Boxing has always had a loyal following in Harlow. Back in the early 80s licensed bouts would take place at Harlow Sports Centre, drawing in a huge number of spectators. I first started boxing in the late 70s. I wasn’t particularly looking for a new pastime; I was perfectly content with running and gymnastics. However, I gave it a go – if only to put to rest to my mate’s unremitting demand that I should.
Way before I first set foot in the ring Harlow had just the one club – Harlow Amateur Boxing Club. When a feud between coaches became unbearable, one left and formed a splinter group – Blakedale (Amateur Boxing Club), named after the company the coach was working for, who also provided sponsorship. Needing somewhere to train, the club approached its sponsor, who offered the only place available – the staff canteen.
It’s safe to say it wasn’t the state-of-the-art facilities that enticed me to join Blakedale’s. Once we’d shifted the tables and chairs and swept up the odd chip or two, we were ready for the ring itself. Unable to have a permanent set-up, we marked out the four corners with chairs. Perimeter ropes were replaced by bystanders who, like in a playground scuffle, responded with a quick shove if anyone found themselves backed into the ‘ropes’. We couldn’t even hang punchbags – instead placing them in corners or relying on a sturdy individual to hold the chains while the bag rested on his chest. It’s laughable when I look back at it now – but regardless, the club still turned out some damn fine carded boxers. Both clubs co-existed until Harlow Amateur Boxing Club hung up its gloves due to, among other things, funding.
When Blakedale rebranded to Norwood, our club name followed suit. However, when the company closed in the late 1980s it not only stripped us of sponsorship (our name reverted to Harlow ABC), it also put us on the hunt for a new venue; urgently too, as the building itself was to be demolished. Ideally we wanted something more ‘professional’ – a building we could call and make our own. The council, who’ve always been good to us, stepped in – suggesting an unused community centre in the Ladyshot area of Harlow that could be ours for a peppercorn rent.
What our building lacks in kerb appeal is made up for in so many other ways. Not everyone feels comfortable in a swish, high-gloss environment – many having a preference for our club for that reason alone. People from all walks of life come here – young, old, male or female. Some come to keep fit; some are looking to become competitive; some turn on their heels as soon as they see what’s involved.
That said, we’re a friendly club, it’s something we pride ourselves on – it’s not our intention to be intimidating. However, you can’t get away from the fact that boxing requires discipline. For those who have it we find it rewarding to witness change, both physically and mentally in the form of increased self-confidence.
Our club is regulated, with coaches, volunteers and boxers all registered with England Boxing, unlike some gyms where boxing is one of many sports on offer. Our coaches are qualified to a standard, with the boxers’ wellbeing and welfare being of paramount importance. For those who wish to be competitive, we are seen as laying the foundations for potential future champions, training and educating boxers in all aspects of the sport until he or she is ready to move on to bigger things.
It’s unusual but, unlike some clubs, the hours I and other coaches put into running the club are purely voluntary. Aside from a bit of petrol money, ferrying our boxers to events, we don’t take a penny. Everything gets ploughed back into the club’s running costs and equipment.
We could try and expand – bigger gym, charge memberships, take a wage – but would our motivations change? They probably would. We prefer to keep things as they’ve always been, keeping true to the club’s founders: Arthur Margrain, Ted Basson, George Tyler and Peter Hill, who have all now passed away. Peter, who worked with us till a ripe old age, was always telling us it was his wish that the club should carry on, citing it as an important legacy for the town. We gave him our word and we’ve kept to it.
Some thirty-nine years later, I’m glad my mate badgered me to take up boxing. I’ve never turned my back on Harlow or the club, where for the past twenty-five years I’ve been coaching. I really feel my age when kids I taught decades ago come back with their kids!