Michael and David Cain, a boxing duo

Brothers recall their early years living in abandoned gunners' barracks

The Cain brothers – Michael, who became a professional boxer, and David who boxed for the Army but was injured in an explosion in Northern Ireland – both started life in the former Little Gypps army barracks. Michael was born there in 1946 and David followed in 1949.

During the WWll there was a significant military presence on the Island including an anti aircraft battery in the Little Gypps area.  When the Canadian soldiers left at the end of the war the various buildings they had occupied were simply left as they were.  This was an obvious opportunity for some of the enterprising local families to take up residence.

Jack Fry

The brothers’ family, headed by grandfather, Jack Fry, had originally moved to Canvey from London’s East End in the ‘thirties, coming across to the Island on the stepping stones.  Michael says his family’s feelings were akin to old time settlers in America who headed west to start a new life.  The East End was crowded and so they headed east to live in basic tin shacks in the open spaces of a thinly populated island. “They settled and thrived and when the Canadians moved out it was like the gold rush to get a new home.”

They were not alone in the decision to squat in the disused barracks.  Michael and David recall that some Canvey families who became quite prominent put down early roots where the Canadians had once manned their guns.  They remember being neighbours with families of Trevellion, Frost, Fruen, Martin, Saunders, White and Beazer.

The former barrack buildings were quite large and although the residents put up partitions etc. David recalls his parents describing how you could hear everything people said next door.  Also the homes shared common loft spaces and field mice invaders could be heard scuttling along the rafters the full length of the buildings and across the heads of the different family homes.

Looking back, they believe it was quite remarkable that the authorities didn’t try to evict the families or charge rent but it was, of course, a time of housing shortages and a ‘make do’ attitude throughout the country as the population recovered from the ravages of war. Nevertheless, many families didn’t want to continue living there as squatters and they formed a united group which became the Settlers Association and approached the council to formalise their occupancy and pay rent.  Initially the family were paying 2/6 a week.

Grandmother Fry

The former military defences were a natural playground for the boys and their friends.  The guns may have gone but most everything else was there including rails and rollers to move equipment as well as the buildings.  The army had bricked up entrances to buildings such as the reinforced ammunition shed before they left but the young of Canvey didn’t let that stand in their way and they soon knocked holes to gain access. Towers provided opportunities to test climbing skills and in next to no time they had plenty of ropes rigged up.  David recalls a painful episode of a broken rope being responsible for landing him in the barbed wire.

In the ‘fifties housing was developed close to the former camp and the families there had priority to be housed in the new homes and so the community remained close neighbours despite the new bricks and mortar.  The Cain’s had come to East Crescent by then and clearly both men have exceedingly fond memories of Canvey as a carefree place in their youth.  There was so much open space and the local lads would drop a couple of coats on the grass for goal posts to organise football games between representatives of East Crescent and North Avenue; and then the whole lot would play boys from the Village.  Evidently the trick was to avoid the cowpats during play.

John and Ivy on their wedding day

The boys’ natural father who had survived the war as a navigator in Lancaster bombers, died in the ‘Malaya Emergency’, when they were very young.  Their mother, Ivy, remarried to John Edwards and had a daughter called Sharon, now Mrs S. Martinson who teaches at Castle View School.

They were still in East Crescent when the flood struck.  The water wasn’t particularly high where they were but the Cain family thought it best to decamp to a bigger house in Cedar Road, home of Clayton Howard and his family, friends from the days in the barracks.  Michael recalls that their father John was carrying David, mother was carrying sister Sharon but he, as a seven year old, was not about to hold anybody’s hand as they waded through the flood water.  However such independence was quickly curtailed when he disappeared from sight below the murky waters as he stepped down into a drain, the cover having been washed away.  Soaking wet and freezing cold, Michael was ordered to hold his father’s hand.

As boys they got up to the typical ‘games’ of the time.   Albert Jones, who had the well known store with a stuffed bear outside, used to give 2d for each empty soft drink bottle returned to the shop.  The brothers would regularly go to the beach with a barrow to collect up all the bottles they could find left by the day trippers.  They would receive their 2d a bottle reward for their efforts, but that wasn’t the end of the little enterprise. When shop staff stored the empties outside it was easy enough for the lads to climb the small fence and liberate the bottles which could be returned a second time to the shop for 2d a time.  History doesn’t relate how many times they successfully managed to recycle the fruits of their beach combing.

Later, like many other youngsters, the attractions of the sea front and The Casino played a prominent part in their leisure time. David looked after the dodgem cars for a while and they both look back with a mixture of amusement and wonder that the Summer Rose pleasure boat was allowed to load so many people on board for its trips around the lighthouse.  But ‘health and safety’ had a different meaning in the ‘fifties.  For example, Michael had his first shotgun when he was only 14.  “I was working and saved up to buy it. Quite a few of us used to go wild fowling and there were times when we were trapped by the thick mists and rising tides.”  David, not much above 11 at the time, was enlisted as gun bearer and recollects that when they were cut off and had to wade back to dry land the only thing Michael worried about was keeping the gun high and out of the water.  David is adamant that Michael once accidently shot him in the rear although Michael’s memory suggests that David jumped in the way; still, no permanent damage done. When they lived in the Small Gains area the locals would sit on the sea wall barely 20 yards from the house popping away as the birds flew over.  “It was a country area then, free and easy.”

