The Axbridge Pageant in August 2022 had a cast of colourful characters from the town’s history – with one comic role I played once again enjoying an unexpected popularity. Like those in TV’s Only Fools and Horses – the anti establishment nature of his personality is what appeals. The Spiv in the 1940s scene sells cigarettes to children, French letters to housewives and nylons to the land girls. He does all the wrong things and yet people like it. This is an article I wrote a few years ago about the enduring appeal but also the darker side of black marketeer which led to a major problem for the police in the post war years.
Harry Mottram has a suitcase full of demob suits. Here he relates his life as a spiv
I once sold black market nylons. And I had quite a good line in Scotch, fags and Swiss watches. But the Scotch wasn’t Scotch, the cigarettes weren’t legal and the watches fell off the back of an army truck. For three days in the summer of 2010 I was a spiv in a community play in Somerset. The Axbridge Pageant was and is a vast community drama played out on the streets of the town every ten years. It has a cast of hundreds, an audience of thousands and comes complete with Saxon battles, civil war drama and World War II – and my part as the black marketeer.
Packed with clichéd wartime characters such as rosy cheeked land girls, bungling home guard troops and an ARP job’s worth the scene was set for my part as a spiv to enter as the likable rogue trader ready to do a runner once the local bobbie appeared. As a pastiche of the era it was perfect – just what the audience wanted. But as a piece of living history it was a caricature of the time rather an accurate reconstruction.
There was one obvious anomaly: while all able bodied men were off fighting Hitler I was busy making a living bypassing the rationing system and selling retail goods at extortionate prices. Society didn’t take the spiv to its heart in quite the same way as the one I portrayed. In reality spivs (police acronym for Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants) would not generally have been welcomed so publicly. Out of the public view, at the back of a pub and the tradesmen’s entrance the spiv was welcome, but if you were caught dabbling in the black market in the open there was public condemnation.
The pageant audience seemed to love the spiv character with my suitcase and correspondent shoes and trilby hat. I’d like to think it was my acting but the truth is they warmed to and identified with the anti-authoritarian character working the black economy. For the spiv strikes a note with anyone who would like to get one over on the taxman, the police or the Government.
My theatrical spiv character played into the stereotype created by post war comedies on television, the radio and cinema. During the war years spivs bent the rules and sold everyday stuff that wasn’t available in the shops. After the war however they either went back to conventional jobs, traded more legitimately on the fringes of the black market or became criminals. But in popular culture George Cole who appeared as Flash Harry in the 1954 film The Belles of St Trinian’s, Terry-Thomas as Alfred Green in the 1956 Boulting Brothers movie Brothers in Law were fast-talking limable rogues.
And the radio comedian Arthur English personified the archetypal spiv in the BBC radio programme Bandbox as The Prince of the Wide Boys in which he refined the appearance of the character: pencil moustache, wide-brimmed hat, light-coloured suit and a bright patterned tie.
Perhaps in reality the real spiv was closer to the criminal and sociopath Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock Graham Greene’s pre-war novel of Brighton gangland, and the black marketeer Harry Lime in The Third Man in the 1949 Carol Reed film. Vicious, selfish and violent, these characters represented the dark side of the spiv. As the war broke out in 1939 and bombs brought chaos to London the light fingered saw an opportunity to relieve bombed homes and shops of their goods. With shortages both during and after the war criminals quickly filled the market selling anything from petticoats to petrol, and with fewer police and the blackout, crime soared. Despite the threat of £500 fines and prison sentences this new class of businessmen graduated from selling excess clothing coupons to clearing out entire warehouses at the point of a gun and formed the nucleus of the crime gangs of the 1950s.
Writing in The Guardian in 2010 Duncan Campbell wrote about Billy Hill, a dapper gangster from Seven Dials in London who would emerge from the war as the leading figure in the capital’s underworld. Campbell wrote: “He immediately appreciated what a fabulous opportunity the war presented. ‘I don’t pretend to be a King and country man, but I must say I did put my name down to serve and until they came to get me I was making the most out of a situation,’ said Hill in his ghosted autobiography, Boss of Britain’s Underworld, published in 1955. ‘So that big, wide, handsome and, oh, so profitable black market walked into our ever open arms. Some day someone should write a treatise on Britain’s wartime black market. It was the most fantastic side of civilian life in wartime. Make no mistake. It cost Britain millions of pounds. I didn’t merely make use of the black market. I fed it.’” It’s a telling anecdote from a man who went on organise bank robberies and bullion heists and to be mentor to the Kray twins.
These real life spivs were a long way from Private Walker and his pork chops destined for Captain Mainwaring’s dinner table in Dad’s Army, or indeed my illicit bottles of Scotch or black market nylons offered to the citizens of Axbridge.
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk