Virginia Simpson-Young, Bulletin 7/2021, September 2021
The Glebe Society recently received this message on our Facebook page: ‘A great man of the area has died recently. You should put something up about John McColl, who ran the Glebe estate boxing gym.’
John McColl, who died on 18 August at the age of 81 years, ran the Glebe Estate Boxing Gym that was once located at 62 Wentworth Park Rd.
John McColl was originally from Yallourn in Victoria where he took up boxing, a sport that eventually led him to settle in Glebe, where he trained with Tom Laming Snr at Glebe’s Laming’s Gym. John had a successful amateur boxing career and was crowned both the Victorian and NSW Light Heavyweight champion and Golden Gloves champion. According to his brother, Winton McColl, John was ‘just pipped out of Olympic representation in 1964.’1 A man of many talents, according to his family, John McColl had also been the Victorian Jitterbug champion.2
Historian and founding Glebe Society member, Max Solling, knew ‘Johnny’ McColl when they were both young boxers. Max boxed for the University of Sydney, and he and his fellow university club members often competed against boxers from local clubs. ‘When we were preparing for intervarsity boxing competitions, we’d go to the various Police Boys Clubs in the inner city and inner west. We’d go in then they’d weigh us in; if there was another boxer there of comparable weight, we’d fight them. It wasn’t always fair – even though the weight was right, boxers might have different amounts of experience.’.3
After retiring from boxing, John McColl set up the Glebe Estate Boxing Gym at 62 Wentworth Park Rd Glebe, opposite Wentworth Park. The building, part of the Glebe Estate, was owned by the NSW government and, according to his brother Winton, John was able to use it ‘for a peppercorn rent.’.4 The building was a disused factory originally constructed for ERL Pty Ltd in 1937 and is listed as a heritage item on the 2012 City of Sydney LEP. The Statement of Significance describes it as ‘a finely detailed brick industrial building from the Inter-War period exhibiting features of the Federation Beaux Art as well as Art Deco styles’.5 The building was often referred to as the ‘Brelco building’.
John McColl was a successful trainer, training ‘many State and national champions, both amateur and professional boxers, even a couple to world title bouts.’6 But the Glebe Estate Boxing Gym was more than a boxing gym. It was, in effect, an out of school hours care facility for kids from the Glebe Estate, sometimes having up to 50 to -60 kids there.7 A boxing friend of McColl’s reminisced in a Facebook post that the ‘gym was free of charge for kids to drop in, hit the bag, play basketball and table tennis and just hang around.’ John’s brother reported that John would host a boxing exhibition at the gym each year, ‘sometimes including the then World Light Heavyweight Champion, Jeff Harding’. The funds raised went towards ‘the big Christmas Bash that John would put on for the kids.’8
The boxing gym’s benefit to the local community was widely recognised. When the gym was threatened with closure in the early 1990s, community support was widespread. The Glebe Society lobbied the building’s owner, the NSW government, to permit the Glebe Estate gym to stay on as a tenant.9 And in 2000, with the gym still under threat, The Glebe Society continued to argue for its retention:
The discipline and training McColl offers his young charges, together with the confidence skill brings, plus the need to blow off surplus energy and aggression, outweigh possible disadvantages from taking [boxing] up as a career. There has been a broad consensus for many years that McColl’s Gym fulfils a useful, even an irreplaceable, social role, and should be retained.10
Sadly, the gym closed in the early 2000s. As the photo below from 2005 attests, in the 2000s, the building was looking in need of a little TLC prompting the Glebe Society’s Planning Convenor, Neil Macindoe, to describe it in 2000 as a ‘rather dilapidated, dirty and forbidding three-storey brick factory’.11 The building has since been renovated and converted to modern apartments.
John McColl was a much-loved trainer and community member. His loss is indicated by the many people passing on their condolences to his family on social media; here are the words of one: I understand that we cannot pay our respects in person but will take a moment to reflect how much you did for the Glebe community, fighters and boxing in general. RIP John.
1.. http://www.virtualyallourn.com/stories/amateur-boxing-john-mccoll-john-backman; 2. https://www.mytributes.com.au/notice/death-notices/mccoll-john/5767574/; 3. Personal communication; 4. http://www.virtualyallourn.com/stories/amateur-boxing-john-mccoll-john-backman; 5. https://www.glebesociety.org.au/wp-content/uploads/to-CoS-re-48-62-Wentworth-Park-Rd-Glebe-21-January-2021.pdf; 6. http://www.virtualyallourn.com/stories/amateur-boxing-john-mccoll-john-backman; 7. ibid; 8; ibid; 9. https://www.glebesociety.org.au/wp-content/uploads/bulletins/1992_10.pdf; 10. https://www.glebesociety.org.au/wp-content/uploads/bulletins/2000_08.pdf; 11. Ibid