Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The tragic death of Tom Simmonette

One of the most difficult things to deal with when researching the history of boxing is in coming across the occasional sad reference to an old ring warrior who met his end in the boxing ring in which he fought. There have been surprisingly few ring deaths in the long history of the sport but those that did occur left, inevitably, a deep wound to those within the sport who came into contact with the boxer and, most particularly, to the members of his family. Even today I am sometimes contacted by people whose ancestor died in this way and it is gratifying for me to find that whilst the boxer, and the circumstances leading to his death, are long-forgotten, the memory of the boxer is still cherished by those ancestors living today.

Late last year I heard from Thomas and Joan Simmonette following the passing of Thomas's father 'Tam' Simmonette of Uddingston, South Lanarkshire. Tam was the son of Robert, whose brother Tom died following a contest in January 1922 Tam had photos and information about Tom and he told his story to the family. Joan and Tom wish Tom's story to be told and for his memory to live on. Together with the items that I held on Tom already we can pay tribute to him today.

Uddingston lies about seven miles to the south-west of Glasgow and lies within the heart of a coal-mining community. Tom’s principle occupation was as a coalminer and besides being engaged in this tough occupation since his early teens he was also forging a decent career as a featherweight boxer. He will have had quite a number of contests throughout 1920 and 1921 that I have not been able to trace but he soon came to the attention of the promoters at the National Athletic Club, Charles Street, Bridgeton in Glasgow’s East End. At the time this was Glasgow’s leading venue. Boxing was also held at the Victoria Athletic Club and at the Physical Culture School in Parkhead but it was at the ‘National’ where the really top bouts were held. The shows were held weekly, on a Monday evening, and Tom made his debut there on November 7th 1921 when he outpointed Andy Grieve of Springburn over ten rounds and a fortnight later he stopped Johnny Quinn of New Stevenston in five rounds. The promoters must have liked the look of young Tom for he was then invited to take part in his first fifteen rounder in a top of the bill contest on Boxing Day 1921. His opponent was Stanley Walsh of Warrington, a battle-hardened veteran of more than one hundred contests. Walsh had been with some of Britain’s leading featherweights and Simmonette’s handlers were being very optimistic in matching Tom with such a man at this early stage in his development.
Tom was most unfortunate to lose the contest when he injured his hand and the report of the contest in ‘Boxing’ stated that “Simmonette was by far the cleverer boxer, but his punches were so light that Walsh was content to take them all and wait his chance to land a knockout punch. Simmonette had a long lead on points at the end of the tenth round, and it was a great surprise when his seconds threw in the towel”.

Seven days after this contest Tom was asked by the management of the ‘National’ to step in as a late substitute to fight Willie Devanney of Hamilton over fifteen rounds. Devanney had been contracted to fight Cast Iron Hague of Oldham, a man well known to Scottish audiences. Hague wired to say that he could not attend and Tom was approached to step in. Simmonette had met Devanney on more than one occasion previously and he probably viewed another contest with him as a good opportunity to further impress the management and patrons of his newly-adopted club. Once again the report of the contest alluded to the lightness of Tom’s punching and when Devanney saw that Tom was unable to hurt him he stepped in and administered some punishment of his own. “Devanney was the stronger and heavier man, and before then end of the third round he had Simmonette bleeding profusely from nose and mouth. Simmonette fought pluckily, but his blows lacked power and had no effect on Devanney. In the seventh Devanney dealt out severe punishment and had Simmonette on the boards when the bell went. The end came in the eighth round when Devanney again connected to the point and Simmonette was counted out”. The ‘Boxing’ reporter added a postscript at the end of his report of the show which was headed “Tragic Sequel” : “There was a tragic sequel to the Devanney-Simmonette contest, as Simmonette died on Tuesday night at the Royal Infirmary without regaining consciousness. On being examined by a doctor immediately after the fight it was found that his teeth were firmly embedded in his tongue, and he was immediately conveyed to the infirmary, where he passed away. Tommy was a game lad, who gave promise of rising in the game, and his death is deeply deplored by all who have seen him in his various fights. He was twenty-one years of age, and turned professional a year ago, after having been at the game for about three years as an amateur. This is the first occasion within living memory that a local contest has had a fatal sequel”.

Willie Devanney was extremely upset about the death of his opponent. Tom was buried four days after his death and Willie attended the funeral. His presence there must have been difficult for both him and for Tom’s family. One could see how his presence might have been resented, especially as he was directly responsible for Tom’s death, but I would like to think that he was well-received and greatly respected for being there. The Bellshill Speaker reported that “The funeral was a public one, and one of the principal mourners was Willie Devanney. Many well-known figures in city sporting circles were conspicuous. Our readers will join with us when we tender our heartfelt sympathy to Tom’s sorrowing parents and trust that this dark cloud will contain for them something resembling a silver lining”.
At the inquest into Tom’s death, which was held some time towards the end of January Tom’s brother John, who was acting a second to Tom during the contest, stated that his brother’s death was a pure accident. Tom had made no complaint during the progress of the fight but that before going up for the eighth and last round he had stated that he felt unwell. When the referee stopped the contest Devanney had a blow in progress and Tom received it before the contest could be stopped. Everything was, in John’s opinion, perfectly fair and there was nothing regarding the contest that he could take objection to. According to the doctor in attendance at the contest Simmonette had received a severe blow to the point of the chin which had jerked his head back rupturing blood vessels in his head. The jury returned a verdict in accordance with the evidence finding that “Simmonette had taken part in a boxing contest, properly conducted, in the course of which he had received a blow from which he died”. The death certificate shows that Tom died at 4.45 am on the Tuesday morning following the contest, in Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

