Remembering a Preston bare knuckle boxing legend

New book by local historian Steve Halliwell recalls hardman who was a household name in the town

Friday, 25th June 2021, 3:45 pm

There once roamed the streets of Preston a character who was so much larger than life that it may be difficult to accept.

He was born around 1800, lived barely 48 years, but in just 33 years of adult life he became a household name not only in Preston, but throughout the county from the Irish Sea coast to the Yorkshire border, and from Manchester to Lancaster.

It wasn’t easy to be so widely known in the first half of the 1800s, unless, of course, that life was so frustratingly turbulent and eclectic as that of James Duckworth, better known for most of his life as ‘Touch’.

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James ‘Touch’ Duckworth in action
Illustration: David Jones
James ‘Touch’ Duckworth in action Illustration: David Jones

Many of the streets which were the basis of Touch’s life still exist. Those around the Minster on Church Street such as St John’s Place, Stoneygate and Old Cock Yard; Bostock Street off Turk’s Head Yard, together with the narrow, covered passageway to Avenham Street, are all now devoid of houses, and Bostock Street now no longer has its houses or mill buildings that at one time spun or wove their way into the lives of the residents around it.

Why Touch should live so close to the first police station in Preston in Turk’s Head Yard is a mystery. Well, it is when you learn more about the argumentative JD.

The Minster, in its guise of St John’s Church, featured in JD’s wedding in 1828, the baptising of his children in the 1830s, his funeral in 1848, and burial in the churchyard.

The only other time I found the church mentioned in the company of his name, was when he held public demonstrations on Church Street, with his horse of the day being encouraged to leap over poles raised incrementally higher and higher, with his eight-year-old son roped securely to the animal.

Horses were the basis of Touch’s life. He bought them and sold them; he owned them, he trained them, he raced them and, on behalf of many of the landed gentry, he broke them.

For that service he earned an unexpected place in their esteem, and in their company he knew exactly how to behave.

His final home was Bamber’s Yard off Friargate, where he took over a livery stable. He owned and ran an omnibus named Erin na Bragh, or Ireland Forever, although it isn’t known whether he was Irish by descent.

His presence was anticipated on minor racecourses from Cockerham to Cock Bridge and Clitheroe, and Horwich to Lancaster, in addition to the attractive prospect of organised horse racing on the sands at Blackpool and Fleetwood.

Tithebarn Street was the site of one of Touch’s beerhouse keeping sojourns, with New England being another. The latter was the name applied to the area around Marsh Lane and Bow Lane, and on both occasions in the 1830s he took the opportunity of following the regular Temperance Movement Sunday afternoon processions, with his horse drawn cart loaded with at least one barrel of beer, primed, and ready for use. He formed, and occasionally marched alongside the Temperance Movement, with his Moderation and anti-Hypocritical Society.

Touch was a principled individual in his own way. He never saw eye-to-eye with the policemen in the town, who themselves were still finding their feet after formation in 1815, but as he once declared, “I’ve got the length of their feet,” insinuating that he knew just how far he could go before crossing any lines.

Occasionally, he misjudged the line, but once in front of the magistrates, he managed to reduce not only the Bench, but the lawyers both for and against him, and the policemen themselves, to fits of laughter. Often he walked away scot-free.

When he died in 1848, the victim of a manslaughter while engaged in one of his many street fights, the town lost a colourful character. His attacker was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment, and I believe Touch would have been delighted with that outcome, for he would have seen his demise as perhaps an unfortunate occupational hazard. It took place in The Shambles, after the two combatants had been sharing a glass of ale in the Old Golden Cross Hotel, the forerunner to the current one on the same site.

His body was taken up Ward’s End (known to many Preston folk as World’s End) to the Golden Lion Hotel, where his life expired. His sudden death occasioned an appeal for funds to give the man a burial, and contributions from fellow livery stable keepers who offered their services gratis, tradesmen, dignitaries, and I have even seen suggested the odd policeman, in recognition of that loss of colour and texture the town had suffered.

The town should have recognised the arrival of an extraordinary character who, on one hand would carry out an instruction to the letter if he felt it suited him, but would be equally contrary if he believed himself in the right. And he had the self-belief to follow things through to a conclusion.

When first employed as a 14-year-old carter by Mr Ladyman, a builder in Theatre Street, he was ordered to pick up and return with a load of lime. Once effected, he enquired where to put it, and a busy, and at the time flustered, Ladyman instructed him to “Keck it in’t Ribble.” Keck was a dialect word meaning kick, tip or put; and he did, returning to say that, “It made a bonny smook and fizz.”

The inevitable rebuke was answered by a cool, “Tha told me to do it, an’ I did it!”

This, and 35 other previously untold stories are recorded in Steve Halliwell’s new book, ‘The Lancashire Bare-knuckle Fighter and Livery Stable Keeper: The life and turbulent times of ‘Touch’ Duckworth, 1800 to 1848.’

Oh, and he kept a bear! Some said brown, others black, but both agreed it was big!

The Lancashire Bare-knuckle Fighter and Livery Stable Keeper is available priced £12.99 from Steve Halliwell 29 Minster Park, Cottam, Preston PR4 0BY between 9am and 9pm. Ring first: 01772 768637. Or by post. Send a cheque for £15.49 (inc. P&P) to the above address, payable to S. Halliwell.