Stephen "Johnny" Hicks, the boxer-poet
It is my pleasure to publish this account of of the life of Stephen “Johnny” Hicks, the East End boxer-poet, as told in his own words.
When I turned professional, it was the greatest moment of my life and I meant to make the most of it. On my nineteenth birthday I signed a contract with Harry Abrahams for half-a-dozen ten round bouts at two pounds ten shillings each bout. I lost the first one in seven rounds against Wally Gilbert of Fulham who was a much more experienced boxer, but I won the second with a knock-out over Frankie White of Clerkenwell in the second round.
There have been many famous boxing venues in London’s East End but the most noted of all was the Premierland in Back Church Lane. It was a converted warehouse that held about five thousand spectators and almost every paid boxer of note must have fought there during its nineteen years reign from 1911 to 1930. My own luck at this time seemed to be in. Joe Goodwin of Premierland had billed me up for ten rounds with Alf Sheaf of Customs House. In 1927 I had turned twenty-one and I was in my boxing prime. I had a hard fight with Alf Sheaf and just managed to win on points. It was such a good contest that we had a further two meetings at the same venue, and what’s more I got three pounds for each bout. But all my hopes were shattered in my next bout at Premierland when I met an unknown boxer called Tommy Mason who knocked me out in the first round. I’m glad my brother Albert was not there that night. He would have done his nut I think.
I had a rest from boxing by visiting the hop country in Kent with Albert. We picked hops for a month and got quite bronzed and suntanned. We also kept ourselves fit and well by taking long walks through the countryside. Home again, I found that Joe Goodwin of Premierland had billed me for another ten rounds with former Navy champion “Stoker” Cockerel. He wore black tights and was very unorthodox, but it was great fight which ended in a draw after both of us had taken a count. So I regained my place at Premierland. I had learned one thing about a boxer’s life that if you give the fans their money’s worth you will never be out of a job.
On my next fight at Premierland, I got my first taste of a cauliflower ear. Although it was very painful, I got a piece of boracic lint soaked in surgical spirits and layed it on my ear. I had a stiffener of cardboard handy and bandaged it with the lint to the ear. When going to bed, I had to lay on my ear which was the left one. It was very painful of course, but by the next morning it was back to its normal size, although it was still very tender to the touch and it had to be bathed again in boiling water and in surgical spirits.
Then on Whit Monday in June 1930, when I entered the annual open air featherweight at the Crystal Palace, I received an unlucky blow in my right eye from Harry Brown of Northampton which finished me as a professional boxer. I did not realise how serious it was until the next morning when I paid a visit to the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital and was treated for a haemorrhage and laid on my back for almost six weeks with both eyes bandaged. They could nothing for me and the sight of my right eye was lost forever. I had a job to keep steady on my feet but my brothers Albert and Jack were with me. I thought, “in boxing I was taught to keep a cool head at all times, so I must try to do this now to fight for my existence.”
Albert and Jack came to my rescue. They had hundreds of tickets printed stating the plight I was in and the cause of it. They were bought by friends, neighbours and supporters, in the docks, shops and local boxing halls. I was very grateful for the money that was brought in, although it seemed I was living on charity I was able to pay my way. As soon as I was fit in mind and body for any kind of labour I turned to the docks, but there were hundreds of other unemployed labourers and so every morning it was a fight to the finish in the scramble to get a day’s work. I actually saw the mounted police with batons raised, disperse the hungry mob whose only criminal offence was a willingness to work.
It was 1936 and I was thirty years of age, when I joined Albert in the blacksmith’s shop. We both had experience beforehand of using a fourteen pound hammer as we once did six weeks work digging roads for the Stepney Borough. It certainly came in handy now as we were using the big hammer eight hours a day. In the summer evenings after work, I used to sit in our backyard at home, where we had grown a garden of mixed flowers, and relax in the thick grass that grew abundantly. Among the animals we had as pets were two cats, two rabbits and a tortoise, I used to get much amusement watching them greet each other by almost touching noses. It seemed so peaceful there and so quiet that I often fell asleep.
I was happy and contented, I could not see the war clouds hovering ever near. My home in Bohn St was bombed but luckily I was not in it at the time. I was thirty-four years of age when, because of my eye, I failed my medical test for military service. I was now living in one small room in John Islip St in Westminster. There were plenty of jobs for everyone, and it was while working on a steel cutting machine in my employer’s yard that I composed my first poem.
I always had the idea I could write poetry, as I had written a few on scraps of paper just for the fun of it. The first poem came to me on the Bridge Wharf in Westminster, when in the corner of the yard I noticed a small white flower growing bravely against a host of weeds and brambles and I thought how wonderful it looked in its struggle for survival. I thought that it must surely win through with such daunting courage, and so the first poem was born.
It was during March 1963 that I bought a ticket for a poetry reading at the Toynbee Hall in Aldgate featuring Dame Sybil Thorndike. I showed her a few of my poems and she said, “They are charming, can I keep them?” It was a week later that I received a letter from the famous actress from her home in Chelsea. “Dear Steve Hicks, Your poems are charming, I read them with great pleasure, thank you so much for giving them to me, all good wishes. Yours sincerely Sybil Thorndike.” One day I entered a poetry competition without success, but then I received a letter from the organiser, who reported that John Betjeman who judged the competition said that, “he hopes I continue to write.” Well of course I did. A defeat to me is nothing, I have had too many of them in the past.
Copies of Stephen Hicks’ autobiography “Sparring for Luck,”also containing many of his poems, are available from East Side Books in Brick Lane.Johnny Hicks to fight Tommy Mason at Premierland March 12th 1928
Premierland (Back Church Lane 1911-1930)
What lovely fights at Premierland! Three shows a week, no room to stand, A bit rough there but it was grand, it suited you and me.
Oh, Premierland, oh hall of fame, If only you were with us once again, But alas it can never be from now until Eternity.
Some famous fighting men on view Were Phil Scott, Berg, and Harvey too, And ‘Kid” Lewis the mighty Jew They were all there to see.
When Webster fought Al Foreman there, The British lightweight title pair, The place was packed, no room to spare, A fistic rhapsody.
It stands there proudly to this day though it is used in quite a different way. Demolishers, thy hand do stay Break not I beg of thee! The Boxer Speaks
I took up boxing just for sport, and though not very clever I’m really glad that I was taught the art of slinging leather.
I was always at my worst with too many back pedals And so I started out at first for cutlery and medals.
So when I learnt to stand my ground I then began to figure That I could punch out every round with all the utmost vigor.
And thus I carried on that way with very small expense ‘Til I was brimful, one might say, of much experience.
The big moment was now at hand and I was mad to go To get fixed up at Premierland as an amateur turned pro.
Needless to say, my luck held out, for there and other shows, With hard earned cash from every bout for punches on the nose.
I’ve had black eyes and swelled up ears and K.O. once or twice But I enjoyed it through the years a fighter at cut price.
And through it all I say with pride most boxers are great pals Because they will stand by your side if everyone else fails. Some People
Some people eat and some do not. It depends on how much cash they’ve got. So if you’re hungry now I guess Well, next week you may be getting less.
We don’t have much left over After everything is bought, Many are in clover But some don’t get what they ought.
Things that we need throughout the day Are so fantastically dear. It’s all right for them down Pall Mall way But we don’t get much round here.
The toffs of Knightsbridge and Mayfair Are blessed with all good things They’re never short of anything That’s what the good life brings.
I’ve often wondered to myself ‘Why does this have to be?’ For they’ve got nearly all the wealth And there’s nothing for you or me.”
Stephen Hicks (1906-1979) – the cover of his first book of poems, published May 1974.