The fairground boxing booth for over two hundred years was a cradle for many of the great British boxing hopes. During its illustrious history fighters such as Jem Mace, Kid Furness, Jimmy Wilde and Tommy Farr all fought, exhibited on or ran boxing shows. Indeed the greatest Champion of them all Muhammad Ali in 1977 displayed his skills for charity on the front of Ron Taylor’s Boxing Emporium. In their heyday each region of the country would have three or four main booths travelling the fairground circuit with the boxers fighting for Championships at both a regional and national level. In Lancashire, showmen such as the Hughes family, Len Johnson, and perhaps the greatest of them all Harry Kid Furness became renowned for the quality of their fighters and Champions who had started their career on them. In the West Country Jack and Alice Gratton travelled Gratton’s boxing show and their son “One Round Gratton” was a legend from Poole to Penzance because he always knocked out his opponents in the first round. Taylor’s Boxing Emporium under the ownership of the late Ronnie Taylor travelled Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom for well over a century with the Hickman family were dominant in the Midlands. The list is endless and A Fair Fight: An Illustrated Review of Boxing on British Fairgrounds contains interviews with many of the leading proprietors and overviews of some of the champions of the booths.
The fairground boxing booth with its brightly coloured frontage displaying the names and faces of boxing’s heritage is now a fading memory on the fair and has gone the way of other side-shows. Boxing shows flourished on the fairground from the Restoration onwards. Indeed Hogarth’s famous picture of Southwark Fair demonstrates how long boxing booths have been on show on the fair. Boxing historians like many others working in the area of sporting history and popular entertainment tend to overlook the importance of such shows. Unlike the recent promoters who dominate the fighting game, Ron Taylor interviewed in 1999 like many of the boxing booth showmen could trace his heritage in the noble art to the mid nineteenth century:
“My great granddad was a mountain fighter, and fought when it was illegal in the days of bare knuckle fighting. My dad used to tell me all about this and this is what his dad told him. They used to stick four sticks in the ground, put a rope around and then they had backers or challengers and the nobility would back them and most of their payments would be the nobbings. The nobbings are when they used to go round with the hat, because they used to fight mostly on grass so they couldn’t chuck money in the ring, and that was the bare knuckle days. So if they’d put up a good fight, they used to have the nobbings.”
After the introduction of the Marquis of Queensberry rules in 1867, the sport gradually changed and eventually ended the old days of bareknuckle pugilism. According to Ron Taylor this also had an effect on the fairground shows and eventually led his family into purchasing their first show:
“When they bought out the Queensberry rules, the Marquis of Queensberry rules where they wore gloves and the legalised it my great grandfather could see that there was potential in it so he opened a booth on the fairgrounds. So my great grandfather and some of his friend, they challenged anyone out of the crowd to fight and of course the public paid to go in and see them. Before this they didn’t pay to see the fight and the boxers relied on nobbings and the showman got nothing because all the money was made on the betting. So that’s how my family graduated then to the fairgrounds.”
One of the greatest fighters in the days of the bare knuckle champion was Tom Hickman known as the Gaslight Champion. The origin of his nickname is obscure but the chronicler of Famous Fights claims he was so called because the speed of his punches caused the gaslights to go out. In his short but glittering career he was one of the greatest bare knuckle champions of his day until his death at the age of twenty seven when he was crushed to death by a carriage. Tom Hickman was involved in one of the most famous fights of the nineteenth century and the wagers laid on the outcome were reputedly in the region of a £150,000. In 1821 he fought Bill Neat on Hungerfound Downs, near Newbury in front of 25,000 spectators where after a long battle he was eventually urged by the thousands watching to admit defeat. From the 1830s onwards interest in prize fighting declined as a sport, but once again the fairground provided a ready home. After the death of Tom Hickman at the age of twenty seven the boxers who had known Tom collected money for his widow and children in order to purchase a boxing show and volunteered to fight on the booths free of charge for the first year to guarantee them a good start. From this tragic beginning the Hickman Boxing Show went from strength to strength and travelled until the mid-twentieth century. This is one of the more romantic and tragic stories connected with an association between a family and a particular fairground show. The Hickman family entrance to the life of a travelling showman was owing to their ancestor Tom Hickman, the Gaslight Man. His grandson Charlie Hickman first travelled penalty shoots, and after running a variety of shows including “Teeny Tiny Tony the World’s Smallest Pony,” he travelled his boxing booth with Pat Collin’s run of fairs in the Midlands from the 1920s onwards. Many famous boxers were associated with the family, not least Charlie Hickman, great grandson of Tom the Gaslight Man who won the Lonsdale Championship at Crystal Palace in 1931, a feat his illustrious ancestor never achieved. However, the showman who really bridged the gap between the bareknuckle days and the introduction of the Queensbury rules was Jem Mace a man who many boxing historians see as the pioneer of the modern travelling boxing booth with its exhibitions fights, stage show and the introduction of inviting all challengers into the ring.
