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Bodgies and widgies


Half a generation older than us, kids in their teens at the end of the war, began to adopt American cultural stereotypes, much to the alarm of proper society.   Alienated teens were drawn to motorbikes and a new style of milk bars.  These had pinball machines; and a Jukebox and often an area for dancing.  

Through the 50’s the music developed quickly from jive to rock and roll.  James Dean, Marlon Brando and Buddy Holly were icons.    The boys were 'bodgies' and their girlfriends 'widgies'.  They wore jeans or tightly ‘pegged’ pants open neck shirts and leather jackets.  When the girls wore skirts they were full, so that they could be spun up while dancing to show their pants.

The boys were thought to be 'looking for a fight' and the girls were considered to be 'loose'.  The expression ‘juvenile delinquent’ was often used as a collective noun.   An academic paper on the period begins:


‘ In the latter half of the 1950s, concerns that Australia’s teenagers, and especially working-class teenagers, were becoming delinquent reached a crescendo. Law-abiding citizens observed with concern bodgies and widgies congregating in milk bars and on street corners. Violence and sexual license were their hallmarks, they believed… 
Their views, popularized by sensational press reports, contributed to a ‘moral panic’ throughout the Australian community...’

Keith Moore: Bodgies, widgies and moral panic in Australia 1955-1959



In due course ‘bodgies’ developed into ‘rockers’ and later; into ‘bikies’; the girls into ‘molls’.

Thornleigh had two milk bars popular with these teenagers; and was the local focus for them.  One was at the cinema but the main focus was the one on the western side of the station. 

Bodgies and widgies could be quite frightening to smaller children but Tony Walker who lived in the house on the corner of Paling St was identified as a bodgie and was quite friendly; think West Side Story.   My friend Michael McDonald’s older brother, our other neighbours, was friend of Tony’s and something of a bodgie fellow traveller.  'Fellow Traveller': another good 50’s expression; beloved of Senator Joe McCarthy in the States at the time.

The more educated teens were drawn to the American Beat Poets and a growing interest in French existentialism.  ‘Beat’ has little to do with music; although it inspired Bob Dylan. The poetry was said to be beaten-down; it was an intellectual movement.  Beatniks hung out in inner city coffee shops and jazz venues. Cool maan. 

In the universities John Anderson and the ‘Sydney Push’ blended the pre-war libertarian views of the Lindsays and Archibald with the new American influences. 

As we got older some of the kids I knew began to emulate bodgies and widgies while others were attracted to the new surfing culture; peroxide bleached hair and the ‘Stomp’.  Just as there were running battles between ‘rockers’ and  ‘mods’, the motor scooter riding, fashion conscious, teens in England,  there was antipathy between ‘bikies’ and ‘surfies’ in Australia; mainly in pubs.   But unlike the mods on their scooters, the surfies were difficult to catch on a motor bike; too wet.

By the time I went to University the jazz culture was giving way to folk music; via Woody Guthrie; Pete Segar; and Bob Dylan; on the way to the drug culture and ‘flower power’.  Peace man.

The reasons for the moral panic were more social than real.  There were, no doubt, some unwanted pregnancies; but these were by no means the exclusive preserve of Widgies; and the occasional additional scar or smashed head was mainly confined to the protagonists; the bodgies themselves.  The rate of violent crime did not peak up in the 50’s.  It continued its steady downward trend throughout the century to the present.

As usual, the media exploited the general public unease, that stemmed from rapid social change, to sell newspapers and ad time on the radio.  But post-war youth was becoming the all-important driver of economic and cultural change; a market to be exploited.  This is a status that the ‘baby-boomer’ generation has enjoyed ever since.




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