At The Bruce Club Reunion
Celebrated Pianist Winfred Atwell arrives at The Bruce Club escorted by Ronnie Kray
This photograph records a strange moment in the brief history of The Bruce Club when, in 1963, the celebrated Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, famous for playing boogie-woogie and ragtime, was brought to entertain the young people of the Boundary Estate at St Hilda’s East by notorious gangster and psychopathic killer Ronnie Kray. A photograph of the happy occasion, showing Winifred jazzing it up for the kids, found its way into 1964 Yearbook for St Hilda’s East which at the time was run by Cheltenham Ladies College but – unsurprisingly – that picture does not include either Ronnie or his equally malevolent brother Reggie Kray.
Last week, I joined a few members of The Bruce Club for an impromptu reunion in Bethnal Green to recall the glory days, half a century later and now that the nefarious twins are safely out of the way. “They came up to the club and gave us footballs for the boys,” recalled club member Lesley Keeper brightly, with a wry grin that admitted the futility of her apologia, ”They weren’t all bad.”
We were sitting round a table with the photographs before us. Adopting his original role of youth leader, Derek Cox took the initiative in outlining the nature of the club while the members paid rapt attention. He showed me the letter that recruited him to the job in 1963 and summoned him to a whole new life.
“We started from scratch with The Bruce Club.” Derek explained, “What I was doing was not really approved of because we were giving people a chance to have fun, not doing do-goody things. But that was my way to do it, if you’re going to have influence you have to do it in a way that is non-judgemental.”
“I went there to make friends and because I wanted to play the piano,” confided Lesley picking up on Derek’s theme, and growing animated with affection,”They all used to shout at me, ‘Can’t you stop?’ I got involved in the social life. We had dances and it was very entertaining, I loved it. I joined in 1964 when I left school and I got married in 1966 at eighteen.”
“On Fridays, the seniors took the last tube from Liverpool St up to the West End, it was a bit dodgy.” revealed Derek, widening his eyes for effect, “There was a problem with purple hearts at the time and they took them so they could stay awake all night. They came back here on a Saturday morning looking rough. They were a tough bunch. It was the time of the Mods and Rockers. All the Mods went to a club in Barnet Grove and we were left with the Rockers. There were a lot of gangs and the youth workers used to get together to discuss problems. I remember the manager of the club in Hoxton was told to crack down on the drug scene by his employers and the next time we saw him, his head was in bandages.”
Letting the social commentary pass by, club member Kelvin Wing simply wanted to enthuse about the club.”It was somewhere to go, when there was nothing else do.” he assured me, “I lived nearby in Linden Buildings at the top of Brick Lane and I joined the club at eleven. I went three nights a week for dancing and seeing girls – hoping for a chance of y’know – and we played badminton and football. At sixteen, I joined the Repton Boxing Club, but I’d left school at fifteen and by then I was already working down Spitalfields Market as an empty boy.”
A silence fell among those at the table, enjoying a collective sense of well-being as they contemplated the value of The Bruce Club in the their lives.“I always wanted to be a youth worker. I was a boy scout and I was chair of Guildford Youth Committee.” confessed Derek, touched by the appreciation, “As an outsider to the East End, it took two years for me to feel safe on the streets in the area. I mixed with quite a lot of people who protected me, but I didn’t want to walk around on my own.”
Yet The Bruce Club only enjoyed an abrupt flowering before it was closed down. “The establishment, the warden and the others, they disapproved and The Bruce Club shut on 31st August 1965.” said Derek, “I was being housed by St Hilda’s in Grimsby St, off Brick Lane, and afterwards I didn’t want to leave the people and the life. I loved all the different cultures and the wonderful markets. I have lived in Tower Hamlets since 1963, and I have changed my name and become a Muslim.”
The evident truth was that those gathered that day all still live in Bethnal Green and remain friends.”The Bruce Club was an experiment and it lived on,” Derek concluded, as those at the table eagerly concurred.
Members of The Bruce Club, 1963
Members of The Bruce Club, 2013 – Derek Cox (Club Leader 1963-5), with Kelvin Wing, Lesley Keeper and Derek Martin.
Winifred Atwell jazzes it up for the kids at St Hilda’s East.
Most glamorous grandmother contest.
Mr Clements, Warden of St Hilda’s East in Old Nichol St.
Arriving for The Bruce Club
Members setting out for a summer trip to France.
“Where we used to buy our drinks and borrow glasses” – The Dolphin in Redchurch St.
Derek Cox’s contract as Club Leader at St Hilda’s East
Pictures reproduced courtesy of St Hilda’s East
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