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Category: East End sporting achievements

Oscar Eckenstein, mountaineering pioneer and pal of Aleister Crowley

eckenstein front row second left

NO OBITUARY notice seems to have appeared when Oscar Eckenstein died in 1921. No mentions in the press, no plaudits from his fellows in the British mountaineering fraternity, and no reminiscences of daring climbs or brilliant innovations. Yet this East Ender is one of the most curious figures in London history. The son of a Jewish socialist, revolutionised the sport of mountaineering, taking it from the hands of the enthusiastic gentlemen amateur climbers who were scaling (and dying upon) the peaks of Europe and Asia, and setting the foundations for the professional sport it is today. The clues for his omission from history lie in that London East End provenance, a rich vein of anti-semitism among the toffs who dominated climbing, and a fruitful climbing partnership with Aleister Crowley: an extraordinary character dubbed in turn ‘The Great Beast’, ‘the wickedest man in England’ and (when the popular press was getting particularly excited) ‘the wickedest man in the world’.

It certainly took a man with a strong nerve to climb mountains with Crowley. But then Oscar Johannes Ludwig Eckenstein was no shrinking violet. The Londoner had scaled his first peak at just 13 and swiftly made enemies with his unflinching criticism of Victorian climbing styles. When he encountered Crowley on a climb in the Lake District in the 1890s, the two outsiders immediately took to each other. Crowley was fascinated by the older Eckenstein and his curious history. In an era of effete Victorian climbers, who would be led to the peak by trained guides, Eckenstein demanded that climbers should rely on their own wits and skill, even climbing alone. The accepted ‘rule’ was that all climbers should be roped together; Eckenstein was an early advocate of unroped climbing. Oscar’s physical strength appealed to the macho Crowley. Years later in his autobiography, he praised the Londoner’s gymnastic strength, his ability to do one-armed pull-ups. Oscar Eckenstein it was, said Crowley, ‘who trained me to follow the trail’. Crowley, a pansexual, drug-taking, mystic and magician, liked nothing better than to irk the establishment (though he was himself an upper class Cambridge graduate) and he would have been delighted by the discomfort that the Jewish Londoner caused the members of the pukka Alpine Club. He quotes novelist and climber Morley Roberts calling Eckenstein ‘a dirty East End Jew’ after a climb in Zermatt.

Eckenstein, for his part, wasn’t scared by Crowley’s reputation, though he thought his dabbling with ‘magick’ a nonsense. He was also unfazed by criticism. He may have been ‘insufferably arrogant’ (according to yet another climber) but he was a considerable figure. He had his own remarkable history. As well as holding down a full-time job as a railway engineer (‘years ahead of the times in thought and scientific invention of devices for the betterment of railroading’, according to fellow engineer HW Hillhouse) this Jewish Londoner was a superb athlete, expert musician (with a talent for the bagpipes), amateur carpenter and a graduate in chemistry. Oscar was a long way from the London East End oik the gentlemen of the Alpine Club painted him to be.

And most of all, of course, the Londoner was a superb climber. He had taken the practice of bouldering (where climbers scale boulders without the aid of ropes) from a fun pastime to an essential way for climbers to build their skills. He was also developing the art of balance climbing, where climbers had to become keenly aware of their position and balance on the face, rather than brutally hauling themselves upward. He was tirelessly innovative. In the late 19th century the typical ice axe was some 130cm long; Eckenstein designed a shorter, lighter axe of 85cm, which could be used single handed. He invented the modern crampon, which allowed the climber’s boots to bite into the ice, giving mobility and allowing climbers to scale steeper faces. He even redesigned the boots themselves.

There were the climbs themselves. History tells us that the Londoner was on the teams that made of the first ascent of the Stecknadelhorn in Switzerland in 1887 and Monte Brouillard in Italy in 1906. An attempt on the Baltoro glacier in Pakistan in 1882 ended in disarray when Oscar fell out with team leader Sir Martin Conway (a loathed mainstay of the Alpine Club) but he was back as leader of the first serious attempt to scale K2 (second only to Everest) in 1902. Crowley was alongside. The younger man was in awe of the London East Ender’s honesty and character, and in one passage of his autobiography, Crowley explains how Eckenstein conspired to write himself out of climbing history. ‘He was probably the best all-round man in England, but his achievements were little known because of his almost fanatical objection to publicity. He hated self-advertising quacks like the principal members of the Alpine Club with an intensity which, legitimate as it was, was almost overdone. His detestation of every kind of humbug and false pretence was an overmastering passion. I have never met any man who upheld the highest moral ideals with such unflinching candour.’

