The Noble Art: A History of Bradford Boxing, Part One

by Ian Hemmens

From time immemorial, fighting as a contest has attracted interest be it dualling, fencing, wrestling or outright punch-ups. Men would challenge each other with a wager put aside for the victor. These contests of the ‘bare-knuckle’ variety were often brutal and would be fought until the loser could no longer carry on, many bouts lasting hundreds of rounds . These bouts around the early 18th century had little regulation for the welfare of the competitors. A fighter could become famous though by manipulating the press and attracting decent crowds by fighting a local hero in their back yard. There is evidence even of early ‘agents’ promoting certain fighters to enhance their earning power & reputations.

Bradford’s first boxer of note would probably be one John Leachman born in the town in 1815. At 6ft & 12 stones in weight, by the age of 17 he was already building a reputation beating Ned Batterson of Leeds in a contest lasting well over an hour for a purse of £5. Known locally as ‘Brassey’ after a more nationally well known earlier prize-fighter, his reputation continued to grow with several fights across the North & Midlands. 1835 saw a crowd rumoured to be around 12000 watch Leachman beat Irishman Jem Bailey on Baildon Moor for a £10 purse in a fight lasting 135 minutes. 1836 saw Leachman beat the acknowledged Yorkshire Champion Tom Scruton for a £20 purse and the Title.

Around the same time in Nottingham, a certain William Thompson known as ‘Bendigo’ began making moves in the sport which would culminate in him becoming a boxing immortal recognised as one of the early greats. Bendigo announced his arrival on the big time with the defeat of the much bigger & heavier English Champion Ben Caunt. ‘Brassey’ immediately challenged the Champion for a £50 prize but Bendigo ignored the challenge whilst building his reputation touring & giving exhibitions of the ‘Noble Art’. Brassey bided his time then renewed his challenge which was finally accepted. The fight took place near Doncaster at Stocks Moor. After 52 rounds, Bendigo was awarded the win after the fight was stopped with Brassey committing a foul punch to the Champs lower abdomen. Bendigo then lost the rematch with Caunt who in turn lost to ‘Deaf’ Burke. Bendigo then regained the Title beating Burke. Brassey continued to fight all comers but was marginalised from the ‘big time’. Not all areas were in favour of the the fight game and after a small riot after a bout in Salford, Brassey found himself imprisoned for 2 months for inciting the trouble. After his release he resumed and with Bendigo temporarily retired through a bad knee injury, Brassey took on Ben Caunt at Cambridge but the difference in weight & height took its toll in a brutal contest which saw Caunt victorious. Although never a quitter, the punishment was starting to take its toll and despite an offer from Bendigo for a rematch, it would never take place due to lack of backers who thought it a non contest. Sadly for Brassey he finally accepted the inevitable and retired. The years of punishment meant that he died aged only 30 years old when his 2 great rivals Bendigo & Ben Caunt were contesting the title for a 3rd time. Bradfords 1st real star of the fight games time had gone.

It was becoming a time of change. The brutality of some contests, the violence by large unruly crowds, a more educated & open acceptance of medicine & physiology led certain politicians & members of the constabulary to start to try & enforce more restrictions and rules on the sport. These would eventually culminate in the Queensberry Rules devised by the Marquis of Queensberry. They were fairly rudimentary at first but were gradually revised as medical opinion & comments from others involved were added to and adapted. For now though, steps were taken to almost outlaw & fully ban the sport completely by certain parties but this only drove the contests underground. Others of an entrepreneurial nature saw advantages in offering to hold contests in the Theatres & Music Halls as a way of bringing in extra revenue. A major venue in Bradford was the Jollity Vaudeville Theatre on Canal Road, a building later demolished to make way for the Empire Stores Building. Wrestling bouts also proved highly popular at the Jollity & along with the Star Music Hall on Manchester Road, these were the main venues for the sport in Bradford. The Jollity was the venue for the next Bradford hero, Paddy Mahoney. Although born in Liverpool, he arrived in Bradford as a youngster. The family settled along with thousands of other Irish immigrants in the Broomfield area, now gone but situated near the bottom of Wakefield Road until lost in the slum clearances of 1935. A veritable melting pot for boxing, as well as Mahoney & the Atkinson Brothers, The famous ‘Fighting Delaneys’ also came out of Broomfield but more of them later.

