Words: Stu Owen | Images: Kev Walsh archives
There are times when a series of events leads to an outcome that alters the course of your life; just your typical bank holiday weekend…
Eighteen odd months into the tenure of running Lambretta Club Great Britain and things were going way beyond the expectations anyone could have ever imagined. Widnes Saints were well into their probation period having taken LCGB out of its suspended state.
More than ever the group in control were determined to continue its success. Led by John Illing and Gordon Eves, membership stood at almost 400 and with the Mod revival in full swing was only set to increase.
The August bank holiday would see the traditional gathering of members at the club’s main rally of the year at Southend. Mike Karslake had run the event in 1977 and ’78, which was seen by most as keeping an institution alive.
They had been a rather more sedate affair with boiling pans of water for cups of tea and fruit cake handed out as refreshments. Even so, there was a custom show of sorts with trophies handed out by the Lord Mayor to give it a more prestigious feel.
Times were changing and Mike had now handed control of the rally to LCGB who needed to cater for a much more vibrant and youthful membership. This was seen as the next step forward for the club and all those on the committee were prepared to put their shift in to make it all happen.
Kev Walsh, though not the instigator of the club reforming, that being down to John and Gordon, was happy to play his part. Like the rest of them, he was excited about the weekend’s events. Not only a break from the stresses of work but the chance to let his hair down enjoying his favourite pastime, that of scootering. Kev was no shirker though and knew it would mean a lot of work and organisation.
Aside from that, there would be time over the three days to enjoy one’s self which had even greater appeal. With the cost of entering the rally £1.50 to club members and only £2 to non
members, it was competitively priced. The idea was simply to attract as many scooterists as possible and those that weren’t members of the club could sign up and join.
With very little in the way of magazines or any other outlet for that matter to promote the club, the rallies seemed the ideal place to recruit new blood. Even though there was a scooter boom happening it was still difficult to judge just how many might actually turn up.
With the facilities in place and plenty of room for camping, there shouldn’t be any need to turn anyone away. As the gates opened it quickly became apparent that the attendance was going to be way bigger than anyone expected. After all, it was the final bank holiday of the year and the chance to go on the piss at a seaside resort was all too tempting for many.
Just because it was a rally run by the LCGB didn’t mean you had to be a member to attend, so you didn’t need to own a Lambretta either. Many of those turning up were on Vespas as in most people’s minds it was a scooter rally and to them, it didn’t matter who the organisers were. Most attending, certainly the bigger clubs, knew each other anyway so it didn’t matter to them what scooter they owned.
There would be no conflict and if there was any rivalry connected to whether you pledged allegiance to the Lambretta or Vespa it would only be in a light-hearted way. Even so, a rumour soon began to spread that many were turning up to take on a large gang of Teddy boys that were set to invade the town the same weekend.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Quadrophenia was beginning to influence people. Not just the music, fashion, or scooters but the bitter resentment between Mods and rockers and how it was portrayed in the film. Things were starting to worry the committee members and John and Kev could feel the tension in the air, discussing it at regular intervals throughout the day.
While everything was calm all they could do was carry on but at the same time be very vigilant. By Saturday well over a thousand scooterists were in attendance so given that there were only around 400 in the club it had been a great success on that front. At the same time, the rumoured stand-off between the rival factions had also failed to materialise so just possibly all would be okay.
By early evening the band was in full swing and those wishing to watch soon began to fill up the marquee. Those inside had already consumed a large quantity of alcohol and showed no signs of slowing down. While everything was just about under control it wouldn’t take much for it to turn as the tension began to rise even further.
What happened next took everyone by surprise – not so much what it started but why it happened in the first place. Chatting away to Kev and other committee members Nigel Ashbrook, who was also part of the organising group, had his back to the marquee wall.
In an instant daylight appeared behind him as the canvas was ripped open directly where he was standing. A roadie belonging to the band that they had hired took it upon himself to slash it wide open with a large knife and in doing so narrowly missed Nigel. Kev and several others who were already on a high state of alert and had adrenalin pumping through their veins took it upon themselves to quell the attack. Within seconds of the incident starting several of them had jumped the roadie who was now inside the marquee with them.
