The Teen Canteen

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 1, 2017

JOE BENJAMIN, who started the Teen Canteen, then went to Grimsby to advise on the beginning of an adventure playground, and stayed for several years as project leader. He subsequently wrote the Nuffield report on the adventure playground movement as a whole, published a year ago by the National Council of Social Service. He is now organising the provision of play opportunities in St. Pancras.

TODAY, IT'S TEENAGERS (tolerantly, and with a small 't'), and everyone is sympathetic. They are affluent, but also controlled. They spend their money well, if not always too wisely. They are frank about sex, gregarious, sophisticated, considerate and — as far as our affluent society is concerned — very much "with it".
Or is it that the racy columnists of our "with it" press know better than most that it doesn't pay to flog a dead horse?
Yesterday's teenager (remember?) was a Teddy Boy (aggressively, and with capital letters): a thug, a delinquent to be judged without trial, a misfit who needed only to be "put away".

This is not the place to discuss the attitude of the press towards the teenager of tomorrow — though we can confidently predict crocodile tears over the deprived, jobless, frustrated, badly educated, ill prepared — and the view that "they enjoyed themselves too much when they should have been studying".
But teenagers, Teds and tears apart, society in general is beginning to awaken to — is beginning to see — something of the nature of the "social problem". And in this seeing is often laid the first seeds of what eventually becomes a new approach to a particular field of work. This is especially true when the seeing is closely allied to action — when theory and intent becomes practical and applied. And the story of the Teen Canteen illustrates this well.

It is a story which should not be concerned — as it all too frequently is — with judgments on its success or failure. In that it attempted to and did make a definite and uncompromising break with the ping-pong and prayer approach to youth work, it succeeded. In that it did not achieve a sufficient degree of continuity in its set task to enable it to establish and factualise certain fundamental principles, it failed.

But having said this, it should be borne in mind that when Dulwich College Mission decided to set foot on the knuckleduster and broken bottle battleground that was the Elephant and Castle in 1954, youth workers themselves were leaving the field faster than Teddies were beating up policemen. The Service was still some years away from achieving any kind of recognition: pay was poor, training virtually non-existent, and financial support a charitable hand-out. Those youth workers who remained and pressed for increased Governmental recognition and support had, inevitably, to hang on to what security they could find in the recognised and traditional frameworks of the church and secular clubs. There was little room for experiments.

It took courage on the part of the Mission, therefore, to establish a centre, however small, which these war-born, society-neglected youngsters could regard as their own. Thrown out of the dance halls, not allowed in the pubs, ejected from the cinemas, they soon found that the Teen Canteen could be relied on to provide them with a base. A place, moreover, where the manager showed a natural sympathy — where no 'other' standards were imposed, and where they were not condemned for the clothes they wore, the fights they started, nor the weapons they carried.

On this level, the Canteen enjoyed its greatest successes. The youngsters came, and as long as the Canteen itself remained unchanged in its approach, they kept coming.
But here, too, emerged its greatest weakness. While the Mission was prepared to and did finance the experiment for a period of two years, it was never in a position to guarantee the quality of its leadership. And if there is any lesson to be learned from the history of the Canteen, it is that the quality of leadership must be better understood. Those of us who have been connected with the Canteen since its early days, as well as those who joined later, are still debating the qualities, background and training needed for a social experiment of this nature.

It is sufficient to say here that of the nine people who occupied the post of manager, the three most successful either had a social work background or went on to do social work after leaving the Canteen. Yet it had been thought originally that the person appointed should be "able to talk the same language" — literally and physically, The first manager, as a result, was an ex-naval amateur boxing champion, a man who never came near to understanding the problems and retired, after six months, on the edge of a nervous breakdown,
Looking back, it seems there was much more in the way of pious hopes than actual policies: that policies were looked for in the successive managers rather than in the Management Committee itself. Unfortunately, little, if any, recording was done, and it is not now possible to substantiate opinion with fact. But certainly, the work pioneered in the Canteen — the undemanding 'Coffee Bar approach' was soon to be, albeit somewhat cautiously, recognised — first by the traditionalists who set up less publicised experiments, and later by the Albemarle Committee looking into youth work as a whole.

But there was always a danger that this approach would become the traditionalists' approach of tomorrow — that we would fall into the trap of trying to win them over on their terms in order to get them to accept ours. And this, in fact, is what seems to have happened. The Teddy Boy has gone — or so we believe — and in his place is a more acceptable, less rebellious character. The needs, however, remain unchanged. And nowhere is the real challenge being met.

It is interesting to recall that the problem was seen in the Canteen around 1955, when it was suggested that:
"It can do nothing, certainly, to meet the challenge where it really exists — outside. It is open to doubt, too, whether a Canteen providing more diversions … would prove any more successful …
Constructive competition on the grand scale, backed by the social services and industry, may be the only answer to this problem. I believe a scheme along these lines is worth investigating, The Elephant and Castle area is shortly to see a vast new re-building project. This will involve, first, the demolition of much old property, using a certain amount of unskilled labour. I would be encouraging to see active participation of contractors, trades unions and social services, organising gangs of Teddy Boys in healthy competition. Work of national importance would solve one of the major problems these lads face … and give them the chance to re-kindle the pride in themselves which is their right."
Idealistic? Who knows? We are still awaiting the chance to find out — for the thousands of tomorrow's teenagers who, once again, are finding themselves on a jobless market.