With the Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick mops about to roll back into town, history writer Martin Kenny looks at an age when some of the noble art’s finest exponents took on all-comers.
In an era of Vegas fight nights, stringent health and safety laws and padded headgear, it seems unbelievable that chancers were once able to fall out of a pub in Stratford-upon-Avon after a few pints of Flower’s bitter and face a past or future champion in a boxing booth.
Yet up until the 1960s, a nominal charge would secure a bruising encounter with a professional at the town’s mop fair. Typically fought over three rounds in a bull-baiting atmosphere, the long-running tradition gave all-comers the chance of a large purse if they could prevail.
Stratford mop returns this month, and while pugilistic encounters with Anthony Joshua or the Klitschko brothers remain of the pay-tv variety, the travelling boxing booths are as much a part of the fair’s history as candy floss and bumper cars. Fronted much like an excitable fairground house of fun, they housed a ring where bouts took place in a colourful and febrile atmosphere.
The first mention of the mobile arenas at the town’s mop, in a review by the Stratford Herald published on October 15, 1875, casts an indecorous light on these feasts of fighting.
“A new feature this year was the Grand Sparring Saloon, the front of which was decked with flaring illustrations of famous pugilistic battles and greasy looking boxing gloves,” it read.
“The proprietors moved about in a semi-nude condition and invited the bystanders in language savouring of Billingsgate to watch inside. The orthodox penny charge was abandoned at this establishment, and two pence substituted, on the ground, perhaps that the public’s natural love for the noble art of self defence would overlook all scruples in this respect. This view of matters appeared to be correct, judging from the crowds of person that attended each exhibition.”
It appears that the boxing booth provided an alternative form of entertainment to the shooting galleries that were common at the mop at this time. By the mop of 1903 Stratford Police had begun to take an interest in the booths when they received a tip off about the arrival of Harry Mansfield, a well-known boxer who was on the run from Bristol for the theft of seven £10 notes.
In fact, Mansfield is the only opponent to have beaten the legendary Jim Driscoll, the British Featherweight Champion.
They offered a pound to anybody that could do five rounds with their bloke
The Herald details his arrest in the town:
“The Stratford Police had been furnished with a description of the wanted and P.S. Street, together with P.C.Piuk and P.C. Print, were strolling the mop between nine and ten a.m. when the Sergeant noticed a man of the boxing booth type who seemed to answer the description.
“In a sharp and friendly manner he called him by his Christian name, and the man hearing it seemed surprised.
“He was more so when the officers marched him to the lock-up, and it was not before long before Harry Mansfield was handed over to the Bristol police”.
It is clear that the booth professional could never underestimate an opponent.
Stratford author George Hewins, in his book The Dillen, recalls witnessing the success of a local man in the ring and gives an indication of the atmosphere in the booths.
“Then we went to the boxing booth. They offered a pound to anybody that could do five rounds with their bloke. Harry Bayliss, the missus’ brother – he’d been discharged from the army and he worked for the brickyard now – he went on.
“He was a big chap, her brother, very tall, five foot ten or eleven! His palls were there egging him on. The missus stood with clenched fists.
“Well Harry did well, but he never did get the pound. But they came unstuck! They copped a boxer! The next chap up, he was from Stratford – an ordinary labouring chap – and he knocked their bloke out in one! We cheered and cheered!”
By the late 1940s the Stratford Mop was attracting the country’s top boxing names, including the Turpin brothers who made the short journey from Leamington to appear at the booth.
Randolph Turpin became Middleweight Champion of the World having defeated Sugar Ray Robinson on July 10, 1951 but in previous years was a booth fighter at Stratford Mop.
A statue in Warwick immortalises Randolph Adolphus Turpin, with a plaque on the plinth reading: “In Palace, Pub and Parlour, the Whole of Britain held its breath.”
By the 1960s the booth’s days were numbered, though fighter Ron Taylor continued the tradition until his retirement.
In recent years a few of the old booths have appeared on eBay, often struggling to find buyers. Perhaps the booths deserve a re-appearance in some shape or form, though the days of punters taking their chances against the likes of the Klitschko brothers are long past.
This article has been produced using the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust