David Robinson, Chairman of the Repton Boxing Club
“I’m nothing, I’m nobody, I’m David Nothing,” declared David Robinson, Chairman of the Repton Boxing Club in Cheshire St, by way of introducing himself, when Contributing Photographer Simon Mooney & I turned up to meet him last week. Tony Burns, Head Coach, chipped in too, suggesting to me helpfully, “You don’t have to say ‘David,’ say ‘Ignore it!’” Such high spirits were an indicator that the Repton has enjoyed another successful season and now, following the usual pattern of the year, the officers will retire on 30th May until they are re-elected in September – “Whether we like it or not!” chuckled David, rubbing his hands with glee.
“I’m an immigrant, I’m not an East Ender – but it took a boy from the West End to show them how to run a boxing club in the East End !” he continued, bragging to counteract his initial modesty and waving his hands around excitedly as we entered the Club, housed in a glorious former bath-house lined with boxing memorabilia, where David has been Chairman for the last quarter century.“We’ve been here forty years and we’ve got a thousand year lease which I personally negotiated myself,” he added with a swagger.
Once you are inside the Club, the humidity increases suddenly as you enter a space where dozens of figures are in motion, punching the air, or punchbags, or each other, with balletic grace and insistent rhythms. The energy and movement creates a volatile spectacle, illuminated by dramatic rays of sunlight from a glass lantern high in the roof and intensified by a cacophony of sound bouncing off the tiled walls pasted with old boxing posters.
Over the course of one practice session at the gym and a rainy afternoon next day at his stoneyard, David told me his story. It led me to understand something of his motives in nurturing the extended mutually-respecting family that exists at the Repton and which has been key to its ascendancy, becoming Britain’s most famous boxing Club.
“I’m not an East End boy, I was born in Old Compton St into a close Soho community composed of Irish, Italian, Cypriots, Maltese and English, and I went to St Patrick’s School in Soho Sq. Then we moved to Cleveland St, north of Oxford St, where I grew up. The house was derelict, it was bomb-damaged, no running water or power, and there was a tarpaulin in place of a roof.
I had no parents, my dad was an abusive alcoholic and my mum had left, so I had to take care of my younger brother Leon alone and protect him from my dad. I remember going down to the Kings’ Cross Coal Depot on a Saturday to get half a crown for helping out. The coal merchants would load up from the coal mountains at the rear of the station and then, as the trucks drove out, they’d pick the biggest boy from those waiting outside for a day’s work carrying sacks of coal. For half a crown, you could go to the pictures and out on a Saturday night, and have a few bob left for Sunday.
We made our own scooters from planks of wood and cut out a little groove for a ball-bearing at either end, they were the wheels. We used a tarry block from the street to secure the whole thing together and nailed beer bottle tops on the front – as identification to show which street you were from and which gang you were in, blue for this street or green for that one. Once you’d cleaned up the tarry blocks from the street, you could stand on a corner in Great Titchfield St, which was the nearest market, and sell them for a penny a bundle. We’d go down to Covent Garden Market with a sack at five in the morning and help ourselves to carrots, all the poor kids in the West End did that. It was what everyone did. You didn’t take strawberries, just vegetables. The drivers had driven through the night from Kent, and they just wanted to have a nap and drive back. You’d ask them, and they’d let you climb on top of the lorry and help yourself.
My wife Carol is from Bethnal Green and, when I met her in 1960, I was only a lad of fifteen and she was sixteen – and I had never been to the East End. I got out of the tube in Bethnal Green and I thought, ‘So this is the East End.’ We got married here in 1965 at Our Lady of the Assumption, opposite York Hall in Old Ford Rd. When I took her to the West End, she said, ‘This is fantastic, they’ve got more community spirit here than in the East End.’ It’s true. There’s twenty-two boys that I was at school with at St Patrick’s in Soho that I’m still in touch with. We meet in a cafe at the back of Holborn on the last Friday of every month, and have breakfast and a chat about life.
