Sex, drink and punch-ups… Chatham through the ages

Let us, dear readers, take a walk on the wild side … a trip through the seamier side of Medway’s history. We are talking about low dives, iniquitous inns, tawdry taverns and pubs that your mother warned you about.

Before readers suggest I am being insulting and unfair, please note: the Brook in Chatham — around which the Medway towns’ vice trade centred — was in many ways a fine place to grow up. Some of the houses were large, if humble, and many correspondents attest that their parents and grandparents said life was tough but respectable.

Let us face facts, however: the Brook and the High Street were filled also with slums and brothels. A book, The Chatham Scandal, has been written about it.

Chatham in the 1860s to 1880s was a riotous and unlawful place that was policed only sporadically. Soldiers, sailors, whores, drink and crime: a lethal cocktail throughout time.

Eventually Chatham’s bad reputation led to the introduction of the Contagious Disease Acts, which amounted to government supervision of prostitution in garrison towns. The idea was to lock away the women to protect the servicemen from disease. That, you will have gathered, didn’t work.

Many of the women hawked their trade in pubs, so police retaliated by trying to have pub licences revoked. In 1864 Superintendent Radley of the city police tried to shut down seven pubs: the Lord Nelson in Chatham High Street, the Bear and Staff in Chatham Intra (the place where Rochester and Chatham merge); the Five Bells on St Margaret’s Banks; the Flushing in Horsewash Lane and the Homeward Bound near Gas House Lane (both towards Rochester Bridge); the Duke of Gloucester in Strood and the Maidstone Arms in Crow Lane, Rochester.

That didn’t work, either. Magistrates refused his plea. So the vice continued — and it stayed until sailors left with the dockyard. (It still exists — as anyone who has spotted the whey-faced Eastern European girls gathered on one main thoroughfare will bear witness.)

In the 1960s and early 1970s the towns were still thriving as was the oldest profession. So — scandalously then, in those less enlightened days — was the gay scene.

A memories correspondent, whom we shall call Luton Jack, writes: “The two well-known gay pubs were the Ship and the Fountain. From time to time there’s been other more, shall we say, specialist locations. For example the City Arms in Victoria Street, Rochester, was famous for its drag nights and associated queens. By recollection, not by use, I recall The Rose and Crown in Chatham High Street opposite Gray’s was a gay pub in its last days. I’m almost certain that there was a similar bar in Luton but can’t remember the name.”

Interesting, Jack: the Rose and Crown was a Chatham News lunchtime pub and I never knew that. This must have been after the Grant-Smart family ran it. The Ship was always well-known — now, in these more enlightened times, it is listed in a gay pub directory.

A greengrocer queening it in the red light district

As to the City Arms — thereby hangs a tale. A lovely old chap who was a greengrocer near where I lived had a double life. Fruit and veg in the daytime, drag in the evening. I remember how I found out. But that’s another story that I shall tell when I discover that all participants are beyond this mortal coil (and I am out of reach of their lawyers).

Jack continues his 1970s recollections: “Of the three I drank in most regularly, the Old George in Medway Street, the Prince of Wales in Railway Street and the Cabin, in the cellar of what is now Churchills, the Cabin was easily the roughest. It was, shall we say, a meeting point for locals, Navy and Army. Whenever there was trouble they must have had a hotline to the police station as about 10 coppers would come in to sort matters out. The Prince of Wales used to have discos in the cellar bar called, I think, the Bierkeller, which was a little lively at times and was shut in the 1970s because of this.

“For guaranteed, set-piece brawling you were far better going to the Jack Knife club which was a skinhead, Army and Navy place that I used to avoid. I used to go to the Central Hotel on the A2 in Gillingham. This was a guaranteed underage drinking spot with all the concomitant risks entailed — I don’t think I need to elaborate…

“Often it turned into a battlefield, memorably when Gillingham played Millwall in the last game of the season and announced at the game that the Player of the Year dance would be there that night and a load of Millwall scum unsurprisingly turned up to join the merriment.”

Luvverly. The joys of being a football supporter, Jack.

