Our sign says ‘This gym has been built using knives taken off the street, to show that life should be built on steel, not destroyed by it’,” says Ben Wintour, co-founder of Steel Warriors, a new charity taking a fresh approach to fighting knife crime.
Situated in Langdon Park, in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Steel Warriors is a callisthenics gym constructed from two tonnes of recycled knives taken off the streets. Wintour aims for this to be the first of many sites around the UK and doesn’t plan to stop until there are no knives left to recycle. “When there’s no more steel to build with we’ll have done our work,” he says.
This seems an unlikely career deviation for the co-founders, Ben Wintour and Pia Fontes, who previously worked together in PR, but Wintour says the inspiration came from constantly reading about crime figures in the newspapers and realising that a fresh approach was needed.
“Working in PR, I had to read the newspapers every day and became concerned about the issue of knife crime. I read a shocking insight that a ton of knives are being confiscated every month in London alone and I wanted to do something about it,” he says. “Looking at previous campaigns, we saw they were well meaning, but not that effective. The two central messages were that if you carried a knife you were likely to either get locked up, or else hurt or killed. Neither of these messages resonated with the audience, or were acting as a deterrent.”
Wintour and Fontes decided that a whole new approach was needed, where teenagers could be empowered, so that they no longer felt they had to have a knife for protection. “We looked at the reasons why teenagers were carrying knives and found that one was for protection, and the other was to flex their muscle,” he says. “So we looked at finding alternative ways to meet these needs. Callisthenics is becoming quite a thing in prisons and seemed a good place to start.”
The duo had a number of boxes they wanted to tick. Firstly, they wanted to provide a place where teenagers could build both their bodies and confidence. Since many of those who carry knives can’t afford gym membership, they wanted it to be free. They also wanted it to be a place where a community could be built, the topic of knife crime could be discussed and steps taken towards prevention for all involved.
Facing the challenges
Having come up with a great idea, there were then a number of logistical challenges to overcome: getting buy-in from the police, finding a site, finding people who could turn knives into a gym, designing the gym and paying for it all.
“It wasn’t an area I was familiar with, so I had to make lots of calls to steel fabricators, gym builders and engineers,” says Wintour. “The idea started to take off when Heyne Tillett Steel came on board – they had worked on projects at The Science Museum, liked the sound of what we were doing, and were prepared to do it on a pro bono basis.”
It took a little more persusasion to get the police involved, as they wanted a strong case that the project would work. However, once they came on board they were a supportive partner. Many of the companies involved did so on a pro bono basis. “We made it clear from the start that we didn’t have the means to pay, as there was no funding in place, but with the support of our partners we managed to get the first gym up and running virtually for free,” says Wintour. “There were a few items we couldn’t source free, including the rubber matting. These costs were underwritten by a benefactor.”
A location was found next to a youth centre called Spotlight in Tower Hamlets. The borough has seen an 8 per cent rise in knife crime in the last year and is one of London’s most deprived areas. The site has a high footfall, but isn’t part of gang territory, making it a more neutral location.
In terms of programming, the equipment features a snapcode that people can scan to take them to a YouTube channel featuring online training which explains how to use it.
After a discussion, the team decided against having benches around, as they don’t want people to loiter. “We had a conversation about offering free wifi, but concerns were raised that this might make it a place to deal drugs,” says Wintour.
“One of our ambassadors is a former drug dealer who has turned his life around,” she explains. “Drug dealers are likely to carry knives and might benefit from being in a place that is about transforming attitudes, but although this is something we want to encourage, we also want the space to feel unthreatening and unintimidating, so lots of people will come. Hence the decision to keep it wifi free.”
Wintour says it’s encouraging to see the local school making use of it, as well as women from the local Bengali community. A few PTs have also got on board and it’s attracted the attention of gym tourists from further afield.
The success of this site will be key to taking plans forward to develop more around the country. Wintour and Fontes are now working with the police to look at crime figures and Snapchat to see how many visitors come to the location.
Steel Warriors is now a registered charity and the team is looking at ways to raise funds for a roll-out. “Our partners have been very generous, but we can’t expect them to continue to make a loss, so we’re about to start a fundraising push,” says Wintour. “We’re hoping to get as many gyms off the ground as possible. At the moment the first one is making an impact on a local level, but we want to make a real change.”
As well as more sites in London, the cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester are on the list and Wintour is appealing to the health and fitness sector for help. “Lots of young people can’t afford gym membership, but it would be fantastic if gyms could give back to their communities by sponsoring gyms that serve the dual purpose of mobilising hard to reach groups and taking a stand against knife crime.”