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The Wints

Richard Prest of Kernow Beat describes one of Cornwall's most famous music venues: Penzance's Winter Gardens.



John Adams was the driving force behind the success of what would become one of Cornwall's finest music venues in the 60's & 70's. John was born and raised in the North. His parents ran a snack bar where he had the responsibility of obtaining the 78's for the juke box with records by the likes of Elvis, Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell. While at school he also demonstrated a flair for promotion, running the Modern Music Society.

In Blackpool John learnt his trade, undertaking a three year Hotel Management course and organising dances, parties, etc. On completion of his course in 1960 he worked the summer in Bude where John was bitten by the surfing bug. After an 18 month stint working for the Hotel Excelsior in Cologne he returned to his native Yorkshire.


Redruth's Staggerlees


In the early 60's an acquaintance of the family was running into difficulty with his bingo hall in Scarborough. Worried the business was going under he looked around for other investments and came across a hall on the Penzance sea front that was up for sale.

The Winter Gardens was originally owned by Gordon Fenton, a local businessman who also ran many other successful ventures including Cornish Mead and Cornish Fish Fertiliser. At the time the venue was managed by Russell Pengelly. The Winter Gardens were putting on dance bands, such as the Blue Rhythmics, Trevor Lapham and the Savoy Band, and during intermissions Russell would entertain the crowds on a piano.

The acquaintance of the Adams family bought the Winter Gardens from Gordon Fenton in 1961 as a safeguard in case the bingo business went under. The business in Scarborough didnít collapse and therefore he no longer wanted to keep the Winter Gardens, and in 1962 offered it to John and his family. John jumped at the chance at being able to run dances and functions, while also being located in Cornwall with the surf on his doorstep.

The venue very nearly never was, when the great Ash Wednesday storms battered the Penzance sea front. The building survived but was filled with sand, sea, debris and dead fish. 

The early years of the Winter Gardens  were quite a civil affair with floral baskets and a stage, and it was open one night a week for dancing to the likes of Ivy Benson, Ken Macintosh, Ted Heath and other dance bands. The venue had a very good sprung wooden floor so made an excellent venue for dancing.

With the increase in popularity John started to introduce different evenings to cater for different crowds, in particular the thriving teenage market, extending the one day a week opening. Friday night would become Beat Night with local bands like The Buccaneers, Layabouts and The Staggerlees taking to the stage. Later on, each night would hold a different event. Folk concerts took place on Tuesdays with performers like Ralph McTell and Mike Chapman. Wednesdays would feature local bands with free admission. Thursday would be a concert night (with rock bands). Friday night was either closed for private functions or a 'pop' night, and Saturday would be the ever popular disco, sometimes featuring bands. Ballroom dancing would also continue with the Silver Slipper Club taking up two nights a week.


Dancing at the Wints


As the beat boom took hold more bands from out of Cornwall would visit and there was an ever expanding crowd of local teens forming bands and looking for gigs to play. John would always try and match a support band with the visiting band. One example was local band The Blue Caps (always drew a big crowd) who were matched against visiting band The Red Caps from Birmingham. In the post-Beatles era John would put out flyers and posters around town promoting the week's entertainment and any mention of the "Mersey Sound" would be guaranteed to bring in a big crowd.

The quantity and quality of bands continued to increase as the 60's moved at a rapidly increasing pace. The venue became very popular and now started to form part of the bands' touring circuit. Many bands would start their journey in London, coming down as far as Penzance and then gig their way back up to London. John would visit London's famous Marquee Club on occasions to scout for the latest talent to book.

This, of course, was during the days when bands had to make a long slog on the road to earn their stripes and build up their fan-base. They could be playing in Birmingham one day, Penzance the next and then up to Newcastle the next day. Managers were keen to make as much cash as possible, with little thought for the poor bands who spent days and weeks on the road in clapped out old Transit vans.

One band popular visiting band in the early days was Robbie Hood & The Merry Men. They went down a storm, playing excellent covers of all the top 20 hits. When John tried to book them again he found out through the agent that they had changed their name to The Fortunes, and were now riding high in the charts with "You've got your troubles". In its first full season the venue had put on Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders and The Fortunes. The punters had a chance to see lot of bands such as Robbie Hood before they became famous.



Although there were no Beatles, Stones or Hendrix, John otherwise managed to book a who's-who of mid-60's UK music. Some of the bigger bands like The Yardbirds (and later Slade) had to be moved to the cavernous Flamingo Ballroom in Pool to accommodate the crowds.

In the 60's John formed an "Association of Ballrooms" with Harry Costa (Blue Lagoon), Peter Brown (BCD Entertainments), Joy Hone (Flamingo Ballroom), Sam and Irving Kammin (400 Ballroom, Torquay) and later Lionel Digby (LMD Entertainment) and a representative from Cardiff. They would look at schedules of bands and book them collectively. John would try and book a band somewhere in the middle of the tour so he could find out how they went down, ensuring that any problems were ironed out before the gig.

Many venues thrived under the beat boom but failed to move with the rapidly changing times. The Winter Gardens on the other hand had no problem keeping current and bringing in the latest exciting hip bands, as well as pulling back the more established performers.

