February 15, 2016
February 15, 2016
Alex Arthur

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FAR too many of our wonderful sport’s aficionados firmly believe that Scotland’s second city, Glasgow, is the spiritual home of Caledonian boxing. They are wrong! It is Edinburgh, and in particular its dockland district of Leith, that claims that signal honour.

The ‘Vic’ is, indeed, Scotland’s oldest – and most illustrious – outfit. The club, in fact, is the sole amateur entity enrolled in the Scottish Boxing Hall of Fame. Their election to those hallowed portals took place in 2010.

Formed way back in 1919, their august alumni include, amongst others, James ‘Tancy’ Lee, Alex Ireland, Johnny Hill and, more recently, Alex Arthur. The club’s history reads like a proverbial “who’s who” of Scottish pugilism.

Initiated in hard times, and by even harder men – the local dockworkers – the ‘Vic’ rose to prominence with truly astonishing speed. Within a single year, TWO Olympic medallists were produced… Alex Ireland and George McKenzie picking up silver and bronze medals respectively at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

But back to the very beginning. Leith, though a bustling port, possessed considerable social deprivation. Unemployment, naturally, was high and with it came, inevitably, crime. To attempt to remedy at least some of these social concerns, a band of workers from the Victoria shipyard of Ramage & Ferguson established a sports club.

Purchasing a former Army hut, the enthusiastic founders erected it on ground leased from the railway company adjacent to the Caledonian Station on Marine parade. The fledgling outfit was originally, and appropriately, named Leith Victoria AAC.

Initially a general sporting concern, it principal activities were weightlifting, wrestling and, naturally, boxing. The premises and equipment were, to say the very least, rudimentary. Washing facilities consisted of a single bucket of cold water which, by the way, had to be carried from four hundred yards away.

It wasn’t long before boxing became the club’s primary function. This attracted the interest of legendary professional James “Tancy” Lee. “Tancy” duly became head coach, bringing with him other notables “Curly” Paterson, “Jock” Stevenson and “Nasher” Ness. At this stage, a merger with the neighbouring Tolbooth ABC occurred.

Lee’s acquisition produced, as already mentioned, almost instantaneous success. “Tancy” worked his nephew, George McKenzie’s, corner in Antwerp. Four years hence McKenzie’s brother, Jim, won the silver medal in the ’24 Olympics. Jim also, that same season, picked up the European flyweight diadem.

Yet another of Lee’s proteges, the ill-fated Johnny Hill, went on to become – contrary to popular belief – Scotland’s first world professional champion. Most fight fans think this accolade rests with the great Benny Lynch. Not so!

In a letter, dated 10th December 1928, on headed New York State Athletic Commission notepaper, the NYSAC confirmed Hill’s world flyweight champion status three months after his points success over America’s Al “Newsboy” Brown at Clapton (now Leyton) Orient FC’s stadium.

Leith born Hill tragically passed away from the effects of pneumonia on the very day (September 27 1929) he was due to face Italian-American Frankie Genaro on Scottish soil with his title on the line. Johnny contracted his fatal malady whilst working as a road repairer in his home village of Strathmiglo. Genaro, a true gent, acted as a pallbearer at Johnny’s funeral. He is buried in the Strathmiglo and Edenshead parish church cemetery.

There is not space within the confines of this feature to outline the considerable achievements in the professional ring of James “Tancy” Lee. The following brief sentence will suffice. Lee HALTED a PEAK Jimmy Wilde, the man this publication consider Britain’s greatest EVER fighter, in 1915. Enough said!

A few, though little known, facts about Lee however. He was born in Paisley, eventually moving to Leith and finding employment as a labourer on the docks. “Tancy”, interestingly, served TWO periods of enlistment in the Army in time of war. Already a veteran of the Boer War, serving from 1899 until 1902 as a member of the Royal Scots, James re-enlisted during the Great War, serving with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers from 1916-18.

Lee, whose mother was Irish, also coached the fledgling Irish Free State Army’s boxing squad in the 20s.

