1950s coffee bars

atmospheric photo of a man sat in a coffee bar at the end of a long bar, facing a row of empty tables

The Rumbling Tum coffee bar, courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

In Britain coffee bars are significant for their role within music scenes of the 1950s and 1960s. Coffee bars were meeting places for teenagers. They housed juke boxes and also acted as venues for live music performance. They were first associated with skiffle music, a type of jazz and blues-influenced folk music that was the precursor to British rock 'n' roll and began the association of coffee bars with new youth-oriented music scenes.

These coffee bars originated in London but proliferated across the UK, in a similar way to the coffeehouses featuring live folk performance in the US. The introduction of the Italian espresso machine to coffee bars in postwar Britain gave these places an image that was innovative and colourful in a country that at that time often seemed drab.

British teenagers made coffee bars their own; places where they could meet, display their own (often Italian-influenced) fashions, watch, listen and sometimes dance to a range of live acts. Coffee bars were cheap and coffee had no legal age limit. They were also free from the influence of schools and the church. Both institutions controlled the more conventional youth clubs, which were at that time almost the only other type of meeting place for young people.

Importantly, coffee bars had their own style, evident in the names and décor which distinguished them from each other and from the pubs and dance halls frequented by the older generation. London's most famous 1950s coffee bar the '2 I's' famously launched, among others, the early British rock 'n' rollers Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. The coffee bars fused American-influenced music with European-influenced design to generate a range of British music performance.

Liverpool, like other British cities, had its own coffee bar scene that was associated with the city's avant garde music and art scenes. The Jacaranda club in Slater Street began life as a coffee bar and was a haunt for the Beatles in their early days, while Cilla Black waitressed at the Zodiac coffee bar in Duke Street, another musicians' favourite. Mona Best, mother of the first Beatles drummer Pete Best, opened the Casbah Coffee Bar in 1959 in the cellar of her West Derby home. The Quarrymen, featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, were among the musicians who played there.

The Rumbling Tum coffee bar in Liverpool's Hardman Street attracted musicians, artists and actors. The Scaffold, the music/comedy trio of Mike McGear (brother to Paul McCartney), John Gorman and Roger McGough, often played there with a student folk group as support. One of the bar's regulars recalls;

"As an art student I used to go the Rumbling Tum for coffee and bacon butties at night after drinking in the Phil. I remember the Rumbling Tum décor as black and white. The black and white Formica (plastic) topped tables had bench seats fixed to the floor. The walls were completely covered by a black and white newspaper collage." (Dave Reesn)