Mahoney was boxing at the Jollity as a 16 year old in 1893 beating Johnny McGowan. By now, the bouts were in a ring and gloved, more recognisable to modern day fight fans. Paddy was game for taking on all comers and eventually found himself as British Champion Bantamweight beating Tom Turner of London comfortably on points to become Bradford’s first ‘Gloved’ Champion. Paddy decided to cash in on his fame, taking over the ‘Ashley’ Hotel on Manchester Road & then embarking on a visit to Ireland & the United States to show his skills. After his return, Paddy retired and went into the promotional side. His mantle was taken by Harry Clarkson but Paddy’s Son Jimmy followed his Father into the game and after a short career became a well respected Referee.

The Atkinson Brothers also began as ‘curtain raisers’ at the Jollity, 2 more Broomfield boys who, whilst not reaching the heights of Paddy Mahoney were regulars on the Northern circuit right up to and just after WW1 when age and ill health finally caught up with them.

Several other personalities of Bradford interest made the pre-WW1 boxing scene in Bradford vibrant. Unfortunately, the authorities were also making it hard for the sport to grow & thrive. Tommy Cullen was another of Irish origin who had arrived in Bradford as a youngster. Around the time of crossover from Bare-knuckle to Glove, Tommy made his reputation in local halls graduating up the ladder with sponsorship from local dignitaries with an eye for favourable publicity. After winning a tight contest on Doncaster Racecourse, he was entered in a National event at Aldershot where bouts of all weights took place. Tommy fought his way through to the final and achieved victory. The highpoint of his career. Sadly, he was unable to build on his blossoming rise when he fell from scaffolding whilst working and was left in a wheelchair for the rest of his life although he continued in the sport by putting on promotions & becoming a judge. Seth Rouse was a well known all round sportsman in Bradford around the 1890s. Boxing, running, swimming, arrow throwing, he was game for any contest where a wager was present. He appeared around the district at venues as differing as Greenfield, Harold Park , Old Red Gin Fields & the ‘Carlisle Road Carpet Beating Rooms’! A born entertainer, he could draw huge crowds and was a more than decent boxer. Dick Burge, originally from Newcastle but Bradford based had an excellent record and at his peak he was alleged to be close to a match up with the legend Jack Dempsey who was touring Britain with Jim Corbett but the much anticipated bout never took place.

From 1912, the boom in the sport, driven by the likes of the first black World Champion Jack Johnson. Crowds in Bradford flocked to St Georges Hall to watch cine-film of the Champ in action with many by todays standards, politically uncorrect voices bellowing out of the audience towards Johnson. He, of course , played up to the part of pantomime villain and despite his proficiency was known to tour with several ‘minders’. Johnson was booked to appear in exhibition contests in 1911 at the Palace Theatre to packed houses but illness robbed the Bradford public of the chance to see the sports biggest star in the flesh. At the same time, opposition to the sport was growing even up to the level of Home Secretary who in 1911 refused to grant licenses for johnson to fight the British Champion ‘Bombardier Billy Wells’. Several members of the clergy, the Lord Mayor 7 Chief Constable of Bradford were among the signatories of a petition to ban the sport. The reasons given were the delicate nature of race relations, the possible brutality on show to theatre crowds and if read between the lines, the lack of understanding a black champion defeating a bona-fide English hero would create amongst the general public. It was thought Britain wasn’t quite reading for such things so soon after various colonial episodes such as the Boer War.

The Chief Constable, a Mr Farndale in 1912 said no further licences would be granted for the City for Professional bouts but exhibitions were permitted if policed properly. The embargo lasted for 2 years by which time, Bradford families had produced 2 sets of Brothers destined for great things in the sport.


