Strong arm ‘Gentleman Les’ the Whitechapel stallholder swims with stingrays for New Year autobiography
- Credit: Les Clayden
Gentleman Les Clayden was ‘king’ of Whitechapel market who got through a tough life in London’s East End with ‘strong arm’ tactics.
Now the bruiser who brushed with the likes of Ronnie Kray and Frank Bruno has swapped muscle for the pen, for his New Year autobiography with a title to match—Swimming With Stingrays.
His life’s path with his upbringing in poverty took him from bouncer at the Lyceum to being a Special bobby at 18, patrolling some of London’s roughest streets around Soho where he got out of scrapes using judo, before Whitechapel Market beckoned as a third-generation stallholder.
But it was his arm wrestling the East End knows him best for. ‘Gentleman Les’ even tried his strong arm tactics on the East London Advertiser, his local paper, challenging the late editor Richard Tidiman to an arm-wrestle warm-up at the 1989 cockney oyster fayre on the Isle of Dogs.
Les rubbed shoulders with the famous of their day, getting Danny Baker down to Whitechapel for ITV’s Six O’Clock Show to film one of his charity arm-wrestling bouts at the Star and Garter pub, all the ‘dosh’ going to the London Hospital children’s ward.
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But his post-war upbringing in Mile End and Stepney somehow had to have a ‘Kray’ connection, as Les reveals about the day he was helping out on dad’s fruit stall as a teenager in the run-up to Christmas, 1966.
“A big flash car pulls up and a big guy in a smart suit walks over,” the 67-year-old recalls. “The guy asks my dad how much for a bunch of bananas, and is offered them at ‘no charge’.
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“This was the first and only time I had seen my dad scared—he was in the jungles of Burma fighting the Japs in the War and was a tough sod.
“I found out that evening the man in the car was Ronnie Kray who ran the East End protection rackets and later got done for George Cornell’s murder at the Blind Beggar.”
Les also discovered later that the Krays had Mad Frankie Mitchell, who they sprung from prison, holed up in a flat in the Barking Road belonging to another Whitechapel stallholder.
“The reason Ronnie visited my dad’s stall was to let him know that if he heard anything, to say nothing,” Les adds. “The flat they kept Mad Frankie in was only a few doors from where my dad’s mum lived.”
Mitchell was gunned down in a van round the corner from the flat on Christmas Eve that year.
There was always a wall of silence in the East End protecting the Krays—you never ‘grassed’ on anyone to the Law.
Les knew about that from growing up on bomb-sites in Stepney after the Second World War, the adventure playgrounds of their day.
“There was a knock on the door,” Les tells you. “A fireman in full uniform is standing there who tells my gran that some boys had set fire to the derelict printworks on a bombsite—and he was told I was responsible. I had been ‘grassed up’ for something I hadn’t done!”
But he wasn’t always the ‘little innocence’ even at five, like the time he set fire to the 20ft pile of old furniture the neighbourhood kids had been building up for weeks, ready for Guy Fawkes Night, and still a fortnight to go.
“My parents found out I was the kid responsible for spoiling the street’s Bonfire night,” he added. “I got a right good hiding.”
These were tough times. He often had to put cardboard inside his shoes to cover the holes when it rained. There was no money for the barber and his mum would put a small basin on his head and cut the hair round it—leaving him “looking like Friar Tuck!”
The back-to-back East End slums were also breeding grounds for sickness where he would catch anything going around.
He remembers having had German measles when he was five.
“I could never understand what I had done to the Germans for them to give me the measles—I didn’t know any Germans!”
But life improved with the Swinging Sixties. He even got tickets to a live Beatles concert, though didn’t actually hear any of the songs or music which were drowned out by a theatre-full of screaming girl fans.
Les left school at 15 and stacked grocery shelves before finding himself working as a bouncer ‘up west’ at the Lyceum ballroom.
“The place started to get busy one night and three of us stuck close together and started to walk around,” Les recalls. “The problem was once the band started they lowered the lights and I couldn’t see a bloody thing without my glasses. So me and Barry followed behind Dick like two blind mice. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end.
“Halfway through the night the dreaded lights flashed on and off. A fight had started on the dance floor. I grabbed Dick’s coat tail and Barry brought up the rear. We must have looked like the Marx Brothers!”
Two guys were “punching the lights out of each other”. Les grabbed one and swung him around, then saw another coming from his side and threw a punch that caught him on the jaw—only problem was it was his bouncer mate Barry.
“Without my glasses and in the confusion I punched Barry by mistake,” Les added. “That was our first flight as ‘door supervisors’.”
Les got to know cops from nearby Bow Street police station and soon found himself joining The Met as a Special Constable in the tough Soho district.
He hadn’t even got his uniform, just his warrant card, when he made his first ‘collar’ on Day One.
“I’m watching a street gamer working his Three Card trick fleecing tourists,” Les tells you. “The ‘spotters’ don’t recognise me as I was new.
“So I step out of the crowd and grab the gamer’s wrist, the cards and money and put him in an arm lock so he can’t run away, then march him down to Trafalgar Square and call up a Black Maria police van to take him to Bow Street.
“I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself making my first arrest and I was only 18.”
It ruffles a few feathers among regular constables, but the tough guy proves popular because they can rely on his strong arm.
Word quickly spreads through the shifts after another tough arrest outside the Talk of the Town cabaret venue in Leicester Square when they realise Les is “a valuable asset” to have around when there is ‘aggro’.
But soon he was to hang up his helmet to follow his dad and graddad back in the East End as a third-generation stallholder on a pitch in Whitechapel Market.
His reputation for arm-wrestling got stronger and he organised tournaments for charity over the years, challenging the rich and famous to try their luck.
But Les was no pushover and won the Commonwealth Belt which boxing champ Mike Watson presented to him in 1987 when his reign as ‘king’ of Whitechapel Market reached its crowning glory.
Swimming with Stingrays, £15 (Online via Kindle January 29 and in paperback
February 19, publishers: Britain’s Next Best Seller)