These days not many people may be aware that during the 1930s Lancaster and Morecambe was something of a hotbed of professional boxing.
The iconic Morecambe Winter Gardens was the mainstay of this buoyant boxing landscape, but there were a number of other, smaller venues which also gave the area’s professional boxers plenty of exposure, from potential champions to those plying their trade near the bottom of the bill.
Skerton was then known as a tough neighbourhood of Lancaster and it produced a number of boxers during this era. Two brothers from this area made their mark locally and were known as Gunner Bennett and, his younger brother by a year, Kid Dempsey (real names John and Jim Bennetts).
They were the sons of Billy Bennetts a well known wrestler who’s ring name was ‘The British Lion’. He was not a big man but was almost broad as he was tall and he was a massive character.
He had wrestled with success in America as well as England and was firmly of the belief that everyone from an early age should know how to take care of themselves. Therefore when they reached their teens Billy took both his sons to a local boxing booth which used to pitch up regularly in Skerton on a piece of waste ground called the Ramparts. There the brothers learned the art of self defence by taking on all comers of a similar age.
The few pennies they got for their efforts at this tender age officially made them professionals but times were different then. As soon as they were able, both officially joined the professional ranks at 16 and 17 years of age respectively. Trained and managed by their father who, despite his advancing years, was still immensely strong and often used to appear on the same shows with his sons, as The British Lion, wrestling men half his age.
Both of the sons had decade long careers before being ended by the Second World War. Jim Bennetts (Kid Dempsey) (pictured inset) when asked once who his toughest opponent was, surprisingly recalled an encounter he once had with a kangaroo at a local fete.
It had turned out to be a painful experience for him likely due to the fact that the kangaroo had no conception of what constituted a low blow. Their father Billy even turned his hand to the odd bit of promoting and in 1934 put on a show including himself and both of his sons at Grange over Sands a seaside town with a gentle ambiance.
The show itself proved somewhat lively for Grange Council who afterwards submitted a bill for a number of broken chairs and a broken window which had been the consequences of the evening’s entertainment. Morecambe Winter Gardens also had its fair share of excitement and the odd bizarre incident in this period. During a novice competition a boxer called Jack Hennessey was being given something of a boxing lesson by his opponent, and his seconds trying to rally their man and improve his performance, were heard to continually urge him to ‘Use your head’.
Unfortunately misinterpreting this, at the start of the next round, he followed the advice too literally and went out and blatantly head butted his opponent resulting in his immediate disqualification.
The opponent in this incident, Arthur Fitch (real name Fitchett) of Morecambe must have been an unlucky boxer because he experienced another weird ending in a future bout a short time later. In a contest with Matt Jolley of Preston, Fitch threw a haymaker of a right hand which landed flush on Jolley’s jaw putting him on the canvas.
However, the momentum of the punch sent Fitch hurtling into the ropes which culminated in him getting his hand getting caught between two of the ropes which had twisted around his wrist from which he was unable to extricate himself.
The referee W J(Billy) Farnell took up the count for both boxers. Jolley, although obviously still groggy, managed to beat the count but Fitch, still helplessly entangled in the ropes, was judged by the referee as not being in a position to defend himself and therefore counted out.
One of the great favourites at the Winter Gardens was Morecambe’s Jack Murphy, known because of his occupation as ‘The Fighting Fireman’. Jack was never able to get close to a title but was a promoter’s dream who always gave 101 per cent. Early in his career, when he was still only a six bout novice, he answered a call to step in as a short notice substitute at the Winter Gardens.
The only problem being he had just finished a 90 minute game of football and his opponent was the accomplished Harold Ratchford with more than 120 bouts to his name. Jack went on to lose narrowly on points but took Ratchford the full 15 rounds.
As far as the Winter Gardens regulars were concerned his reputation had been made. On other occasion he had been fighting a large fire all day with his fireman colleagues. Not even considering pulling out he turned up as arranged that evening and won a 10 round points decision, no wonder he was so popular.
While his premature grey hair may have deceived some opponents, no one ever got an easy ride from Jack , who after retiring became a respected referee.
Another who overcame adversity, not to win a bout but to have any career in boxing at all, was Alex Newton from Grange over Sands. As a strong lad of 16 thinking about trying his luck in the ring, while working on a road building site, an explosion (for which he was blameless) left him with horrific injuries to his right hand.
At the hospital a decision was made to amputate the hand but Alex’s step-father refused permission and insisted another hospital give a second opinion. There an operation left him with only the stumps of his thumb and three fingers, but his hand was saved.
Once it healed Alex returned to the gym and found that, despite his disability, he could punch just as hard as he used to. With hard work and dedication the following year in 1928 he made his professional debut. Alex’s boxing career went on to span 10 years, and after retiring from the ring he became well known in his local community and served as a County Councillor for North Lonsdale. Years later Alex unexpectedly bumped into the surgeon who had operated on him. Inspecting Alex’s hand he grinned and said, “Alex Newton, the best work I ever did.”
There were many interesting characters who fought on bills during the period, men like Frank Ward who was unbeaten in six fights but was better known as a defender for Preston North End turning out more than 200 times for the club during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
His record included a notable victory over Jack Lord who would later become a northern area champion and fight for a British title. It seems the reason Ward did not push on with his promising ring career lay with the directors of North End who were not impressed with his sideline and he was firmly told, “No boxing in the football season.”
Another multi-sports star with a lengthy boxing career was Ian Ritchings who fought as an amateur before turning professional and taking part in 53 contests. Outside of the ropes he played rugby to a high standard and was a founder member of Preston’s speedway team in 1929, racing in the inaugural event at the town’s Farrington Park track in 1929.
A bit of a daredevil on two wheels, he made several unsuccessful attempts to set records on the dirt track.The end of the thirties coincided with the advent of the Second World War and so the ‘Golden Period’ that boxing had enjoyed came to an end with many boxers joining up.
After the war the smaller venues found it difficult in the face of a crippling entertainment tax and other diversions such as television. However, boxing was down but not out and the Winter Gardens would struggle on with boxing for a fair bit longer, although that is another story.
* Boxing by the Sea and Boxers from the Bay by Larry Braysher are available from the author on 015395 35459.