John Brock – Charismatic Manager of the Millbay Rinkeries
7 September 2018
‘At Millbay Rink yesterday, by permission of the Major-in-Command, fifty men of the South African Heavy Artillery were entertained. After skating and a tea, three hearty cheers were given to Mr Brock. One of the men said this was the first time they had been entertained, and they should always remember it.’ (Plymouth Evening Herald, 1917)
John Brock was the popular manager of the roller skating rink in Millbay, Plymouth. He worked hard to provide hot meals and regular entertainments for troops stationed in Plymouth.
Known for his ‘happy knack of continually introducing new and novel features’ to attract custom, John Brock was the floor manager of the rink at St Leonards-on-Sea when he was promoted to manager of the shiny new Millbay Rinkeries in West Hoe Road, Plymouth in 1909. On his departure from St Leonard’s, he was given a glowing recommendation;
‘… he leaves much against our will to take a more responsible position… but if at any time there should be an opening in any of our establishments larger than the one he is to take charge of, I should hand him the responsibility which I am sure would be faithfully carried out.’ (Lawer, 2007)
The new Rinkeries had been converted from the old Millbay Soap and Soda Works, a cavernous 30,000ft space in which had been installed a grand rink and a learner’s rink, both with sprung maple wood flooring, a gallery and tearooms. Mr Brock now came into his own, hosting a wealth of inspired themed attractions; grand ‘Cinderellas’ where patrons danced on skates in evening dress only; masked and fancy-dress carnivals; even Farmyard Carnivals, where pigs, geese, ducks and turkeys were given as prizes. John Brock arranged themed Red, White or Blue colour costume nights, fundraisers, benefits and maypole dancing. A proficient skater himself, he hired experts to both perform and tutor patrons and welcomed ‘fancy’ skaters such as The Three Gandys, billed as the ‘Greatest Juvenile Roller Skaters in the World.’ During the war years John worked hard to ensure a strong military presence at the Millbay Rinkeries. His private cuttings book contains numerous telegrams from various officers offering him their thanks for the numerous collections and entertainments provided for their men. He wrote letters to local newspapers, insisting that more be done to entertain the troops and regularly provided hot suppers for men stationed nearby.
John was born Jacob Nathan Brock, the fourth of the five sons of Lewis and Henrietta Brock on the 28th May 1867. The Brocks were a well-established and respected local family and active members of the Plymouth Jewish community. The family is mentioned in the Susser Archive, a history of the Plymouth congregation by the Rabbi Bernard Susser.
John came from a somewhat theatrical background; his father Lewis described himself as a hairdresser and musician, later forming ‘Brock’s Band’ alongside his sons Henry, Charles, Alfred, John and Ernest. Soon after his marriage in 1891 to Eva Atkins, John changed his name from Jacob Nathan possibly to assimilate more into the local community and as his wife was not Jewish. Despite this, he remained as active member of the Jewish congregation at the Catherine Street Synagogue, where he was elected in 1918 to join the burial committee or Chevra kadisha as well as the Bikur cholim, a committee to aid the sick and infirm. In various census records John was listed as a watchmaker and bicycle dealer, before eventually managing various skating rinks, or ‘Rinkeries’ around the South-West.
To the best of our knowledge, Mr Brock continued to manage the Millbay Rinkeries until they were badly damaged by the Plymouth Blitz in 1941. For all intents and purposes, skating was eradicated from Plymouth, with the exception of a few short-lived enterprises in the 1960s and 1980s. John Brock continued to be a popular and community-minded member of Plymouth society until his death in 1959 aged 91. He is buried in the Jewish Cemetery at Gifford Place, Plymouth.
Lawer, D., 2007. Get Your Skates On; A History of Plymouth’s Roller Skating Rinks 1874-1989. Plymouth, Three Towns Publishing
Plymouth Hebrew Congregation Minute Book 1912-1974. Collection of Plymouth Hebrew Congregation: Catherine Street, Plymouth.
John Brock with his daughter Ivy. Private Collection of Di Lawer.
John Brock taking tea with ladies at Millbay Rink Tea Room. Private Collection of Di Lawer.