Blackfriars Road, The Ring and the death of Al Bowlly

Blackfriars Road, October 25th 1940

Blackfriars Road, October 25th 1940

During a daylight raid on 25th October 1940 a huge bomb landed on the Blackfriars Road destroying some trams which were trying to temporarily shelter from the onslaught. As the photograph shows us it was obviously to no avail. On the other side of the road, on the corner with Union Street, a building, known originally as the Surrey Chapel but subsequently as the Blackfriar’s Ring, was also very badly damaged.

The Surrey Chapel around 1900. The photographer would be standing where The Ring pub now stands.

The Surrey Chapel around 1900. The photographer would be standing where The Ring pub now stands.

The Blackfriars' Ring partly destroyed by a bomb October 1940

The Blackfriars' Ring partly destroyed by a bomb October 1940.

The Ring was an octagonal building built in 1782 by the charismatic church orator Reverend Rowland Hill as a chapel (he thought that the shape ‘prevented the devil hiding in any of the corners’). Disused and empty by the end of the 19th century, it had been a boxing ring since 1910 when Bella Burge and her husband, the ex-prize fighter Dick Burge, acquired the lease believing it would make an ideal wrestling and boxing ring. They named it, simply, ‘The Ring’ and it would become the first indoor boxing ring for the working classes – the sport until then had been generally fought by working class men in front of an upper class audience.

Bella of Blackfriars’ as she was known, was also the first to break the taboo of women attending boxing bouts when in 1914 she and her actress friends (she was close to music hall star Marie Lloyd and her family practically all her life) were the first to become female regulars at ‘The Ring’.

ogdens-dick-burge-front

After the first bombing raid, The Ring was still standing, albeit badly damaged, but another bombing raid during March 1941 almost completely destroyed the building and it was eventually demolished.

The blitz on London had been continuing since the previous September and by now over 40,000 people had lost their lives and an incredible 250,000 people were homeless.

The Ring, now completely destroyed and ready for demolition. March 1941.

The Ring, now completely destroyed and ready for demolition. March 1941.

Blackfriars Road, June 2009. The Ring pub can be seen in the distance.

Blackfriars Road, June 2009. The Ring pub can be seen in the distance.

Surrey Chapel and 'The Ring' would have been situated across the road on the right.

Surrey Chapel and 'The Ring' would have been situated across the road on the right where Palestra House now stands. Palestra is Greek for a public place used for wrestling. Although I expect you knew that.

Bomb damage on the bridge across Blackfriars Road almost 70 years later.

Bomb damage underneath the bridge is still visible 68 years later.

Two or three weeks after the bomb that almost completely destroyed the Blackfriars’ Ring, another bomb silently dropped onto the more salubrious surroundings of Jermyn Street at 3am on 17th April 1941. The Luftwaffe had just introduced a new terrifying weapon – the parachute mine – it was packed full of high explosives, was eight feet long, two feet wide and weighed two and a half tons. They were designed to explode in mid-air purposely to cause a greater loss of human life. When the bomb exploded above Jermyn Street it severely damaged several buildings including an apartment block called Duke’s Court, which happened to be the home of one of the country’s favourite recording artists – Albert Alick ‘Al’ Bowlly.

The popular singer was killed instantly. Although, it was said, that his body strangely appeared untouched even though the massive explosion had blown Bowlly’s bedroom door off its hinges and it had fatally smashed against his head.

bowlly7

al-bowlly

During his career Bowlly recorded over 1000 songs and was said by many to have invented the style of singing called ‘crooning’ where the singer utilises the amplification of the microphone or even a megaphone. The last song he recorded was on 8th April, just a week before he died. It was prophetically called When That Man Is Dead And Gone. The song was actually about Hitler and written, earlier that year, by Irving Berlin:

What a day to wake up on

What a way to greet the dawn

Some fine day the news’ll flash

Satan with a small moustache

Is asleep beneath the lawn

When that man is dead and gone

A devastated Jermyn Street, 17th April 1941

A devastated Jermyn Street, 17th April 1941

Bowlly, along with many other victims from that night of intensive bombing, was buried in a mass grave at the Westminster Cemetery on the Uxbridge Road in Hanwell. It was one of the worst nights of the Blitz and there was no time or energy for sentiment. His name on the monument was spelled Albert Alex [sic] Bowlly.

