Memories of Stoke-on-Trent people - Phil Johnson


Phil Johnson


  Early days
Until the age of six I lived in Mulgrave Street, Cobridge. Funny how exact locations and names escape me but certain sights, sounds and smells do not. I can still feel the intense heat on my legs whenever we walked past the large pottery factory at the crossroads between Waterloo Road and Hanley Road. (A large BMW dealership now stands on that site !) The hot air was being expelled from within the factory, how it would contrast sharply against the cold Winter’s chill. We, my brothers Pete and Dave and I, attended St. Peter’s R.C. Primary School on the main road. The only recollections I have of that place are being made to stand by the blackboard one day, for absconding from the premises one lunchtime, and being given the massive treat of watching a film on cine camera across the road in the Hall of the Catholic church.

Former Black Boy inn on Cobridge Road
photo: 2001

We had a little bit of a sporting association with the area. The pub, The Black Boy, had been kept by my Mum’s Uncle, (my grandma’s brother) Billy Briscoe, who had been a prolific footballer with Port Vale in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Burslem Cricket Club, just across the road by The Little Sisters of the Poor Mission, had been the team my Dad, Tom Johnson, played for along with other relatives. My Dad even represented Staffordshire there against a guest West Indies side which included Gary Sobers. I was only interested in running around the perimeter of the field – totally un-interested in the game itself – even on the day a fast bowler took most of my Dad’s teeth out with a particularly lethal delivery ! The smell of the beer and sandwiches in the clubhouse also fascinated me along with the mysterious and enigmatic stretch of derelict land just outside the cricket ground – known as ‘The Giant’s Bed’ – you’ll probably now recognise it as Festival Park, the busiest retail park in Staffordshire.


  Port Vale
We must have felt some sort of allegiance to Port Vale, my Dad had grown up near there and had been a triallist himself as a teenager. I pleaded with my two older brothers to take me and reluctantly, with Mum’s emotional blackmail, they agreed. They warned me I’d be “cold” and “bored” – “I don’t know why you’re coming – you won’t like it.” I protested that I wouldn’t feel any of these emotions but the moment they’d paid for me to enter the turnstile I cried about the temperature and suffered various forms of verbal abuse on the long walk back – we left before a ball had been kicked ! I can still see the men from Shelton Bar walking up and down Hanley Road and the railway line criss – crossing the main road. If only they’d kept it open or turn it into a light tram line similar to Manchester and other cities.


  School days
We eventually moved to Shelton, a one – bedroomed flat above my (deceased) Grandad’s barbers shop on College Road and later to a town house on Boughey Road. I suppose this is where our crucial character – forming experiences took place. We schooled at St. Thomas’s R.C. Primary in Stoke and attended Our Lady’s Church there on Sundays. At age 11 Pete and Dave moved to Archbishop McIntyre High in Birches Head whilst my parents had bigger ideas for me and so I was enrolled at St. Joseph’s, Trent Vale which was a selective boys’ grammar school at the time. I was now mixing with doctors’ and lawyers’ kids (as opposed to the Shelton gang who I was probably more comfortable around) and I don’t have that many particularly great memories from my time with the Christian Brothers to carry with me into adulthood. Most of us at the school achieved pretty good exam scores although the lack of female distraction possibly explains our semi – ability and willingness to actually study. I wasn’t athletic enough or hard enough to be a prominent rugby player and football was (sort of) frowned upon by the staff as an activity favoured by lesser mortals. Perhaps if I’d made it into the sports teams I might have felt a little more part of the family ?


My home surroundings provided me with the sense of adventure all children and teenagers – particularly boys - feel the need for. Shelton, to us, always seemed infinitely more interesting than anywhere else. We had the main line railway station for a start which meant that all manner of transient tourist and visitor would pass through. Then there was the Art College and Engineering College and Science block, later amalgamated into the Polytechnic and now the University, not to mention Cauldon College, now known as Stoke-on-Trent College. This too brought a cosmopolitan mix into the area and being so close to Hanley and Stoke (Stoke seemed almost as significant in those days) as well as our beloved Victoria Ground, home of Stoke City F.C., helped us feel we had the whole World on a plate. Hanley Park was our own wonderland, hiding places, opportunities to play sport, the challenge of trying to seem more “with it” than other gangs when they invaded our territory in the Summer. We’d visit other places, perhaps representing Shelton Youth Club at football, and they all seemed so, well, ‘same – ish’. Nothing about their skylines or architecture or environment or indeed people stood out in the same way that Shelton did.

