Friday, August 19, 2011

Boxing, history & social change

I said yesterday (Armidale vs Canada in Rugby 1960) that I had intended to write a short post on a completely different matter, boxing in fact, but became distracted. Why boxing?

Back in July 2009 I did a short nostalgia piece, Memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium, on the boxing shows that used to be such a feature of the Australian country show circuit. Then, earlier this week, I was browsing some of the articles in Aboriginal History and came across an article on the role of Aboriginal boxers in the boxing tents. If you look at the photo included in my original post, you will see the Aboriginal presence.

I didn't record the details of the article at this point for I was literally skimming, speed reading ten years of the journal just to get a feel for what was there. However, the descriptions of life on the circuit were interesting in a general sense as well as from an Aboriginal history perspective.

I see no reason why history should be dull. I therefore decided that I might include some of this material in my history of New England to add texture and as one theme in Aboriginal life.

I actually know very little about the history of boxing, beyond snippets picked up from books or at school. By the time I entered secondary school, boxing was no longer a school sport. However, the school gym was still equipped for boxing with punching bags and gloves, while boxing as a sport was in living memory. I used to spar sometimes.

Historical Overview

The Wikipedia article on boxing points to its long history.

Wikipedia notes that early fighting in England had no written rules; there were no weight divisions or round limits, and no referee. In general, it was extremely chaotic and could lead to death.

The first boxing rules - the Broughton's rules - were introduced by heavyweight champion Jack Broughton in 1743 to protect fighters. In 1838, the London Prize Rules were introduced and then revised in 1853. followed by the Marquis of Queensberry Rules in 1867. This set the form for modern boxing, including the use of gloves. 

By the early 1800s boxing in England had become popular and quite fashionable. You can see this in some of the books set during this period. However, it was still illegal in England and, I think, the Australian colonies would remain so for some time. I am not sure of dates here.

According to the Australian Boxing web site, it is believed that the first recorded fight in Australia was on the 7 January 1814. It is thought that Charles Lifton was one of the fighters. The venue would have been the Sydney Racecourse (Hyde Park).

The site suggests that the first Australian born fighter to become popular was known as Kable or “Young Kable” from Windsor NSW. In 1824 Kable knocked out Sam Clark an English boxer.

The favorite boxing grounds in the 1830s were Parramatta, Windsor, Surry Hills and Como. Notable boxers from the 1830s included Young Bailey, Ned Chalker, Young Kable and George Hough.

Notable boxers from the 1840s included Bill Sparkes, Tom Sparkes (aka Sprig of Myrtle), lzaac Gorrick (aka "Bungaree"). Gorrick was the very first Australian boxer to fight in England in 1842. Bill Sparkes also fought in England in 1847 and went 67 rounds against the undefeated Nat Langham. Sparkes broke his right arm in the 62nd round of this fight.

The London Prize Rules were introduced into Australia. According to the Australian Boxing web site, under these rules opponents were often thrown to the ground and fights were fought to the finish, the bouts sometimes lasted for hours. The boxing would only stop if the opponent was knocked out or the police were called in to break it up. Sometimes the crowd would get involved and the fight would be stopped.

The site notes that the longest recorded bare knuckle bout lasted an amazing 6 hours and 15 minutes. The fight took place on the 3rd of December 1855 at Fiery Creek (near Daylesford) Victoria. An Irishman by the name of James Kelly defeated the English soldier Jonathan Smith. The prize money was £400 and the bare knuckle bout went 17 long rounds.

The Marquis of Queensberry Rules mandated the use of gloves. Wikipedia records that in 1882 the English case of R v. Coney found that a bare-knuckle fight was an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, despite the consent of the participants. This marked the end of widespread public bare-knuckle contests in England.

The Australian Boxing web site suggests the use of boxing gloves was introduced into the Australian colonies in 1884, ushering in the Queensberry rules. Apparently Australia at that time was in the lime light, breaking new ground in boxing innovation. The boxing trainer Billy Palmer (a former boxer) was starting to teach new defensive techniques to boxers in Australia that were recognised worldwide. Peter Jackson, a West Indian who fought James Corbett in 1891, travelled to Australia to learn these new techniques. Bob Fitzsimmons an English boxer who took the 1897, title also travelled to Australia to sharpen his boxing technique.

