Max Lea MBE, Football Referee
Maxie Lea – Ready for training!
At the top of Brick Lane, there was once a nest of densely populated streets where a group of young boys became friends in the nineteen thirties and although the topography has changed beyond all recognition, their friendship remains alive today. Max Lea was one of those who shared in the lively camaraderie engendered at the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club, which was based nearby in Chance St, where the boys met each evening to let off steam and enjoy high jinks, while escaping their crowded homes.
“Maxie,” as he is commonly known, became a member in 1941 and then a club manager in 1947, a post that he held until it closed in 1989. In fact, Maxie still organises the annual reunions and, in 2000, the Queen gave him an MBE for his stalwart devotion to the heroic boys’ club. Of diminutive stature and playful by nature, with his pebble glasses and exuberant humour, Maxie was always a popular figure, but his experiences at the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club encouraged his gregarious personality and his respect for justice – finding equal expression in the sporting life he has pursued both as player and as referee.
I was born in the Royal London Hospital Whitechapel on 29th June 1930 as a twin, with a blue baby that died after eight hours. My parents lived at 265 Brick Lane in a small grocery shop. My mother’s family came from Lodz in Poland and they had a tailoring business in Plumbers Row, Stepney. My father’s family were from Russia but I don’t know where, he came with his family to Portsmouth in the nineteen twenties. They met through friends. My father travelled up from Portsmouth and they got married and lived on Brick Lane where he started a tailoring business in the house. Mum ran the grocery shop, which was opposite Gossett St. There were five children, we all slept in the two upstairs rooms and we kept ourselves together, we were never short of food.
At nine, I was evacuated, at first to Soham and then to Stoke Hammond for eighteen months. The thing that always comes back to me was when we had a big snowfall, I was walking to school with my sister and the next thing she said was, “Where are you?” I fell into a ditch. Life was good, quite peaceful and I played football and cricket with the other boys. It taught me a lot about friendship.
At thirteen years, I came back for my Bar Mitzvah but on the day of the service I had Quinsy, a swelling of the throat. I was lying in bed and I could hardly speak. I heard my mother and father downstairs, saying,“What are we going to do?” At that moment, it burst! We went along but I could only say a portion of the Torah – just the pages in the front – and after that I went back to bed.
Then, at fourteen, I left school and, as my brother was a pastry cook, I decided I was going to do the same and I went to work at Joe Lyons in Coventry St, Piccadilly. Going to work so early in the mornings, the good-time girls used to take my arm and say “Come with me.” But I said, “I’m on my way to work!” I didn’t hardly know what it was all about – I was just a little fella.
In 1941, I joined the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys Club in Chance St. Until then, the only holiday I ever had was Southend, staying in Mrs Lewis’ boarding house for a week while my father travelled back and forth to work each day. Joining the club, I got to go on camps and Harry Tichener, the club manager known as “T,” became like a second father to me. He was a photographer by profession and an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society. At fourteen, I joined the committee as a junior officer. It built a life of comradeship for us. And it taught me how to deal with others and how to talk to people. It taught me management, that you don’t say, “Oi, Can you do this?” You say, “Can you please help me?”
I moved out of Brick Lane in 1960, when they pulled the shop down and offered us a place in Vallance Rd. But it was under the railway, so we moved to Rostrevor Avenue instead and eventually to Stamford Hill. My mother ran the shop all this time and I lived with her until she died at seventy-seven in 1976. From being a pastry chef, I became a stock keeper for sportswear company and then I worked for Tower Hamlets Housing Office, staying until I retired in 1995. When I was working for Tower Hamlets, I used to deal with new properties and, one day, a lady came in to present the papers of 265 Brick Lane and my heart stopped. “What’s the matter?” she asked, and I said, “Before they pulled it down, I used to live at that number.”
Maxie has been back only twice to Brick Lane since 1960. “Each time, I went for walk and got lost,” he admitted to me with a crazy grin of self-parody, “but it’s just as mixed now as it ever was.” Yet although the streets are changed and the building in Chance St is gone long ago, Harry Tichener’s affectionate and beautiful photographs survive to witness the vibrant world of the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club – which once offered an invaluable taste of freedom to so many young men from the East End.
Today, Maxie is in regular contact with the friends he made in Brick Lane in the nineteen thirties, and he lives now in an immaculate flat in Stanmore surrounded by trophies and certificates, commemorating his meritorious services to refereeing football matches. At first, I couldn’t quite understand the appeal of refereeing until Maxie confided, “As a player you only make acquaintances, but as a referee you make many more lasting friendships. It has given me a very fruitful and interesting life.”
Max enjoys a casual cigarette at age eleven, pictured here with Victor Monger, 1941.
Boat trip, Max raises his fingers to his chin in the centre left of the picture.
Camp Banquet, Max is on the far left.
On Herne Bay Sands, Max stands in profile on the right.
Looking down on Dover, Max is on the left of the group.
Max is in the chef’s hat with a pipe on the left of this picture.
Max is pictured doing the washing up on the left of the table.
Max is in the centre right, paddling with his pals, Stanley, Manny, Butch & Ken.
Max & Stanley go boating.
Treasure Hunt, Max is centre left beneath the tree.
The Treasure Hunt continues, Max is on the right.
A Human Pyramid with Max at the top.
Tea in the orchard 1942, Max sits on the right drinking a mug of tea.
Max peels the spuds at the centre of this picture.
Harold goes for breakfast while Paul & Max look on.
1950, Shackelford. Max, Roy & Albert get water.
Weekend Camp, Easter 1955. Max with his head in his pal’s lap.
France, 1959, Max at the centre of this group.
France 1959, Max is seen in profile, waving at the centre left of this picture.
France, 1959, Max is at the centre of this happy group.
Weekend Course at Amersham, Max at the centre.
Hastings, 1957, Max and his scooter.
Max & pals at Middelkerne Beach.
In 2000, Max receives his MBE for services to the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club.
Max Lea MBE -“The sporting life has kept me fit for all these years.”
Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club photographs by Harry Tichener ARPS
Portrait copyright © Jeremy Freedman
Read my other Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys Club Stories