Late in life, Oscar would settle down, marrying Margery Edwards in 1918. Eckenstein was 58, and the couple settled in the tiny village of Oving in Buckinghamshire, a world away from the Jewish East End of London where he had grown up. Soon afterwards he fell ill with consumption, and he died in 1921. He left no children, and his widow remarried. One of the few tributes left to history came from his friend JP Farrar, writing in the Alpine Journal a full two years later. “I went to see (E) as he lay dying, one summer day two years ago, at the little hill town of Oving. His lungs had gone, he could only gasp; but his eye was as clear as ever, as dauntless as it had ever been in disadvantages of race, often of poverty, dying a brave man – wrapped up to the very end in his beloved mountains.” Among the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire, the East End climber could still summon memories of the Alps and of K2.

Toynbee Hall, Baron de Coubertin and the London Olympics

If the young Pierre de Coubertin were to stroll around the London Olympics site today he’d doubtless be amazed, and slightly baffled, as to how the seed of an idea had flowered. He would certainly be impressed at the competition between all classes of men and women taking place on and in the multifarious tracks, fields, courts, ranges and pools of east London. And he would probably be delighted that for the first time it was happening here.

For it was in the East End that his ideas for an Olympic Games first began to come together. In Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, itself a social experiment in bridging the gap between haves and have-nots, to the mutual benefit of both, the French de Coubertin began to embrace a very English idea. Healthy minds and healthy bodies would be cultivated together, to the greater good of society. The roots of Coubertin’s idea lay in a crisis of confidence for the French nation, and the young Baron’s mission was to find a means of rebuilding France’s morale.

In June 1886, Coubertin was on what we would today call a fact-finding tour. The aristocratic 23-year-old had turned his back on the expected military career to tackle social issues and fight for educational reform in France. His country had been humiliatingly trounced in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and Coubertin, along with many of his countrymen saw a lack of physical fitness, teamwork, leadership and moral courage as being at the root of the problem.

Coubertin’s first call had been to the English public schools. Eton, Harrow and Rugby were producing young men who spent almost as much time on football, rugby, tennis, fencing or fives as on Latin and Algebra:some people remarked scornfully that exercising the body seemed much more important than stretching the mind at times, with intellect being rather mistrusted. Nonetheless, these were the boys who would go on to form the officer class of the British Army, and Pierre was impressed.

But then, at Toynbee Hall, he found the young scions of the upper and the upper middle classes doing something rather unexpected. Rather than viewing the working classes as people to drive their carriages or till the fields of their estates, the young Oxbridge graduates were working with them: teaching them mathematics and English; running boxing, swimming and rowing clubs. The Toynbee ‘missionaries’ were practising that very Victorian brand of muscular Christianity, helping working class people to help themselves, and giving them skills which would lift them out of poverty.

Toynbee Hall had been founded by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in 1884, in memory of their friend Arnold Toynbee, a young Oxford historian who had devoted his time to working with the poor of Whitechapel until his untimely death at the age of 31. The idea of ‘two nations’ was a powerful strain in late Victorian thinking, and the Barnetts saw the only way to cure the stubborn poverty of the East End was to get rich and poor working together. The rich would bring their skills, helping to draw out the latent talents of the working classes. In the process, the Oxbridge men would learn valuable social lessons and a divided England would be brought together.

The idea quickly spread, with other ‘settlements’ spring up in London and around the globe. Many of the residents of Toynbee Hall would go on to become major 20th century figures in social reform – Clement Attlee and William Beveridge to name just two. Coubertin was enthralled by what he saw, saying: “Many links across the classes were developed and many friendships formed. Beliefs have joined these different men who fight for the same cause.”

Crucial to Coubertin’s nascent idea was a union of sport and culture – he expressed pleasant surprise at the high-brow books workers were borrowing from the library. And he believed in starting the job young, noting with approval the trips the graduates would lead into the countryside, with teams of children playing sports and learning about the flora and fauna they encountered.