A view of the bandstand and pavilion at Hanley park from the 
bridge over the Cauldon Canal.
on Hanley Park


  Music & Fashion
My perception of the music and fashion scene of the 70’s is a conglomerate of many different facets and strands that are difficult to compartmentalise in the same way that the teenage scene in the 80’s became known as ‘youth (yoof?) culture’ and in the 90’s as ‘rave culture’ and in the new millennium as ‘street culture’. As apprentice trendsetters in the late 60’s we would stand on College Road or Station Road and watch the gangs of football fans descend on Stoke pre-match whether they were home fans walking through Shelton on their way from Hanley or away fans arriving by train. We would study the hair cuts, (crops?) the Ben Sherman shirts, the Levi Sta-press trousers, the Harrington jackets, the crombie coats, the braces, the Wrangler jackets, the Oxford brogues or loafers or Doc Martens (monkey boots if you were from a poor family) and in typical Little Britain style announce “want that one…..want one of those.”

 Funny how gang leaders from the ‘Hanley Mafia’ or ‘Shelbooth’ or ‘Smallthorne Clampets’ or ‘Trent Vale Skins’ seemed so dynamic and charismatic then. They were all a good few years older than us but still, there was always the menace of Robert de Niro in ‘Cape Fear’ about them !

I suppose everyone has to grow up some day and there comes a time in any section of the animal kingdom when the elders are no longer as threatening as they once were, handing down the baton to the next generation. By the time the 70’s arrived and we were into our teens, fashion just seemed to explode overnight into a variety of loosely – connected threads partly due to the likes of ever – changing David Bowie and the hippified version of the Beatles appearing to suggest that “Last year we tried that fad but this year we’re going for a new one”. In an extremely short space of time – just a few years – you had the remnants of the mod and rocker, skinhead and hell’s angel era, the flared trousers and round collared shoulder length hair look, the ‘glam’ rockers, soul boys at all nighters, fribbos with their prog. rock and finally all anarchy letting loose with the punk scene which, controversially, also dabbled in the reggae scene. All of this choice, all these styles, and we tried virtually all of them ! (No typecasting us!)


  Dancehalls There was the inevitable release of adolescent aggression somewhere along the line but, thankfully, without all the nonsense of knives and guns as today, merely a bit of a slap or a boot up the backside if you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or had been spotted knocking about with someone who was on another gang’s “to do” list. The King’s Hall (Kingspin) on a Saturday night was a particularly renowned haunt for ‘bovver’ or ‘aggro’ particularly when D.J. Stevie Driscoll selected The Glitter Band’s ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ or Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’. I’ve often wondered if he did it deliberately ? It gave the bouncers an excuse to kick out half – a – dozen undesirables as we all squared up to one another ! D.J. Chris Williams at the Top Rank in Hanley didn’t seem to be so bloodthirsty and stuck to his soul and Motown to keep the females happily dancing away.

 Later the Top Rank became Bailey’s nightclub which was a slightly younger hangout than Jollees in Longton but with a similar entertainment policy, i.e. live music with some current hit – parade act with a dance floor and food available just before and after the main act. What is now Stanley’s casino in Hanley was a giant – sized nightclub called The Heavy Steam Machine which sadly never quite matched its flamboyant and slightly psychedelic name ! The Penny Farthing was adjacent to Hanley Bus Station. The Place in Hanley will always be remembered as one of the first authentic ‘discotheques’ in the whole country – not just the Potteries – and there are countless couples in the area who first met here. The Place was such a moneyspinner at one time they could even afford to open up a sister club in Newcastle, the Placemate – later Sammi Belles and then Maxim’s. Newcastle also had Tiffany’s, Burslem had the Adulte, the 007, Strike’s. Longton had El Pussy, Tunstall had the Golden Torch – known by thousands and thousands of Northern Soul fanatics as simply ‘The Torch’ – surely being the justification for Stoke being known amongst soul music lovers as ‘Soul-on-Trent.’ Yes, the music and fashion – loving fraternity of the Potteries sure had plenty of nightlife to keep them entertained in the 70’s. I know its often seen as a bit of a ‘naff’ decade, the one ‘taste’ avoided and all that, but I think most of today’s celebrities (just think of Ozzy Osbourne who I saw perform at Trentham Gardens then) owe a lot to that period in their lives, I know I do.


Would be interested in seeing if anyone has particular fond memories of the fashion and music scene from yesteryear – obviously I’ve only lightly touched on it here !! Thanks very much for reading.



Phil Johnson