Brothers in arms

As mentioned earlier, the Broomfields area was a veritable melting pot for Boxers with the Delaney family leading the way. Also prominent was the Blakeborough family. Of the several Brothers, nearly all decent level, Fred Delaney & his younger sibling Jerry Delaney were the best, indeed, Jerry was tipped to reach the very top such was his progress until his tragic end. All the top experts & followers of the sport were excited by the Bradford youngsters progress.

Will Blakeborough

Fred Blakeborough (pictured below) and his Brother Will (pictured right) started their rise just when the local bans began to hit the sport locally. Will moved up to the North East to continue his career whilst Fred, after a promising start at the Bradford Sporting Club at Thornbury, later the Talk of Yorkshire Nightclub. Will’s career was short & somewhat in the shadow of his sibling. Some momentous wins over the Irish Bantamweight Billy Deane & Joby Jordan of Sheffield who had drawn with Jerry Delaney saw Will Blakeborough’s stock rising. A further fight in France against local man Clement proved to be his swansong as he fell to a greater foe when he was killed in action in 1915 aged only 22 whilst serving with the Bradford Pals.

Fred Blakeborough

Fred moved his operations to Manchester where he soon caught the eye with several exciting wins at the Free Trade Hall against some of Lancashires finest. Wins against former rated fighters Marchant, Gordon & McGuinness saw Fred offered a non title bout against the British Champion Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis in Leeds in January of 1914. The bout was cancelled due to a series of strikes in the City but months later in a final eliminator against ‘Seaman’ Hayes, Fred was leading massively on points when Hayes caught him with a lucky punch and took the victory.

By now in 1915, a much bigger conflict was taking place on the fields of France & Flanders. Fred became a PT Instructor at the Catterick Garrison. Continuing to Box, he won several bouts but possibly distracted by the untimely death of his Brother Will, he became very inconsistent losing fights he would normally have won easily. His style was a move & jab rather than a brawler but he lost a couple of big eliminators by trying to mix it with fighters. He met his match against the classy Welshman Llew Edwards and was beaten in 10.

Fred’s next appearance was then in 1919 when he showed his old class against former Champ & Lonsdale Belt holder Billy Benyon but it proved to be his swansong. Admitting he was struggling to make weight, he decided to move into promoting and even later became a renowned Referee. In later years he became a Councillor for the Bradford Moor Ward in the 1950s before his death aged 74 in 1968. The Blakeborough Brothers were popular in Bradford Boxing circles but another family took the sport to new levels in Bradford, the Fighting Delaneys.

Before we tell their story, a novel episode took place with public schoolboy & Son of a local mill owner George Mitchell whose 1st love was actually wrestling announced he would offer the then colossal sum of £200 to fight the World renowned Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Georges Carpentier in Paris. Carpentier had battered Britains best Bombardier Billy Wells & Ted Kid Lewis both within a round and had even fought the ‘Manassa Mauler’ Jack Dempsey for the World Heavyweight Title before gamely losing. It was rumoured that Mitchell had backed himself heavily to survive longer than his compatriots and despite taking a horrific beating in the fight which took place in August 1914, he actually lasted longer than his more renowned countrymen showing great courage if not skill against one of the Worlds top Boxers. The George Mitchell story has a sad ending though when he too was killed in action in 1915 serving with the Public School Battalion.

The Family Delaney

Coming out of the Broomfields area were Bradford’s most prolific boxing family, the Delaneys who over a period of time provide 6 Sons to the sport. William Delaney had arrived in Bradford from Tipperary in the 1870s like many thousands of others seeking work & settled in the predominantly Irish Broomfields area marrying Catherine Durkin and producing 13 children. The second eldest Son Jack was the trailblazer for the family fighting out of a gym on Lee Street off Thornton Road but younger siblings Billy, who for the reason being there was already a fighter by that name, was known as Fred & Jerry were to become nationally known. The was also Frank & Young Fred carrying on the family tradition over a 30 year span which even continued after that with Tommy Madden, a nephew of the Brothers. Under the tutelage of Jim Driscoll at Lee Street, Fred Delaney polished his act learned in streetfighting & boxing booths at fairgrounds although it was acknowledged that his achilles heel was his short, fiery temper which he never managed to control. The main man who managed to thwart Fred’s progress 3 times in the ring was Middlesbrough born Johnnie Summers who knew exactly how to work Fred in the ring and became a British Champion at 2 different weights.

