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Stephen "Johnny" Hicks, the boxer-poet

August 18, 2010
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish this account of of the life of Stephen “Johnny” Hicks, the East End boxer-poet, as told in his own words.

When I turned professional, it was the greatest  moment of my life and I meant to make the most of it. On my nineteenth birthday I signed a contract with Harry Abrahams for half-a-dozen ten round bouts at two pounds ten shillings each bout. I lost the first one in seven rounds against Wally Gilbert of Fulham who was a much more experienced boxer, but I won the second with a knock-out over Frankie White of Clerkenwell in the second round.

There have been many famous boxing venues in London’s East End but the most noted of all was the Premierland in Back Church Lane. It was a converted warehouse that held about five thousand spectators and almost every paid boxer of note must have fought there during its nineteen years reign from 1911 to 1930. My own luck at this time seemed to be in. Joe Goodwin of Premierland had billed me up for ten rounds with Alf Sheaf of Customs House. In 1927 I had  turned twenty-one and I was in my boxing prime. I had a hard fight with Alf Sheaf and just managed to win on points. It was such a good contest that we had a further two meetings at the same venue, and what’s more I got three pounds for each bout. But all my hopes were shattered in my next bout at Premierland when I met an unknown boxer called Tommy Mason who knocked me out in the first round. I’m glad my brother Albert was not there that night. He would have done his nut I think.

I had a rest from boxing by visiting the hop country in Kent with Albert. We picked hops for a month and got quite bronzed and suntanned. We also kept ourselves fit and well by taking long walks through the countryside. Home again, I found that Joe Goodwin of Premierland had billed me for another ten rounds with former Navy champion “Stoker” Cockerel. He wore black tights and was very unorthodox, but it was great fight which ended in a draw after both of us had taken a count. So I regained my place at Premierland. I had learned one thing about a boxer’s life that if you give the fans their money’s worth you will never be out of a job.

On my next fight at Premierland, I got my first taste of a cauliflower ear. Although it was very painful, I got a piece of boracic lint soaked in surgical spirits and layed it on my ear. I had a stiffener of cardboard handy and bandaged it with the lint to the ear. When going to bed, I had to lay on my ear which was the left one. It was very painful of course, but by the next morning it was back to its normal size, although it was still very tender to the touch and it had to be bathed again in boiling water and in surgical spirits.

Then on Whit Monday in June 1930, when I entered the annual open air featherweight at the Crystal Palace, I received an unlucky blow in my right eye from Harry Brown of Northampton which finished me as a professional boxer. I did not realise how serious it was until the next morning when I paid a visit to the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital and was treated for a haemorrhage and laid on my back for almost six weeks with both eyes bandaged. They could nothing for me and the sight of my right eye was lost forever. I had a job to keep steady on my feet but my brothers Albert and Jack were with me. I thought, “in boxing I was taught to keep a cool head at all times, so I must try to do this now to fight for my existence.”

Albert and Jack came to my rescue. They had hundreds of tickets printed stating the plight I was in and the cause of it. They were bought by friends, neighbours and supporters, in the docks, shops and local boxing halls. I was very grateful for the money that was brought in, although it seemed I was living on charity I was able to pay my way. As soon as I was fit in mind and body for any kind of labour I turned to the docks, but there were hundreds of other unemployed labourers and so every morning it was a fight to the finish in the scramble to get a day’s work. I actually saw the mounted police with batons raised, disperse the hungry mob whose only criminal offence was a willingness to work.

It was 1936 and I was thirty years of age, when I joined Albert in the blacksmith’s shop. We both had experience beforehand of using a fourteen pound hammer as we once did six weeks work digging roads for the Stepney Borough. It certainly came in handy now as we were using the big hammer eight hours a day. In the summer evenings after work, I used to sit in our backyard at home, where we had grown a garden of mixed flowers, and relax in the thick grass that grew abundantly. Among the animals we had as pets were two cats, two rabbits and a tortoise, I used to get much amusement watching them greet each other by almost touching noses. It seemed so peaceful there and so quiet that I often fell asleep.

I was happy and contented, I could not see the war clouds hovering ever near. My home in Bohn St was bombed but luckily I was not in it at the time. I was thirty-four years of age when, because of my eye, I failed my medical test for military service. I was now living in one small room in John Islip St in Westminster. There were plenty of jobs for everyone, and it was while working on a steel cutting machine in my employer’s yard that I composed my first poem.

I always had the idea I could write poetry, as I had written a few on scraps of paper just for the fun of it. The first poem came to me on the Bridge Wharf in Westminster, when in the corner of the yard I noticed a small white flower growing bravely against a host of weeds and brambles and I thought how wonderful it looked in its struggle for survival. I thought that it must surely win through with such daunting courage, and so the first poem was born.

It was during March 1963 that I bought a ticket for a poetry reading at the Toynbee Hall in Aldgate featuring Dame Sybil Thorndike. I showed her a few of my poems and she said, “They are charming, can I keep them?” It was a week later that I received a letter from the famous actress from her home in Chelsea. “Dear Steve Hicks, Your poems are charming, I read them with great pleasure, thank you so much for giving them to me, all good wishes. Yours sincerely Sybil Thorndike.”  One day I entered a poetry competition without success, but then I received a letter from the organiser, who reported that John Betjeman who judged the competition said that, “he hopes I continue to write.” Well of course I did. A defeat to me is nothing, I have had too many of them in the past.