He continues: “The most notorious place in Chatham in my teens was The Steamboat in the High Street. This place was always trouble and I never went there but it was closed down because of prostitution, drugs, fighting and any other vice that you can recall. Of course, in more recent years, there was the Van Damme Bar in the Pentagon, complete with lunchtime strippers, very definitely on my lunchtime list in the 1970s!”

Yes, I recall that hotbed was known by its initials. (Initials — geddit? Oh, please yourself.)

Thanks, Jack. I should mention, on a legal note, that no slur is intended on any current pubs in Chatham, all of which are models of propriety.

* The Chatham Scandal by Brian Joyce is well worth buying. Try Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester High Street.

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Crimes that Shocked the Medway Towns

71 Responses to Sex, drink and punch-ups… Chatham through the ages

  1. dorinda sandhu says:

    Hi I used to go to the Jack Knife and to the Central Hotel on a Friday and Sunday. Does anyone remember Mungo and Mike Wade and Guy who used to be on the door? I would love to get in contact with any of them.

    Dorinda

    • dave says:

      I know Mungo, if you’re talking about Dave Henderson-Parks.

    • Kevin Nicholas says:

      Hi, The man on the door who took the money was called Guy McFarland, I used to run the membership near the front door with my mate Andy Bottly. We also use to set up the disco and operate the decks until the DJs turned up. I remember Satch and Mungo also Dave Pitt and Lew Hoed.

      • Marilyn hogbin says:

        Hi Kevin, Can you tell us which songs were played at the beginning and end of session,they were the same each week. Colin and Marilyn Hogben are sitting round pool in Spain with Mick and Ann bridge reminiscing.

        • John says:

          Mungo and Satch started and finished with, ‘The Entertainer’. Try to listen to it being sung by Tony Clarke 1965, I am sure you will recognise that version. Guy was a good man, I have excellent memories of a late night fry-up at the Motorway after the Central then driving to his club in Hastings for more stupidity.

        • John says:

          OOOPS!
          Apology I posted my reply at 4.37am when perhaps sleep might have helped. Hopefully you will remember the final record Mungo and Satch threw us out of The Central R&B was always (?), ‘Go Now’ by The Moody Blues, November 1964 UK (but first recorded by Bessie Banks in January 1964 USA). Listen on YouTube, …….. magnificent!

        • Kevin Nicholas says:

          Hil Marilyn,
          Its been a long time since we met give my regards to Mick and Ann, all I can remember was the last record was call the entertainer by Tony Clark.
          Happy days at the Central R&B any body remember anything get in touch.

          • Steve Ellis says:

            Hi Colin & Marilyn,
            I bought your Hillman Minx convertible in about 1969 for 57 quid. Remember?

      • Ken.zurawski says:

        One of the twins who ran the club went off with the girl I was courting, Antoinette Sautell. Lived near the Central. It was a shock when I heard she was badly injured in a crash on the main road thrown out of his Stingray car. Saw her a few times in hospital. Never did see or hear of her afterwards.

      • Steve Ellis says:

        Hi Kevin,
        Steve Ellis here. Remember me? You once resprayed a car of mine. Are you still in touch with Andy Botley?
        cheers,
        Steve.

  2. Luton Jack says:

    A great article which really captures the spirit of those venues. I’m sure I recall Mike Wade as I believe he was Ray Wade’s son. Ray, as many will recall, was something of a local celebrity as he was the manager of the Invicta Bingo Hall and used to call the numbers. He was a near neighbour of mine in Luton.

  3. Serena Wade says:

    Hi, I am Ray Wade’s granddaughter,

    Mike Wade still resides in Luton, Kent. He can be found under Mike Wade on Facebook.
    It has been many years now since granddad Ray passed away. He was the bingo caller – correct! My dad Anthony Wade (Dr Voice) can also be found on Facebook.

    I hope this helps.

    • terry campbell says:

      Hi Serena, I remember your granddad, Ray Wade, a lovely man.