The first world heavyweight champion under the Queensberry Rules was "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, who defeated John L. Sullivan in 1892 at the Pelican Athletic Club in New Orleans. In Sydney on December 26 1908, a fighter by the name of Jack Johnson took Tommy Burns to the 14th round before knocking him out, becoming the first black heavyweight champion.


Looking at this brief history, a few things stand out.

The first is the nature of transformation of boxing and the relationship to broader social change.

In 1800 the first rules may have had been introduced, but prize fighting was still illegal. One of the best pictures of the status of boxing at the time is actually provided by Georgette Heyer's regency romances. Heyer was punctilious in recording and repeating the detail of life in Regency England. Her references to boxing are incidental, but show a world in which prize fighting is popular if not quite respectable and in which her aristocratic heroes are known themselves to participate.

By 1900, boxing had been formalised and had moved from the shadow world into the mainstream. To check this, I looked at the history of boxing in the Olympics. Boxing was introduced in 1904 and has been in every games since with the exception of the 1912 Stockholm games since the sport was still banned in Sweden at the time. In another sign of social change, the next games will include female boxing for the first time.

This transformation is part of and linked to the broader Victorian transformation within the Empire, what we might call the growth of respectability. While professional boxing continued, you also had the rise of amateur boxing. Here the Wikipedia article on amateur boxing observes:

Amateur boxing emerged as a sport during the mid-to-late 19th century, partly as a result of the moral controversies surrounding professional prize-fighting. Originally lampooned as an effort by upper and middle-class gentlemen to co-opt a traditionally working class sport, the safer, "scientific" style of boxing found favor in schools, universities and in the armed forces, although the champions still usually came from among the urban poor.

In England, the Amateur Boxing Association was formed in 1888, and held its first championships the following year. So again, you can see the pattern of change.

Jimmy Sharman Senior formed his first boxing tent at Ardlethan (NSW) in 1911, growing to a travelling show with 50 to 60 towns on the circuit. His was not the only troupe. The boxing tents appealed to the locals, but boxing was also a way for a poorer person with limited skills to earn cash. For that reason, Aboriginal boxers were strongly represented. As today, sport provided an opportunity for advancement not otherwise open.

In searching, I found this remarkably good piece from Quadrant, May 2002, The Tent by Wayne McLennan.  Set in Cessnock and therefore within the geographic area covered by my study, it provides a flavour of the atmosphere surrounding the tents. The piece begins:

I COULD HEAR THE CALLER throwing out challenges to "any mug brave enough to step into the ring with my fighters" and promising ten dollars if he could last three rounds. I could feel the drum they pounded to get your attention - "Boom, boom, boom" - long before I reached the tent, long before I saw the fighters standing on a raised platform stripped to the waist, arms folded, glaring down at the audience. Behind the boxers, stretching the length of the tent, hung a two-metre-high canvas mural painted with hard, strong colours. Dave Sands, Les Darcy, Ron Richards, George Barnes, Vic Patrick, Jimmy Carruthers, all the greats of Australian boxing, stared down at you smiling, arms raised in victory or with gloved hands shaped up, ready to fight.

By the time the events described in Wayne's piece were taking place, further change was well underway.

  The first Police Citizens Boys Club was formed in NSW in 1937. Now called the Police Citizens Youth Clubs, the clubs grew to be a national movement. While it does not seem to be mentioned now, I think that boxing was a key feature of the early clubs because it provided an outlet for the groups that the new organisation was trying to reach. Outside the show boxing tents, the first boxing match I went to was at the Armidale Club.

In 1937, boxing was still well established. In 1969 or 1971 (the stated dates seem to vary), the Sharman troupe closed, the boxing tents that once featured at the shows gone. The final death blow was delivered by Government regulations limiting fights by an individual boxer to one a week. This change was part of broader changes in attitudes that took place in the post war period.