Copies of Stephen Hicks’ autobiography “Sparring for Luck,”also containing many of his poems, are available from East Side Books in Brick Lane.

Johnny Hicks to fight Tommy Mason at Premierland March 12th 1928

Premierland (Back Church Lane 1911-1930)

What lovely fights at Premierland!
Three shows a week, no room to stand,
A bit rough there but it was grand,
it suited you and me.

Oh, Premierland, oh hall of fame,
If only you were with us once again,
But alas it can never be
from now until Eternity.

Some famous fighting men on view
Were Phil Scott, Berg, and Harvey too,
And ‘Kid” Lewis the mighty Jew
They were all there to see.

When Webster fought Al Foreman there,
The British lightweight title pair,
The place was packed, no room to spare,
A fistic rhapsody.

It stands there proudly to this day
though it is used in quite a different way.
Demolishers, thy hand do stay
Break not I beg of thee!
The Boxer Speaks

I took up boxing just for sport,
and though not very clever
I’m really glad that I was taught
the art of slinging leather.

I was always at my worst
with too many back pedals
And so I started out at first
for cutlery and medals.

So when I learnt to stand my ground
I then began to figure
That I could punch out every round
with all the utmost vigor.

And thus I carried on that way
with very small expense
‘Til I was brimful, one might say,
of much experience.

The big moment was now at hand
and I was mad to go
To get fixed up at Premierland
as an amateur turned pro.

Needless to say, my luck held out,
for there and other shows,
With hard earned cash from every bout
for punches on the nose.

I’ve had black eyes and swelled up ears
and K.O. once or twice
But I enjoyed it through the years
a fighter at cut price.

And through it all I say with pride
most boxers are great pals
Because they will stand by your side
if everyone else fails.
Some People

Some people eat and some do not.
It depends on how much cash they’ve got.
So if you’re hungry now I guess
Well, next week you may be getting less.

We don’t have much left over
After everything is bought,
Many are in clover
But some don’t get what they ought.

Things that we need throughout the day
Are so fantastically dear.
It’s all right for them down Pall Mall way
But we don’t get much round here.

The toffs of Knightsbridge and Mayfair
Are blessed with all good things
They’re never short of anything
That’s what the good life brings.

I’ve often wondered to myself
‘Why does this have to be?’
For they’ve got nearly all the wealth
And there’s nothing for you or me.”

Stephen Hicks (1906-1979) – the cover of his first book of poems, published May 1974.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. August 19, 2010

    It was lovely to see some of Steve’s stuff out in the world again. As one of the original producers of his books it’s good that there’s a new way of his work living on.

  2. Nick Pollard permalink
    September 13, 2010

    Great to see this out again – I’ve recently read my copy of Sparring for Luck again and it’s fantastic to find that this kind of book and these voices are being read by new generations.

  3. November 8, 2010

    I am the grandson of Harry Brown who unfortunately threw the punch that blinded poor Johnny Hicks. My Grandfather was not an unfeeling man and indeed was very sensitive. He never mentioned the fact that an opponent was blinded to us and I feel that it would have distressed him greatly. I am pleased to see Johnny describe it as an unlucky blow for that is what it was and I hope they have been able to be united again as boxing colleagues .

  4. Joy permalink
    December 7, 2010

    How lovely to see my Uncle Stevie memories and poems on this site.I remember him as a gentle quiet man the same as his brother my grandfather Jack Hicks.
    As a child I never heard U.Stevie or my Grandad talk about thier boxing days although I did know they both boxed. I have found out more since researching the Hicks family tree.
    Alan, he mentions in his book about his niece Margeret and her husband Billy Fisher I know nothing of these can you throw any light on them?
    U.Stevie was a very good life poet some of his works still apply today.

  5. August 16, 2011

    The old uns are the good uns both in sport (boxing) and honest literature. From Bill Ewing former amateur boxer in West Ham.

  6. Sean Corby permalink
    February 29, 2012

    I read this with great interest and a little lump in my throat. I’ll continue to read Stephen’s poems and will try to find out more about him.

    I’ve been an amateur boxer and a professional trumpet player. An odd combination, so Stephen’s story is very inspiring.

  7. Dawn Bates permalink
    May 22, 2014

    I was a neighbour of Steve Hicks in the 1970’s. I was only young but remember he would throw a comic and a few coins out of his window to us when we were playing outside. He was quite ill at the time but must have enjoyed hearing the young voices outside having fun (unlike some of the older tenants). He was quite frail towards the end his closest neighbour used to make his dinners. I remember when he died, a few famous boxers turned up for his funeral (Henry Cooper). That was a strange site in our old victorian buildings.

  8. terry fisher permalink
    August 6, 2014

    steve was a lovely man he would come see my mum dad for dinner he gave us sweets my dad billy fisher took him home in his car my mum got loads off photos what he give to her and books what he had done

  9. I was just going through some of my boxing books when I came across The Boxer Speaks by Stephen Hicks. His poems are absolutely fantastic - really wonderful. I also learned from the messages above that Stephen has passed on. Did Stephen have many poetry b permalink
    July 24, 2017

    If any of this lovely man’s poetry is still available, I would like to purchase them.
    Brian Madden (Belfast)

  10. John Warren permalink
    May 29, 2019

    Boxing has always been my favourite sport and i like poetry so when i saw Stephens book for sale in an East London shop i knew i had to buy it. His is a great story that deserves to be read.

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