"Your punching here is diabolical — it’s got to be fucking sharp”. It’s Monday night at the club, the air is thick with sweat and echoes with the slap of skipping ropes on cracked floors. Chart music is playing on the radio. The bell goes and the team break into a round of press ups and shuttle runs. After that it’s free sparring. The trainers are watching every move and are not afraid to comment.
Things have pulled into shape here. A few years back the Lynn took on new trainers including Samm, Terry, Rob and Jimmy, and discipline has been restored. In the last six years there have been Lynn boxers at every single amateur championship in the country. Tonight Marvin and Tee-kay are training for the London Championships. Marvin has nine kilos to lose for his fight at the weekend and he knows he has to work hard.
“No drugs, no knives, no guns”. Those are the rules and if you don’t follow you’re out. But no one fights until they’re good and ready. This may be amateur boxing but days, months, years of training go into this. It becomes your life and, if you keep with it, soon enough it becomes a place to belong. The bond with the club is obvious; you feel it when you walk in and you see it in the members who stay back to chat and catch up. Ren is one of a handful of girl boxers. When she got pregnant she thought that’d be the end of her boxing career, but now she brings her baby to the club while she trains. To her the place feels more like a family than just a place to box.
“Once a Lynn member, you’re always a Lynn member; no one’s bigger than the Lynn. We always say that.” Geoff Born is the chairman, unanimously elected, and is the club’s longest serving living member. He came in at nine years old back in 1944, boxed as a lightweight, won three Southwark Schoolboy Championships and reached the National Semi-Finals. Born in Southwark during the War he’s seen things come and go more than most.
Founded in a café in Borough High Street in 1892, the Lynn A.C. is England’s oldest continuing amateur boxing club. The Amateur Boxing Association was founded just twelve years before and then boxing really took off. By 1920 The Lynn was considered by Boxing Magazine to be the largest boxing club in London with 200 members. It could also have been considered the largest club in Great Britain.
The club has had more than a few success stories, including Olympic Champion, R.K Gunn in 1908, European Champion, Dave McCleave in 1934, and Commonwealth Champion, Frank Ryan, among others, and multiple ABA Champions with four consecutive titles by Matt Wells. Professional heavyweight, Danny Williams, who knocked out Mike Tyson in 2004, was also a Lynn boxer.
It might be the oldest running club, but that’s not to say the Lynn has managed to keep the same venue. Since its foundation the club has been through turbulent times with premises being lost, found and, during the War, completely blown to pieces. Since Geoff started at the club it has moved at least ten times to different locations, but has always had its roots firmly in South East London and has been based at Wells Way Baths in Camberwell since 1980. Today the club wears its history on its walls — photos, past tournament posters, newspaper cuttings and honours lists. Not much space remains.
Among the recent newspaper clips are Obed Mbwakongo and his brother Chris, both called up to the GB squad, as well as Ruth Raper, the first Lynn girl to box for England. Equally there are mentions of events much closer to home, with twelve-year-old Chris McDonagh on his way to a national schoolboy title and bantamweight, Victor Jennings, winning the National Novice title.
Frank Duffett trained ten ABA champions and hundreds of Lynn boxers who won titles and international vests of all kinds in his forty years at the Lynn. But success has always been about more than raising champions. As Frank said to the Evening News in 1979, “It’s nice to develop a Champion but I found the greatest satisfaction was watching kids, who would otherwise not be decent citizens, change through their involvement with the club and with boxing”. It’s possible this is truer today than ever. The Lynn’s Wells Way Baths are at the heart of Camberwell, one of the toughest areas of London and well known for gang tensions. The notorious Aylesbury estate is just round the corner. Samm Mullins, the Lynn’s head trainer, talks of boys he’s seen transformed through boxing, how boxing builds respect for people, and respect for yourself.
The Lynn may be training champion boxers but besides that they’re training up decent people who can leave a fight in the ring, shake hands and buy each other a drink in the pub. The club is a place of discipline, hope and strong foundations. It also offers a distraction for kids growing up on the nearby estates. “For a lot of people, it’s a get out,” says Samm. “We keep the gym open as late as we can on Fridays.” He’s well aware that the club is sometimes the one thing that keeps a kid off the streets and on the straight and narrow.
The club is doing what it’s always done; taking those that come in no matter their background and helping them become something more. The trainers are the heart and soul. Samm, Terry, Rob and Jimmy are there every night and between them they keep the place going. They’re all volunteers, come straight from work to the club, and often don’t leave ‘til nine pm. They’re the ones to train and nurture, there at every contest.
