Golden Boy, Billy Walker's, Forest Gate memories

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

 E7-NowAndThen recently caught up with ex-British  heavyweight boxer, Billy Walker, and chatted to him about his Upper Cut club, and other memories of Forest Gate.

Those were the days - Billy with
some old club memorabilia
He was born in Stepney in 1939 and was evacuated to Bedfordshire during the war.  The family moved to Ilford, on their return to London in 1946.  Billy remembers the house as being haunted - not surprising, perhaps, as it was where Percy Thomson, who was murdered by his wife and her lover in 1922 had lived (see here for the story).

Haunted house - 41 Kensington Gardens, Ilford
On leaving school, he had a number of jobs, including as a fish porter at Billingsgate market and a part-time role as a bouncer at the old Ilford Palais, within walking distance from his home.  Here he worked with DJ Jimmy Savile ("I don't remember any of that dodgy stuff from him, then"). He also met Kenny Johnson, who went on to run the Lotus Club, on Woodgrange Road (watch out for a future blog for the story of Kenny and that club), at the Palais.

By the mid 1950's Billy's brother, George was a professional boxer, and was pushing a reluctant Billy to join him in the fight game.

Black Lion pub, Plaistow - home of West Ham Boxing
Club, at the rear, a favoured training venue for Billy
Ten of Billy's 39 amateur bouts took place at what was West Ham Baths, later known as the recently demolished Atherton Suite in Romford Road. He kept fit in an early Wag Bennett gym, in East Ham, and fought with the West Ham boxing club, based at the Black Lion pub, in Plaistow, and in what was then the White Lion pub (now the Mango Indian restaurant) in Green Street.

Recently demolished Atherton Suite,
formerly West Ham baths, location of
a third of Billy amateur bouts
With these local connections, it was hardly surprising that Billy found his way to the Lotus Ballroom in the late 50s and early 60's, to "jive and pick up the birds".

He also worked for a while as a security guard at a garage his brother George had, in New Barn Lane, Plaistow, and was a regular in the Army and Navy pub next door (where the older regulars still remember him and his German shepherd dogs fondly). The petrol station is now a scrap yard (see photo).

Former Punch Petrol station, New Barn Lane, close to
the Black Lion, where Billy worked as a security guard
for his brother George's garage - now a scrap yard.
Billy tuned professional, as a boxer in 1962 and soon became a national sporting icon, as the 'blond bomber'.  In his six years as a professional, he challenged for both the British and Commonwealth (against Henry Cooper) and European titles (both of which he lost), recording 21 wins, 8 losses and two draws.

His brother George had had his scrapes with the law (including a short spell in Wormwood Scrubs for theft) and mixed with some of East London's shadier characters of the time, but had a shrewd eye for money making opportunities.
 
As Billy's manager, he "took care of the business", and set up a number of profitable ventures, including a property empire and a fast food chain (Billy's Baked Potato).  The Upper Cut club, on Woodgrange Road was part of that business portfolio (for twelve months, from December 1966).

Billy in the centre of this grainy photo,
where Stratford Express covered the opening
party of the Upper Cut., December 1966
There was already a pop culture/"youth scene" in the area, thanks to Kenny Johnson's Lotus Club, across the road.  When the old Forest Gate skating rink became available, Kenny looked to acquire it and move the Lotus Club there.  But the Walker brothers stepped in and took the lease, for their own club.


Billy with the opening week's gig list
Billy says that he left George, and others, to take care of the Upper Cut (and his money), but went along, occasionally, for profile raising purposes and photo opportunities.  He was certainly  too preoccupied to attend the club's biggest night, when the Stax tour, starring Otis Redding appeared there on 18 March 1967 ( see here, for details), as it was just three nights before his biggest fight, against Karl Mildenberger, for the European championship, at Wembley (which he lost).

