So his dad marched him down to the local Boys’ Club and promptly enrolled him. It worked. The barbells, punchbags and push-ups gave him muscles and the boxing gave him discipline, courage and grace under pressure. He was soon over five stone and a pretty nippy flyweight. He never got bashed up again.
He became a PE teacher in the RAF and then a fabulous secondary school teacher, who taught the tougher nuts to read. Not bad for a boy who’d left school at 12.
“Saved my life that Boys’ Club!” he’d always say.
Well, that club was called The Crown and Manor and it’s been saving the lives of young men in Hackney for more than 100 years. It has survived through thick and thin and last week moved to a splendid new venue in Hoxton, opened by Mayor Boris. There are excellent sports halls, fitness rooms, classrooms and IT facilities. It offers a crucial mix of sport, the academic and vocational. The staff are terrific. They deal in tough love like my father-in-law. They know the children and their community.
This club works. Moreover, it is necessary. It can reach those parts schools so often can’t. Our modern streets are full of ever more seductive and wicked distractions. Those Dickens nippers are still out there. The club can be a sanctuary for them.
Funding is therefore vital. Some institutions have been most generous. Others, like the local council, much less so. They have problems with “competitive sports”. Still? Dear me. What precious, mimsey clots. They just don’t get it. Sport is essential. It works. Boxing works. It even worked for me.
I was a weed and a wet from the Home Counties. I was press-ganged into a boxing match. I was 11-years-old. I lasted 11 seconds. A boy from Brooklyn rendered me unconscious in front of the whole school. “Bravo!” said my housemaster, applying the smelling salts. “It teaches character!” Indeed. You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve nearly died. Anything’s possible after that. Teaching in the inner city? A breeze.
So let us celebrate the continuing success of The Crown and Manor Club – unsung heroes in these unheroic times.
Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.