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The Crystal Palace – the lost London boxing venue

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Miles Templeton on a lost venue that captured the spirit of boxing in the 1930s

THIS week’s photograph, taken from my collection, is one of my favourites. It was sent to me many years ago and I have no idea who the boxers are. It encapsulates British boxing during the 1930s. I am pretty sure that it was taken in 1932, or close to that date. It shows outdoor boxing in progress at The Crystal Palace in London. There are some quite striking features. Where exactly is the referee? During the 1930s it was quite common for the referee to sit outside the ring and to control the contest with a loud voice. I think that the referee, in this instance, is seated at the table on the right-hand side, and the timekeeper can be seen just above the stricken fighter, with his hand to his mouth calling the count.

Although they are heavily outnumbered there is a surprising number of women sat adjacent to the ring. One tends to think of boxing at this time as being very much a man’s game, but many posters and handbills of the period used to specifically state that women were ‘specially invited’. It appears that the sport was trying to modernise and to encourage a more diverse audience even back then. The bouts are being held in the open air but there is no provision for rain whatsoever, as there is no ring canopy. No promoter would take that chance today. The paying public are contained within the field but there are an awful lot of additional spectators lined up in the background along the fence. This part of the grounds was a public highway and so those in the background are watching the boxing for free. Imagine that today! How things have changed.

The Crystal Palace was originally built for the 1851 Great Exhibition and it was a magnificent structure, made almost entirely from glass. Sadly, it burned down in 1936 and part of the space was then used to house the National Athletics Stadium. Boxing was first held at the venue in 1913 but the first important contest there took place in 1922 when Frank Goddard knocked out Bombardier Billy Wells in six rounds. The last fight of any importance occurred in January 1935 when the heavyweight Jack London, of West Hartlepool, knocked out Jack Pettifer, the “English Carnera”, in four rounds. London was a great favourite at the venue, which was always partial to heavyweights, and he boxed there seven times between 1933 and 1935, winning five of them. London would go on to win the British heavyweight title in 1944, beating the great Freddie Mills.

The venue was most famous for the open competitions that were held there every summer.  Leading professionals would compete, at all weights, in these tournaments and to win the event one might have to box three or four times during the day. I suspect that it is one of these bouts which is pictured. Among the many winners were three men who at one time held a British title – Ernie Izzard, Phil Scott and Mike Honeyman.

Boxing was also held indoors, within the glorious central hall, and as many as 5,000 people could be accommodated. Two greats, Len Harvey and Frank Moody, boxed a 15-rounder in 1929. BN stated that Harvey turned in a classic performance. “Everything he did was hallmarked in class. He boxed brilliantly, hit with the force of a mule’s kick and was a great ring-craftsman.” The two men attacked each other with everything they had and Moody, who gave his all and was exceptionally well-trained for the contest, was ultimately outclassed. After being floored nine times he was eventually stopped in the sixth. When the place burnt down the blaze could be seen across six counties and Winston Churchill, who observed the fire, stated that it was “the end of an age.” It certainly was.

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