Michael’s Boxing

Michael during his boxing career

By the time he was in his ‘teens, Michael had already established himself as a formidable amateur boxer.  In fact his boxing career began when he was still a boy, just around seven years old.  The Bay Country Club, forerunner of the Goldmine, on Western Esplanade used to host roller skating events on the ground floor area which could also double up as a function room.  Michael admits he was always getting into fights and being ejected from the building because, as a seven year old, he was one of the youngest and would be pushed and shoved by elder boys; arguments would get physical.  Mrs Carey, who owned the place, suggested he employ his skills in the boxing club which was also run on the Club premises.  Evidently, when he joined, most of the lads were a few years older than him and he had to enlist a string of school friends to join up so he had someone to fight. “I would bash them and they wouldn’t come again and so I had to find someone else to come.”

While part of the boxing club, which was affiliated to the Boys’ Association, Michael took part in one of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme’s events.  He was 14 years old and with three others took two canoes down the Thames from Oxford to Southend.  It was a lengthy test involving 5 nights camping.  They would have to load up tents into motorised transport each morning that would be awaiting them at the next rendezvous.  The two Canvey teams had borrowed canoes made by well known local firm, Prout, but they were heavy sea going ones which turned out to be a handicap for the majority of the journey compared to the lighter ones that most were using, especially when the canoes had to be manhandled around locks before they opened for the day.

Anyway, Michael enjoyed a successful amateur boxing career, winning himself a few titles before he turned professional in his late ‘teens.  Mick Cain’s first fight as a middleweight is listed on the BoxRec website as being against Johnny Pang in 1966 at Manor Place Baths, Walworth, London.  Mick won with a knockout, the first of many during his career.  He also did some training in the US and fought matches in Australia before retiring from professional boxing when he was about 26. In all BoxRec records twenty professional fights, Michael won 16, nine from a knockout, and only lost three and one bout was a draw. Once retired from the ring he then moved on to work for many years in the security sector for clubs and pubs – including the Haystack on the Island.

David’s Army Boxing

Dave during his army career

Whilst elder brother Michael was boxing in civilian life, David joined the British Army, the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, in 1969.  During his 14 weeks training at BATUS Barracks, David too started a boxing career, but his was to represent the Army.  From the training barracks it was on to Colchester to prepare for his first tour of duty in Northern Ireland at the time of the ‘troubles’, moving there straight after Bloody Sunday.

David was first and foremost a soldier but boxing was his love and he represented the military in bouts across many different camps. He avoided certain activities such as parachute training in case he sustained an injury which would impact his boxing although he relished any outward bound courses.  For example, he once trekked the Pennine Way with an Army team, a distance of some 270 miles.  “Every time I went over a hill I would ask the sergeant how much further and every time it was always just over the next hill.”  Half the team didn’t make.

Once when stationed in Germany he and his fellow Army boxers thought they would fight in some of the local boxing booths.  Unfortunately a captain joined the audience and they were caught and sent back to England as punishment.

In all David did three tours in Northern Ireland and tragically lost a couple of good friends, one, from Southend, was actually shot standing right next to him as they chatted.  In that last tour he was a Community Relations Officers in the Magnet Youth Centre.  They used to take children from both catholic and protestant sides of the community out on day trips and he recalls with a smile that as soon as the children returned and separated into their respective areas of the community they would start hurling rocks and stones at each other, only to start playing together again the following day at the Youth Centre.  Certain members of the community were clearly unhappy with the situation as the site was blown up – the children weren’t there but David was. Injured and unable to ever box again, David was out of the Army in 1974.  “I enjoyed representing the Army but it seems as soon as it was going well it was all over.”

David during his free post campaign

He settled into the building trade in civilian life but hasn’t totally lost his connection with the military.  His daughter was in the Army and it was her discussing the high cost of posting things to her husband overseas, a Grenadier Guard, that set David a few years ago petitioning for free postal services for armed forces on active service.  He enlisted the help of Bob Spink MP and had contacts and friends help petition across the country whilst the campaign was running.

Comments about this page

  • What a lovely history of the Cain/Fry family. My mother was great friends with Mrs Fry and I remember Ivy very well when I was younger. She was always so warm and friendly as was her mum.

    By Maureen Buckmaster (16/10/2013)
  • Mick, was a true gent, we would always try and get in certain places that we should not have been in our teens, and as soon as we saw Mick we knew our game was up, a very honest man with true principles that a lot Canvey teenagers grew up to respect,

    By f saul (25/10/2013)
  • I have been friends with both mick and Dave all my life and I found this article so interesting it stired memories of my own childhood and would just like to say thank you for the memories great job

    By David sparkes (28/10/2013)
  • Amazing, after all these years to see so many memories of Canvey, just wish that Kathy was here to see it with me

    By Andy Roberts (31/12/2020)
  • RIP David Cain.
    Sorry to say Dave died last week.

    By Janet Penn (25/01/2021)
  • We knew sharon, david and Michael as neighbours our parents were great friends growing up RIP david cain

    By Maggie hawes (26/01/2021)
  • We had a wonderful childhood growing up in Gains close.
    David was my mate. We got into trouble a few times. Always went in the carnival.
    We used to go to Saturday pictures at the Rio. David loved Davey Crocket. He used to wear his crocket hat and used to get on the stage and sing the song. My family was the McArthur. My Mum was a Gower they came to Canvey Late 1920. Gains close was one of the best places to live as a kid

    By Maggie Curtis (19/10/2022)

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