At The Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club
Dominic Patmore, Powerlifter
In Turin St, there is a single-storey brick building so unassuming that even the locals do not know what it is, yet this is home to the celebrated Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club. The esteemed members believe their association dates from 1926, but a poster for the New Bethnal Green Weightlifting & Physical Culture Club on the wall inside the gym, dated 1931, suggests that its origin may be earlier.
Even the most senior member, Ron Whitton of Columbia Rd, is a relative newcomer who joined in 1946. He greeted Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I when we paid a visit at the weekend, fresh from his twice-weekly swim in the Serpentine and preparing for his twice-weekly weightlifting session to follow. A sprightly octogenarian, Ron is a shining exemplar of the health benefits of body-building and weightlifting. “I’ve always been a keep fit guy,” he vouched, indicating the photos of his former glories upon the wall,“there’s not many guys of eighty-three still training.”
“In 1946, it was just an old shed in the playground with one or two bars and a set of dumbbells, where a couple of guys who’d come out of the forces started weight-training,” Ron recalled fondly, casting his eyes around the hallowed space, “Around 1948, Jack Brenda, Secretary of the Club, opened up this place but it was like something out of the Hammer House of Horrors then, it had been closed for years and there was no equipment, but we got it going and we’ve been here ever since.”
On Saturday morning, we encountered a mutually respectful crew of all sizes of male and female weightlifters absorbed in their training session, punctuated with intense cathartic moments when a major lift was ventured and one among them heaved and strained, channelling the support of their comrades egging them on, before throwing the weight down with a clang onto the mat. Although there were those who had the obvious advantage of size, most compelling in their lifts were those skinny individuals of diminutive stature who appeared to summon resources of strength from the ether in lifting weights that looked far beyond their apparent capacity.
“I started because I liked the idea of being strong,” powerlifter Laura Porter admitted to me, “but now I’m obsessed – it’s the satisfaction when you get a new personal best. I’m not super-duper strong yet, but I’m not bad and I like the feeling of being powerful.”
“It’s a good thing for women to do because it’s good for your bone strength, counteracting any tendency to brittle bones,” she revealed with a blush, “I’m approaching forty so I think about these things, but I hope to be weightlifting and competing in my sixties and beyond.”
A relaxed family atmosphere prevails at Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club, uniting enthusiasts of all ages and walks of life. “There was a time when every London borough had places like these but now there only two left in the entire capital,” Martin Bass, Club Secretary informed me, readily indicated pals that joined with him over forty years ago – and demonstrating the modest camaraderie among all those who seek transcendence of their physical and spiritual limits, here in confines of the gym, as a counterpoint to the external challenges of life’s journey beyond its walls.
Ron Whitton, still weighlifting at eighty-three
Ron is second from right at the Bethnal Green Physique Contest of 1952 – London’s first body-building contest. “all the other have passed away”
Laura Porter, Powerlifter
Laura - “I like the feeling of being powerful”
Martin Bass, Club Secretary and Member for forty-five years
At the Women’s Powerlifting Contest
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club, 229 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 6AB – entrance in Turin St
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