Fred Delaney

Fred (pictured) had moved to Wales following Driscoll who believed in his talent but could not curb his weakness. This weakness always guaranteed a good entertaining fight and Fred was popular in Wales with fight fans.

Returning to Bradford in 1910, Fred took on Manningham based Alf Wood at the Belle Vue Barracks but arguments over the purse delayed the fight and the sell out crowd began to grow restless, the Broomfield brigade supporting their man & Wood’s followers likewise. What could have turned out serious was quelled when the promoter offered to up the purse and calm was restored. The fight went ahead with Fred eventually finishing off Wood in the 15th saving him further punishment.

For the next fight at the Barracks, Fred was top of the bill against Welshman Albert Smith and won a hard fought bout on points. A sign of things to come saw younger Brother Jerry on the undercard for the first time and he totally outclassed Young Wilkinson of Brighouse in the 1st round.

The Brothers began training & sparring together in rooms on Walton Street and onlookers would vouch to the intensity of the Brothers when sparring with each other , no quarter given or asked.

Boxing news Jerry Delaney

Jerry’s first big fight came in 1911 against the other local star Fred Blakeborough at the Coliseum Ice Rink on Toller Lane. Fred was in the corner for his Brother & in his enthusiasm during a hard fought points win, Fred was warned by the Referee as to his behaviour but Jerry got the verdict.

As the Bans on Boxing in Bradford closed the sport down for a period pre WW1, the Brothers had to move elsewhere and at various times were based in the North East, London & even on sponsored tours to the United States & Australia. Fred had big wins in Blackfriars against Wally Pickard & American Kid Davis who had a long unbeaten run in his career till meeting the Broomfield lad. Next came a trip ‘over the pond’ and the long crossing proved debilitating to Fred who wasn’t a good traveller at all & spent most of his time in the US laid up by the effects of the ‘mal-de-mer’!.

After a while and despite receiving favourable press, the Brothers returned home but Fred once again decamped to Wales where a 2 bout scrap with Welsh star Fred Dyer saw him beaten but win the return on a handsome points decision. Dyer had been a Lonsdale Belt holder & was hugely respected in the game. Various eliminators followed and Promoter Joe Jagger wanted to match Fred with the legendary Freddie Welsh for the lightweight championship & Lonsdale Belt. With Jimmy Driscoll & the famous ‘Mighty Atom’ Jimmy Wilde, Freddie Welsh was amongst the greatest of fighters from Wales over his career of 168 contests had seen him achieve title at British , European & finally the World Lightweight title unbeaten between 1914-1917. While the bout was being organised and money for the purse being gathered, Fred’s title hopes were dealt a massive blow when he was knocked out in 5 rounds by Sapper O’Neill in Liverpool in a warm up bout. 1914 saw a win & another defeat as his career wobbled and the title chance become slimmer.

In the meantime after wowing fight fans at the National Sporting Club in London, Jerry was linked with a fight for the World Title if the American Champion could be enticed over here but there was an ‘elephant in the room’. War was declared and all of a sudden, all normalities of life were cast aside as young men signed up with patriotic fervour for the killing fields of France & Flanders and eventually many points beyond was the carnage engulfed the World.

Jerry Delaney 2

Jerry (pictured) had worked his way up the rankings to be the top contender when the call to arms came. In the meantime, Fred had followed Freddie Welsh over to the States to try and get the title fight on and despite sparring sessions, the fight never took place as events elsewhere took over. Fred left for Australia in 1916 after a couple of return bouts against journeymen fighters. Seeing his Brothers called up for active duty, Fred saw no reason to put the family under further duress and was old enough to escape the first draft. To his credit he wasn’t escaping and did eventually join the Australian Army and was gassed & wounded at Vimy Ridge. He did survive though and by now in his mid 30s, he tried to renew his boxing career but was never the same & never regained his previous form as feared & respected fighter in the game.