I personally came across Al Bowlly when several of his recordings were used in Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and also ‘The Singing Detective’. It could be said that, in relation to other singers of his time, probably more popular than he has ever been. His recordings have also appeared in some of the great cult films of the last few decades including The Shining, Withnail And I and Amelie.

Al Bowlly and Jimmy Messene – That Man Is Dead And Gone

Al Bowlly with Ray Noble and his Orchestra – Guilty (Amelie)

Al Bowlly with Ray Noble and his Orchestra – Hang Out The Stars in Indiana (Withnail And I)

Al Bowlly with Ray Noble and his Orchestra – Midnight, the Stars and You (The Shining)

Al Bowlly with Lew Stone and his Band – Just Let Me Look At You

Al Bowlly with Lew Stone and his Band – You Couldn’t Be Cuter

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44 Responses to “Blackfriars Road, The Ring and the death of Al Bowlly”

  1. belinda ackermann says:

    another treat
    i love the connection that you make
    is this something you put together for your own interest or is it commissioned?

  2. nickelinthemachine says:

    No it isn’t commissioned (that’ll be the day), just the best hobby in the world, that’s all.

  3. Myles Kimberley says:

    Fascinating, I have visited Jermyn Street recently and photographed Duke’s Court, your photograph makes an interesting comparison.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. aria says:

    Thanks so much for introducing me to a singer I had never heard of, despite having seen Withnail and I and Amelie. Very interesting reading, I love your website.

  5. Hugh says:

    I work on Union Street at the moment; this is wonderful!

    The boxing link with this part of SE1 0 carries on with the The Ring Boxing Club now situated off Gt. Suffolk Street, right next to Union Street, underneath the arches of a railway bridge.

  6. Ken says:

    Don’t for forget Richard Thompson’s tribute ‘Al Bowlly’s in Heaven’, in which a homeless old soldier remembers his glory days in the dancehalls before ‘I traded my helmet, and my parachute/ For a pair of crutches and a demob suit’.

  7. belinda ackermann says:

    passed this on to a friend who runs a scenery building company based under arches at end of bear lane thought you might enjoy his response, i certainly did “my dad boxed at the ring when he was a young boy pre 1940 he lived in Brixton and had bouts at youth,and boxing clubs all around London. Once wining a cup at the now famous york halls in bethenal green”
    this part of london has changed more radically than almost any other it is almost recognisable
    thank for reconnecting me with its history helps to see the personality under the growing facelessness

  8. Ryan Mc Elhiney says:

    Hi Im the owner of The Ring. Im looking for a good picture of the Original ring as the one i have is a little grainy. Any help would be appreciated.

  9. Dave Pape says:

    Fantastic post – Al Bowlly was my Granny Cosgrove’s favourite singer. She was a human jukebox, she knew more songs than an 80GB iPod and her workmates would sit her on top of a filing cabinet to sing to them.

    It’s unnerving to imagine times so hard that your favourite national star might end up buried in a mass grave as part of the general flow of dealing with immediate events…

  10. Chris says:

    I’ve loved Al Bowlly since I was a teenager (now 36), but at the time I didn’t know who he was (he was on Ray Noble 78′s in the U.S.). Since then, I’ve fallen more in love with his voice. One of my favorites is “Little Lady Make-Believe”. Such a tragic loss to music.

    Thank you for keeping him alive.

  11. Mark georgiou says:

    Hello,

    My great great grand mother was killed in the Blackfriars bomb. May I ask where you found the photograph? I’d like to get a copy for our family records.

    Thanks

    Mark

  12. Bob Hewitt says:

    Thanks for the extremely interesting information on The Ring.
    My grandfather,Bill Hewett,boxed there before WW1 .
    Interestjng to discover the chapel opened as The Ring about 1910.
    Do you have any info ref the date The Ring closed,or was it still operating when destroyed by bombing in WW2 ?
    Would you know if any records of fights at The Ring survived the bombing?
    Once again,thanks for a totally fascinating insight into this area of London.
    Bob Hewitt

  13. Alison says:

    Thank you for posting the stuff about Al Bowlly; he’s on my blog too.

    Your blog is brilliant, full of great nuggets and really well written.

