The History of The Peacock Gym
By Bob Lonkhurst
Adjacent to the old London docks, viagra sale Canning Town in the east end of the capital has, health for generations, been one of the most deprived regions of the United Kingdom. With exceptionally high rates of crime and unemployment, countless rundown and unoccupied buildings, and graffiti splashed across endless square feet of wall space, the area has always been a haven for fighting. Consequently, thousands of young men have turned to boxing for recreation or as a means to supplement their meagre incomes. Many have become champions.
Three decades ago the prestigious Royal Oak Gym situated at Barking Road, turned out a string of champions. Yet in many ways it was a closed shop, open only to young prospects trained and managed by the leading promotional team of the day. There was no time for boys whose limited ability meant they would only ever compete in supporting contests.
During the same period, however, a new operation which would eventually become an essential part of the community was in its infancy. From humble beginnings as a small activities centre based in a squalid room at the bottom of a block of flats, sheer hard work and determination by its founders led to its progression into one of the finest gyms in the country. The Peacock is now an established East End landmark and a point for potential London black cab drivers doing “the knowledge”.
With former boxers Frank Bruno, George and Billy Walker among its patrons, there is probably no other gym which offers the range of activities the Peacock does. Currently located at Caxton Street North, a quiet side road off the busy Silvertown Way, it has become a hugely successful operation. The founders and operators are brothers Tony and Martin Bowers from a family who have been involved in boxing for over three centuries and seven generations. The knowledge passed down over the years has been immense.
The first fighting Bowers was Sam who was born in the early 1800’s and became a rugged bare knuckle fighter whose ring career lasted until 1867. His son, Tim Bowers, had many fights in the late 1890’s and he was followed by two of his seven sons, William and Dan. Apart from being a stylish fighter, Dan became well known for organizing prize fights at horse stables in and around the City of London.
Dan had three sons who boxed, but it was George who was the most successful. A member of Fairbairn House ABC, he won many schoolboy championships and a National Association of Boys Clubs championship (Class B) in 1953. He went on to become one of the most successful amateur trainers in the country spending over 20 years coaching juniors at the Repton Club. He also worked with St Georges, Poplar and West Ham clubs, and more recently at the Peacock ABC when it was in its infancy.
George produced over 200 junior champions and was recently honoured with an MBE for his services to the sport. His sons Kevin, Barry and Graham all boxed as youngsters. Kevin won National Schoolboy Championships in 1971 and 1972, became a professional footballer with Coventry City before following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a trainer at Repton for 10 years.
William (Bill) Bowers had three sons all of whom were born during the 1930’s. Charles had over 70 contests between 1946 and 1957 and became an Army Southern Command champion. Walter boxed from 1946 to 1956, had over 60 bouts and was a BOAR finalist in 1951. He was the father of Tony and Martin.
The most successful of Bill’s sons, however, was Jackie who boxed amateur and professional between 1946 and 1960. He won five West Ham schoolboy championships, two Essex County championships and, representing Pretoria School, won a National Schoolboy championship (Junior Class A for boys aged 13-14 years at 5 st 4 lbs) at Wembley in 1952 before a crowd of nearly 10,000. Testimony of his skill was the fact that he beat Terry Spinks on two occasions.
One of Jackie’s professional contests was at Cardiff in 1959 against Howard Winstone and although he lost on points he left the ring to great applause. The crowd loved his value for money display in what Boxing News described as a “sparkling, all-action six-rounder.”
After retiring from the ring in 1960, Jackie concentrated on training boxers of all levels, among them John H Stracey, Maurice Hope and Johnny Waldron to name just a few. Fifty years later he is still active on the London scene.
With the long family involvement in boxing, Tony and Martin were destined to follow in that tradition, yet it was more to do with social troubles of the deprived area that first sucked them in. With vandalism and petty crime rife in the tower blocks throughout the Borough of Newham, particularly the Barnwood Court area where they lived, they realised that some form of impetus was needed to keep them off the streets. Still at school, but with maturity beyond their years, they decided to try and do something about it.
During early 1973, and after some close brushes with the local Police, the brothers approached Julie Stockbridge, a strong-minded, 60 year old local Councillor, who also lived at Barnwood Court. She was a highly respected community figurehead and, being a stickler for law and order, was impressed with what they told her.
