Sunday, March 21, 2010

The professional pugilist

In my last post I mentioned that James YOUNG, a visitor in my WILLIAMSON household at the time of the 1911 census, declared himself to be a professional boxer. Knowing virtually nothing about modern-day boxing, let alone the 1911-era sport, I spent some quality time online last night seeing what I could learn.

"Modern Boxing - From A Correspondent" appeared in the London Times on 28 October 1910. Boxing appeared to have gained some respectability in recent years, thanks to the Queensberry rules that provided more structure around bouts and the use of gloves. In amateur circles boxing was recommended as a good way to keep fit. On the topic of the modern professional, I learned that

"there has been a great increase in the number of professional boxers in this country, who earn a somewhat precarious living by giving public exhibitions of their prowess and occasional lessons. There are now many places in London and the provincial cities where these exhibitions are held periodically.....Today attendance at a boxing entertainment is as safe as a visit to a music-hall; indeed the smaller music-halls in the poorer districts of Greater London often provide the impresario of the professional boxer with the arena he requires."

and that the professional boxer was generally characterised as

"an amiable, quiet-mannered young fellow who is decently educated and, unlike his rugged and illiterate predecessor, does not cut loose from the decencies of life during the interval between one period of training and will generally be found that the professional glove-fighter in this country is an honest gladiator and a good citizen, who wishes to satisfy his employers and the people who pay to see him in action."

From The Times I also learned that 1911 was a dramatic year for London boxing. A bout was planned between local boy Bombardier Billy Wells and the African-American Jack Johnson, however this was eventually scrapped after an outcry. The problem seemed to be that this was expected to degenerate into an old-fashioned prize-fight rather than a civilized boxing match, by virtue of the fact that (warning: politically-incorrect cringes ahead) Johnson would likely employ unsportsmanlike American tactics and "the present contest is not one of skill because on the one side is added the instinctive passion of the negro race which is so differently constituted to our own". Oh, and it would also set a bad example in far-flung areas of the Empire like South Africa if their "coloured population" were to see cinematograph footage of the fight. There's more about the US context to these arguments over at Johnson's entry on Wikipedia including the race riots across the US as a result of one of Johnson's 1910 bouts.

The times being what they were, I suspect that Irish boxers were likely not held in quite so high a regard as their English counterparts. My man could have just popped over for a fight or two, so I will need to see if any Irish newspaper archives are available that might mention him. There is an Irish boxer by the name of Jim Young in the boxing encyclopaedia, who had fought the more famous Pat McAllister, The Irish Terror, in 1912 - could this turn out to be my James Young?


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