Childhood memories

Johnstone Midgets

Along the seafront in the summer you obviously had the Pier and Peter Pan’s playground but there were other activities too. There was an open air roller skating rink, loads of pleasure boat rides and there was this man who used to make scale replicas of Brighton Southdown buses, Brighton fire engines and cars. His name was Johnstone and his vehicles were Johnstone midgets. You sat in them and for 6d ( 2 1/2p) he drove you along the lower esplanade and back. They looked just like the real thing only smaller. He made them in North Road, Preston village. When I was younger, and lived in Preston, we used to go and look in his window and watch him make them.

Editors’s note: there are photos of the midget coaches in the Question and Answer section of this website.

Black Rock swimming pool

Black Rock swimming pool was thriving then and I remember you couldn’t get in the water because of all the kids with their tyre inner tubes, just like big black Polo mints floating about.

Louis Tussaud’s wax works

On the seafront you had ‘Louis Tussaud’s’ wax works. He was a relative of Madam Tussaud in London. As you went in there was a medieval knight who shook hands with you. He had such a strong grip that you could hardly get your hand out of his. In the front window was a scene from ‘The Pit and Pendulum’ with a man strapped to a table and a huge scythe moving backwards and forwards, getting lower and lower until it just missed the man’s body and started again. The building was on three floors and housed celebrities of the day, like Max Miller etc, politicians, a chamber of horrors and various scenes from fairy tales.

The Aquarium

The Aquarium was a very popular place and in the early 50s they had two chimpanzees. One was named Gordon, after Sir Gordon Richards the Jockey, and the other named Steve, after Steve Donague, another famous jockey. On the weekend at 4pm the Aquarium keepers brought the chimps up to the gates at the top of the stairs and gave them their tea. This was advertised as Gordon and Steve’s Tea Party and went down very well with the kids.

Comments about this page

  • I too remember Johnstone Midgets, just before you got to Peter Pan’s Playground. If I remember rightly, they were powered by 2-stroke motorbike engines. I wonder if any of them have been preserved as they were a great attraction to Brighton and, as a Brighton exile now living in the Midlands, it would be nice to think that a bit of Brighton heritage is in safe hands.

    By John Wignall (28/03/2007)
  • Does anyone remember Uncle Jack (I think that was his name) who used to hold talent shows for the kids on the front?  I won a lolly once for singing, can’t remember what song it was. He was very popular.

    By Sandie Waller (nee Taylor) (27/05/2007)
  • Sandie, I remember winning a lollipop for cavorting around on stage and the throngs of people there clapped and were sitting in deck chairs. You have brought back a wonderful memory of me making a complete idiot of myself but I must have been only 7 and what fun it was to be at the show! I broke my neck to get up on stage. Does anyone remeber the Punch and Judy shows?

    By Jeanette Davies (10/01/2008)
  • I remember Louis Tussaud’s from my childhood in the early sixties. I recently took my wife to Brighton to see where it once stood but I was not sure it was where I thought.
    Can anyone remember its precise location?

    By Richard Turner (24/03/2008)
  • Hi Richard, I remember it well as I often visited as a kid growing up in Brighton. It was located next to the Royal Albion Hotel almost opposite the Palace Pier. The building today is a bar part of the hotel called Baroque. I remember taking my dear friend Adam Faith there to show him his wax works which I have to say were not particuarly good.

    By David Courtney (12/06/2008)
  • On a visit to Brighton last year I went into Burger King on North Street for a quick lunch and realised that I was in The Prince’s News Theatre of years ago, complete with screen! Well done Burger King for keeping the atmosphere alive!

    By Roger Hunter (16/08/2008)
  • You are quite right about Johnston’s Midgits running around the Level and if I remember rightly the replica fire engine was still running around the Level in the mid fifties. I also believe one of them is in preservation somewhere in Scotland; where the rest of them are is anyone’s guess. Anyway back to whitehawk, this was my playground in the fifties along with Blackrock Pool and Sheepcote Valley as it had a lot of World War Two surplus parked there, most of the time we got chased away by an angry old so and so who threatened to take us to the police or worse tell our parents. Of course we kept going back for more until he gave up and started to talk to us quite normally, it turned out he was a First World War veteran and was quite informative.

    By John Wignall (22/09/2008)
  • I remember the Punch and Judy shows on Brighton seafront. When very young I was frightened by the ‘violence’, but then as I got older it was the same ol same ol actions and I guess I stopped being interested. Thank you for reminding me of those shows.

    By BonnyCother/Veronica Bentley (20/10/2008)
  • I think there may be one of those miniature Southdown single-decker buses (mentioned by several correspondents above) preserved in the Engineerium museum at the top of Hove. They made a big impression on me too as a kid all those years ago. I saw it at the Engineerium about five years ago, don’t know if it’s still there. Anyone remember the Duk boat that used to do pleasure trips off Brighton beach? Or the Dan Dare spaceship that was outside King Alfred baths sometime in the late fifties and which you could go inside?