  14. BRIAN DONALD says:

    The best book on the history of the ”Ring” Blackfriars is ”BELLA OF BLACKFRIARS” BY LESLIE BELL published in 1961.
    It is the story of Dick and Bella Burge who founded the Blackfriars ”RING” but on Dick’s early death in 1919 Bella ran the boxing there until it was flattened by a Luftawffe bomb.
    Dick Burge-an ex-British lightweight champion-was an intersting character. He di seven years jail time for being an accesory to Edwardian Britain’s biggest bank fraud-the Liverpool Savings Bank fraud where £120.000 was defrauded-then when Word War One broke out Dick Burge became a Sergeant in the ROYAL MILITARY POLICE?

  15. Lesley says:

    My Grandfather Reg Freshwater boxed here nt sure of the years but guessing between 1920-1930. Have a picture of him in boxing gloves, shorts etc., would love any more info on his fights here if anyone has any.

  16. Chris says:

    What an interesting string of connections – wonderful stuff! I work in Union Street – so it is very interesting to me. I also know Al Bowlly from his wonderful “Hang out the stars in Indiana” in Withnail & I (my favourite film in the world!).
    Thanks for your time in putting this stuff together…finding a little nugget like this while surfing the internet is what makes the internet such fun and terribly addictive!

  17. David says:

    Nice site, good man

  18. Tina McCarthy says:

    Love all the old photos. My grandfather and his brother wrestled there when they were young, my uncle was Tony Mancelli and he retired from wrestling in 1955. We used to watch him on TV when he was a referee, would have been the 60s and 70s. Would love anymore info or photos of him.

  19. mitch says:

    Just came across your piece on the death of Al Bowlly. He was one of my favourite singers, even though I was born 22 years after he died.

    What I’d like to ask you is: the photo of the bombed trams and the photo of Jermyn Street. Are they copyrighted at all to your knowledge?

  20. drake says:

    Re Al Bowlly .Does anyone know if the story is true about his death being foretold in a fan letter which was sent to him ??

  21. Oliver Hylton says:

    I do know that Al Bowlly left the Cafe de Paris shortly before a bomb exploded there too, fatally wounding many of his band including “Snakehips” Hawkins who took over as the lead when he left…

  22. Photobucket Not a museum but well worth a visit are the Excalibur estate and the Blackfriars rd / The Ring Bridge. The Excalibur estate is built entirely from prefabs and is not long for this world, the council is looking to demolish them all, so visit whilst you can; Nothing To See Here: The Excalibur Estate, London And the bridge at the site of the building called The Ring still has damage from the V2 which destroyed it: Blackfriars Road, The Ring and the death of Al Bowlly [...]

  23. All-In wrestling started at The Ring in the year 1932 and featured all the top class wrestlers from home, and abroad. The most well known was Londoner Bert Assirati the British champion from Islington he appearred there on many occasions to packed out houses on Thursday nights. In 1934 he defeated the giant Russian Kola Kwariani tossing him out of the ring on two occasions. For those interested in wrestling you can log onto my web-site at http://www.allinwrestling.co.uk to see a large collection of programmes, and posters featuring The Ring and other London venues. I am always trying to locate old wrestling memorabilia for my web-site like programmes,posters, photographs, magazines etc…..
    Thank you Mike Hallinan (Edgware)
    e.mail MikeHallinan2001@aol.com

  24. Mark says:

    In the trans-atlantic battle in the 1930s between the crooners Bing Crosby and Al Bowlly, admirers of Bing boasted that when he sang a song he would make his audience weep, but the Bowlly fans claimed that when Al crooned he could make himself cry!

  25. K.Knowler says:

    My grandad also fought at the ‘Ring’ in the twentie’s,i think he also fought on the ‘Cobbles’.He’s name was Henry Knowler.

  26. anne baker says:

    Does anybody have any info on Sailor Lawlor who boxed at the Ring in about 1910-1930. I believe that Blossom Lawlor managed the Ring at that time.

  27. pat piercy says:

    Dick & Bella Burge were my great great Uncle and Aunt, Dick being my Great Great Grandfathers brother.
    Apart from managing to buy the book Belle of Blackfriars I do not own any other mementos. Does anybody have anything to share or sell to me.
    I would be so very grateful.
    Pat Piercy

  28. John Richardson says:

    My paternal grandfather, Charles Frederick Richardson, used to be a fmaous bare-knuckle boxer who foufht at the Ring. I don’t what name he went under, but my father used to tell us stpries of him fighting for money in the pubs around south london. Does anybody know any more information?