Besides Hill, Ireland and the McKenzie’s “Tancy” also schooled British ABA champions George Renouf, Jim Rolland and Walter White.

Rolland, Empire Games champion in 1930, possessed a truly remarkable loyalty to the club. Jim, a serving officer with the Nottingham City Police Force, was known to have travelled back to Edinburgh to compete on a Vic club show.

Another stellar name in British boxing history, Eugene Henderson, rose to the fore in 1927. Henderson, the third man in Randolph’s Turpin’s almost mythical victory over the fabulous Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951, walked away with the Scottish amateur welterweight crown.

Fifteen years on from Turpin’s coronation as world middleweight champion, George Smith – another Vic protégé – reffed Henry Cooper’s 1966 clash with Muhammad Ali.

The thirties, without ever scaling the Olympian heights of the previous decade, could hardly be described as failure. Quite the reverse! The new era got away to the proverbial flying start with seven (out of a possible eight) Scottish Eastern District championships being captured in 1930.

During this period the Vic had won the Queens’ Trophy, awarded annually to Scotland’s most successful club, so many times it was used as a doorstop at their then Leith Promenade Gym.

Following the Second World War, extensive redevelopment in the area saw the club moved to the Kinnaird Hall in Edinburgh’s Kirkgate. Success (as usual) continued before, in 1961, something quite remarkable occurred involving teenaged heavyweight Bill Sutherley.

Bill, later to become a regular soldier, in fact became holder of a unique – and still standing – record. In 2006, Sutherley gained entry into the Guinness World Records by virtue of his being the youngest ever to capture a national heavyweight title at the age of 18 years and 11 days.

Before the ‘swinging 60s’ had elapsed, the club – due to Leith’s seemingly never ending redevelopment – was forced to vacate Kinnaird Hall. Over the next twenty or so years, four temporary venues – an old fire station in Junction Street, a former church hall in Cockburn Street, a vacated shop in Sandport Street and, lastly, the Leith Community Centre – provided shelter before the present home – the Bell Gymnasium in Academy Street – was occupied.

Its previous incarnation was as a church hall. The gym is named in honour of the club’s legendary Bell brothers – Alex, Eric and Marshall – all holders of Scottish ‘Open’ championships. A fourth brother, David, held the position of club treasurer for over forty years. Family members still regularly attend club shows.

The club’s outstanding work in the Leith community was rewarded in 2010 with several sizeable grants being handed over by local, and national, bodies. These actions enabled extensive internal and external renovation and refurbishment to be carried out.

Led by Secretary and Matchmaker Douglas Fraser, the Vic look forward to a prosperous future. Fraser, another in the club’s line of illustrious referees, has high hopes for current prospects Ross Welsh, a light-heavyweight who recently gained his first full Scotland vest and (last season) captured the Scottish Senior Intermediate crown, plus two promising juniors.

Connor McCallum and Hamman Siddique are the pair in question. Both have already won national championships at Scottish Youth level. Last season, McCallum picked up the 57 kilo intermediate title, whilst Siddique claimed the 49 kilo open championship.

With 22 carded competitors (nine seniors) raring to go under the watchful eye of head coach Jackie Grahame and his team, the future for this glorious institution appears bright.

HONOURS BOARD

PROFESSIONAL CHAMPIONS

WORLD

Alex ARTHUR, super-feather, 2008 (WBO)

Johnny HILL, fly, ’28-’29 (undisputed)