      My wife and I spent many a happy evening when bands appeared there in the early sixties. Mike Wade and I were in the same class at school. I frequently see him at the supermarket and we often exchange memories. I don’t think i know your dad Anthony. Anyway, thanks for the memory. Terry Campbell

    • Lee Fairbrother says:

      You had a Fabulous Granddad, Serena.

    • james phillips says:

      i remember all ur family me and my brother went to school with tony ,ur family lived in dagmar road we lived at victoria rd number 22, my sister kay was friends with ur aunty deidere and went to christchurch with her also knew mike and tony , i think they had a dog called judy if i remember right and we knew ur grandad and granma joan and ray wade i knew vikki ,as well. my name was jim and my brother rick and sister kay phillips

  4. Mick Anderson says:

    Interesting article. I frequented the Ship and City Arms. I’m not gay but a lot of my friends are. There were some great characters about in the early 70s. I miss them.

  5. Mathilde says:

    Hi! Great article! I am from the University of Kent in Medway. I am doing some research about the ‘pub culture’ in Chatham past and present. Does anyone has some good advices to help me? Thanks a lot!

    • LaurenStaton says:

      Hi, I saw your post on Medway memories. I am writing a book and I have a chapter which takes me to pubs in Chatham/Rochester in 1918. The characters I am writing about existed. Do you know of any pubs that maybe were linked to bare buckle fighters between beacon road and hospital lane. I would be most grateful for any info you may have.
      Lauren staton

  6. Alan Castle says:

    Hi, me and my mates, Mick, George and Albert used to go drinking in various pubs in Chatham, late 60s early 70s. I suppose our regular was the Army and Navy. I seem to remember you had to go down stairs to the Cabin to buy cigarettes, could not see through all the smoke! Don’t remember any real trouble there but saw some fights at the Twin Dragons Chinese across the road. I believe there was also a Irish pub nearby? Never actually visited the Gay pub. Was Grays the motorcycle dealer?

    • Sam says:

      Hiya, my mum’s family was from Medway and her brother was Albert George. Not the same Albert by any chance? I would love to hear of anyone who knew him (and his best friend Andrew Green). Mum’s name was Mary George/Brown and her youngest brother was Martin x

  7. Mike H says:

    It is interesting to me that Jack mentions The Steamboat as being particularly rough. I was the DJ there, right from the day it opened. I used the name “Lord Snooty” – which I’d pinched from the Beano of course! The DJ booth was encased in fairly stout plexiglass and had a lockable door. Many was the evening when I locked the door, crouched inside and wondered why I hadn’t found some other form of employment. Ah, the lure of ‘show business,’ no doubt. As the DJ booth was in the basement, I had a code to alert management upstairs if I saw trouble brewing; I would play “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations and hoped ‘Security’ was paying attention. For a while, Alex Hughes, aka Judge Dread, manned the door and his mere presence seemed to keep things a bit quieter. I now live in Nashville, but whenever I return on a visit to England, I try to go along Chatham High Street and remember those wild nights at the Steamboat.

    • John says:

      Do you want The Steamboat sign back? It was at the top of some stairs for years until a policeman spotted it …………

      • Mike H says:

        I would very much like to have the Steamboat sign back! Actually, because I live in the USA, I would REALLY like the sign to return to the very talented artist and signwriter who created it. His name is Eric Pollard and he lives in Sittingbourne. He is still sign writing all those beautiful hand-painted signs you see on the walls of Shepherd Neame pubs. It would mean a lot to him if he could get the sign back after all these years. How can we make that happen?

        • Sam says:

          Eric Pollard is my friend. I must tell him about this! X

          • MikeH says:

            Say “hi” to Eric for me, Sam! I sure wish I could find that old Steamboat sign. Eric also painted some murals inside the Steamboat. I’m not sure if the building is still standing now, or has been demolished.

      • SteveR says:

        Hello, John – am passing on your email to Mike H

  8. Ian W says:

    Used to use the Ship, Horse and Groom and City Arms back in the late 70s.
    Great memories. Oh, and the Von Alten as well.
    I came from Gravesend every weekend.