In 1968 John was in London and visited Londonís legendary Roundhouse, where he witnessed U.S bands The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, who were undertaking their first European performances. He noticed that those in attendance were not up dancing, but the hip crowd were sat on the floor listening to the music. He went back to the Winter Gardens and started putting on progressive nights, the first of which were Jethro Tull and Ten Years After. John supplied foam cushions for the crown to sit on.

At the start of the 70's John tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to rebrand the venue as The Garden and continued to draw in the popular progressive bands, such as Genesis and Yes, while also bringing in big hitters like Status Quo, Fleetwood Mac and Fairport Convention.


All of The Winter Gardens promotional material was designed by Mike Deakin


Caravan were always a popular draw locally and visited the venue on several occasions. On one occasion John was offered a support band for the sum of £25. As he was told the drummer came from 'down your way' he decided to take a chance. The support band were of course Queen and six months later they were well on their way to becoming a household name. Queen would return the favour in 1974 by playing at the Gardens when they were topping the charts.

John always treated the bands well, they had after all travelled a long way to get there. Coupled with an excellent reception from the fans, bands felt well looked after and had plenty of respect for John and his venue. Many who played in the early days of their careers would return at a later date as a thank you when they could be playing much large venues.

On one occasion blues legends Sonny Terry and Brown McGhee gave a performance. The duo were enjoying something of a revival at the time and played Penzance as part of a tour. Reportedly a magical concert, on their return to the US John received a telegram thanking him for his hospitality and saying it was the best gig on the tour.



John can only recall one band that didn't play: Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel visiting the Winter Gardens in 1973. Despite lugging all their equipment all the way down to the depths of Cornwall they refused to play as the stage was too small! Be Bop Deluxe were supporting and went on as the only act, playing for over 2 hours and going down a storm.

Throughout the time of the venue there were others who were less than happy about the venue's popularity. The neighbouring hotels were always complaining about the noise and 'rabble' the venue brought. The Winter Gardens had a license to play music until 11:30 and bands had to finish on time. This often caused problems when bands hadn't realise how long it took to get to Cornwall and turned up late. There were occasions when the plug literally had to be pulled.

In 1969 John assisted his brother, Peter, in a similar venture in Scarborough, where the pair set up a club called The Penthouse. Peter had the advantage of a 2am license, while John was still stuck with the 11am curfew. The pair became well known and respected amongst the rock fraternity for being sympathetic promoters with great audiences. They became so well respected that promoters would ensure that both venues were included in their bands touring schedules. 

During the late 70's punk began to take hold and many of the regulars began to drift away. During this era the venue did put on gigs from the like of The Stranglers, Talking Heads and The Ramones. It would also play host to Elvis Costello, performing his debut with the Attractions.


Sex Pistols live at The Winter Gardens


John also secured a rare appearance from the Sex Pistols. Having been banned from nearly every venue in the UK they ventured to the South West billing themselves as S.P.O.T.S (Sex Pistols on Tour Secretly). They had played the previous night in Plymouth (promoted as The Hamsters) and found themselves the following day in Penzance. John could have billed them as SPOTS, but chose to only include a question mark in the poster, billing the band as "A Mystery Band of International Repute". Rumours flew around the town that it could be a warm up slot by a new super-group, or even the Rolling Stones. John refused to divulge who was playing, telling the locals to pay your money and take you chance. The gig of course passed into legend, with many people claiming that 'they were there'!

With less interest from the old regulars and the ongoing hassles from the neighbouring establishments, in 1979 John decided it was time to move on. The lease was passed on to Pete Brown of BCD Entertainments. Pete was the biggest agent in the county and had most of the big local bands on his books. He ran the venue for a year, before it was taken on my Mick Hanley. Mick had previously run another popular Cornish venue, The Penmare Hotel in Hayle. As was in keeping with the times, Mick and his manager Henry Quick brought in a roller disco.

In 1985/86 John had big plans for the venue. He invested a great deal of time and money in producing plans to have the building pulled down and re-built, sound proofing it in the same way the large multiplex cinemas were doing at the time. He also had plans to incorporate a conference centre, of which none were available in Cornwall at the time. The local council received considerable pressure from the neighbouring hotel and the plans were refused.

Fed up and disillusioned with the venue John sold the building in 1987 to a builder called Kevin Boyns (who he had previously banned when running the place!) and it would become a nightclub known as Demelza's. Unfortunately Boyns ran foul of the authorities and lost his music and dance licence. This was a rather sad end to a once proud venue. It would eventually be purchased by the owner of the Beachfield Hotel (who had regularly objected to the disturbances next door).

The site itself is now broken up into various different parts. A section forms part of a Thai Restaurant, while the remainder of the building includes shops and flats. The ceiling of the dressing room was scrawled on by many a band member over the years, we can only assume that this part of history has long since disappeared.....

After many years running one of the UKís most successful music venues John now runs Three S Films, a successful film and television production company.


The Winter Gardens building in 2009



There is lots more on Richard's excellent site: http://www.kernowbeat.co.uk