It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to dub Ray Gipson ‘Mr. Bow.’ He has lived and breathed East London life for every one of his 79 years, and been a pillar of the community for almost as long. From football coach to councillor to elder statesman at the Bow Geezers – which takes some doing – Gipson has been a mainstay of the area. Never idle, ever cheerful, he takes the evolution of the area in stride, always looking forward to the next thing.
We meet at the Bow Geezers’ weekly get together on Morville Street. There is laughter and Foster’s ale. Gipson sits at the head of the table, orchestrating proceedings. He is well practiced keeping rascals in line. He was a councillor for 12 years, refereed football matches at Hackney Marshes for 15, and in recent years has been a driving force at Bow Geezers.
Football has been a common thread in Gipson’s life. There used to be 120 pitches at Hackney Marshes. ‘People used to come from all over London to play there,’ Gipson says. ‘I must have refereed on most of them over the years.’ You can certainly picture it. Being in the thick of it has been a running theme for Gipson. When he wasn’t refereeing football matches he was coaching one of the teams. Some played in the Spartan League, just a couple of rungs below the English Football League.
Gipson also served as a councillor for 12 years in Bow East as a Liberal Democrat. When he was voted out he didn’t mope. He needed a new cause. ‘It left me with a gap,’ he says. ‘I had to do more in the community, which I’ve been doing ever since.’ A stint volunteering with Age UK led to a realisation that elderly people in the area had nowhere to call their own. So, he helped found the Bow Geezers group.
The Geezers group has itself been going for about 12 years now, organising activities and campaigns for elderly gentlemen in the area. They even inadvertently kicked off the equivalent women’s group, the Bow Belles. ‘They got the hike about us so they started a women’s group,’ he laughs. ‘They wanted to know what we was doing.’
This, as with most things Gipson says, is delivered cheerfully. There is a fixedness about his manner, but he is never standoffish. When he was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2016 for his services to the community, he spoke only of others. He likes people, and he likes getting things done.
One can’t help but feel this has always been the case with Ray Gipson. He has spent his whole life in Bow, and still lives on the same street he grew up on. He has never felt a desire to leave. He is proud of the area, of its working class roots.
The Geezers meet at a community centre near Tom Thumb Arch, which runs underneath the railway track, and Gipson chuckles as he recalls. ‘As a kid you wouldn’t go under Tom Thumb’s Arch because there were different gangs under there. It was very territorial round here. If you come from Bow you stayed this side of Tom Thumb’s Arch.’
Indeed, a lot of Gipson’s childhood memories seem to involve northern Bow – around Roman Road and Victoria Park. ‘One of the jewels in the crown of this area is Victoria Park. Always was when I was a kid, it’s a beautiful park. As kids we used to go over there in the holidays and play football from eight o’clock in the morning until it got dark at night. Your mum would never worry about you, she knew where you was.’
Gipson played as a defender, and his team is and has always been Leyton Orient. ‘‘My heart’s always been with them.’ He would walk to games because the shilling his mother gave him was just enough to get in. Then when the game was over, he would collect autographs and walk home.
Mobility extended to his working life. After a five years apprenticing as a thermal insulation engineer – ‘That was a dirty job, cor it was a dirty job.’ – Gipson hopped between jobs before becoming a heavy goods vehicle driver for the British Road Services, a role he stayed in until retiring at 57.
Where’s My Boozer Gone and ‘that’ calendar
Gipson has seen an awful lot of change during his 40+ years of ‘retirement.’ The market is not as strong as it once was. ‘When I was a kid the market was fabulous. It was completely packed. Loads and loads of stalls, and it went on to about eight o’clock at night.’ There used to be two G. Kelly pie and mash shops on the market stretch of Roman Road alone, though he and the Geezers are delighted to see the remaining one reopen its doors this summer. ‘We were waiting years for it to come back,’ he laughs.
The main cause of Gipson and the Geezers has been pubs. The number of small pubs in the UK have almost halved since 2001, with 90 in and around Bow closing in recent years. There used to be seven on the market stretch of Roman Road alone, Gipson remembers. ‘I used to go in all of them,’ he says. ‘You might get chucked out some of them. They’d say, “We ain’t serving you know more, come in tomorrow.” They didn’t want to lose your custom but you were getting too lairy.’
Mind you, he behaved himself at the Double R Club, which was owned by the Kray twins. ‘You had to behave yourself in there, All the blokes that ran it were proper gangsters.’
This decline in pub culture was the impetus for the Where’s My Boozer Gone? campaign, in which the Geezers modelled for a nude calendar inside the Eleanor Arms pub. Thirty-five Tower Hamlets pubs have since been protected from development (for now). The Geezers’ nudes weren’t directly credited for this, but we know. We know.
Gipson seems unphased by gentrification of the area in recent years. For the most part he views it as healthy. ‘People didn’t want to live in east London. It was a poor borough, and it’s not that rich now, but it was always a poor borough. People wanted to live in middle London or west London, but now people do come and live here.’
Ever the people person, Gipson sees this as a chance to connect, not be closed off. ‘It’s helped the people who have moved in, who were probably middle-class, to understand that people who were poorer than them were human beings, and decent human beings.’ It makes for a more gentler, more connected city. ‘Everyone mingles together.’
The issues, as Gipson sees them, revolve around affordability and the decline of cultural hubs — like pubs. If people can’t afford to live here and there aren’t places to socialise, then the bottom falls out of the whole operation.
Gipson has always strived for a more connected Bow, and the sweetest thing about it is it isn’t the slightest bit forced. It is a natural impulse that dates all the way back to his summer afternoons in Victoria Park as a child. ‘All my friends I played football with, we all got older together. Now we meet in the pub and all that lark, and it carries on.’
It carries on, and all the better for having Ray Gipson in the mix. When I left he was back with the Geezers, ale in hand, laughing as heartily as the rest of them. It suits him. ‘I like the bustle and hustle.’
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