WHEN I started to research boxing history back in the early 1970s, I was living in Newcastle, and it was the inter-war period that first fascinated me. In the 1920s and 1930s there was professional boxing in virtually every city, town and village across the region and this was mainly due to there being so many working-class communities reliant on coal-mining and other forms of heavy industry. These places produced excellent sportsmen, particularly footballers, and although the quality of the boxers they spawned was not as high as it was in other regions, the sheer quantity of them was astounding.
Two of these men, George Harwood and Tommy Pinkney, had a combined total of 358 professional contests and they met each other on six occasions. They both came from pit villages, Harwood from Craghead and Pinkney from Catchgate. These villages lie close to West Stanley and are only four miles apart. West Stanley was the epicentre of the local mining industry at that time and a really thriving little fight town. One could see professional boxing there virtually every week, with different promoters competing against each other, often staging rival shows on the same night.
This gave Pinkney and Harwood ample opportunity for work, and whatever they earned from their hard toil underground could be considerably enhanced by the equally hard graft they put in within the roped square. Whenever modern fans state that the fighters of today are the best there have been because of modern-day conditioning and training methods, I often retort that the lads today do not have to contend with anything like the tough conditions that the old-timers faced every day, and that yesterday’s men were naturally harder and more determined, and that this balances things out.
George and Tommy first met in 1926, in a 10-rounder in West Stanley, and Harwood took the honours. Pinkney learned fast, however, and as the more capable stylist he soon learned how to keep Harwood, who tended to fight with sustained attacks, at bay. Their next contest, again in Stanley, in 1927 was drawn. Six weeks later Pinkney gained his first victory over his rival, taking a 10-round decision at Holmeside Stadium in Sunderland. In 1930 the two met again, in West Hartlepool and Stockton, and Pinkney repeated his form, taking two close points verdicts.
No doubt inspired by his good form, Tommy sought to break through to the next level, and to gain work at the top of the bill against the leading Northern rivals from Lancashire and Yorkshire. He took on a new manager, George Tootles from Leeds, himself an ex-fighter who, after a long career trading blows with heavyweights, was now totally blind and trying to eke out a living with his own stable of fighters.
Tootles must have been tipped off about Tommy’s great rivalry with George and in 1932 he matched the two in a top-of-the-bill 12-rounder at the National Sporting Club in Leeds. This rather grand name belied the fact that the club was on the top floor of an old warehouse in a rough part of the city and had nothing in common with its namesake in Covent Garden. Once again, Tommy’s skill prevailed, and within a few short months poor George himself started to go blind, the result of too many hard battles in the pit villages of the North-East.
Although both men are now long-forgotten, they won far more bouts than they lost. I think that both would have been a match for any of today’s North-Eastern lads.