Billy, remembering the famous Jimi gig
Billy has clear recollections of two of the bands and gigs at the club.  The venue was opened on 21 December 1966 by The Who (see here for details). He is still in touch with Roger Daltry of the band, who continues to remind him of how mean the club were, when it came to rewarding those who played there, describing Billy as being "a tight bastard" for only paying The Who £20 for the opening night gig!
Forner White Hart on Green Street, once a well
known local gym where Billy worked out, as
did former Olympic boxing champion, Terry Spinks
The Animals were due to play the club the following week, but there was a hitch with the arrangements. Billy recalls that he had recently been at a party and had met a girl, who he'd taken home, for the night.  A couple of days before the Animals gig, Billy got a phone call from his brother, George, demanding that he rang the band's lead singer, Eric Burdon, and apologise to him.  "Why?", asked Billy, "Because the girl was Burdon's, and he wants an apology, or the group won't turn up and play" Billy duly made the call, the gig took place, but Billy and Eric have not exchanged Christmas cards, since.

"Baby let me take you home",
performed by Billy Walker and not
Eric Burdon, far left, of the Animals
The club lasted only twelve months, as attendances dropped, acts upped their charges, and neighbours and police complained about local disturbances. Almost a year to the day after the opening, the almost inevitable happened - the music venue became a bingo club.

Billy recalling the Stax gig, when he
was training for his European title fight.
Billy retired from boxing a couple of years later, but soon fell out with George.  Billy wanted a quiet life, so he moved to Jersey (where he has lived most of the time, since) and George wished to pursue an aggressive business career and use Billy as his front man/PR opportunity.

Roger Daltry of the Who says those fists of Billy's
were tight, when it came to paying
George went on to create the huge Brent Walker property/entertainment conglomerate, until its spectacular fall, into bankruptcy, in 1990.  The two brothers made up, a little before George's death in 2011.

Billy got his quiet life, although had misfortune with his first two marriages before marrying a local Forest Gate woman, Pat Furuborg, as his third wife.  The couple lived off Romford Road for a couple of years in the late 1990s, until moving to the Essex coast, until Pat's death, of cancer in 2003.
 
Billy now lives, in happy retirement with the delightful Susan Stevens, his fourth wife, in Jersey.  The couple also have a pleasant riverside flat in Battersea, which they visit occasionally. They wish all their friends and former acquaintances in Forest Gate well.

Upper Cut today: but 'No Regrets'
from latter day Walker Brothers
Further details of Billy's career and life can be found in his autobiography (ghosted by Robin McGibbon) When the gloves came off, published by Robson Books in 2007. 

Back catalogue

This site has published a number of articles on the history of the Upper Cut club: the first detailing the time when Otis visited it, in March 1967. This post was followed by two, recording the first six months and the final six months of the club's existence.

These posts were followed by almost monthy updates on who played at the club, that month, 47 years previously.  The final blog is a record of a recent meeting with former boxer, Billy Walker, the name under whom the club exisited, on his memories of it and Forest Gate almost half a century ago.

Below is a list of those blogs: the hyper links are the titles of the articles, and when hit upon should give access to them. The dates (in italics) are the time covered by the blog and the date in bold are the months the blogs were posted.

Although the content, and some of the comments on the individual posts, is pretty definitive, we'd love to hear any memories readers may have of the gigs, or corrections they could make to the copy. Just post in the Comments box, below.

When Otis played Forest Gate (March 1967) May 2013

Upper Cut (1) - a summary of the emergence of the first six months of the club (December 1966 - July 1967) July 2013

Upper Cut (2) - a brief survey of the second, and final half year of the club's existence (August 1967 - December 1967) July 2013
Georgie Fame, The Tremeloes and Unit 4 + 2 - (September 1967 at the Upper Cut) October 2013

When Stevie Wonder played Forest Gate - (October 1967) November 2013

Mouthwatering musical fayre on Woodgrange Road - (November 1967) December 2013

Club bills for the Upper Cut's two Decembers - (Decembers 1966 and 1967) January 2014

The Upper Cut beds down - (January 1967) February 2014

Essex comes to Forest Gate - (February 1967) March 2014
Stax comes to town - (March 1967) April 2014

A mixed bunch at the Upper Cut in April (April 1967) May 2014

Upper Cut - May 1967 (June 1967) June 2014

Summer of Love in Forest Gate (Summer 1967) August 2014

Golden Boy, Billy Walker's Forest Gate memories September 2014

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