A police chief who made men of lads

In the second of a series of features looking at the history of Norwich Lads Club, Derek James profiles the extraordinary man who started it - John Henry Dain.

He was a controversial copper. A man with a vision. A man who reached out the hand of friendship to the boys of Norwich...instead of a stick.

In part two of our story of the Norwich Lads Club, the first of its kind in the world, we turn our attention to the man who started it all, a, extraordinary policeman by the name of John Henry Dain.

In those days, almost a century ago, when the birch and Borstal were the order of the day, big John had different, far more revolutionary, views.

Norwich had not seen the likes of this burly straight-talking chief constable before.

A tough, practical copper with a waxed moustache, he commanded respect. But he was also a kindly man – one with a dream. To take the boys off the streets – and give them something to live for.

His basic belief was that very few boys were bad, they wandered into trouble because they were mischievous and full of energy. They needed a purpose in life.

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He wanted to set up a club in Norwich and he needed the support of the leading players in the city at the time, so he set out to spread the word and get them on board.

This club would be different. It would help the boys and it would help the police. It would bring them together in a spirit of comradeship.

'Nothing,' said Dain, 'sets up a mood of antagonism more promptly in such lads than the suspicion that they are being got at for the purpose of moral improvement.'

So just who was John Henry Dain?

He was born in December 1874 at Brigg police station in Lincolnshire, the son of a long-serving superintendent. He went on to join Bridlington police in Yorkshire and then served around the country being promoted through the ranks.

By 1908 he was a chief inspector in Devonport, where he was described by the chairman of the watch Committee as 'one of the smartest, most efficient, and best educated young police officers in the country'.

He became Chief Constable of Canterbury in 1913 and then in 1917 he moved, to what was described as 'one of the plum jobs in the country' – Chief Constable of Norwich commanding more than 150 men and earning a salary of �500 a year. Dain turned out to be a popular chief, negotiating better pay, pensions and conditions for his men. His magnetism and enthusiasm were infectious and the entire police force turned out in a big DIY SOS-style operation of the day.

They returned from duty to become bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, painters, plumbers and labourers – creating the first club of its kind in the world.

Within months of the club opening in 1918 more than 1,000 boys had joined – boxers, gymnasts, wrestlers and musicians. The place was bursting at the seams.

Just before Christmas in 1918 Dain organised a 'welcome home' dinner for members of the police who had served in the war. Of the 64 city officers in the forces, eight had been killed and many badly wounded. Dain told the returning heroes: 'The lads are beginning to like the policemen of Norwich.'

In the summer of 1919 another of his imaginative ideas became a reality – a seaside home on the cliffs at Gorleston for Norwich lads. It came rent free thanks to F H Cooper and A V George and comprised of three cottages and an old barn. Volunteer policemen soon had the place spick and span and ready to look after up to 24 boys a time: the first party left Norwich in cars – an extraordinary adventure for boys in those days – lent by Cooper & Co.

The Dain principle of 'utter freedom allied to good behaviour' was applied. In the first year alone more than 300 boys visited what was known as Warren Farm – for most it was first time they had left the city or seen the sea. The biggest teams were made up of boxers and gymnasts, Dain also formed a band, there was no shortage of boys but there was a desperate shortage of space.

Then, on September 29, 1924, Dain announced new premises had been found...they were on the move to King Street.

Next week I'll be telling what happened when the club moved to bigger premises in King Street and remember some of the sporting heroes it produced – the likes of boxer Ginger Sadd.