A benefit was arranged by the National Athletic Club for Tom’s dependants. Once again Willie Devanney was present, as was Tom’s first opponent at the Club, Andy Grieve. There were a number of six round contests arranged and both Willie and Andy took part. Unfortunately the attendance at the show was not great and whatever money that was raised on behalf of the family had to be supplemented with further contributions from various other sporting clubs and associations in and around the city.

A career that showed considerable promise had been cut short by this dreadful event. The game was a hard one in those days and referees did not look to end the contest as soon as may be the case today. A balance had to be struck between the welfare of the boxer and the demands that the crowds made regarding their entertainment. They wanted to see a hard bout. It took many years for the right balance to be struck and men like Tom paid the price. His memory will, in some small way, be maintained, I hope by this tribute which I make to him now. You died over ninety years ago Tom but you are remembered still by Joan and Thomas.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

George Markwick – Heavy Hitter from a Sleepy Sussex Village

The quaint West Sussex village of Cuckfield has never been a breeding-ground of boxers. It did produce one man, though, who made his mark as an amateur and professional – a heavyweight of the 1930s and 40s called George Markwick.

Markwick was born in Cuckfield in 1916, and as a 'regular' with the Royal Artillery he won the heavyweight championship of the British Army in 1937. He had around 70 amateur contests and lost only six. Two of these defeats were to Sweden's Olle Tandberg, who became European heavyweight champion as a pro.

Markwick made his professional debut on 10 May 1937 when he knocked out Gunner Read in four rounds at the Holborn Stadium. He stayed unbeaten in his first 27 pro fights, 22 of them ending inside the distance, which proves what a puncher he was. But in fight number 28, Markwick was stopped in the seventh round by fellow big-hitter Len Rowlands (Dagenham) at the Devonshire Club in a scheduled eight-rounder. It had been a hard-fought battle which for a while seemed as though it could go either way.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Two-Fisted Gentlemen: a history of boxing in Widnes and Runcorn

Two-Fisted Gentlemen: a history of boxing in Widnes and Runcorn (1900-1960). Paperback; 277 pages; many rare photos & boxing illustrations with a comprehensive index John Sinnott has recently produced this excellent book on the rich boxing history of Widnes and Runcorn. 

Born in Widnes, Cheshire in 1951, John’s interest in local boxing history began in 1984 when he started to research his own family history and discovered several local newspaper articles from the 1930s and 1940s written by his great uncle Pat Sinnott (1882-1949). The subject of some of these articles related to a number of former Widnes boxers, whom Pat had known personally and watched some of their contests from the ringside. After more than 25 years John has finally realised his long-held desire to see his ‘labour of love’ translated into a book to be enjoyed by avid readers of boxing history everywhere. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Jimmy Wilde’s genius

Jimmy Wilde
Boxing News reader Norman Allen-Jones penned the below letter in response to an article that appeared in that paper on 27 June 1951, in which contributor Bill Evans had written the following about the secret of Wilde’s phenomenal punch:

‘Speed plus timing did the trick. Of course, he was unorthodox. He could bring across a punch from an unexpected angle and take an opponent unawares. For this reason he was neither a good coach nor a good example to the young – in a boxing sense only, I mean! He could show you just how he punched, but he alone could punch that way. Boys who watched him and tried to fight on the same pattern were wasting their time… I dislike the word “freak” applied to people like the Tylorstown Terror. He wasn’t that at all – just a genius.’

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Panama Al Brown thrills British fight fans

At 5 feet 11 with long spindly arms and legs and not a spare ounce of flesh on his wiry body, it’s astonishing that Al Brown ever made the 8 stone 6 lb bantamweight limit, let alone that he dominated that division as few others have done. 

What made Brown all the more remarkable was that in spite of his willowy appearance he was tremendously strong and carried the punch of a man two or three weight classes heavier.

He simply toyed with many of his opponents who – typically conceding half a foot or more in height and being similarly disadvantaged in reach – could find no antidote for those lead-pipe arms, that jack-in-the-box style and nimble footwork. Often they resorted to charging in and were laid out flat by Brown’s slicing uppercuts, delivered with startling speed and timing.