EUROPEAN

Alex ARTHUR, super-feather, 2005-06

Johnny HILL, fly, ’28-‘29

Alex IRELAND, middle ’26-‘27

James ‘Tancy’ LEE, fly, ’14-‘16

EMPIRE/COMMONWEALTH

Alex ARTHUR, super-feather, 2004-06

Jackie BROWN, fly, ’62-‘63

Alex IRELAND, middle, ’28-‘29

BRITISH

Alex ARTHUR, super-feather, 2002-03 & 2005-06

Jackie BROWN, fly, ’62-‘63

Johnny HILL, fly, ‘27’-28

Alex IRELAND, middle, ’26-‘27

James ‘Tancy’ LEE, fly, ’14-‘15

George McKENZIE, feather, ’24-25

AMATEUR CHAMPION

OLYMPIC GAMES

Alex IRELAND, welter –silver ‘20

George McKENZIE, bantam – bronze ‘20

Jim McKENZIE, fly – silver – ‘24

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS

Jim McKENZIE, fly – gold ‘24

Fundo MHURA, middle – bronze 2006

EMPIRE/COMMONWEALTH GAMES

Alex ARTHUR, feather – gold ‘98

Jackie BROWN, fly – gold ‘58

Jim ROLLAND, light – gold ‘30

Steve SIMMONS, heavy – bronze 2010

John WILSON, light-heavy – silver ‘94

ABA CHAMPIONS

Jackie BROWN, fly ‘58

Johnny HILL, fly ‘26

Alex IRELAND, welter ‘21

George McKENZIE, bantam ‘20

George RENOUF, light ‘22

Jim ROLLAND, fly ‘27

Alex ‘Bud’ WATSON, light-heavy ’44, ’45 & ‘47

Bobby WATSON, bantam ‘39

Bradley WELSH, light ‘93

Walter WHITE, light ‘24

SCOTTISH ‘OPEN’ CHAMPIONS

ADAMS, feather ‘27

Joe ALLAN, welter ‘52

Alex ARTHUR, feather ’96, ’97, ’98 & ‘99

Alex BELL, middle ’30 & ’31; light-heavy ’31, ’32 & ’34; heavy ‘33

Eric BELL, light-heavy ‘48

Marshall BELL, light-heavy ‘51

Jackie BROWN, fly ‘58

SCOTTISH ‘OPEN’ CHAMPIONS

Davy COCKBURN, light ‘34

Joe CONNOLLY, fly ’31; feather ’33 & ‘34

DONALDSON, feather ‘26

CURRAN, light ‘52

Keith ELLWOOD, middle 1999 & 2000

Gareth EVANS, super-heavy ‘91

FALLIN, fly ‘33

Johnny FLANNIGAN, welter ‘47

George GOWANS, light ‘50

George HANDS, feather ‘58

Eugene HENDERSON, welter ‘27

HERBISON, bantam ‘21

Johnny HILL, fly ’25 & ‘26

HUTCHISON, feather ‘36

Alex IRELAND, welter ‘21

Jim KENNY, bantam ‘45

Tommy McCALLUM, welter ‘80

McCONNELL, middle ’38 & ‘39

Dan McGARRY, feather ‘30

George McKENZIE, fly ’23; bantam ‘20

Jim McKENZIE, light-heavy ’27; heavy ’26 & ‘29

McKIE, fly ‘22

James McLEAN, feather ’41; light ’41; welter ’43, middle ’43 & ‘44

MacLEAN, light ‘23

MacLEOD, welter ‘34

MILNE, light-heavy ’28 & ‘29

MUIR, light-heavy ’40 & ’41; heavy ‘40

Bobby OGG, light-heavy ‘46

George RENOUF, light ‘22

ROBERTS, heavy ‘21

Jim ROBERTSON, middle ’25 & ‘26

Jim ROLLAND, fly ’27; light ‘30

Lee SHARP, light-welter ‘98

Steve SIMMONS, heavy 2004, 2005 & 2009

Alex STEVENSON, heavy ’46, ’47 & ‘48

Bill SUTHERLEY, heavy ‘61

Angus THOMSON, heavy ‘62

Alex ‘Bud’ WATSON, light-heavy ’37, ’38, ’39, ’43, ’44, ’45 & ’47; heavy ’38, ’42 & ‘43

Bobby WATSON, fly ’38 & ’39; bantam ’38 & ‘39

(V) ‘Jim’ WATSON, bantam ’37, feather ‘39

Bradley WELSH, light ‘93

Walter WHITE, feather ‘23