By this time the place was packed and the ensuing scuffle ignited the spark everyone working that weekend feared. Almost immediately fighting broke out all around. Soon the incident that started it all paled into insignificance and the trouble predicted quickly spread. The real annoying thing was up till that point everything was under control.
The catalyst, a crazed roadie who had nothing to do with the rally apart from helping set up the band had started it all off. It didn’t take long for the police to be informed and with reports of a full-scale riot happening they took drastic measures. These were the times where crowd control at football matches took a hard line approach so why should a riot at a seaside resort be considered any different?
Soon enough several police cars turned up, abruptly followed by the Special Patrol Group more commonly known as the SPG. Their hard-line attitude and heavy physical presence made it clear that they would go in heavy and ask questions later. Rather than take control of what was happening, all they did was to aggravate the already tense situation even further.
The chief superintendent had by this time turned up to see what was going on. Moments after getting out of his car certain persons from a well know North West scooter club proceeded to remove the police radio. If that wasn’t enough, the car was soon turned on its roof and smashed up.
It may have only started out with reports of a full-scale riot but now it was one and it took a while to get it under control. A lot of this was done by Kev, who rather than join in with his fists began instead to calm the situation and all those present down. His authoritative influence hadn’t gone unnoticed not just by the committee members but also the police. In later years it would help him build up a good working relationship with several constabularies pivotal in getting scooter rallies organised.
For now, the club needed to pick up the pieces and sort the current mess they found themselves in. Trying to keep a lid on things wasn’t easy and quickly became more difficult as the leading newspapers picked up on the incident. With many arrests and damage to government property by the way of the police car, it was big news. So big in fact it was rumoured that it would be front page news.
Though the club needed media exposure to promote themselves they weren’t expecting to be on the front of the major tabloid papers of the time. In the end, they were spared the accolade due to the barbaric murder of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA. That happened on the bank holiday Monday and it filled the front page of every newspaper in the country.
Even so, there were plenty of reports of the Southend riot on the inside pages to Members of the Scunthorpe contingent leaving for home after the weekend’s events looking rather pensive. The small metal plaque for the rally that year paints an idyllic picture but it wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Mike Karslake who stepped in to guide the committee as they began to lose faith after what had happened. damage the club’s reputation. The aftermath of what happened was too much for some if not all of the committee to take in. No longer would there be a rally held in Southend that was for certain.
The problem was further compounded by the fact that police forces and councils in other counties would not welcome them either. After all, who would want to invite a rioting mob of youths into their town? Even if there was an assurance there would be no trouble, could they be trusted?
For John Illing and Nigel Eves it was a bitter blow and they quickly began to lose heart. It had a big effect on John; he was in charge and soon got behind with the running of club affairs most notably membership renewals. Things couldn’t continue this way for much longer as the club was now suffering. They had come such a long way in such a short space of time it seemed a shame to throw it all away because of an incident that wasn’t their doing. John realised this and so turned to the rest of the committee for their opinions.
It was alright to suggest that someone needed to take charge but who would that be? John didn’t really want to let go; after all, it was he who had the vision to resurrect the club in the first place. In stepped Mike Karslake to sort the matter. Though not actually a committee member he was seen by everyone involved as a father figure and the one everyone looked to for guidance.
His view was simple – they needed someone who could not only run and organise the club but someone who could have a calming influence and cool head in awkward situations. During the riot at Southend Kev had shown all those attributes and was the perfect candidate for the job.
Mike in the end persuaded John to step down and take a lesser role, relieving the pressure on him. The 1979 LCGB annual general meeting would take place at the Lakeside Pavilion in Nottingham and it was there that Kevin Walsh would be voted in as the club’s new general secretary. He duly accepted the honour and from now on would steer the club in a different direction.
He had a vision of how he saw it could grow in the future and what it could achieve. He realised it had huge potential and he was the one who could unleash it. Little did he know it would change his life forever.
Next episode: The Tudor museum of lost treasures.
Enjoy more Scootering reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.