Edinburgh Life Stories, part three: Teddy Boys in the Kirkgate and Tanker Belly the policeman

THE Capital of the past is brought vividly to life in the Living Memory Association’s Life Story podcast.
Leith KirkgateLeith Kirkgate
Leith Kirkgate

Recorded over the last 32 years, the collected memories paint a colourful and often intimate picture of growing up in a city that, while still recognisable, is also far removed from the Edinburgh we know today.

Maureen Sweeney was born in Leith in the late 1940s. In the podcast ‘Milk Bars, Cafes, Cinemas and Dancing...’ she tells Donna Mackie about the haunts of her youth in 50’s and 60’s Edinburgh. She starts her story in Forrest Road, in what is now the Doctors pub.

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“It used to just be a coffee bar. That whole corner was The Barbecue... Coca Cola was very much in vogue, in the bottles of course, and there was never Coca Cola Max and Zero and whatever. In Leith, we went to the cafes which tended to be run by the Italians.

“I stayed in the Kirkgate and went to Michael Rocchio’s, he ran it with his wife Mary. You could sit in there with an ice cream milkshake or whatever and Mary was very good at moving you on if you over-stayed your welcome. There was another cafe at Tollbooth Wynd, they had a jukebox, we used to have to scrape the money together to be able to put something on the jukebox.”

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“I was fascinated by their suits and the colours. When I think about it, to me they looked old but they must only have been guys of about 15. I thought they were so cool; their drainpipes and what they used to call brothel creepers, the DA haircut...”

Every Saturday Maureen was taken into town by her mum, until finally she was old enough to go out on her own.

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“My mum and I went to the milk bar on Rutland Place for an ice cream float, a glass of juice with a ball of ice cream on top. When I was old enough to go out on my own it was to The Pied Piper on South Charlotte Street or Bungy’s, down Fleshmarket Close. Again you would sit and nurse a Coca Cola all night. That was an older crowd, my mum wasn’t that keen on me going there. We were going to dancing at 15 but then we were working at 15.”

One of the best nights out was to be found by the sea.

“We used to go to Portobello Town Hall, which always ran dancing on a Saturday night,” Maureen recalled, adding that it was all live bands in those days - no discos. The Town Hall had some great groups. Demarco’s Cafe was on the opposite side of the road so we’d go there because there wasn’t any drinking at the dancing... and you could also get a saucer of hot peas and vinegar there for sixpence.”

Across town, two decades earlier, Mary McCaughie was growing up in Gorgie. In the podcast of the same name, recorded in 2008, her son John and grand-daughters Clare and Shona chatted to her as she remembered life in the 30s, from getting the belt at the age of six, to being chased by Tanker Belly the local Policeman. Oh, and the time she thought she’d met Frankenstein in the stairwell.

Born 1924 Mary attended Gorgie Primary and Tynecastle Secondary, and recalled, “I got the belt for talking to my pal at the wee school when I six.

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“There was this great big teacher, he was about six foot... I kept pulling my hand away. My hand was red with the prongs, it was a thick belt... It was soar. I never talked again.”

Every area had its characters back in the day and Gorgie was no different, everyone knew the local bobby.

“Tanker Belly was the policeman in our street and he knew everyone,” Mary remembered, “Our Tom was going along with a stick onto cars, and Tanker Belly chased him - he had a big fat belly and all the kids round about called him Tanker Belly, but he was nice though.”

If Tanker Belly gave Tom a fright, it was a night at the cinema that left Mary scared out of her skin one night. “I went to the pictures to see Frankenstein. When I come out, I was going up the stair - you go in the close and up the stair, and here, I put my foot down on something soft. What a fright I got. I run out that stair and shouted up. My mother got a light and went down and found the man from next door drunk, so she went up and told his grown-up daughters and they went down and lifted him up. I must have stood on him.”

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Listen to The Life Story Podcast free online - Maureen Sweeney: Milk bars, cafes, cinemas and dancing in Leith and Edinburgh. https://lifestory.libsyn.com/milk-bars-cafes-cinemas-and-dancing-in-leith-and-edinburgh and Mary McCaughie: Growing up in Gorgie in 1930s can be found at https://lifestory.libsyn.com/mary-mccaughie-growing-up-in-gorgie-in-1930s

TOMORROW: They brewed up tea and camped on Portobello Beach

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