Saturday, 10 December 2011

The itinerant showman: a boxing booth memoir

By R. A. Hartley

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Derek O’Dell, Editor and Producer of ‘The Southern Ex-Boxer’, in which it was first published in 2001.

Hughes's boxing boothIt was a fine old-fashioned summer during that year in the mid-1930s. We performers in the Wheatley and Legat Boxing Booth were doing well on our tour of Midlands fairgrounds: plenty of challengers to keep the show going and the spectators were quite generous with their "nobbins".

Our travellers included such legendary names as Sam Minto, Alf Paolozzi, and Tommy Steele, congenial companions - and all with a deep knowledge of booth-fighting. In fact, everyone was happy except Charlie Wheatley, part-owner and manager of the show, and son of the Professor of that ilk, whose booth had travelled the fairgrounds in the years up to and including the First World War.

There was reason for Charlie's depression. He had some opposition; normally a fairground would sustain just one boxing show, but here we had a rival traveller who was putting on fisticuffs right next door to us! This other show had started out as a dancing troupe with a number of scantily-clad girls, but apparently the rival showman had been impressed by the crowds of punters attending our booth and had decided that boxing was more profitable than his chorus line.

During the weekend there appeared on the fairground a person who was welcomed by Charlie as a solution to his problem. There were two of them, really: the leader, who was named Mick, and his assistant. I have forgotten the latter's name, but that is of small consequence. Like ourselves, Mick was a performer. He cleared a space on the fairground, borrowed a bicycle and a ladder, and tied the bike to the top of the ladder and balanced the lot on his chin, with the cycle reared a good distance into the air. One of Mick's other feats was to offer himself to be bound with a rope by a member of the public and by gritting his teeth and flexing his muscles escaping from the bondage. At the close of his act he bowed to his audience and he and his colleague collected their reward in cash.

At some stage during the performance Mick's act must have come to the notice of Charlie Wheatley, as the latter announced to us at the next evening performance that
Mick would be included in our programme, and the newcomer did the ladder-balancing act on our front – this to attract the customers to whom Charlie announced details of the evening's boxing, for which we got a good house.

It was something of a surprise to us when Charlie proceeded to use Mick as a supporting act to the boxing. As an opener, the performer lay with his bare back on a bed of nails, and another part of his act was to lie on the ring floor with a piece of stone on his chest and the stone – still in this position – would be broken in one blow by a colleague wielding a sledge-hammer.

This is where I became involved, as I was appointed to use the hammer to break the stone. Goodness knows why Charlie chose me for this: it is possible that he had heard I had worked in the building trade and could safely manipulate the hammer. On the other hand, I had never considered appearing in an act on the legitimate stage, but only when faced by a gloved opponent.

Including Mick's act in the booth was good for business. He did his piece on each show for the following week. I began to suspect that his chest was becoming bruised, and in addition we soon had difficulty in finding suitable pieces of stone for breaking with the hammer. I know not whether Mick had a difference of opinion with Mr Wheatley, but at the end of the week Charlie announced that the supporting duo were leaving us.

There were no emotional farewells: the partners drifted away and we were left with visions of them continuing the round of venues with demonstrations of Mick's toughness, his ingenuity and courage, dreaming up new examples of his balancing skills, enduring the pricking of nail-points on his back, and the shock of the stone breaking on his chest.

The booth continued the season until late October before breaking up for the winter to prepare for the following spring and the pleasure of meeting old and new colleagues at the various venues. In the next season I worked only the odd weekend on the booth, as I had taken a job in industry – and in fact got married in that year and went to live in Wembley.

The 1939-1945 War then claimed our attention, and it was after the conflict that the sequel to this story develops. I was interested in horse racing, and decided to take my family, including a six-year-old son, to the Epsom fair, traditionally held each year on the Sunday before the classic race.

So there we were, three of us, with the nostalgic sounds of the fairground in the background. I remembered enough of my travelling days to advise my family on what was going on, and we continued our stroll. We saw someone struggling to escape from a sack, into which he had been tied by one of the crowd.

"Ah," said I, "an escapologist. After he escapes he comes round collecting money." Sure enough, as a result of the occupant's struggles the mouth of the sack burst open and a head emerged. I immediately said: "I know him!" Needless to say, it was my friend Mick from pre-war days, still punishing himself to entertain the public and part them from their cash.

We exchanged a few words between performances. He did not tell me where he had spent the intervening years, but possibly even today he is performing on the fairgrounds and market places of the world, showing off his skills and entrancing other young travellers as he did the author of this piece. I wish I was youthful enough still to wield the hammer as I did all those years ago, when the world was young and the boxing booth was fun.

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