Jim Armstrong

A former teacher, Laburnum Boat Club founder Jim converted the derelict Victorian gas works sight in 1983 into a space for kids from the surrounding estates. His vision and hard work has meant countless young people in Hackney have had the opportunity to engage in watersports.

Jim who ‘got diverted’ by his love of messing about in boats, has continued to run the club since its doors were opened. He has a complete understanding of the Hackney community and has had an incredible impact on the lives of the young people who have learned new skills, built confidence and found a community to belong in the heart of their borough.


Where are you from?
I am from Northern Ireland. I came to London aged 20, and have been here ever since.

What role did sport play in your life as a young person?
I loved sport as a kid. I probably played football every day in the street. At Secondary School I played rugby for seven years. I loved P.E. lessons … esp. athletics.

Who influenced you as a young person?
My sporting influence was undoubtedly my father. He used to take me to football every Saturday (home and away) from an early age. We watched sport avidly on the black and white television. He seemed to know all that was going on.

What is your educational background?
I am a qualified school teacher.

What is your career background?
Three years in industry before doing the teaching training. All my working life has been spent in voluntary organisations in Hackney and Islington (several of which I help set up). They were mostly involved with children and young people … esp. young people with disabilities.

Pick three words to describe yourself?
Diligent, resourceful, inclusive

What do you do in your spare time/hobbies?
Running (ParkRuns etc.), Singing (local choir), Walks in the country

How long have you been with Laburnum for and what led you to become involved?
I have been with Laburnum since the very beginning. I helped set it up with two others (although as soon as the gates opened I was on my own … until others came along)

Why do you think sports works so well to engage young people?
It works so well because it is fun, physical, secure in its formality, and offers participation for all.

It builds so many personal and social skills. It builds confidence, broadens their range of experience, gives them the opportunity to make and manage new relationships, provides a constructive leisure time and means of expression, and assists their physical development.

What are some of the main challenges the young people you work with face?
The young people we work with have issues with mental health, housing, family matters, poverty, peer pressure, substance abuse, schooling, and making positive decisions about their way forward.

What positive changes have you seen since you began with Laburnum?
Schools are much better. In the last twelve years the schools in Hackney have gone from being among the worst in the country to now being among the best. It is the single biggest positive change for young people … by a long way.

What impact would you like to achieve going forward?
We would like to double the number of young people whose lives are enhanced and improved through their participation in the Club’s activities.

Who/what do you rely on to create the impact in your community?
The unstinting voluntary efforts of former Club members and their parents … and the generosity of donors and funders.

What have been some of your biggest learnings so far?
· Not to give up too soon on young people with challenging behaviour
· Re-double (at least) efforts to engage young people with disabilities
· Liaise with (and ask for help when needed) from other agencies dealing with sport provision, young people, or charity management.

What are some of the challenges you face going forward?
· Funding and resources
· Young people staying indoors fixated on computer screens and smartphones
· Increasing number of live-aboard boats on the canal

How much of your time do you dedicate to fundraising over the implementation of the programme?
Probably about two days per week. It is hard to quantify because almost everything I do (meeting people, doing publicity, getting the message out, making sure everything is running smoothly etc.) all contributes to fund-raising.

The staff team (all former Club members) implement the programme.

What are some of the best or most memorable experiences you have had?
Seeing our stretch of the canal (an otherwise dull, inhospitable expanse of brown water) come to spectacular life in colour and noise as forty or fifty young people in kayaks are let loose on it.

Who/what inspires you?
Witnessing certain young people from the humblest and sometimes the most difficult circumstances bolding making their way in the world.

What would be your message to others trying to create impact in their communities?
Seek help … you won’t be able to do it alone … and there are so many skilled and willing people in your community.

  • Jim Armstrong