An era had ended. However, the desire for direct physical individual combat continues, with a proliferation of direct contact sports extending beyond boxing into a variety of martial arts. With changing social attitudes, women have come to play an increasing role in this spread. Women now box and kick box in a way that would have seemed inconceivable even twenty years ago.    


As he so often does, regular commenter kvd used this post to do a further internet search. There he found Roy Bell's Boxing tent, a survivor of the previous genre.

Here you find some photos. The following is a YouTube video, Comments follow the video.   

The video shows many of the aspects of the boxing tents in operation. Part of the boxing tents was always showmanship, something that I had intended to write about in another post. You can actually see that in this video. You don't want to kill the locals, but you also don't want to be demolished by them! So, how to balance?

I leave it to you to spot! And I hereby declare kvd my official research assistant - unpaid!

Postscript 2

In a comment, Sharon pointed to this post of hers - Jimmy Semmens - Australian Bantamweight Champion - about a fighter with and Armidale family connection. Sharon asked if anyone had more information on Jimmy Semmens.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post Jim - thank you. I went searching Wayne McLennan and thru him got to "Bell's Boxing Tent" and thence to a couple of links you may or may not have seen which are worthwhile additions, I think.

Anyway, thanks for sparking the interest.


Jim Belshaw said...

Kvd, I will bring your comments up in the main post, along with your role as my official research assistant!

Anonymous said...

Awww shucks, Jim. Now you're going too far.

But it gives me the opportunity to mention one other search item on McLennan - he is mentioned in the Cessnock Council 'Hall of Fame' - which I think is a good idea for any council, city, town to display. I'm not aware of my local council's equivalent page, but I think it's a good thing to celebrate the famous sons and daughters of one's locality.


Jim Belshaw said...

Not too far at all! I will follow up on Wayne McLennan.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd, Have added something on Wayne to the companion post i did on the New England Australia blog.

Anonymous said...

That was an interesting sidebar Jim. I've checked my local council, and as far as I can see, we have a few footy players, one cricketer, and a racehorse - Archer.

Not a mention of the Boyd family of artists (among others), or several writers I could name beginning with Frank Moorehouse.

I think Cessnock have it better imo.


Sharon said...

Hope you don't mind me leaving a link to a blog post of mine about a photo discovered in Armidale of Jimmy Semmens, an Australian bantamweight champion.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, dare I suggest this? Perhaps those down south are too genteel? Or perhaps just fewer in numbers?

Sharon, link away to your heart's content. It's always a pleasure. I have brought your link up into the main post.

Legal Eagle said...

I'm afraid that I can't bear to watch boxing - I can't stand seeing people get hit (even if they consent, even if they're wearing gloves and even if they enjoy the contest). I spend the whole time wincing and flinching. Nor do I like wrestling.

By constrast, something like karate or tae kwon do doesn't bother me nearly as much. Perhaps it's because there's not direct hits to the head so much? And fencing or kendo don't bother me at all - it's more at arm's length, even if it's still combative.

Why my mind treats these combat sports differently, I don't know. Doesn't seem to make sense.

Legal Eagle said...

Maybe, linking into Jim's comment, it's because I'm a southerner? Which reminds me of an ad they used to show when I was in the UK where a guy shouted out in a thick Mancunian accent at a football match - "Yer great southern pansy! Yer great wet lettuce!"

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LE. Yes, you are a genteel southerner too! Mind you, I don't enjoy watching boxing in the way I used too.

But we are inconsistent. I love watching Rugby, yet the increased size of players and the sheer speed of the modern game arguably makes it more dangerous than modern boxing.

Odd, isn't it?

Boxing Melbourne said...

Awesome boxing blog bro.. will keep an eye! Thanks for sharing..

Unknown said...

I would love to know any information I can get about a Koori boxer named Francis Donnelly back in the '50s I'm guessing. Please send anything you have to
Greatly appreciated

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Lee. Good luck. I'm still getting requests for info here, but not many answers! What's your connection with Francis?