The Palestra, SE1
The Palestra is a hideous modern building, now the headquarters of Transport of London, situated opposite Southwark tube station where the Blackfriars Bridge road intersects with The Cut. Apart from tut-tutting at the hideous carbuncle I paid the building no more heed and went into the boozer opposite, the Ring – the plum porter was excellent. It was only when I looked at the bric-a-brac on the pub’s walls, all with a distinctly pugilistic feel to them, that I realised I had stumbled upon a bit of London history of which I had previously been unaware.
The land now occupied by the Palestra previously housed the Surrey Chapel, built in 1782, which was round so, according to the Reverend Rowland Hill, not to be confused with the stamp man of the same name, “the devil had nowhere to hide”. It operated as a nonconformist chapel and also hosted musical event and meetings of various philanthropic and charitable organisations. The trustees and congregation didn’t renew the lease in 1859 and for a number of years it was then used by the Primitive Methodists until in 1881 when it was partially demolished and renovated for commercial purposes.
The next character in our story is a professional boxer, Dick Burge, who was English Lightweight Champion between 1891 and 1897 and reportedly one of the finest fighters of the decade. In 1901 he married Bella – an entertainer in a double act with Marie Lloyd’s sister – but retirement from the ring ad meant that Burge was on his uppers. He became involved in a complex fraud – the sum quoted was around £15m in today’s terms – and was sentenced to 10 years in chokey, a month after he had married. His sentence was reduced in its eighth year when Burge rescued a warder from a prison riot.
On his release, Bella, who had stood by her man, and Dick decided to open a boxing club and no ordinary one – “our place would be no place for nobs..our patrons belong to the cloth cap and muffler brigade”. The premises they chose to host the bouts was the Surrey Chapel – as a round building it was ideal for the 14 foot ring. Bella organised an army of down and outs to clear the site in return for a decent feed and on 14th May 1910 the first bouts were held. The soup kitchen continued to build up awareness of the venue and by 1912 it was established as London’s premier fighting venue, hosting shows four or five times a week. Many of the big names including Len Johnson, Jack Drummond, Alf Mancini, Jack Hood and Ted “Kid” Lewis fought there.
In 1918 Dick died but Bella continued with the venue and made a great success of it. Marie Lloyd was one of the regulars ringside. In 1939 it closed for renovations but its end came the following year when a direct hit from a German bomb reduced the place to rubble. The Palestra reflects this part of London’s sporting history in its name – a palestra in Ancient Greece was a training ground where sports such as wrestling and athletics were practised. The Ring, of course, directly refers to the Burge’s venue. Ironically, nearby there is a club where city slickers – the modern day Nobs – can don the gloves and work off their aggression.
It is amazing what you can learn by sitting in a London pub.