"A true gentleman", "total legend" and "a fabulous man" are just some of the many tributes that have been left for a man who has been credited as having "made a difference to almost every young person in Helston."

For almost anyone else it might sound like excessive rhetoric, but few could deny the impact that Roland Holton, known to all as 'Chiefy', had on the lives of thousands of children in town over a 40-year period.

From starting one of the most beloved clubs in Helston's history, the Basement Youth Club, to inspiring generations of gymnasts by setting up Swallows of Helston Gymnastics Club, Chiefy packed a lot into his 90 years, before his death on Thursday this week (September 23).

Born in Guilford in Surrey, he joined the Royal Navy aged 16 as an apprentice aircraft engineer in the Fleet Air Arm. His last posting was to RNAS Culdrose, taking care of the Sea King helicopters, and it was here he became known as 'Chief'. His work in the military saw him awarded a British Empire Medal.


Chiefy and Muriel were influential in many childrens lives

Chiefy and Muriel were influential in many children's lives


His involvement inspiring generations of young people actually came through a colleague at Culdrose.

The vicar of St Michael's Church, back in 1966, had asked a three girls in the congregation, Janice Pascoe, Gwen Smith and Rebecca Johns, if they would like to set up a youth club in the basement of vicarage in Cross Street.

A teacher from Gwealhellis School, Mike Carr, ran it initially, and Chiefy was asked if he would take the youth club's football team up to the Culdrose base for training.

It was to change not only the course of his life, but that of thousands of young people over the subsequent decades.

Chiefy trained at a youth leadership course at the University of Birmingham, eventually going on to be employed by the Cornwall County Youth Service.


Young youth club members ready to go on a trip to Sasso Marconi in 1970

Young youth club members ready to go on a trip to Sasso Marconi in 1970


It wasn't long before sights were set on a purpose-built youth club building, thus beginning years of fundraising challenges for its young members, from 'swimming the channel' in the Gwealdues Hotel swimming pool, to 'mountaineering' up Coinagehall Street, with sponsored walks, swimming, table tennis – winning a Guinness World Record in the process, for a week at least – and bake sales in between.

Some £20,000 later, which included a good proportion raised by club members, the new building opened up opposite Helston School 'north site' and ran as a youth club for many years before it was taken over by the county and then eventually passed to the school, with it now used as a sixth form centre.

Youngsters were given the freedom to choose what they wanted to do – and if they had an idea, Chiefy would support them unquestioningly, whilst insisting that they were the ones to bring it to fruition.


Members of the Basement Youth Club reunite

Members of the Basement Youth Club reunite


Rex Kempthorne, an original member of the club who also helped as a youth leader, said: "If you wanted to do something he would do his utmost to do it."

It led to trips up Snowden and even a memorial being placed in Hyde Park Barracks, in memory of the horses killed during the IRA bombings, made out of granite from Carveth Quarry near Penryn. Members travelled to London to place a wreath on it every year for the next ten years.

Chiefy was particularly keen on encouraging sport, leading to the 'Basement Butchers' girls hockey team – and what would go on to become Swallows Gym.

A group of girls, inspired by Olga Korbut in the 1972 Olympics, wanted to try out gymnastics and so crash mats were sourced and placed in the school hall over the holidays. By the time school went back it had proved so popular that a permanent building would have to be found.

Chiefy and his wife Muriel signed the lease on a building up on the Water-ma-Trout industrial estate near to Helston Gunsmiths, clearing tanks from the unit before putting down sprung flooring.


Roland and Muriel at a youth club reunion

Roland and Muriel at a youth club reunion


They trained to be coaches and led the sessions with the support of parent volunteers. Gymnastics would go on to feature heavily in both their lives, and Chiefy and 'Mrs Chiefy' continued to judge at competitions even after taking a step back from physical coaching, with Roland also joining the National Governing Body.

Such was Chiefy's high regard that on his 60th birthday he was thrown not one but two surprise parties.

His legacy can be summed up in one tribute, which reads: "His legend will live on for all that he's done for the children – he changed the course of some people's lives, putting them on the straight and narrow."

A fundraising page has now been set up by former youth club member Simon Colgan to raise money for a lasting memorial for Chiefy, whether that be a bench or something bigger. People can donate at www.gofundme.com/f/A-bench-for-chiefy