  9. David M says:

    Used to go to the Northgate in Rochester and the Nag’s Head on St Margaret’s Banks near Rochester station in the 1970s. Can just about remember some pretty good times in there.

    • Danny Lake says:

      I used to play in the Northgate around 1965 and before that the Prince of Wales Strood. Anyone remember Kelly in the Eagle and the Dive Bar Chatham?

      Danny Lake

  10. Iceman says:

    Interesting reading on here. Does anyone remember The Palisades a club in Nelson Road/Terrace? This club formed part of my younger years as regards “entertainment”. There were appearances by named bands there and it also the odd punch-up/disagreement in there. Unfortunately most problems stemmed from the squaddies that sometimes frequented the place.

    The Palisades was set up by Guy the barber from Military Road, (can’t recall his surname) – all in all not a bad club in its time but I don’t think it lasted that long.

    • John says:

      If I remember correctly, his barber shop (nearly under the bridge) was called ‘Long John’s', so there’s a start.

    • Steve Ellis says:

      Hi,
      I remember the Palisades. Saw The Love Affair there. The singer being my namesake Steve Ellis

  11. Marina Richardson says:

    Iceman
    I think you’ll find Mickie Williams had the Palisades along with guys and the fruit and veg stall in Chatham high Street along with a few other ventures. Sadly he died a few years ago. I never went to the Palisades but I remember my husband John Richardson (JR) talking about it. I was more into the 60s Pav in Gillingham and the cabin and army and navy; also the prince of Wales when Ron Davies had it!

  12. John says:

    The Ship became divided into two clear parts, The Ship – frequented by the sailors and dockers from, for example, Stanley’s Wharf just along the road. The other half was named The Gaiety Bar and frequented by business ladies and fey young gentlemen in fur coats. The Ship had the capability of being an extremely violent place unless you were known. This violence became widely known when a knife fight between Paddy O’Connell (I think it was Paddy not Sonny) resulted in Paddy’s death. I apologise if I remember the wrong brother’s name.

    You may also remember the Von Alten pub whose landlord was the feared ‘Giovanni’ who despite being flamboyantly camp was a feared fighter and not to be messed with on any level. I was advised many ‘hard men’ both civvy and services had only realised their mistake in abusing him when it was far too late for them.

    On my first introduction to him I was advised by my drinking partner, “If he comes out fast from behind the bar … run”.

    I moved away from the towns some 40 years ago now and I understand they have not fared well since then. A great shame.

    • Anne says:

      Just found this site and it brings back some great memories. Yes, it was Paddy O’Connell and not Sonny(Francis) who was killed.

    • Danny Lake says:

      Paddy OConnell worked among other types of work behind the bar in the ship as did Giovanni. As you quite rightly say Giv’ may have been gay but certainly a force to be reckoned with.. Paddy was a really nice lad and if I sadly remember no-one was prosecuted over his death..

    • Kerry says:

      So glad I came across this!! My dad is Tony O’Connell. Paddy would have been my uncle

    • Kerry says:

      Yes it was paddy. sonny is still alive. they are my uncles.
      It’s great to be reading back over Medway’s history

  13. John says:

    The Prince of Wales, Strood, was a bikers’ pub; the Northgate, Rochester, was hippy druggy pub; the Nag’s Head was also used by bikers until they got banned after a dust-up with some hell’s angels. The Woodsman, Gillingham, also a was bikers’ place.

    • Danny Lake says:

      The Prince of Wales Strood was never a bikers pub in the 60s.. All the Strood boys drank there..Frank and Esther were the owners then…It never became a bikers pub until the 70s..

  14. baz harvey says:

    Interesting read Ta. I too can remember the Horse and Groom at Rochester. In the early sixties I worked at Rochester station and at the time played a little on the mandolin and tenor guitar. Every Tuesday evening we had a jam in the back room (anything goes).

    I can remember a lot of the taxi drivers came along. Those I do remember were Pete Cowlard, Kipper Duff, Ginger George Thomas, and Daisy Roots, who would lead the evening playing his guitar tuned to the E chord and putting his straight finger across one fret. He was good though. And Tony Hands would come along for the booze and ride. Wonderful days.