The club’s first headquarters were above the Duchess of Kent pub in Borough. After that it was Dover Castle and then the Duke of Clarence at Manor Place. The Lynn has always been a part of South East London. In the early days many of the club’s regulars came from Bermondsey, which at the time was home to leather tanning, saw-mills and manual labour. There were times when unemployment was high. Boxing was popular and, unlike the elitism of the earliest clubs, where there was no entry without references, the Lynn was open to all. In South East London boxing was the sport for every man who cared to try it.
Boyson Hall was home to the Lynn at the start of World War Two but didn’t last long. The place was blitzed, along with the Fitzroy’s Kennington Road club (Fitzroy Lodge B.C). The two clubs banded together and briefly used Crampton Street School, but in 1941 a landmine wrecked the building. Apparently nothing much was left but the ring and a few boxing gloves flying in the wind. No kit survived and the clubs had to start again from scratch.
These days in Camberwell the club is fighting to keep the subs down so members can afford to keep training. The Lynn gets by on just the basics, there’s no surplus, and to this point they’ve been mostly self-funding. But the Council wants to push up the rent on the Wells Way Baths to “market levels” which would push the basic running costs well out of reach for the Lynn as it stands. The Council is asking for an increase in subs. Geoff Born won’t budge, the club must be kept affordable, but their lease is up and so far there’s no plan B.
To the Lynn it’s more important that the club is open to everyone willing to work up a sweat than to pack a profit. As in 1890, the club is still a place for the local man (or woman), and they are fighting to keep it that way. In that sense things at the Lynn are very much as they always were.
When Derek Angol joined the club, aged thirteen, he was “a problem pupil” and difficult to handle. But the Lynn has always been a place for strong role models and good principles. Under the guidance of trainer, Bill Howick, and with the support of Keith Walters he went on the win the London Championship and the Port of London Authority Championship, as well as England vests against East Germany and the USA, going for the coveted ABA title and battling for the light heavyweight crown. Finally Derek went pro, winning the Commonwealth cruiserweight title in 1989 and the British title in 1991. Not bad for a rocky start.
Lynn members have been noted over the years, not only for their boxing success, but for their character and the good they did to those around them. Tommy McGovern, Dave McCleave, Pat McCormick and Matt Wells all went on from the club to win British Championships, but coach Charlie Tucker, club captain Frank Frost, long-serving trainer Frank Duffett, ‘Tiny’ Ryan and many more are well-noted in the club’s history. Keith Walters, friend of Derek Angol, is now Director of the Lynn and only last week was awarded an OBE for his lifelong commitment to boxing.
Geoff Born talks with pride of the time when Prince Philip came down to visit the club. He was supposed to spend just twenty minutes, but stayed forty-five and in that time HRH asked one of the Council officials about the mosaic on the side of the Wells Way Baths. “There wasn’t a person there who knew what that was for”, remembers Geoff, “but the answer was the butterfly, the Camberwell beauty from the old Samuel Jones factory. I knew that because I was born in the Borough.” Geoff’s point is that with local knowledge comes local understanding, something that could all too easily be lost.
Eyram is fourteen. The Lynn is the first place he’s boxed. He’s been here a year and he plans to stay. He grins as he tells me about his time at the club so far. It’s his local club too, he lives nearby, just behind the estate. His friends and his coach’s son got him into it.
The club has been through turbulent times before but there’s a risk that it could all be swept away now if the money doesn’t come from somewhere or a venue can’t be found. Geoff Born and Keith Walters are pulling every connection they’ve got looking for solutions.
Putting up the subs is not the option they want to take. At a meeting with Southwark Council a young lady asked Geoff what they charged at the club and tutted that the subs should be raised. “Well, Keith actually jabbed me in the arm because he knew what I was going to say: ‘Do you really live in the real world?’”, says Geoff. “I mean the kids wouldn’t go and I’m not saying then that every one of them is going to get a knife or a gun, but having said that… you might join your gang or my gang. Everyone’s strapped for cash and we get people moaning about these things, but at the end of the day, the kids haven’t got that sort of money.”
Right now the Lynn’s future is uncertain. And if the club can’t stay at the Wells Way, what’s the next option? Throughout its history the club has somehow managed to make it work, with a good deed or a kind soul. And at its core the Lynn is a club with grit and ambition, with boxers determined to make a success of themselves even when times are tough. The question isn’t whether the Lynn will survive, it’s where. Or more specifically, where next?