you’d be disappointed. The records at Jack’s were more edgy and less mainstream pop than Rosa’s – Ray Charles ‘What I’d Say’ or Bobby Darin ‘Mack the Knife’ for example. The cafe also had two pin tables, another drain on our pocket money. The café wasn’t as relaxing as Rosa’s partly due to the layout which wasn’t conducive to talking across tables and also, perhaps, because we never saw Jack himself – if he ever existed. Nevertheless, it was busy with lots of chatter and a good place to spend a couple of hours.
Jack’s was between North Kensington and White City which gave us an opportunity to mix with kids from the White City estate. There was no tension between groups of lads on neutral ground like Jack’s, but it would probably have been a different story if we’d chatted up one of ‘their’ girls. Life was a bit edgier in the White City estate itself – it was best not to walk through there at night as part of a group – but it didn’t usually result in anything rough. We did witness a punch-up between two groups of Teds, about 30 lads engaged in some serious aggro. We stayed well out of any trouble.
We usually went to Harry’s at weekends during the day and Rosa’s in the evenings. We went to Jack’s to listen to different music or to check out a different set of young ladies. We didn’t see adults at Rosa’s or Jack’s, both cafes were far too modern for Mums and Dads, with this strange stuff called espresso and loud modern music. They were good places to escape parental supervision and to exchange views on music and fashion, although sport didn’t seem to enter into our chat.
Lyon’s Corner House and the Kardomah chain were operating nearer to the West End, they were too far away and too formal. This was long before Starbucks, Costa and Café Nero made the coffee shop ubiquitous in all shopping streets. The local cafés were places we could walk to and feel comfortable. Harry’s gave us a laddish haven at the weekends, but Rosa’s and Jacks provided something a bit more sophisticated in the evenings.
The cafés were a vital part of growing up around North Pole Road, a far more pleasant atmosphere than the pubs, and probably cheaper. They were a good place for boys and girls to mix and to sit down, rather than standing up in the pub. Cafés like Rosa’s and Jack’s were local independent places and provided a stepping stone on the route towards adulthood, showing off our recently purchased Italian style suits ‘made to measure’ at Burton’s tailors (usually on tick). In these cafés we learned to mix and to chat and how to drink coffee without pulling a face at the new fangled taste, the taste of things to come.
Allan Seabridge, 2020
”This recent photo by Sue Snyder shows the site where Rosa’s café was located in the 50s and 60s. Michael Cavilla commented that he remembered the café being on the corner of Caverswall Street and Scrubs Lane – and he was right. It still brings back memories today, I can still see the brightly lit windows and the condensation on a cold winter’s evening, hear the juke box and smell the coffee.”
Allan Seabridge, 2021