Tony and Martin asked if she could help them acquire the use of a disused building known as “The Rumpus Room” at the bottom of a local tower block. If successful they would clean, paint, decorate and turn it into an activities room which they would run themselves. They maintained that the project would help keep youngsters from Barnwood Court occupied and away from vandalism and street crime.
With Julie’s influence, the council and local Tenant’s Association agreed that the project was worth pursuing. New toilets, doors and windows were installed by the council, and through sheer hard work by Tony and Martin aided by generous donations from local residents of furniture,DIY accessories, TV and audio equipment, the centre was up and running in no time. Despite their tender years, the Bowers brothers were the proud tenants of “The Rumpus Room”, and in reality the first steps had been taken towards creating what would eventually become the highly regarded Peacock Gym.
Although “The Rumpus Room” was used mainly as a keep-fit and activities centre, outdoor interests such as football matches and camping were also on the agenda. Equipment, utilities and events were funded mainly from the proceeds of weekly raffles. The club became an instant success because youth of the area were brought together to take part and enjoy themselves thus relieving boredom which inevitably led to mischief.
The development of the project attracted great media interest and Tony and Martin appeared on the ITN programme, Today, and featured in the local press on a regular basis. As vandalism and youth crime reduced considerably they became recognised as important and respected members of the community. Both enjoyed boxing as a recreation, but during the mid-1970’s became aware that there was a serious lack of facilities within Newham for like-minded youngsters. It was something else they were keen to try and address.
Coming from a family heavily steeped in boxing, and encouraged by the success of their first project, they persuaded youngsters to train and box at “The Rumpus Room”. With growing membership, however, the room soon became too small so they set up a small gym in an empty room at nearby Drew Road School Youth Club. All monies raised went back into the gym for the purchase of equipment. It was hugely successful, but again an increase in membership meant the room was too small to meet demand. Undeterred, the brothers had a meeting with youth leaders and a larger room was made available to them at a weekly rent of £10.
Although Tony and Martin both had full time jobs they devoted their spare time to the gym four nights a week. Activities included boxing, weight-training and fitness training, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays they spent one hour giving younger members of the youth club boxing tuition. Two boys, Terry Abbott and Lee Baker, became particularly successful, Lee eventually moving on to become a trainer at West Ham for a number of years.
Considering their ages the success of the brothers was incredible, and with the passing of time their contribution to the community became more widely appreciated. With help from the landlords of the Jubilee Public House at Barnwood Court they were able to organise fun runs during the summers of 1978 and 1979. Entry fees and sponsorship donations were divided equally between the gym for purchase of new equipment, and local worthy causes chosen by patrons of The Jubilee.
By 1981 the gym had outgrown itself and the hours of availability were too limited as the school was closed at weekends and during holiday periods. In January that year, Jackie Bowers, an uncle of Tony and Martin, took over the tenancy of the Railway Tavern, at Silvertown known locally as Cundy’s. It had a large unused function room and, having been involved in boxing all his life, Jackie was happy to allow his nephews to have it rent free to set up as a gym. Once equipped it operated from 9 am to 9 pm seven days a week. The usage fee was 50p and although there were occasions when individuals couldn’t pay, they were never turned away. No liberties were taken because there was a great deal of trust. With Tony and Martin working during the daytime, subs were left in a jar, a regular practice that was generally treated with honesty and respect.
Despite Cundy’s changing hands a couple of times the gym remained there until 1986 when it returned to Drew Road School until 1989. By this time Tony and Martin were the tenants of three Canning Town pubs, the Pits Head, Flying Sand and the Peacock at Freemasons Road. As the Peacock was a trouble pub the brewery allowed them to have it rent free because they needed it open so as to eventually sell on as a going concern. It was an arrangement which suited both parties because the Peacock, being a large old pub, had a massive unused function hall at the rear. It was the ideal setting for a new gym.
Transformation was quick, and with it being on site Tony and Martin were able to devote more time to its development. They entered charitable events and raised money for a wide range of local organisations. Two teams were entered for the annual PARAS Assault Course competition and came first and third of 12 good quality outfits. They also raised £500 for the then Spastics Society.
Although boxing, both amateur and professional, became the backbone of the gym, there was also an ever increasing number of weight-lifting and keep-fit fanatics using it on a regular basis. Wrestling was another activity to gain momentum and played a large part in developing the Peacock relationship with the local community. Through the medium of its amateur and professional members, countless numbers of visits were made to schools where talks were given about social dangers including bullying, under age drinking and the misuse of drugs. At the request of Police, talks were also given to young offenders who found it easier to relate to a sporting personality than a member of the authority.