    By Nick Rosewarne (22/10/2008)
  • David Courtney is spot on with his placement of the old Louis Tussuad’s site. David, do you remember the illuminated Guinness advertisement and clock that was on the side of the building? At night time it could be seen from Hove seafront. I believe that David could also tell us of a more recent event that happened not far away from the Louis Tussuad’s site. I think that the discovery of, and the launch of Leo Sayer’s career began at the old Top Rank Centre. I believe that as well as his friend Adam Faith, David had a lot to do with Leo’s singing success.

    By Danny Hornby (20/11/2008)
  • hi Nick. I well remember the Dan Dare spaveship. I paid a visit tothis when I was a kid. I can’t quite remember the Duk but one was running at Wickstead Park Lake a few years ago. I wonder if it was the same one.

    By John Wignall (22/11/2008)
  • Ref/ Johnstone’s Midget Coaches. I have a full history of my fathers coaches. Please contact me on email /22 Braybon Ave,Brighton,BN1 8EA.

    By Tony Johnstone (24/11/2008)
  • What a liberty. I have identified TUF 3 from a photo originating recently in Arbroath, I believe. They have only repainted it in Stagecoach Livery. If you see this Tony, I will send you a copy.

    By Jerry (07/01/2009)
  • Brighton seafront is where I grew up. My Nan had a cafe so when not in school I always went with her. I used to help the local shop owners or the different activities. Two favourites where helping feed the donkeys for a ride and then jumping on the trampolines to get business in. The crowd at my Nan’s were mainly sailors and families. Although I have been in Canada now for over 30 years my heart and deepest felt memories are of Brighton.

    By Jacqueline Shaftoe (26/01/2009)
  • I remember the Waxworks being there as late as about 1977. I went in a couple of times, I remember they had the cast of Coronation Street in there – all of them quite badly done and not looking particularly “real” at all. The chamber of horrors was quite good though.

    By Simon Moore (18/02/2009)
  • My grandparents moved to Brighton from Caterham Hill after the war, finding refuge in Hanover Crescent. When my family and I arrived from Essex for the holidays it was with an excitement that I can still recall. We spent our days in the chalet under the promenade between the two piers and just in front of the motorised boating pool that my sister Sally took for the paddling pool one day, almost drownng herself. That was in 58.  They were the days when all the family, my father and his 6 brothers and sisters as well as us numerous kids, were all present and correct and we seemed to be a real family.  My grandparents were ‘parachuted’ into the town it’s true, not being real Brightonians, but the town has so many good memories for me that it’s hard not think of it as my second home all those years ago.

    By Graham Hewstone (07/05/2009)
  • When I was a little boy,70 odd years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing ‘Three men in a boat’. They entertained the beachgoers by sailing in a round tub, dressed in tails and toppers and performing the most amazing girations in the water.I saw them twice. Once at Yarmouth,then again at Eastbourne. Whether they ever came to Brighton, I do not know but it would be great ,if anyone else remembers them. Come on you nostalgia freeks!

    By Ron Charlton. (21/06/2009)
  • I don’t recall a Charlie Spicer from my childhood days Jill, but being a Brighton man, he almost surely would have been a relation? Certainly, a number of my family relatives were engaged in working activities on the Brighton beaches. In particular an Uncle Jack who owned a couple of the boats plying offshore, “all aboard the Skylark” style. It would be interesting to know if there’s a close connection.

    By Ron Spicer (30/08/2009)
  • Am I completely wrong in remembering thet maybe next door to the Louis Tussaud’s wax works or somewhere nearby, there was a kind of curiosity shop full of two headed pigs preserved in pickle and so forth? Does anyone else remember this strange place?

    By martin hughes (17/11/2009)
  • I found one of the Johnstones midget coaches at a small motor museum in a shop on Rolvenden High street in Kent. It was actually on display at the front of the shop. As far as I know its still there. I remember them, as a kid, running on a figure of eight shaped track along by Peter Pan’s playground. I think they even had traffic lights on the cross over which made it more exciting when more than one coach was operating. Ah the simple pleasures us kids had then. The owner always seemed a very friendly man I remember.

    By Lawrence Leaney (31/12/2009)
  • Johnstones midget coaches – yes, they were still there when I was growing up. They used to utterly fascinate me and to have a ride on them was what I always longed for when on the seafront with Mum. I managed to find an old postcard recently, showing them operating on the figure of 8 track as my brother says.

    By Ashley Leaney (06/01/2010)
  • Does anyone remember a Dolls’ Museum somewhere along the Seafront? It was there in the 70s, and wasn’t very big, but as a little girl I went there for my birthday every year. No-one else seems to remember it – it may have been called Dolls in Dreamland or something like that. Thanks.