  15. Ian Chapman says:

    I remember most of the Medway Towns pubs through the 1960s and 70s. The Horse and Groom in Rochester was run by the Trowell family in the late 60s. Some people might remember seeing Ken Trowell Transport lorries around Medway – his father ran the pub. I remember the Fountain as a kid walking through the High Street with my parents. There were always fights in Military Road, normally outside the Twin Dragons restaurant, or in the Paddock by the bus terminal.
    My elder brother used to go to the Central Hotel and if there wasn’t a punch-up in there, you was certain to see one at the Top Rank Services afterwards. Another place well-known for fights in the 70s was the nightclub in Strood just over Rochester Bridge by the Prince of Wales. If you were from the Rochester side of the water you were lucky to get out without a thick ear. I made a dash out of there myself one night. I can’t remember the name of it, the Omega Club rings a bell, but I know it changed names a few times. Never altered it though, it was still always a dump.
    I vaguely remember the pubs in Brompton. There were a lot of pubs in a small area, many have closed down now. Going way back in time, Brompton was a real dodgy area because of the Barracks and the Dockyard being so close. Wouldn’t it be great to go back in time for a look…

    • Danny Lake says:

      In the early days it was a coffee bar but then a nightclub called Rowlands.. I used it regularly….between getting barred lol

    • Bernadette says:

      The club in Strood was also called Blazes and also the Pink Elephant at one point. I think I never went there. Coming from Rochester. I mainly used ones in Chatham.

  16. lorraine hill says:

    Anyone remember a mick hill? aka silver fox?

  17. Steve Miles says:

    We went to see The Elgins at the Central Hotel on the A2 back in 70 or 71 I think, I lived just down the road in Dason way at the time.

  18. Lee taylor says:

    Hi, my dad used to tell me stories about pubs in Chatham, I used to listen for hours. A fond one he spoke about was behind Allders (debenhams now).
    Anyone know the name?
    His name was Jim Taylor married to Diane my late mother. Also my granddad was called ted boast who was married to Mary boast who later married joe gardener

  19. Oh I came across this by chance and the memories came flooding back, starting off at Trishas in Rochester, they always played Go Now as well and making our way along the High St ,Van Alten, Steamboat, Nags Head and the Ship living dangerously going in the Fountain Inn , The Old Barn and The White Hart I think. Loved the music and the fun. Did not go to Gillingham much , felt that was a bit more violent. Some nice memories.

  20. Terry wickham says:

    Does anyone remember the penthouse at Rochester airport? Trisha’s and Graham Sage playing Go Now. Plenty of fights and free spring pancake rolls. My first and favourite nightclub was Queen Caroline’s bedroom,now called the George vaults. Also Rochester Week with open-air bands and beer tents, then going to Rochester swimming pool skinny-dipping. Great memories.

  21. Christine Hipkiss says:

    I remember The Penthouse at Rochester Airport, opposite Davis Estate. I went with my sister and her friends and we danced to The Onion Song, I Heard it Through the Grapevine and Israelites. I remember two skinhead boys, Dave Stewart and Bobby Arnold. I also used to go to The Aurora in Gillingham, The Good Companions in Rochester and The Central in Gillingham. All great places to dance. The Aurora played reggae and everyone danced the same dance. I remember walking into the small, packed, sweaty hall and joining in as everyone bobbed up and down in perfect unison. I was 15 at the time.

  22. BobF says:

    Does anyone remember Dave Pitt being lead singer in the Band C & A Blues Train. Loxley Ryan played the saxophone.
    My main memories of Gillingham was meeting up at the Old Britannia in Gillingham High Street or the Kent Arms before we went out on a Friday and Saturday night either to the Pav or Grapes down Margate.

    • Steve Ellis says:

      Are you Bob Frater? Anyone remember the Trafalgar Bar opposite Beacon Court Tavern?