As Fred’s career drew to a close he became a Trainer & cornerman for his younger sibling ,the ‘real’ Fred who was known as ‘Young Fred’. Based at the Walton Street gym near to the family home in Broomfields. With the Belle Vue Barracks obviously out of consideration during the Great War, plans were in place to use the ‘Kursaal’ Hall up Morley Street. This venue was later renamed the Windsor Hall & Baths as the name ‘Kursaal’ was deemed to Germanic.

After Fred’s problems trying to get the fight with Freddie Welsh, it was Jerry’s rapid rise up the rankings which saw him matched with Welsh for a possible title fight but Welsh made several excuses for not returning to defend his title from America against Bradford’s finest. To be fair some were legitimate, with the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic a major deterrent to Cross- Atlantic travel. Jerry was a far more gifted boxer than Brother Fred who was a scrapper & mauler showing his streetfighting rots. Jerry was far more scientific in the ring using his speed and agility to jab & move away from trouble and use this to pick off opponents and wear them down. His stock was rising with every bout and eventually he became the darling of the London crowds at the National Sporting Club. Every expert & journalist involved in the sport anticipated greatness for the Broomfield Boy who seemed to have an answer to every style of opponent put before him.

As with the patriotic fervour of the time, Jerry volunteered immediately to do his duty in 1914 enlisting in the Sportsmans Battalion. 4 other Delaney Brothers also enlisted in the Army also doing their duty. During training and before he was drafted to France, he continued to fight at the Sporting Club in Exhibition fights as the ‘Fighting Private’ . After his call to the Front line, his duties also included being a PT Instructor for the Battalion and included a promotion to Lance Corporal. After a dawn raid on a German machine gun nest, Jerry led a team back to his own lines and carried a wounded comrade back to safety depite taking 2 bullets himsel, one to the leg & one to the abdomen. His bravery saw him awarded the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal). News of his gallantry reached Bradford & several promoters & fans put together a benefit for Jerry, amongst the attractions, local rival Fred Blakeborough who came from Catterick where he was a PT Instructor.

After treatment for his wounds, Jerry was offered a posting as a PT Instructor back in Britain but as soldier with experience of the camaraderie of the trenches, he refused it to stay with his fellow comrades in France. A few months later in another bombing raid at Delville Wood on the Somme Offensive, Jerry Delaney, the Pride of Broomfields was tragically cut down. The sport was already reeling after losing middleweight Champ Tommy McCormick some weeks earlier & Jerry’s death was further body blow. He was so well thought of, although he never won a title, such was his promise & reputation, ‘Boxing’ paper had his tribute on the front cover & despite being buried in France, Lord Lonsdale paid for a tribute to be placed in Bowling Cemetery in his home town.

The younger Delaney’s Joe & Young Fred had better than average careers at the Regional level never reaching the heights of Jerry or old Fred. A fallow period followed for Bradford boxing ending for several years in 1924 with the Syd Pape versus Ted Kid Lewis title fight at the Windor Halls being so brutal, the local magistrates refused for several years to give boxing any sort of license within the City boundaries.

Fred Delaney got a job with the Bradford & District Newspapers where he remained and continued to live in West Bowling until his death after a long illness in 1949 aged 64. It was truly the end of an era for Bradford Boxing where local lads had reached for the top and in the case of Jerry Delaney, almost touched it. The tragedy of his loss was felt for many years by the Bradford sporting public who had seen their local hero snatched from their grasp on the cusp of greatness.

Part TWO to follow on VINCIT later this year

  • Thanks to Bradford Libraries
  • Boxing in Bradford & Leeds by Ronnie Wharton
  • Internet Sources on Bareknuckle Boxing

Ian Hemmens is on twitter:     @IHemmens


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