    By Jacqui (28/01/2010)
  • Re the Johnson’s Midgets, there’s one or two still around. FNJ 478 in the livery of Wren’s Coaches (NW9) was featured under restoration at South East Coachworks in the Dec. 09 edition of Bus & Coach Preservation. Don’t recall a dolls museum, or mention of one, but in the mid to late 60’s there was a wonderful model railway (gauge 1?) featuring ‘Sammy the Shunter’ close to the Palace Pier. I was mortified when the owner moved to Blackpool!

    By Nigel Lukowski (28/06/2010)
  • This is a note for Jacqueline Shaftoe: I believe you may be a part of the Hammond and Wood families who lived in Brighton and Hove. If so I would love to hear from you.

    By Doreen Mitten (12/03/2011)
  • Jacqui it was called Alice Dreams a Wonderland of Dolls. If you are on Facebook join the Brighton Past group. A pic has just gone up showing it. I was hunting about for info and came across this page.

    By Lyn (25/12/2012)
  • I used to work with the donkeys at Peter Pans on Brighton Seafront. Great memories.

    By Karen Holmes (19/10/2013)
  • This is a note for Linda Freeman, nee Heimann, and her sister, Hetty, I think, who was at St Margaret’s school with me in 1952-57. We were close friends for quite a while and I have fond memories of all the Heimann family. I’d love to hear from you, Diane Hughes, nee Stefani.

    By Diane Hughes (05/02/2014)
  • Am I dreaming or was there a jungle train led by two elephants in Peter Pan’s playground around 1952? I have a photo of me on the leading elephant followed by two giraffes. Can’t seem to find any mention – maybe it was not Brighton. Anyone out there remember please?

    By Lesley (16/02/2014)
  • Yes, I do remember the jungle run at Peter Pans playground. I remember the two elephants since you mentioned it. My twin sister and I used to go down there often. with my mum. Living in Kemp Town we were very close to the seafront. I once got sunstroke on the roller rink! Didn’t go again! I have such lovely memories of my childhood living in that area. Does anybody remember the twins Gloria and Sylvia Stephens? That was us!

    By Sylvia Pickett (16/03/2014)
  • Johnstone’s Midget Coaches of Brighton:
    I remember Ernie Johnstone well as I used to spend a lot of time on the sea front in the 1950s.
    The midget coach mentioned above at Rolvenden in Kent belongs to Chris Booth who also has a collection of old Morgan cars in the motor museum behind his antique shop there. It is a model of a Leyland PSUC and was originally registered JMC2
    The other one with the Brighton registration number TUF3 is still in Arbroath as far as I know along with another coach SCD2 and one of the three miniature fire engines which Mr Johnstone also made. These two miniatures, models of the Yeates Riveira coaches of the 1950s, featured in the Arbroath Tourist Guide in 1963 and were used for giving children rides in conjunction with the miniature railway there. The fire engines were all registered with ‘999’ numbers and I think the Arbroath one was LUF999 from August 1951. Some years ago the registration number TUF3 returned to Brighton to join the collection of other single digit ‘TUF’ numbers which were owned by a local resident in Hove.
    The one which was in the Engineerium, DUF3, is the original pre-War Johnstones Midget dating from 1937 which rightly claims to be the ‘World’s Smallest Motor Coach’ and holds several records having been road registered and driven all the way to Birmingham. Over the years it has had several spells in car showrooms around Brighton before being put on display at the ill fated Engineerium and is still owned by the Johnstone family.
    Yes, it is correct that they were powered by motor cycle engines, mostly Villiers air cooled two strokes from about 150 to 175cc and Mr Johnstone did tell me that he was thinking of using a Velocette LE water cooled engine in one but I don’t think this was ever done. What is not generally known is that Mr Johnstone could not keep up with the demand for his miniature coaches from amusement parks all over the country and a number of them were built by Harringtons Coachworks at Hove under licence. These were sometimes referred to as Harrington’s Miniature Coaches and I have a listing of most of the known survivors. The one which was being restored at South East Coachworks, FNJ478, is a model of an AEC Regal and is one of the Harrington built models from April 1950. I did see this when they had an open day at The Old Coach Station at Faversham where they do a lot of restoration work on old buses and coaches. A few smaller models were built for children to drive themselves and one of these wound up in a scrapyard in Crowborough in the 1970s which unfortunately I was unable to rescue.
    The dolls’ museum mentioned above was a bit after my mis-spent time on Brighton Sea Front but there used to be a dolls’ hospital up near the railway station. TCS.

    By Tim Sargeant (09/04/2020)
  • For anyone who has an interest in the early days of Ernie Johnstones Coaches I have the earliest Photographic Record of a promotion for Southdown he did with Ernest Brian Johnstone his eldest son in the first miniature double decker pedal coach in 1935. There is a short film on Pathe News travelling along Brighton Seafront.

    By Ian Johnstone (17/05/2020)
  • If you zoom in on this picture you will see the pendulum in the left hand picture. as a child I always thought this was on the corner and we have had a long discussion regarding this this morning and the link is the only picture we could find.

    By Phillip Stiff (18/11/2020)

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