      • BobF says:

        Yes Steve I am. I remember the Trafalgar (Trash) Bar and Bob Jackson was the bouncer. Also before we went to the Pav Woodlands youth club was another Venue we frequented. I also recall that when Guy (brilliant bloke) the hairdresser opened Palisades, Love Affair played the first night. The only wrong thing that night was that the murals done by Rochester Art School had not dried and a lot of us ended up with paint on our suits.
        Bowaters also had a venue of a Thursday night, but that did not last long. The first night the Aurora or King Charles opened Ron Allin and Ed Glover got beaten up pretty badly. If I remember correctly, Ron got bottled. He was probably one of the nicest blokes of our bunch.

  23. Mark Cordingley says:

    I was a skinhead in Chatham trying to find out about the others there was me and mark Griffiths we hung around the pentagon and on the lines

  24. Liz Sage says:

    Only just found this site by accident, sat reading all the comment with my husband Graham Sage who was a dj at most of these venues over the cheers. Had a chuckle reading this, thanks people.

  25. Terry lucas says:

    I was in a band in the late 50s and used to play Paget Halls, Gillingham, when Len and Ena Wall were there. Brian Poole and Tremeloes were regular visitors.

  26. kevin says:

    Just great to hear the old stories regarding the Central. First gig I saw was Ike and Tina Turner. Didn’t pay – just walked in!
    What about Snodland when Desmond Dekker appeared just after his No 1. Georgie Fame at the Central and perhaps best of all repeat visits of the Foundations. Lew and Dave then Mungo, Satch, great selections of top American artists … and best of all … those lovely girls to take home.

  27. Tony Gutteridge says:

    Used to go in the Cabin a lot on Friday nights in the mid to late 1960s. Great place to meet the girls. Never ever any real trouble. Ultraviolet light used to show up all the dandruff!

    A Maidstone professional motorbike racer, Bill Ivy, used to park his Ferrari right outside the door by the Town Hall with his mate’s Chevrolet Corvette. When this closed we would all troop to the GI Club on the New Road. Had a 3 or 4 piece jazz band and a roulette wheel. Late-night licence was dependant on food being sold. Either that or up to the motorway cafe at Farthing Corner for egg & skinny chips. Great times when we were young.

  28. Derek Cracknell says:

    I lived in the High Street over Gurr’s the butcher’s shop next to the Duchess of Edinburgh. My father Snowy ran concert party round most Working Men’s Clubs. Snowy and his Gang appeared in a lot all over Kent those were the days. The angelic young choirboy was me.

    • David Gurr says:

      One of my distant relatives (long since deceased) owned and ran Gurr’s the Butchers in Chatham High Street.

      Would very much love to hear any stories about the shop and the owners!

  29. Tania Baldwin says:

    Does anyone remember the GI club on A2 with regular nights with a band called The Starlight Trio?

  30. Lorraine Stoker says:

    Wow only just found this site. Grew up in Troy Town. My mum was a barmaid in nearly all the pubs mentioned in Rochester and Chatham. Her name was Daisy Stears/Jeanes. Can remember being put behind the bar at the Ship while she was working.

  31. Brian Birbeck says:

    I am showing my age now – 80. I had a fab time in Chatham and Gillingham in the mid to late 50s when I was in the RN. The Naafi in Gillingham had some great dance nights (with rockers confined to corners) I had a great friendship with a girl called Sheila who was with the WVS there.

    We also frequented a trad jazz club in Chatham – can’t remember the name (age related). There was also a dance hall in Gillingham that used to have visiting bands and lots more, a coffee bar in Gillingham High Street that had two juke boxes (all the rage then) – one upstairs and one downstairs. Mods and rockers, Italian Suits downstairs, leather jackets and jeans upstairs – but everyone got on (mostly).

    I could prattle on for ages but can’t remember half the names of the pubs but as I said I had a great time back then and made lots of friends. Pity we lost touch, but that’s life.

  32. stephen ryan says:

    I have read all those stories wonderful times, I am an avid collector of vinyl records from those times if you have any you would like to sell please let me know, I run a retro disco playing vinyl records so its always great to collect more.
    steve.

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