10. Henry Cooper and the Bramston Sports Centre

In March 1974, the champion boxer Henry Cooper came to Witham to open the new Bramston Sports Centre and swimming pool. It was a memorable occasion for everyone who was there. So it is a good time to recall it in the light of Henry’s recent death. Those of us who met him observed his quietness and gentleness, and felt that it was an honour to meet him. It was very hard to imagine him letting fly in the boxing ring.

It was not the first time he had visited Witham. In 1966 he came to the annual Donkey Derby in the Park, and took the microphone to give a running commentary on the races. He was then British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion. This was three years after the best known fight of his career, when he punched Cassius Clay (later Mohammad Ali) to the ground.

By the time he came to open the Sports Centre, Henry had been BBC Sports Personality of the Year twice, had been awarded the OBE, and had retired from boxing. After being shown round the Centre, his next task was to unveil the plaque which can still be seen in the foyer. He then made a short speech, saying that the centre was the best in the country. Previously he had told one of the councillors that if there had been facilities like these when he was young, he would have been World Champion (something which had always eluded him).

After this there was a display of many sporting activities, of which gymnastics was perhaps the most spectacular. I have chosen this photo, showing Henry with a group of spectators, because some of my readers might recognise themselves. I can only pick out Mrs Peggy Smith, to the right of Henry (she was the wife of Ted Smith, chairman of Witham UD Council, which shared the responsibility for the Centre with Essex CC).
m3020 henry cooper and group, opening of sports centre 1974
Now that thirty-seven years have passed, and the Centre is thought to be rather old-fashioned, it is hard to imagine its impact when it first opened. The only previous swimming places had been outdoor ones. They were not very grand, and had closed down during World War 2. The first was the “bathing place” in the river, established during the 1880s, and the second was a pool made out of some old water tanks at the waterworks, opened in the 1930s. Since then there was nothing till Bramston opened. Other indoor sports facilities had been virtually non-existent.

The magnificent facilities of 1974 were made possible by the fact that very many new residents had arrived in Witham. In particular, people from London had moved with their jobs, under the Town Development agreement between the Greater London Council and the Witham Urban District Council.. Now their children and grandchildren are enjoying Bramston Sports Centre too !

A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in May 2011

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