Courbertin made other visits during his time in England, famously to the Much Wenlock Games in 1890. The Shropshire event was unusual in bringing a number of sports together, and had itself been modelled after the ancient Olympic Games. And there had been other ‘Olympics’, including Liverpool’s Grand Olympic Festival, held each year between 1862 and 1867. Pierre could even have looked to his own country: Revolutionary France held L’Olympiade de la Republique annually from 1796-8. By 1896, the Baron was ready to launch his own version, with the first modern Olympiad taking place in Greece.

A century later, the Olympics is a massive global phenomenon. De Coubertin’s social experiment unknowingly anticipated our modern thirst for sport as spectacle and event, and receptacle for ever greater quantities of cash. To the motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ some sceptics might add ‘Ever more expensive’. And the Baron might have wondered how his dream of rich and poor working together sat with the spectacle of ‘Games Lanes’: IOC members speeding in their limousines past the hoi polloi stuck in traffic jams. The Barnetts, meanwhile, would be astonished where their proto-version of ‘we’re all in this together’ has led.

But Whitechapel, as much as Athens and Much Wenlock, takes its proud place in the history of the modern Games. Without Toynbee Hall and its muscular missionaries, there would be no London 2012.

Lennox Lewis and East End of London

It may have been a long time coming – 102 years, to be precise – but Britain at last has an undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion.
The political and financial machinations of larger-than-life promoter Don King and governing body the IBF have agreed to give Lennox Lewis the honour of being the first holder of every version of the world heavyweight crown since 1992 – Brits Frank Bruno and Herbie Hide have held the WBC and WBO versions of the belt in that time. But, for now at least, an east London man is champion of the boxing world once again.
True Brit grit?
There are some who might challenge Lewis’ cockney credentials, as happened with the last man to be an undisputed English champion of the world. Bob Fitzimmons, who held the title in 1897, may have been born in Cornwall, but he was raised in New Zealand, did most of his early fighting in Australia and was twice crowned as an American world champion.

Lennox was born and raised in Stratford and professes a lifelong allegiance to West Ham United. Although his accent owes a little more to North America than east London, his career as a winning fighter puts him in a great East End tradition – of cockney kids using the ring to make their fame, if not their fortune.
Go to Paradise Row in Bethnal Green and you’ll see a blue plaque to the memory of Daniel Mendoza. Mendoza the Jew, as he was known, was English bareknuckle boxing champion from 1794
to 1795. With bouts lasting until one of the contenders dropped – often several hours – long reigns as champ weren’t common.
The East End doesn’t breed too many boxers the size of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield or even Mendoza – it’s at the lighter weights that most of our lads have won their world crowns.
He ain’t heavy
Gershon Mendeloff was born in Whitechapel on 24 October 1894, but it was as Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis that he held
the world welterweight title between 1915 and 1916. Lewis fought an extraordinary 279 bouts in a career stretching from 1909 to 1929.
Lewis was a graduate of Premierland, a boxing hall just off the Commercial Road. This Aldgate hall was the training ground of another two world champions. Teddy Baldock was a Premierland bantamweight, who in 1927 beat Archie Bell in London to claim the vacant British and World titles.
The third graduate was another Jewish East Ender, Jack ‘Kid’ Berg, the Whitechapel Whirlwind. Berg wasn’t considered much of a contender when he burst onto the American fight scene on 31 May 1928. The little fighter, born Judah Bergman, was considered cannon fodder for Pedro Amador’s junior welterweight world title bout.
But instead of the upright stance, limited movement and china chin of the classic British fighter, the Yanks were shocked as the whirling dervish – his range and angle of delivery of punches made him the Naseem Hamed of his day – dumped Amador on the canvas.
Berg powered through the division, fighting almost
weekly, only failing when he tried to step up to the more moneyed lightweight crown, against Billy Petrolle. But though he took a beating against Petrolle, he fought on for another decade and died at the ripe old age of 82 in 1991.
Take a look at Charlie Magri’s birth certificate and you’ll see July 20, 1956, Tunis, Tunisia. But Magri was a Bethnal Green fighter through and through, honing his speed and skills as a flyweight at numerous York Hall bouts from 1977 onwards.
By 1979 he was European champion and four years later he landed the WBC world crown, defeating Eleoncio Mercedes in London.