Jem Mace worked as both a showman promoter and pugilist and became the bridge between the old style boxing arenas and boxing as part of the entertainment route. During his colourful and often controversial career, from 1858 onwards Jem fought for many unofficial title and championship battles and despite “retiring” in 1867 he still travelled to America in the 1870s and beat Tom Allen for the Championship of the World. He travelled with both Ginetts and Pablo Fanque’s circuses and was a popular and charismatic figure. In the early 1900s, poverty and destitution caused by bad management and high living resulted in Jem Mace at the age of seventy-six yet again travelling the fairs, circuses and music halls. However, this time it was as a lecturer with Billy LeNeve’s troupe of lady athletes and gentleman boxers where he played to packed houses. In a series of features on Jem Mace that appeared in the World’s Fair in 1910, the reporter describes Mace’s popular appeal:
“Jem Mace was appearing with his troupe of lady athletes and gentleman boxers. It was here that the crowds were flocking to, irrespective of party politics. They did not want to be bothered with political speeches, all they wanted was to see and hear the unconquered champion of the world. Their sole ambition was to gaze upon the veteran of the pugilistic ring, so that every day, and at every performance throughout the week, the standing order at this world-famed establishment was either standing room only or house full.”
Jem Mace died not long after this appearance shortly after his eightieth birthday and the reporter recalls the ringing chorus that used to accompany Jem as he took the stage:
Good old Jimmy, Brave old James,
Take a list and run all down the pugilistic names,
Search through Fistiana and see if you can trace
A man with such a record as old Jem Mace.
Another character associated with Jem Mace at the twilight of his career who went on to surpass Jem as a showman and proprietor but not perhaps as a fighter was Harry Kid Furness, who claims to have been taught by the master himself. During his illustrious career as a boxing booth proprietor, matchmaker, referee and promoter he was one of the leading figures in the world of boxing. Denis Fleming, in his book The Manchester Fighters wrote the following tribute to Harry Furness, the Mighty Atom:
“Furness was irrepressible. Even in this age of hyperbole, he would have eaten any modern day promoter for breakfast. He retained astonishing self confidence throughout his career … The little man is still remembered and for old-time fighters of the thirties his wheeling and dealing were an essential part of the golden tapestry of their days in the ring. Harry Kid Furness had three things going for him: his endless energy, his overall knowledge of the game and above all, his genuine love affair with the ring..”
Harry Furness became involved in the boxing booths as a one time fighter who then went on to promote and manage boxers. His booth was often a means of spotting raw talent and then training and developing any potential champions. The shows he operated were only one aspect of his involvement in the fight game and a later article will cover in detail his career as a boxer, showman and promoter. In the case of Matt Moran and Len Johnson it was through fighting on the booths which eventually led to them ending up running their own show. Len Johnson’s life as a fighter and showman has been excellently covered in Michael Herbert’s Never Counted Out, The Story of Len Johnson Manchester’s Black Boxing Hero and Communist, published in 1992 and includes never before published details of his family background and fight record. Len Johnson’s father William came to England in 1897 and initially earned a living as a seaman. He then took up boxing and fought both in the ring and on the fairs. After his marriage to Margaret Maher, Billy worked with many famous showmen including Gal Hague, Harry Hughes and Jim Watson. Their four children included Len who claims he first went on the booth at the age of two where he was announced by his father as “Len Johnson the Youngest Boxer in the World.” Both Len and his brother Albert became successful fighters often starring on the same bill but it was Len who would go on to scale even greater heights. Despite initial setbacks when he lost some of his early fights in 1922 at the Alhambra Hall in Manchester he then joined Bert Hughes who travelled a booth round the Manchester area with his brother Harry and Billy. According to extracts of Len’s unfinished autobiography in Michael Herbert’s account of his life, on joining the fair at Burnley Bert Hughes greeted him with the words:
“Don’t punch the locals too hard Len, or they’ll never come near the show again! They’re only novices.”
