Len Hoffman, Sports Coach
For sixty-seven years, Len Hoffman has given up his time to coach kids in East London and, even now at the age of ninety-one, he cannot stop. “It keeps me young,” claimed the sprightly nonagenerian as he went about his regular stint, coaching at Mossford table tennis club in Seven Kings.
Born in Bow, Len moved to Forest Gate as a child and left school at fourteen. “Dad worked on the Times, so he got me a job there working as a messenger boy. I went everywhere in London, including to Buckingham Palace.” After service in the RAF - “they sent me to Germany as the German prisoners of war were being sent back” – Len returned to work as a clerk on the Times, but could not settle. It was at this point that his obsession with sport kicked in and his long career in coaching commenced in 1947. Len worked as a school attendance officer in Newham and as a table tennis coach in schools in Newham and Barking and Dagenham.
However, it was in a scruffy ex-army shed in Sebert Rd Forest Gate that Len established what became a hotbed for British table tennis. In this unlikely setting, three or four nights per week, and on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, the hut was packed solid with kids aged from five to sixteen, including Chester Barnes, who became English Junior and Senior champion, and put the sport both on the map and on the back pages. Essex and National champions followed, along with a succession of East End kids who represented England at Junior and Senior level including England Number One at Junior, Senior and Veterans level Stuart Gibbs, and Skylet Andrew a former Olympian, winner of three Commonwealth Gold medals, a World Cup Silver medal and fouerteen National titles, who is now a successful sports agent.
If table tennis was not your thing, there was always five-a-side football under floodlights. Thus, across various East End and Essex venues, Len encouraged the fledgling careers of professional footballers such as Frank Lampard senior, Chris Hughton and Harry Redknapp.
After a day’s work, Len coached table tennis and football five nights a week, “lucky I never got married, no wife would have put up with it,” he admitted to me. One of his venues included the much-missed Fairbairn House Boys’ Club in Canning Town. Founded in 1891 and with its origins in the Mansfield House University settlement, at its peak the club had a membership of nine hundred, and included facilities such as a library, theatre, workshops, gymnasium, and canteen. The club could also boast a sports’ ground at Burgess Rd East Ham, with a running track, football pitches, tennis courts and an open air swimming pool which boasted a gym, a theatre, an athletics track and an outdoor swimming pool.
Generations of young people have benefitted from the quiet unassuming dedication of Len Hoffman who is now the proud recipient of the British Empire Medal.
While we were chatting in his room he worked out on an exercise bike that he has adapted. “I do this every day, it’s good for me to keep moving,” he explained. When he was not working out on his Heath Robinson machine, Len regaled me with tales from a lifetime of coaching. “Chester (Barnes)was the best, no doubt about it. He just had that little something about him.” Yet most of his memories do not involve stars or sporting excellence, they typically involve the little details of people’s lives, of teams, players and muddy football pitches, cold church halls on a winter’s night and the reaction in 1964 of a young kid on seeing the twin towers of the old Wembley stadium exclaimed, “But it looks just like it does on the tele!” These little details recounted over half a century later are what Len Hoffman is all about.
And he is a long way from retiring. Every Saturday morning he is picked up by Mossford Secretary, John Spero, and delivered to the club, where with undimmed enthusiasm he organises the weekly tournament and coaches hordes of potential champions – along with their young brothers and sisters.
For someone like Len Hoffman, it is not solely about stars. He recognised that too often we focus on the elite end of sport, ignoring the wider benefits to be gleaned from participation. All over London and in a wide range of sports, volunteers like Len and his coaching colleagues Phil Ashleigh and Tony Cantale offer kids a chance to get out of the house and off the street, to learn a skill, make friends and build their confidence. For once, the term “unsung heroes” seems entirely appropriate.
Len Hoffman, Sports Coach
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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