  29. Jane Richardson says:

    John Richardson, try a search at BoxRec they have a Charlie Richardson listed as fighhting at The Ring in 1915

  30. Colin Withey says:

    The trams shown blitzed in Blackfriars Bridge Road were not “sheltering” but caught by the traffic lights that can just be seen to the left of the further tram. The bomb dropped through the railway bridge on to two of them. Even if the lights had changed that afternoon with so many tram services using that road to the Embankment, a number of trams would have been caught anyway.

  31. Fred Elwell says:

    Our whole family lived a few doors away in Union Street and we were bombed out by the the doodlebug that dropped on the
    EWS watertank that was built on the site of the Ring. Our grandad told us he used to box at the Ring on Saturday nights for prize money, he’s name was Charlie Bewsey.

  32. Denyse AIta says:

    I love this singer so much.. I listen to him all the time. I am so sad as to the way he died. I always feel such sorrow. I would like to know if Britain ever had a stamp made in his honour. I would be so pleased. If they have not done so , I wish they would. thank you.

  33. Mick Hill says:

    Does anyone know if Dick Burge fought in the boxing booth(s) before or during his professional ring career and if so the name(s) of them?

  34. Phil Moran says:

    Thanks for a very interesting web sight and for reminding us all of Al Bowlly. How sad he chose to get the last train home from High Wycombe, where he could have stayed and then met his death so tragically in his flat in Dukes Court. Is the building still standing?

  35. Pete Poulton says:

    Brings back childhood memories of WW2 in London. Many thanks

  36. Ken Lane says:

    My Grandfather Charlie Lane boxed at the Blackfriars Ring several times and still boxed there when he was in his forties at times . I have photos and his formidible record provided by a boxing historian I just love it. Great days by the sounds of it . Ken Lane

  37. [...] may be interested in The Obelisk The Ring – excellent article The Surrey Theatre Magdalen Hospital, Streatham The Magdalen Hospital Trust [...]

  38. Richard Venier says:

    Hi,
    Has anyone heard of my grandfather Leonard Ronald Venier who used to be Billy Wells sparring partner at The Ring I think in the 1920′s/30′s.
    He used to have a grocery shop somewhere around Kennington Lambeth. Sadly he lost the business due to the slump and my grandmother Kitty ended up in the workhouse with my father Alan & his brother John.
    If anyone out there has heard of Len I would literally be over the moon to learn of any information that you may know of him.
    Because he had such a fine physique they used his torso as an advert in the papers for the chest expander.
    Thank you & great site.
    Richard 07891140845

  39. Lee Berry says:

    My maternal grandfather was a bare knuckle boxer from South London (Balham) also called Richardson – but I only know of him as Sailor Richardson – don’t know what his ‘proper’ Christian name/s were. My mum was one of 12 kids….

  40. matthew walker says:

    My father, Terrance “Terry” Walker was a gambler and a piano player .He also managed a boxer by the name of Larry Lister.My father had a limp and
    little use of his left hand due to polio as a boy.Most of his travels were
    following the race tracks.He died at Carrington House Sept 14th 1955 at the age of 42 and was buried in Lewisham.He was originaly from Nottingham,were I was born,1942.Its a long shot I know, but, pardon the pun,does he “ring a bell’ with any one… I to have just rediscoved Al Bowlly.Great deliverer of a song..you can hear every word!

  41. Jane Carpenter says:

    Lee Berry my paternal great grandfather was Sailor Richardson from Lambeth. My Mum remembers him. I thought his name was Frederick William or vice versa but he us listed on Boxing Rec as William. My grandfather was Frederick one of his 12 kids.

  42. phil williams says:

    BRILLIANT! + Great comments! – Thank you

  43. Carole Richardson says:

    My grandfather was Sailor Richardson (Battam Weight Boxer) from Lambeth. His name was Frederick William Richardson. He married Sarah Janet Squibb. My father was William and was one of Frederick’s 12 children. Does anyone have information about Frederick who won many fights. He was born in 1879. One of my father’s sisters married a Mr Berry. Thank you.

  44. Carole Richardson says:

    Apologies for typo errors in last text. My grandfather was a bare knuckle fighter. I have photos of him. I would like to hear from anyone who feels they are related to Frederick Willuam Richardson as I have been interested in him. Thank you. Carole

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