In 1992 the brewery sold the Peacock, but the new owner retained Tony and Martin as caretakers because there were no immediate plans to reopen it for business. At the time the brothers were actively searching for new premises in order to expand what was becoming an essential part of the community. Although membership continued to rise a rapid rate, the gym was in reality a health hazard and not the most salubrious place to spend leisure hours. There were holes in the walls and during winter months strong winds blew rain and snow into the building. At times it was so cold that boxers trained wearing duffle coats and a propane bottle was used to warm it up. Yet even this had to be turned off because the gas it emitted affected the boxers. Water had to be got from the cellar, but as there were no lights, there were a few tumbles. This was the old Peacock and this was Canning Town in the early 1990’s.
Realising that they would eventually lose the pub, Tony and Martin decided to approach the Charity Commission to see if they could get any help. During a subsequent meeting it was explained to them that the Peacock in fact already had the skeleton of its own charity and that an approved charity would qualify for a substantial reduction in rates. This really opened the door for them because it made their expansion plans a viable proposition. New premises, originally a canvas making factory, were eventually found at Caxton Street North, and the lease was signed in August 1993. After a 12 month probationary period during which activities were monitored, the Peacock was granted full charity status.
Following 18 months of intense planning and development a much larger and more modern gym was opened. Every square foot of space was accounted for, and over the past 15 years it has developed into an attractive and extremely professional set-up catering for the needs of all sections of the local community.
Inside the main entrance is a restaurant, its walls crammed with photographs of boxers of all levels and teams of youngsters representing the Peacock at other sports. Adjacent is a large weight training section packed with modern equipment including the latest in free and fixed weights. The main boxing gym, situated at the back of the building, has two rings, punch bags, running machines and everything needed by the professionals. A quiet side room houses an Olympic sized ring and more bags for exclusive use of amateur members of the Peacock ABC which was formed in 1998. Upstairs is a superb wooden floored hall with old fashioned wall bars and mirrored along two walls. It is used by boxers for sprint training and also by a variety of martial arts competitors, fitness and dance clubs. A fully matted wrestling room and furnished living quarters round off an impressive establishment.
As word spread around the East End so membership of the new Peacock continued to rise thus providing the opportunity for further expansion. Tony, who boxed briefly as a professional with Joe Lucy as his manager, was granted British Boxing Board of Control manager and promoter licences whilst his brother obtained those as trainer and second. Martin, an avid keep fit fanatic, is also a registered coach with the British Amateur Wrestling Association and has trained competitors for Olympic wrestling. He is a dedicated triathlete who has competed in numerous Dockland triathlons, the London Marathon and the Montague Wailers Class, a 25 mile endurance rowing race.
They quickly built a small stable of boxers and the first Peacock Promotions professional boxing show took place in October 1994 at the Brittania Hotel, Docklands, where they would stage numerous successful charity dinner shows. Further promotions were staged at Ilford, Poplar, Mayfair, York Hall, Hove Town Hall, Newmarket and Norwich over a nine year period.
With continued expansion, the Peacock rapidly developed into a fully fledged community based organisation and an essential part of an area where people still struggle in a difficult multi-cultural and often violent environment. Apart from boxing, other sporting facilities and activities include amateur and professional kick boxing, karate for juniors and seniors, all forms of aerobics, fitness and circuit training. Qualified trainers are on hand to facilitate all requirements. There is a therapy clinic covering osteopathy, acupuncture, reiki, back and sports injuries, stress and headaches. The Peacock also has its own appointed medical officer.
The aims of the organisation are, and have always been, to improve the quality of life through sport, improve health and well being of local people through the provision of sport and leisure, and through education and training skills. It works constantly with private and public sectors, including the local police and probation service, and is run as a social type enterprise privately funded by income generated by use of the gym and entry fees. It also benefits from time to time by small grants which are spent largely on new equipment programmes.
The gym has been involved in many national charity events by sponsoring competitors for marathons, cycle rides, rowing across the channel and anything which can raise money for good causes. Being a registered charity the Peacock also stages its own events including golf days, cricket matches and football competitions. Two such events in 2009 raised almost £5,000 for the Peacock youth trip to Centre Parcs. In 2008 £15,000 was raised for Newbridge School which caters for youngsters with learning difficulties.
