Fighting back: How DIY SOS helped Grenfell’s community reclaim its world-class boxing heritage

After the Grenfell fire, Nick Knowles and DIY SOS took on their greatest challenge to date...

Nick Knowles on the site of the new boxing gym in DIY: SOS (BBC)

As he had done many times in the previous 18 years, Mick Delaney locked up the boxing gym on the second floor of Grenfell Tower at about 9.30pm on Tuesday 13 June, 2017.

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The last of the seniors had finished training and as he cast his eyes over the modern, two-ring gym, brand new heavy bags hanging in front of spotless mirrors and framed pictures of Dale Youth Amateur Boxing Club old boys James DeGale and George Groves – both now super-middleweight world champions – he knew the long wait for the council-led refurbishment had been worth it.

Three-and-a-half hours later the 24-storey tower block in North Kensington, London, was on fire. It would burn for the next 60 hours, claiming the lives of 72 people. Delaney heard about it at 5.30am.

“One of the coaches who works with me was on his way to work and he called and said, ‘Get up and put your TV on, you will never believe it, there are flames coming out of all the windows in Grenfell.’” Gary McGuinness, another coach at Dale Youth ABC, had already been outside for three hours watching the blaze. “I just couldn’t take it all in,” he says now. “It was so close. My garden was full of ash.”

David “Little Dave” Price, just nine years old at the time, was woken by his father in a nearby tower block to be told that he was not going to the boxing club any time soon. “I said, ‘Why, Dad? What have I done?’, he remembers now. “I put the radio on and went out on to my balcony and saw all the smoke. My friend Luana [Gomes] was in there with her family, we were boxing buddies.” Luana was rescued, placed in an induced coma and treated for cyanide poisoning. She has happily recovered, but Tony Disson, a 65-year-old supporter and helper at the gym, died in the fire.

The community has begun to rebuild, and replacing the gym – temporarily reconvened in a disused multi-storey car park – has been an integral part of this healing process.

Always more than just a collection of sparring pads, skipping ropes and weights at the bottom of Grenfell Tower, the 45-year-old club was the focus for boys and girls, young men and women who sought a life away from the gang culture so prevalent on the street. “They mix together,” says Delaney. “No matter what nationality, when they get into the gym and start working they get to know each other and it is their family.”

Coach Gary McGuinnesswith, from left, Mimi, Frankie, David, Franky Senior, Charlie, Oscar and Frank in DIY SOS Grenfell (Mark Johnson, Radio Times)
Coach Gary McGuinness with, from left, Mimi, Frankie, David, Franky Senior, Charlie, Oscar
and Frank in DIY SOS Grenfell (Mark Johnson, Radio Times)

Nick Knowles, the presenter of DIY SOS, who was himself raised in a tower block in west London, was in the Cotswolds working on another build for the show on the night of the fire. “We all saw it,” he recalls. “We were all in our hotel rooms and we came down to breakfast and started talking about whether we could do anything in any way.”

Three days later a member of the team came to visit the area. “It was an interesting time,” says Knowles. “At that stage television and newspapers were becoming less welcome but we didn’t come here with cameras, we came to walk around and talk to people. And as we were talking, I think because as a programme we have been around for almost 20 years, a lot of people in the community were asking us if we were going to build something.

“We said if we could find something to build, something that is relevant and of use, then we will. So we reached out to various different groups that were involved after the fire, and started a process of consultation where we opened it up to anyone or any groups in the community to tell us what we might be able to build. What we didn’t want to do was a token build that was like putting a sticking plaster on such a huge thing so it was important that we built the right thing.”

Grenfell (Getty)
(Getty)

The process ran for almost five months, the planning a similar amount of time and then the build, in a derelict space beneath the A40, less than 800m from the tower, was completed in a frankly improbable nine weeks. It was the biggest and “most important” project the DIY SOS team had ever undertaken.

To complicate matters, a complementary community centre (the subject of a second programme) was built on the same site.

There is space for about 50 kids to train and they all had an input into the design of the gym and their pictures are on the wall. As “Little Dave” puts it, “We don’t want to train in the car park, it’s not ours, it doesn’t feel like home. This new gym is like going back home. I know I am a kid but it’s like I am a kid at Christmas, I never thought this day would come.”

Nick Knowles, DIY SOS: Grenfell (BBC)
Nick Knowles pictured during the filming of DIY SOS: Grenfell (BBC)

A year is a long time when you’re nine years old, but the last year has been a long time for everybody affected by the Grenfell disaster. When he shut the doors the night before the fire, Mick Delaney would have seen the motto, “THE PAIN YOU FEEL TODAY IS THE STRENGTH YOU FEEL TOMORROW” on the whitewashed wall opposite. They are not his words, but the Grenfell community, particularly those young boxers, must take great solace from them. Thanks in part to the DIY SOS team, they now have more than a fighting chance of rebuilding what was taken away from them.

How were Knowles and the team affected by the project? “When we saw the kids running around trying out all the equipment with big smiles on their faces, I said to the guys, ‘This is what you’ve done, just listen to that sound.’ It hadn’t been heard for a long time because it had been such a tough year and to actually hear the joy and excitement was truly wonderful. We were all in tears.

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DIY SOS: Grenfell airs on Wednesday 5th September at 9pm on BBC1 and concludes on Wednesday 12th September at the same time