The unexpected story of a boxing pub

I was cycling home from Forest Hill when the satnav led me (incorrectly) through Camberwell New Cemetery. When I realised the road Google maps assumed was there didn't exist, I stopped for a little while to plan a new route and noticed this large black headstone standing out thanks to its colour and size (and of course the portrait).

I took a picture of it with an intention to google the names to see if one of them was a famous boxer:

Tommy and Beryl Gibbons grave at Camberwell New Cemetery
Tommy and Beryl Gibbons grave at Camberwell New Cemetery

What I have discovered instead was an exciting piece of South London history.

When they were in their 20s and early 30s (in 1960s), Beryl and Tommy Gibbons together used to run the Thomas A' Becket pub on 320 Old Kent Road. This was a legendary place, peaking during their tenure as a pub, a boxing gym and later even as a rehearsal studio (on its ground, first and second floors respectively).

It appears that the pub is only somewhat older than the gym, if older at all - there are mentions of people who boxed there as long ago as in the 1900s, while the building itself dates from only 1898. More than just a community hub, it has seen Sir Henry Cooper, the famous British and European champion, training there for 14 years since 1954, 6 days a week. Other great boxers - including Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard - had also sparred upstairs when visiting or coming to London for bouts.

Henry Cooper training upstairs in 1966
Henry Cooper training upstairs in 1966

I could find next to no information on Tommy Gibbons, the man from the headstone engraved portrait, himself - apart from the fact that he was a light heavyweight boxer (although there is apparently no professional record) and died young. All the matches seem to be about his American namesake... also a light heavyweight boxer, who even visited London in 1924:

Tommy Gibbons, third from the right, arriving to London in 1924 for his fight with Jack Bloomfield
Tommy Gibbons, third from the right, arriving to London in 1924 for his fight with Jack Bloomfield

To make this coincidence even more uncanny, they also seem to look somewhat alike - or is it just me?

Tommy Gibbons, British (left), Tommy Gibbons, American (right)
Tommy Gibbons, British (left), Tommy Gibbons, American (right)

Unlike Tommy, his partner Beryl, whose name also appears on the headstone, was a prominent character and has sizeable trail online. This is thanks to the fact that the same year Tommy died she became the first female boxer promoter in Britain and Europe, while also taking over the pub which she continued to manage till 1983.

Beryl Cameron Gibbons, 34, showing her qualification as a boxing promoter
Beryl Cameron Gibbons, 34, showing her qualification as a boxing promoter

Her next decade is more accessible through searching for 'Beryl Cameron' rather than 'Beryl Gibbons' - it is not entirely clear if she remarried (if so, why is she buried with her first husband) or if Cameron was her maiden name (and if so, why does it go in front of Gibbons)?

Beryl Cameron, 42, in her gym upstairs in February 1977 - with Jimmy Revie to the left

In the 70s, it's the performance facet of Thomas A'Becket that also started to shape. David Bowie rehearsed there when working on his 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars' album, and less famous but still loved bands performed regularly in the pub (Scarecrow and Blunderbass in particular seem to be remembered the best by former punters).

Beryl Cameron, 48, in front of Thomas A'Becket in 1983

Beryl lost the pub in 1983 in a fight with the brewery and died of cancer 5 years later. Her story ends here - but the pub lives on, although not for too long.

The next landlord - starting from 1984 - was an ex boxer and also a promoter Gary Davidson - the pub reopened in 1985 and he ran it together with his wife Coleen Davidson for 4 years until his own early death.

Coleen, a professional swimmer and a pub landlady, turned it into a museum of boxing full of unique and expensive memorabilia:

Henry Cooper's gloves from the Thomas A'Becket collection, sold for £100,000
Henry Cooper's gloves from the Thomas A'Becket collection, sold for £100,000

But this is where it ends. It looks like the last boxing related event that happened there was Sir Henry Cooper unveiling his own blue plaque in 2008. By that time the place has been already turned into an art gallery after previously being converted to estate agents office.

In 2017 it reopened as Rock Island Bar and Grill only to close again in 2018 and and reopen once again as Viet Quan restaurant in May 2019. There is no longer a gym upstairs - it's been turned into flats.

It seems that 2018 was the last year of 'Thomas A'Becket' sign adorning the building - it's gone from the top, but another one still remains as seen on this photo:

The pub in 2017-2018
The pub in 2017-2018

Today, it's gone:

Rest in peace, Beryl and Tommy, and thank you for the story.

Yuriy Akopov

Yuriy Akopov

London, UK
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