The Dales House at 414 Alexander Street circa 1890 CVA Photo SGN 490

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

BOXING EAST ENDERS: Can You Put A Name To A Face?

Boxing East Enders outside the Kiwassa Club at Keefer and Vernon sometime between 1941-1943
Over the past years my work as a house history researcher at the City of Vancouver Archives and as a Neighbourhood History Walk guide, and more recently as a blogger, has brought me into contact  with a lot of people delving into the research of their own family histories, the history of their old family homes, working to piece together the threads of the tapestry that is the story of their ancestors and how they came to live in this country.

More often than not, as a result of these meetings there is a mutually beneficial exchange of information. Either I have already done some research on a house or person that can help them out, or they have some family information and images that help me in my research. In the end, we are all working to bring to light and preserve the stories and histories of people and places in Vancouver that have slipped or are slipping from our collective memories.

Every day we walk by houses that may register physically, but do we stop to think about who built those houses, and for whom? How much value do we place on an old run down house when we don't know its story? ... And the name of the builder and that of the first occupant is only the beginning. 

So here is an example. This unusual brick house on the south side of the 600 block of East Georgia Street was built in 1894 by a County-Mayo, Ireland-born brick layer named John Henry Freney. 

This house was part of a rather large research project that involved about 16 houses on the 600 block of East Georgia. I was sitting at my usual spot near the City Directories at the City of Vancouver Archives when I realized that the woman sitting across from me was researching exactly the same block. It turns out that she was the granddaughter of John Henry Freney. At this point in my research I had his name from the water service records but knew nothing about him. Here before me was a living descendent, who was not only able to tell me all sorts of things about him and about his wife Mary Catherine "Mame" Gibbons but also was able to give me their photographs. Mame Gibbon's parents were David Gibbons and Sophia Catherine Gibbons, and it was for his future in-laws that he built the house.

Mary Catherine "Mame" Gibbons and John Henry Freney, courtesy of Betty Anne Meek
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Another such serendipitous meeting at the archives was when I met researcher Gary McDonald. Gary was researching the history of his grandfather, a firefighter named John Andrew McDonald. Through Gary I was able to receive a number of archival images of old houses and buildings in the neighbourhood, including this one of a house on the south side of the 1200 block of Venables.

John Andrew McDonald on front porch of 1240 Venables in the early 1900s, courtesy of Gary McDonald
 These houses were swept away in the 1940s when the block was industrialized. Oddly enough though, a number of these houses were moved two blocks away, and one of the houses in this photo still stands, in a rather altered state, as 1021 Odlum Drive, just across the street from my old house on the same block, where my house history research adventure began in 1995.

Among the photos that Gary gave me was one of Fire Hall No. 5 which used to stand on the SE corner or Vernon Drive and Keefer Street.

Fire Hall No. 5 and Captain John Andrew McDonald courtesy of Gary McDonald
In 1911, Firehall No. 5 received its first motorised hose engine. Here is City of Vancouver image FD P12 commemorating the event.

For whatever reason, by the late 1930s this building ceased to be used as a Fire Hall. Sometime in the late 1930s, the building was converted into a boys club called the Vernon Drive Junior G-Men's Club, and operated as such until the late 1940s when the building was converted into the  Kiwassa Girls Club.

But it was during its time as the Vernon Drive Junior G-men's Club that the picture of the boxers at the top of the page was taken. The photo was taken sometime between 1941 and 1943, and shows six young boxers lined up along the north wall of the old Fire Hall building.  The photo came into my possession via former Strathcona resident Paul Rossetti Bjarnason. Paul's uncle Hector Rossetti is the young man third from the left.

According to Paul's friend, Joe Di Palma, the people in the photo from left to right are as follows:

1. Unidentified
2. Phil Palmer (Felice di Palma) - 716 Hawks
3. Hector Rossetti - 776 East Georgia
4. Unidentified
5. Harry Smith
6. Unidentified  

Phil Palmer was a well known East End boxer who taught a lot of the East End boys how to box. According to the Italian Cultural Centre's website, Joe's brother Felice Di Palma was born in Civitanova del Sannio in Molise, Italy in 1922 and fought under the name of Phil Palmer.  This naturally talented boxer was to go from Vancouver all the way to New York city by way of his fists. This altar boy from Sacred Heart Church was to fight 41 professional fights: 34 wins, and seven losses. It is reported that he fought under the assumed name to avoid his mother discovering his boxing career!

I met Paul, like I have met a lot of other former Strathcona residents, in front of my house. I was likely gardening or raking leaves or something and Paul was cycling through his old neighbourhood and had stopped to look at the rowhouse where I live. You can always tell a former East Ender by the way they stop and look up at the houses... Anyway, Paul and I got to talking about East End history and we have been in intermittent contact since then. 

The other day we bumped into each other when I was working for Gourmet Warehouse during Christmas At Hycroft. Paul mentioned he had a photo to send... This one with the boxers. 

Both Paul and his friend Joe are interested in identifying the three other men in the picture. Can you help? If you know anything about the men in the picture, please leave a comment below. Your help in solving this mystery would be much appreciated.


  1. Hi James

    The boxers; left to right PETER FERGUSON, PHIL PALMER (Felix DiPalma), HECTOR ROSETTI, TONY BURNS, HARRY SMITH and HAL ROBINS (this name requires a second opinion).

    James, Paul had contacted me several months ago regarding the photo. At that time he only recognized his uncle (Hector Rosetti). I got a hold of Joey DiPalma and it was he who ran with the ball and uncovered the other names.

    About Felix DiPalma. He was the nephew of Nick and Mariana DiTomaso who owned the grocery store across the street from you. Felix was born - as you say in 1922 - in Civitanova del Sannio, the Province of Isernia in the region of Molise. My materal relatives also were born in Civitanova. Prior to and during WW II, Civitanova was part of the Province of Compobasso, in the region of Abruzzo.
    A few years ago, Phil Palmer was inducted posthumously into the Sports Section of the Italian Cultural Centre's Hall of Fame.

    Best regards

    Ray Culos

  2. Hello Ray,

    Thanks so much! Grazie infinite!

    I received a correction from Paul about the spelling of Rossetti and also that he thought that Phil was born in Molise as you said, not in Marche as I originally wrote... I was going by the ICC website post that just said "Civitanova" and did not mention "del Sannio" so when I Googled Civitanova, the much larger town in Marche came up, which explains my mistake. Perhaps it would be a good idea if the ICC fine turned their post....

    But this is really wonderful... Do you have any idea where these other four boxers lived? They being quite young, their names might not come up in the directories, and there would have been lots of Fergusons, Smiths and Burns, as well as Robins in the directories, even then.

    It would be great to have a bio for each of the people in the photo. Thanks again for your response. Paul will be very pleased.


    James Johnstone