A wonderful camaraderie abounds within the Peacock founded on respect for anyone willing to accept the risks and step into the boxing ring. It has always had the reputation of being a home for quality boxing and this has been borne out by the men who have used it as a base. Yet no matter what level participants reach they have time for everyone and each other. A world champion and a non-boxing youngster there on a training course are absolutely equal. In an interview with Combat Magazine in 2003, Tony Bowers adequately summed up what the Peacock is all about when he remarked “when you come here you leave all your prejudices at the door. This is a family run gym with a family atmosphere inside. When you come here everyone is equal.”
Despite the massive commitment to the community, the Peacock remains primarily a boxing gym used by fighters of all levels. Since obtaining his Board of Control licences, Martin Bowers has coached many good men including champions Gary Delaney, Scott Dixon, Ali Forbes, Mark Baker, Richie Wenton, Elvis Michailenko, Julius Francis, Paul “Silky” Jones, Lester Jacobs, John “Boy” Humphrey, Danny James, Erik Teymour, and Justin Juuko. Graham Townsend became his first champion when he won the Southern Area super-middleweight title in 1996. Many other good fighters have been trained by Martin including Rocky Dean who has been at the Peacock since turning professional in 1999.
The gym has attracted many top boxers, including some from other parts of the world. The Klitschko brothers both worked out there during the early part of their careers. Johnny Tapia, John Ruiz, Marco Antonio Barrera, Mike McCallum, Eddie Smullders, Jeff Fenech, Brian Mitchell, Gerald McClennan and Zelco Mavrovic have also sparred in Peacock rings as have top British fighters including Lennox Lewis, Chris Eubank, Naseem Hamed, Danny Williams, Steve Collins, Ricky Hatton, Paul Lloyd and Amir Khan. Some of the world’s top trainers including Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Emmanuel Steward and Freddie Roach have also recognised the value of the Peacock and consequently used it from time to time.
Celebrities from many walks of life have also been to the Peacock over the years on social or official visits. They include retired boxers Sir Henry Cooper, Sugar Ray Leonard in 2005, and John Conteh, Members of Parliament Kate Hoey and Tony Banks, both former sports ministers, and Jim Fitzpatrick. From show business have come Sir Michael Caine, Shane Ritchie, Billy Murray, Bradley Walsh, Glen Murphy and Orlando Bloom. The gym has also been used in the making of six films including Shiner starring Caine, and Matthew Marsden who was given extensive boxing tuition there for his role as “Golden Boy”.
A number of retired boxers often visit the Peacock for social purposes or to use the facilities to keep fit. They include former Central Area light-heavyweight champion, Pat Thompson, a veteran of over 70 fights who, although now turned 60, works out there daily. Another regular is Dean Hollington, a promising lightweight in the 1990’s who was trained by Jimmy Tibbs and in the later stages of his career by present Board of Control General Secretary, Robert Smith. Dean is now a member of the Southern Area Council. Former British featherweight champion, Sammy McCarthy, and his close friends Olympians Ronnie Cooper and Terry Spinks, MBE, have been frequent visitors to the gym since its opening.
Periodically, crowds have packed the gym to watch the stars in action, but the highlight must surely be the public workout by Floyd Mayweather in 2009. Hundreds crammed inside whilst an estimated further 2000 filled the street outside bringing traffic to a standstill. I had the good fortune to meet Floyd privately later that day and asked him why he had chosen the Peacock for the workout. He said that he had been told it was the finest gym in England.
“Is it?” I asked.
“Sure,” he replied, “it was like being back home. The place is top class, the people there know boxing and those fans were fantastic.”
One attribute of the Peacock is that it combines the old with the new. Modern equipment has been moulded into old fashioned training methods while the easily recognizable smell of stale sweat identifies it as a real fighter’s workplace. There have always been solid, knowledgeable boxing people working at the gym. Apart from Martin Bowers, resident trainers have included Olympian, John Boscoe, Jackie Bowers, Frank Black, who taught Martin everything about cuts, and the late John Humphrey.