Latin America's first world boxing champion

Brown had taken up boxing belatedly, his interest piqued by watching American soldiers box when he worked as a clerk for the US Shipping Board at the Panama Canal Zone.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Death of Bob Darley - Army and Navy Featherweight Champion 1908 and 1909

In the Sporting Life dated Tuesday March 27th 1917 the following notice appeared:


We have received a communication from Mr J J Johnson informing us of the death of Sgt. Major Bob Darley, the well-known featherweight boxer. It appears that he was taken prisoner when Kut fell, but was so weak and ill that he was left in hospital in Baghdad, and died there last October. 

Darley, who was attached to the West Kent Regiment, will be remembered as winning the Navy and Army featherweight championships in 1908 and 1909, while in civilian rings he won several money matches. Standing with right hand and foot foremost, he was an awkward proposition to all 9st. men.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Famous Pugilists of the English Prize Ring 1719-1870

Mick Hill has recently produced a worthy book on the English Prize Ring. For those of you who don't know Mick, he has long held an interest in boxing, and in particular, the days of bare-knuckle fighting.

Mick has produced a 200-page book on the prominent boxers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and he has ensured that many of the lesser-known names of this period are included, in the form of mini-biographies. There are nearly 80 pugilists featured within the book and some of them will be new to even the most fervent follower of boxing during the bare-knuckle age. Two of the first three names included within the book, for instance, are Tom Pipes and Bill Gretting, and it is a welcome change to see the stories of men such as these recorded.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

BBBC Inspector Arthur Musson Saves the Show

I have in my collection a number of items of correspondence relating to a boxing tournament which was held at the Kings Hall, Derby on 11 December 1950. The show was held under the jurisdiction of Central Area Council (Area No 5) of the British Boxing Board of Control. The North Midlands and West Midlands Councils had been abolished in 1947 when the Central Area was formed and this reorganisation had not been popular with the officials in the Midlands and there were clearly one or two teething troubles including events at this show. 

Some short time later the Midlands Area Council (Area No 8) was formed and it took part of the Central Area with it, including Derbyshire. This Council became a very well organised and successful organisation and the sport in the Midlands prospered under its control during the 1950s. This was due, in no small part, to the both the efficiency and the skill of its secretary, Mr G. Arthur Musson.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Programme Notes : Albert Finch v Bob Cleaver

Date: May 24th 1949.

Venue: Selhurst Park Football Ground, Sydenham.

Promoter: Bill Goodwin and Alf Hart.

Attendance: approximately 4,000.

Contest between Albert Finch of Croydon, ranked number 1 contender for the British Middleweight Title and Bob Cleaver of the Borough, ranked 3 star (just outside the top ten) in the British Middleweight rankings

Distance: 8 x 3 minute rounds.

Weights: Finch 11st 8lbs, Cleaver 11st 4½ lbs.

Outcome: Finch won by knockout in the seventh round.

Monday, 25 March 2013

On This Day - March 25th 1934 Sunday Afternoon at The Ring, Blackfriars

Back in 1934 there was boxing every day of the week in London and Sunday afternoon shows were very popular. On March 25th 1934 one could pay "three and a tanner" or less than 20p to get a decent seat and be entertained by boxers of great quality at the Blackfriars venue. On the same day one could also watch boxing in London at East Ham Palais de Danse, the Chalton Ring in Euston, Merton Stadium, at Luna Park in Whitechapel, the Alexandra Arena at Stratford, the Central Ring at Wood Green and also at Stepney, where fans had the choice of boxing at either the Beaumont Hall or at the Osbourne Social Club. 

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Bill Chevalley 1925-2013

Bill supervises Mark Rowe's groundwork during a training session (1970)

I was saddened to hear last week that the veteran boxing trainer Bill Chevalley, perhaps best known for guiding middleweight Mark Rowe to a British and Commonwealth title, had passed away at the age of 87. While it’s perhaps a cliché to say of someone ‘boxing was his life’, this statement is entirely true of Bill, and so I say it here without hesitation.  

While there are many people who knew Bill far better than I and who are better qualified to write about him (I wasn’t even born when Bill’s well-known protégé Mark Rowe was making headlines), when I heard the news of his passing I felt compelled to pen a small tribute. 

Sunday, 6 January 2013

A punch on the proboscis

By O. F. Snelling

This article, written in the 1980s, is reproduced here with the kind permission of Derek O’Dell, Editor and Producer of ‘The Southern Ex-Boxer’.

Teddy Baldock lands a left on the nose of
Kid Pattenden in their 1929 British
bantamweight title clash
Professional boxing isn’t like entering some beauty competition. And it never was. Certainly, some pretty handsome fellows have taken to the punch-up for fame and fortune, but if they ever worried about their looks excessively they were simply mugs who adopted the wrong occupation. Few of them ever got very far.

What’s the commonest blow employed in boxing? I’d say, without hesitation, that it’s the straight left lead to the face. It doesn’t always land, but when it does it usually arrives with a plonk right on the schnozzle, and the poor old proboscis is the human feature which takes more than a bit of the brunt in most fistic exchanges.

Consequently, just as most fighters seldom get through a career without sooner or later knocking up one or two of their knuckles, so very few manage all their days in this tough business without suffering a broken nose.