I got an apprenticeship as a plumber and, after Carol & I got married, we ended up living in one room in Southgate Rd where we had our first baby Terrence. We were moved by Greater London Council to Camberwell which I didn’t like but we had a bathroom with hot water and a room for my boy – so you took what you were given. We lived there five and a half years, and that’s where I started my company Rominar, Stone Restoration. It took us two years to save the deposit on a house, by then I had two more children, Jamie and my daughter Karen, and we moved to Wanstead, where I’ve remained ever since. I moved my business to Ezra St, Bethnal Green, from Camberwell where I’d been working out of a garage.
My second son, Jamie, was a bit of a boisterous lad. He got in scuffles in the playground and became generally unruly, so I took him along to the Repton Boys’ Boxing Club one Saturday. The coach Billy Taylor said, ‘He’s fat,’ I said, ‘He’s just not getting enough exercise.’ He went every Saturday and he worked his way up from the juniors to the seniors, and won the National Schoolboy Championship twice. The Repton boys have won seven National Schoolboy titles in a day – twice – in 1980 and 1983. We are the only Club to have ever done that!
Jamie went pro in the mid-eighties. I was fully involved, I was not a boxing trainer but I was very strict with the boys. I took seven boys to Liverpool once and they all lost, they gave up. I said to them, ‘What’s the matter with you? You’ve got no guts and no glory.’ I couldn’t say anything to them on the bus coming back and I didn’t speak to them for three months after.
In 1988, Bill Cox from the Amateur Boxing Association asked me to join the committee. He said, ‘I need to see you, I’ve got lung cancer and I’ve got six months to live. I want to you to come in as Vice-Chairman and when I die I want you to take over.’ I was very sad to see him go and I was at his bedside on the day he died. I put in place ways to make the club financially stable – boys need medical examinations, we have to pay for trips, accommodation for the boxers and the trainers. When I took over there was fifteen hundred pounds in the bank but we are on a much stronger basis now, and my West End contacts have proved a great support to the Club.
I say to the lads, I’ve always worked since I was fourteen because I had no mum or dad. But it’s hard for lads to get work nowadays because there’s all this paperwork, even to get a job on a building site. Once I got my apprenticeship, I could go to any site and get a job.
I’m the spokesman, I explain to people what the Repton is all about. I love it, it’s my life. I’m sixty-seven and I’m sure I’ll be here until I’m seventy . Some of these lads, I know their background and if they weren’t in the Club, they’d be out on the street, doing drugs and getting involved in crime. All we ask is, we expect respect.”
David contemplates the photo of his brother Leon, now deceased.
David sees off his brother Leon on the train to Cornwall from Paddington, 1962. “I sent him to stay with our mother, he was better off being with her than with us. I was trying to protect him from being beaten up by our drunken abusive father.”
David with Carol, his wife-to-be, on their first holiday together, Falmouth 1964. “We saved up a lot of money and took a coach from London, it seemed like a hundred hours to get there. Carol said to me, ‘It’s nice but I prefer the West End of London.’”
“When Carol met my mother Constance,” Falmouth 1964
David with his son Terry, Southgate Rd, 1966
David, Terry & Carol.
David with his sons, Jamie and Terry , and brother-in-law Johnny in Camberwell, 1970
“Me and my brother Ronnie, when we had a stoneyard up the Holloway Rd.”
David with his son Jamie who won the National Schoolboy Championships twice.
“My West End pals” David with David and John Grosvenor , childhood friends who grew up in Bedfordbury, Covent Garden.
David with Sugar Ray Leonard and one of the trainers.
David welcomes Prince Philip and the Mayor of Bethnlal Green to the Repton Boxing Club, 2004
David with some of the Repton Boys at the Dockers’ Club, Belfast 2003
David contemplates Amir Khan’s signature upon the wall of fame at the Repton.
David scrutinizes the boxers at practice.
David with head coach Tony Burns.
David at his stoneyard in Ezra St, Bethnal Green. “This is where it all happens – where you get the swearing in the morning and then swearing in the afternoon.”
“I prefer doing jobs in the West End, then I can drop in and see my pals.”
David and his son Jamie work together in the family business.
new photographs copyright © Simon Mooney
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