Currently on hand are former British super-middleweight champion Ali Forbes, Mark Tibbs, who as a professional lost only two of 25 contests, and Babatunde Ajayi, a former professional who currently trains former WBO light-middle and middleweight champion, Harry Simon, amongst others. Former Commonwealth light-middleweight champion, Mickey Hughes, runs the gym nursery for 6-10 year olds on Saturday mornings, but the stalwart is Jimmy Tibbs regarded by many people in the sport as one of the finest trainers Britain has had.
After years at the Royal Oak, Jimmy took a small group of young professionals under his wing at West Ham, but later became the first established professional trainer to use the old Peacock at Freemasons Road. When that closed, he moved his stable to the present gym where he has trained a host of top men including Michael Watson, Chris Pyatt, Gary Stretch, Gary Delaney, Maurice Core and Neville Brown. He now works there daily with former amateur star and Olympic representative, Billie Jo Saunders.
On the amateur front the Peacock club has made giant steps in just 11 years producing about 20 champions at different weights and levels. Although the club has a number of good prospects there are particularly high hopes for heavyweight, Wadi Camacho, from Ilford. A winner of three north-east London Divisional Championships and a Three Nations competition silver medal, he has recently been with the England squad at Sheffield for assessment towards the 2012 Olympic Games.
Despite its considerable success, the Peacock has suffered setbacks along the way, but always had the ability and determination to overcome them. The worst was undoubtedly in April 1994 when Canning Town youngster, Bradley Stone, died 48 hours after his contest with Richie Wenton for the inaugural British super-bantamweight championship at York Hall. Originally trained and managed by Jimmy Tibbs, he was a huge favourite at the Peacock where he prepared for the fight. Consequently, Tony and Martin organised a series of events and raised over £10,000 to commission a sculpture of him which local artist Anne Downey created in bronze. It was set on a stone weighting three tonnes which had been transported from Scotland. Appropriately it stands at the main entrance to the gym bearing the inscription “He died in pursuit of his dreams.” Apart from being a lasting memory to Bradley, Tony and Martin also wanted it to serve as a warning to people that boxing is a dangerous sport and not just a game. It was a moving gesture and inside the gym on the restaurant wall hangs a small plaque presented by Bradley’s girlfriend Donna and her family inscribed “With heartfelt thanks for the way you honoured Bradley.”
In April 2009, the Stone-Wenton story took a moving twist, one which demonstrates the respect and compassion that exists between boxers and youngsters they seek to influence. Wenton, who won the Lonsdale super-bantamweight championship belt outright in 1996, telephoned Tony and Martin asking if they would display it at the Peacock. Having been trained by Martin during the last three years of his career, he wanted the belt to be recognised as a trophy of respect and remembrance for Bradley and also as an inspiration to youngsters using the gym.
Much of the success of the Peacock is due to solid support from colleagues and family. Tony and Martin have had that in abundance. Stalwarts include former Vice-President, Roy Hilder, matchmaker, Neil Bowers, and Jackie Bowers, long time trainer and manager. All have moved on with Roy and Neil now acting as matchmakers for other promoters and Jackie still training his own boxers albeit to a lesser degree.
The Peacock continues to move from strength to strength both in sport and community involvement. In 2004 membership stood at 6,000, but five years later it was in excess of 14,000. Courses have been designed in education, first aid, health and safety in the workplace and training is available for youths with learning difficulties. The activity and commitment is immense and it would take a book to document the extent of everything under the Peacock umbrella.
Affiliated to the ABA and London Federation of Boys Clubs, certificates are also displayed on the gym walls from the Phillip Lawrence Trust, Newham Education Business Partnership and Newham Trident. Another confirms that the Peacock appears in the official London 2012 pre-Olympic Games training camp guide. More recently the British Boxing Board of Control trainer and second suitability courses have been held at the venue and will hopefully continue there for the foreseeable future.
Whilst essentially a boxing story the development of the Peacock is one of spiralling success achieved by the foresight and determination of two ambitious teenagers who convinced local councillors to consider their proposals. From those humble beginnings at the Rumpus Room, Tony and Martin Bowers have developed into astute businessmen who are widely respected in their community. Assisted by a faithful band of associates they now operate what is arguably the finest establishment of its kind in the country.
Everyone in boxing knows about the Peacock and where it is located. Regulars at the gym wear the training tops, tee-shirts and vests with pride and feel important to belong to such a fine organisation. It has become an East End landmark and both the community and the sport of boxing are better for its existence.