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 as 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 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.


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  2. Hi that was interesting i always got told that Tom wasn't well the night of the fight and his dad didn't want him to go and that it was a American he was fighting my grandad John simmonette told my mum the story Tom was my grandads uncle I think

  3. Interesting! Tom was my great, great uncle and we still stay in Uddingston

  4. Hi Jamie my grandad john simmonette came from uddingston always go to toms grave a few family members are buried in there

  5. Really Sharon? My grandad James had a brother called John! He died back in 1995 aged about 55 so I wonder if they were brothers

  6. My grandad john died in 1974 or 75 and he was about 54 he married my gran bridget and yhey have 5 kids my mums names Catherine my grandad had sisters as well I think tom was my grandads uncle am no 2 sure need 2 ask my mum

  7. So sad , my grandad was a boxer also all of his sons my dad told me many stories about the young boxers and how hard they fought