Charity born of tragedy aims to tackle the root causes of violence by providing safe spaces
“We cannot measure whether we’ve saved someone’s life, but I sincerely believe that we have,” said Henry Smith, CEO of property developer Aitch Group and founder of The Wickers – a charity he set up in 2018 to help fight knife crime in Hackney and east London.
“Sadly it was born out of tragedy,” he said. “My sister was quite young – 21 or 22 – when her husband was killed in Stratford.
“He was stabbed with a knife by someone close to him and what was left after that was a tragedy that affected not just my sister – who had a daughter and another on the way – but also the two girls.
“My sister was never right for the rest of her life – sadly she passed at 39 – and my mother was never the same either.
“Fortunately, my two nieces have grown up to be amazing adults, but a lot of people don’t have the family support they did.
“It’s so easy for people to fall through the safety net.
“When a person attacks somebody with a knife, the impact can be very far-reaching.
“Two people can lose their lives – one lies dead on the ground and the other goes to prison for years.
“Then there are all the other people it affects. I’m of the generation that has seen this kind of violence become an epidemic.”
The number of crimes involving a knife or sharp instrument in London had risen to almost 16,000 by 2019/20 – up from less than 10,000 in 2015/16.
While the pandemic saw the figure drop back down again to 10,150 for 2020/21, it had already risen to more than 11,100 by 2021/22.
“Aitch is a London developer, but we really started off in east London and we’ve grown from there,” said Henry, who grew up in Hackney and now lives in Shoreditch, a few minutes’ walk from his company’s offices.
“I’m a great believer in the idea that you’ve got to put something back into society, because if you don’t, then where does it leave us?
“That’s why we created The Wickers, which is centred on the Hackney Wick area.
“It’s a charity that aims to reduce gang and knife related crime by providing opportunities for people to develop new skills and learn from positive role models.
“You have to start with young people, to look at their home lives. They may be from single-parent families or children living with parents who have dependencies.
“Especially now, there’s a shortage of money, of food and that creates its own problems. People, especially the eldest sons in those situations, feel the need to provide.
“It’s not just in Hackney, it’s everywhere – the promise of easy money through crime is right there.
“Then, in someone’s mind, it’s so easy for them to pick up a knife, but the effect of doing that can last for generations.
“What you find is a lot of these children have been brought up not to expect a lot from their lives and that is wrong.
“The Wickers is there to say that we can show them how to become good citizens, that there is an alternative.
“We’re there to help with their education, their after-school classes to help them find opportunities.”
The charity runs sports activities, classes in art and design plus cooking and nutrition, hosts guest speakers, provides career coaching and half term and summer programmes, as well as delivering knife and gun crime workshops.
“It’s been amazing – the people who I work with to push out the message and deliver our services are fantastic,” said Henry.
“We’re really punching above our weight – we’ve got some great sponsors, lots of people who volunteer and we’re reaching more than 500 teenagers a week.
“That could be through going into schools to deliver our workshops or the young people who come to our running club, music sessions or who play football with us.
“We get a lot of referrals from Hackney Council too, which shows how well thought of we are as an organisation.
“Above all, we create a safe space. Don’t forget, if you’re a certain age and you know certain people you might not be able to go to a particular postcode or cross an estate.
“Even now, I find that hard to imagine that, but this is real, it’s what’s going on. That is when people get stabbed.
“We want to show these young people that there is another way, that they can do a lot with their lives and then give them the tools to do it.
“We work with ex-offenders, for example, and they’re the best because they’ve been to the edge of the cliff and realised that crime was not the way.
“For me all of our activities contribute – it’s about opening people’s eyes to the world out there and what they’re capable of.
“Once you’ve done that, it’s up to them – everybody has to take that next step themselves.
“We’ll stand behind them and give them all the support they need – but they have to be the ones to do it.”
The charity counts the likes of Strettons, Tokio Marine, Savills and JLL among its backers with more than £160,000 raised for its activities by companies in the property sector so far this year.
“We want to do even more and for that we need more money and more people,” said Henry.
“For anyone thinking of donating, The Wickers is a charity where contributors are really making an impact.
“For me, charities have to have no waste – people have to be accountable and you need to see the outcomes, otherwise what are you doing it for?
“In the long term, I’d like to be in a position where I can run a charity full time and when I step down from Aitch, that’s where I’d like to spend my time.
“When you see someone who found it difficult to sit in a room and listen and who is now able to do that, it’s very rewarding.
“If you’ve had someone who was very disruptive, but has gone on a journey and is now in gainful employment, then that is really good and it’s what’s happening a lot of the time.
“We’re working with estate agents, BT and the NHS to help people find opportunities and to show them the steps they need to take to make something of themselves.
“It’s very easy for me to say that Big Ben is only a few stops away, but some of these kids have never seen it – no-one has shown them what the world’s like out there.
“While my time is best spend on fundraising at the moment, I’m always happy to sit down with young people.
“I grew up in Hackney, not sure what I wanted to do and not having enough respect for different institutions as a teenager.
“If I hadn’t had a father to show me the right way, I could well have taken the wrong path.
“I hope my sister and brother-in-law would be very happy with what we’re trying to do. You can’t measure it, but it feels fantastic when you can help fill a gap in a young person’s life.”
- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via firstname.lastname@example.org