The Lonsdale belts were set up in 1909 and despite the tradition of black boxers on the fairgrounds and in the later half of the nineteenth century, the organisers operated a colour bar prevented Len Johnson fighting officially for the British Championship until the 1940s.. This was not lifted until 1948 when Dick Turpin, brother of Randall and another boxer who appeared on the booths, defeated Vince Hawkins to take the middleweight championship and became the first black champion to be recognised by the British Boxing Board of Control. Len Johnson had an illustrious career as a fighter and during his time beat Len Harvey who went on to beat Alex Ireland to take the British middleweight title and the World light heavyweight title. Between 1927 and 1928 Len Johnson was recognised as being one of the most talented boxers in his division in the world and the continuing refusal of the boxing authorities to allow him to fight for the Lonsdale belt caused anger and controversy especially in Manchester where Len was considered a local boy:
“Johnson has won his way to the front of the middleweight division and yet is denied the opportunity of competing for the coveted Lonsdale Belt which would set the seal on his fame … All of which strange in a country which has invariably bestowed honours on men irrespective of race and creed, the sole consideration being outstanding merit in the particular spheres of life in which they have distinguished themselves.”
Over the next few years Len became disillusioned with the authorities, after a series of fights including the second fight against Len Harvey which he lost on points, he retired from the ring in 1933. However, Len still had a home and a place in boxing through his fairground booth and from the late 1920s until the early years of the Second World War he travelled with his show throughout Lancashire and the North West and appeared at Nottingham Goose fair where he regularly put on fourteen shows a day.
The world of Len Johnson’s show and the later days of the booth in the 1950s have been revealed in great detail by Matt Moran in his in his autobiographical account of life on the boxing shows titled Shamrock Gardens: From Boxing Booth Fighter to Travelling Showman, published in 1988, and by Harry Legg, a former booth fighter who travelled with Esther and Sam McKeowen and published two accounts of his life A Penny a Punch, and the follow up A Few Punches More. The careers of the Matt Moran, the McKeowen family and other prominent boxing booth proprietors are covered in detail in A Fair Fight.
The decline of the boxing shows on the fairground is linked to the decision by the Boxing Board of Control in 1947 to limit and partially restrict the use of licensed boxers in the booths despite the fact that Randall Turpin an ex-booth fighter with the Hickmans won the Middleweight Championship of the World in 1951 by beating Sugar Ray Robinson. In 1951 in discussion with the British Boxing Board of Control the Showmen’s Guild published a series of conditions for the booth proprietors to adhere to. However, by the late 1950s the Board had ruled that no licensed fighters could fight competitive bouts in the ring other than exhibition rounds. One of the many misconceptions about the boxing shows and perhaps this was a factor in the Boxing Board of Control’s restrictions on the fairground shows, is that they were often the unsavoury side of the fight game. The last refuge for “worn out pugs” with cauliflower ears and broken hands. However, Michael Herbert in his biography of Len Johnson writes gives greater credit to the fairground booth and writes:
“A boxer had to be fit strong and healthy to make a living on the booth … it offered an unrivalled opportunity to acquire good experience in a short space of time and to develop his skills.”
Although the restrictions placed by the Board of Control did not immediately affect the booth showmen, many of them agree that it was a element in the shortage of good fighters coming up onto the shows. A factor Esther McKeowen mentioned when interviewed in 1997:
“It’s an impossible task now, apart from the boys, the British Boxing Board of Boxing Control will not let you have licensed boxers, they said they didn’t want them going on boxing booths apart from exhibitions. So it’s no good, you don’t want exhibitions when you want them to take on challengers so it was making it a hard thing. It’s just an impossible thing to run in this day and age, years ago there was men around, and they just wanted to earn a few bob.”
Over the past two hundred years the boxing booth has been a home to future champions, past champion and eager young fighters determined to achieve the ultimate crown the Championship of the World. The recent debate regarding the British Boxing Board of Control and the licensing of women boxers has received a large amount of media coverage but women boxers were a feature on the fairground as far back as the 1880s when Polly Fairclough appeared at Burton Statute Fair as the Female Champion of the World. Showmen such as Professor Moore in 1910 and Charlie Hickman in the 1930s allowed their daughters to fight on the show and Ester McKeowen involvement over the century illustrates that ability not gender has always been the more important issue on the fairground.