Tribute paid to Margate trader, showman and raconteur Billy Keefe

legendary Margate trader and Kiss Me Quick retailer Billy Keefe Photo Rebecca Beard

By Jodie Nesling

Tributes have been paid to the legendary Margate trader and Kiss Me Quick retailer Billy Keefe who has died at the age of 79.

The beloved father of three spent his final hours at Pilgrims’ Hospice on Monday, September 25 surrounded by loved ones. He enjoyed a close relationship with his sons Paul, Richard and Mark and was a very proud grandfather of eight. Billy also leaves two much-loved sisters.

A natural raconteur with a storybook of misadventures, comic capers and everything in-between Billy embraced the rough with the rough.  But despite the tales of seaside scraps and near misses there remained a kind soul who his son Paul describes as ‘wildly generous.’

He said: “People may remember my dad for the tough guy image, but little known about his generosity. I remember being on a ferry travelling from Dover to Germany and he gave away everything we had to a lorry driver who was buying chocolate for orphaned children in Poland.”

For more than 60 years Billy remained a seafront stalwart and whether it was his beloved dog Oi lolloping around the pubs or his bright yellow pick-up truck clashing obnoxiously with the Turner skies he remained ever present.

An innate showman he experienced the thrills and spills of seaside life, enjoying the bustle and most definitely the hustle of his various money-making schemes that would have put Del-Boy to shame.

Whether it was riding around Dreamland’s Wall of Death, appearing on TV, or walking up a hill on stilts he was never far from the action.

Billy with sisters Maureen and Ann, 1960

Born in Hillingdon, 1943 Billy faced a tough start in life living at various foster homes with his younger sister. Their mother was unable to care for them due to a long-term illness and his father died when Billy was just 15 – soon after they relocated to Thanet to live with grandparents and join their older sister.

A former pupil of Hereson School it was here he developed a talent for boxing and met his oldest friend Dave Bean with whom he remained close throughout his life.  A talented pugilist he joined Ramsgate Boxing Club quickly establishing himself as a formidable opponent, boxing for his country, match making and training novices.

But it was Dreamland where Billy truly flourished and when he took on the popular Striker – a strength testing game measuring how hard you could whack a hammer – during the 60s, the showman finally found a setting bold enough to house his exuberance, quick wit, and love of entertaining.

Paul says growing up around his father was a learning experience like no other as he learned the tricks of the trade from a motley crew of traders, travellers and punters.  He said: “People came from all over the country to work for dad on his many side stalls which included Hook a Duck and the darts joints (stalls)  – this was dad’s favourite as it always made the most money. He would still always ensure people left with a consolation prize and a big smile.”

He then went on to own other rides such as the Space Walk and kiddie Jets and was also the first person in Europe to operate the Space Walk which was an early proto bouncy castle.

During the winter months Billy the consummate salesman would fly pitch the streets of London selling as much from a suitcase as possible before the police turned up. Other business interests included antiques. If Dreamland was his spiritual home, then the world of antiques was his passport around the world.

Already a collector and restorer of furniture he opened a shop in Westbrook called House of Windsor. A second shop of the same name was opened in Germany after he discovered the vibrant markets of Bonn. Billy’s customers included diplomats and due to the Windsor name, he was often invited to embassy parties on the hilarious assumption he was of blue blood.

Son Richard, who owns Old Stable Antiques on New Street, went on selling trips with his dad to America and the big fairs in UK and Europe which were always more about the crack.  He said: “It was never about making any money.

“If you made nothing you commiserated with a drink and if you made a few quid you celebrated. It was a big social event – with my dad it was always about the story, if one venture failed, he would just move on to the next thing. He was more like the ultimate full cup rather than the proverbial half, and never stopped believing.”

Billy with his sisters

Most recently Billy’s rollercoaster fortunes saw him open gift shop Kiss Me Quick on The Parade. Wearing a striped waistcoat his twinkly eyes and gruff London patter soon became a focal point of a TV show fronted by retail guru Mary Portas.

Mary Queen of Shops documented the attempts to turn around ailing High Streets with a Government grant. Billy supported the project and would find another arena to entertain the masses greeting punters from all over the world who had watched the show.

Richard says it was a pivotal time for Margate. He said: “Turner Contemporary opened a year before. Dad was a big supporter – really believed it would change Margate for the better and he was right. I think being at the shop reminded him of his time at Dreamland too.”

Whether TV, print or YouTube media attention was never far away. During lockdown Billy was self-isolating but in his inimitable way still created a viral video reaching more than 20 million people worldwide. The clip featured son Mark and his grandchildren winching a bucket of supplies up to his Westgate flat. Mark said: “Even during lockdown my dad still managed to create a story and make the news – unbelievable.”

During his final months Billy continued to create his own story even through his illness remaining defiant until the end, and if he was the great protagonist Margate was always the stage – the town has lost one of its biggest personalities.

Billy’s funeral takes place at Thanet Crematorium at 2.30pm on Thursday, October 12. Around 1,45pm there will be a procession along Margate seafront. Billy’s yellow pick-up truck will form part of the cortege. The family have requested donations to Pilgrims Hospices rather than flowers.

3 Comments

  1. There’s a greaqt spirit gone and a little less local colour – I remember being consulted about Portaloos. Billy wanted them for H&S reasons for a Kings Steps Project featuring 5,000 ukelele players to get into the Guinness Book of Records. I suggested ‘get them in the buff and pained blue – it then becomes an art form and the Arts Council would be your first port of call’.

    RIP Billy – one of life’s enhancers

  2. I remember Billy from when I worked in Dreamland in the Summers of the 70s. He never seemed to change; a character who personified Margate as it was in the time of Kiss Me Quick hats, rock stalls and the weekly emptying of local hotels into coaches bound for home with satisfied families, long before the regeneration. I caught up with him a couple of times when the Turner meant that there was a glimmer of hope again when he opened Kiss Me Quick: when local history gets discussed, Billy is a big part of the last 50 years.

  3. As a long-time, but now-ex Margate resident, sad to read this, I had exchanged some emails with Billy a little while back – his Kiss Me Quick shop at the Parade used to be our family’s when it was Finlay’s Newsagents(and prior to that, Peter Finlay’s parents’). Another little bit of history gone – and I didn’t know much of this! Commiserations to the family.

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