WHEN you think of an old-time gym what do you imagine? Floors, walls and windows thick with grime, dilapidated equipment and a rickety, blood-stained ring? Go back 60 years or more and that’s probably a fair portrayal of a typical British boxing gym. But there was one notable exception.
The Cambridge gym at 9 Earlham Street, off Cambridge Circus, in London’s West End was a bastion of neatness and cleanliness thanks to its eccentric owner, Joe Bloom. “You’d be skipping and he’d be going round sprinkling disinfectant on the floor,” Teddy Lewis, a talented feather and lightweight of the 1940s and ‘50s, once told me. “Woe betide anyone who dropped even a small piece of paper on the floor of Joe’s beloved gym,” recalled Boxing News ‘Old Timers’ doyen Ron Olver.
Although known as a South African, Bloom was born in London on April 16, 1896. His father was posted to South Africa with the Imperial Light Horse during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), and when the war ended Joe and his brothers joined him there. As a youngster, Bloom was a keen amateur boxer and was interested in medical matters. He joined the St John Ambulance organisation, worked at a hospital during World War I and continued his ambulance work afterwards, which explains his hygiene obsession.
In 1932, he returned to Britain planning to work in greyhound racing, but got into boxing instead. South African Olympic bronze medallist Eddie Peirce was Joe’s first fighter. Bloom brought him to Britain in 1933 and steered him to a successful pro career. Other South African boxers soon followed – Johnny Holt, Johnny Rust, Robey Leibbrandt and many more. Joe found them lodgings, looked after their general affairs and in 1936 opened his Earlham Street establishment. The place quickly became one of the country’s best-known gyms. A mecca for South African boxers, it was also popular with City businessmen and showbiz stars looking to stay in shape.
Twenty-two world champions trained there at various times – Primo Carnera, Al Brown, Freddie Miller, Benny Lynch, John Henry Lewis, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Mills, Randolph Turpin, Terry Downes, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sonny Liston among them. It was also used for important weigh-ins.
Sportswriter Norman Giller, now 81, was a frequent visitor to Bloom’s gym in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when he was writing for BN under the pseudonym Ross Martin. He recalls: “The gym looked out at the Palace Theatre and down Shaftesbury Avenue and it was run like a boudoir by the very fussy, martinet Joe.
“Joe was quite a character, gnarled and crotchety by the time I knew him, and he still had a strong Springbok accent. He was always immaculate with freshly laundered gym wear, looking more like a doctor than a trainer. Many a fighter felt the length of his tongue if they were ever anything less than tidy. He was fond of saying, ‘You can eat your dinner off the floor of my gymnasium.’ When I attended press conferences there he used to all but insist that the reporters and photographers take off their shoes.
“A proud Jew, Joe was fuming with [Jack] Solomons and [Harry] Levene when they started importing German boxers after the war. He belonged to anti-facist movements and took on [Oswald] Mosley’s Blackshirts in the famous 1936 Battle of Cable Street.”
Apart from a spell when Bloom served as a PTI in the RAF during World War II, he kept the gym running for more than 30 years. He was forced to shut the place in 1967 when his landlord raised the rent from £500 to £2,000 a year in line with soaring property prices. But he did make a comeback of sorts to look after the Board of Control gym in Haverstock Hill on resident trainer George Daly’s days off. Joe died in London in 1979, aged 82.