a linguistic investigation into ‘Teddy boy’

In the United Kingdom, especially in the mid-1950s, a Teddy boy was a young man characterised by a style of dress and appearance held to be characteristic of Edward VII’s reign (1901-10), typically a long velvet-collared jacket, drainpipe trousers and sideburns (Teddy is a pet form of Edward (VII)).

The term first appeared in print in the Daily Express (London) of 23rd September 1953, in an article about 16-year-old Ronald Coleman, “who was both acquitted of murder and jailed for assault”:

Leader of ‘The Edwardians’ cleared of murder

He preened. He was fond of his own good looks. He believed that clothes made not only the man but the leader of men.
As for clothes this Clapham shop assistant chose the style of the “mashers” or men-about-town of Edwardian days.
He wore a grey well-pleated well-waisted half-belted Edwardian jacket with stovepipe trousers, and he arranged for a quiff of hair to fall forward.
Then he went across Clapham Common (220 acres in South-West London) as Ronnie-the-Masher—ready to challenge comment and spoiling for a fight.
He did not believe altogether in individual combat, because individuals often meet their match. He believed in the effectiveness of numbers. He recruited followers—mostly older than himself.
Some of his followers—four of them were jailed with him yesterday—dressed like him. They became “The Edwardians” or—as their girl friends preferred it—the “Teddy Boys.”
And together they looked for trouble—on the Common, at netball matches, in milk bars, in pin-table saloons, and in cinemas.
They would have stayed little more than neighbourhood nuisances—BUT one series of fights happened to end in the stabbing to death of 17-year-old John Ernest Beckley¹.

(¹ The murder had taken place on 2nd July that year.)

The term Teddy girl first appeared in print in several newspapers on 23rd June 1954. For example, The Evening News and Southern Daily Mail (Portsmouth, Hampshire) had an article titled 15-Year-Old “Teddy Girl” in Southsea Brawl, which thus begins:

Described as a “Teddy Girl,” a 15-year-old was said at Portsmouth Juvenile Court yesterday to have been involved in a Southsea brawl and to have told the police afterwards that “it looked big” to carry a knife.
The girl admitted being in possession of a knife—“an offensive weapon”—in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse.

But Teddy girl was already in use in spoken language, since this article reports that a witness declared:

“They wore an exaggerated form of dress, as worn by Teddy Girls.”

In any case, by 1954, Teddyism, as some newspapers called it, had spread across the United Kingdom. The following is from the Evening Express (Aberdeen, Scotland) of 12th July 1954:

Teddy Boys In Dance Rumpus

Stepping up to the microphone in the Caledonian Hall, Irvine, on Saturday night, a member of a dance band started singing in an effort to break up the ballroom battle which was going on.
He stopped suddenly when a knife landed at his feet.
To-day at Ayr Sheriff Court, the fiscal² told how the hall was suddenly invaded by forty Glasgow trippers, whom he described as Teddy Boys.
The Glasgow youths—many of them in Edwardian suits, were, he said, looking for trouble.
During the course of the evening, there were a number of incidents and the atmosphere which developed needed only a spark to set it off.
About 11 p.m. a general melee broke out. When a member of the band began singing in an effort to break it up a knife landed at his feet.
At Ayr Sheriff Court to-day, Joseph Craig (18), welder, and Walter M’Adam (17), apprentice boilermaker, both of Glasgow, admitted being concerned in assaulting Andrew Hamilton, by throwing him to the floor, and kicking him.
M’Adam alone admitted being in possession of a knife without lawful authority, contrary to the Prevention of Crimes Act 1953.
Craig was sent to prison for thirty days and M’Adam for forty days by Sheriff Reid who told them “I hope the sentence is a lesson for the future.”

(² in Scotland, fiscal, or procurator fiscal: a local coroner and public prosecutor)

Explanations for the phenomenon were sought. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury of 9th June 1955 published this:

Teddy Boys ‘lonely’

Teddy Boys are really lonely, states the annual report of the Sheffield Association of Mixed Clubs and Girls’ Clubs. Young people seem to assume Edwardian garb in an attempt to camouflage their own loneliness and insecurity, it says.
Youth often hits the headlines through a delinquent or a Teddy Boy. “If through clubs they can have happy relations with adults and with their own age groups their feelings of inferiority vanish.”

Solutions were found; the same newspaper reported the following on 16th December 1955:

Club for Teddy boys at mission

The inaugural meeting of a Bradford Club for Teddy boys and Teddy girls will take place on January 9 at Eastbrook Hall Methodist Mission, Leeds Road, Bradford.
Last night 25 Teddy boys and eight Teddy girls, representing Bradford’s 300-strong “Edwardian” community, met the Rev. Maurice Barnett Superintendent of the Mission, and decided that the club should be formed. Next Monday the committee—six Teddy boys, three Teddy girls and four members of the Mission—will meet to discuss rules and find a name for the club.

Some professions profited from the phenomenon, according to the Northern Daily Mail (Hartlepool, Durham) of 4th August 1954:

“Teddy” clothes

“Teddy Boys” receive full marks for cleanliness from the National Federation of Dyers and Cleaners.
It is the usual thing for them to take their suits and flash ties at least once a month for cleaning, dry cleaners report.
Perhaps they will soon be saying the same for “Teddy Girls,” for, in a district notorious for boys and girls in fancy dress, I notice the girls are now adopting a feminine version of the Edwardian uniform. They are wearing three-quarter length black coats and skirts with white blouses and shoe-string ties.
They might not appeal to Mr. Hartnell³, but at least they look clean and tidy.

(³ Norman Hartnell (1901-79), British fashion designer, who gained the Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in 1940, and the Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II in 1957)

The following, from the Belfast News-Letter (Ireland) of 6th October 1954, puts Teddyism into perspective:


At one end of the tavern were gathered a group of youths in so-called Edwardian garb. At the other end of the counter and out of earshot of the “Teddy Boys” were four young men more conventionally attired. “Apart from the silliness of the suits,” said one, “I really can’t understand why these chaps should all wear the same kind of clothes.” His three companions agreed. All the four critics wore grey flannels, blue blazers, white shirts and brown suede shoes. This must prove something or other—but we do not quite know what.

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