IF YOU were a toff in Edwardian London then you would have watched your boxing at the National Sporting Club, the self-appointed headquarters of boxing and home of the elite. If you weren’t, then you would have journeyed down the Whitechapel Road, in the heart of Stepney, to enter Wonderland.
Opened in 1899 by promoters Harry Jacobs and Harry Wright, this venue attracted the cream of the crop throughout its 12-year history as London’s leading small hall. The two men were eventually to fall out, resulting in a ‘mysterious’ fire which gutted the place in August 1911. Jacobs would go on to promote at Premierland, a short walk away, and with the rise of the Blackfriars Ring, London’s small-hall boxing was secured but, in its day, Wonderland was the beating heart of the sport in the East End.
Let’s look at a typical night at the old place. It is Saturday night, December 13 1902, and the boxing starts promptly at 8pm. The doors were opened at 7.15 and the customers, of which there was around 1,500, have settled into their seats ready for the “Great Double Programme” that the promoters have advertised in that morning’s edition of the Sporting Life.
Although the cheap seats can be accessed for only 2½p, a ringside seat will cost you 25p, quite a chunk out of the typical working man’s wage of around £2 a week. Peanuts and jellied eels are available for those who want to eat and the boxing, when it starts, commences with a competition at 8st 8lbs for which there are eight entrants. Rather like the Prizefighter-style tournaments occasionally seen today, these were a regular feature at the time.
Few shows were complete without these tournaments, and they attracted as many as 32 entrants and would run for a few weeks over the course of three or even four shows. Each bout would be over three two-minute rounds and, if things were tight at the end, then the referee would call upon the boxers to box an extra round to determine the winner – this happened frequently. The eventual winner of this tournament was Joe Goodwin of Spitalfields and tonight he gets the ball rolling by defeating Jumbo King of Lambeth on points. Each man is a seasoned boxer and both would eventually have around 100 professional contests.
Next up is the final of a 10st competition that has been running for a few weeks in which Alf Jacobs, of Mile End, knocks out Ted Baldock of Poplar in the fifth round of a six-rounder. Baldock was the father of one of the best men ever to come out of the East End, 1920’s champion, Teddy Baldock. Ted’s career was a short one, he packed it in the following year, but he was noted banger.
There are four more six-rounders on the bill and two eight-rounders. They liked their bouts to be short and sweet in those days as it was thought that with less time to impose themselves, the fighters would be much more assertive, and the punches would flow. In a very early career contest, Johnny Summers, a future champion of great repute, knocks out Cockney Cohen in only two rounds in a big upset. Cohen is a top-liner, and this bout really puts young Johnny on the map.
The headline event tonight is an eight-rounder for the “Championship of the Cigar Trade”. Yes, that’s right, the cigar trade! In a modern world that is littered with meaningless titles it is easy to forget that this is not a modern phenomenon. The taxi trade had their champions, as did London’s meat, fruit and fish markets, and the Pitmen’s titles were highly regarded at this time.
Jack Levy, from Hackney, and Bethnal Green’s Jim Green entertain the crowd for five rounds before Levy poleaxes his rival in the sixth to become tobacco’s leading light. What a night that must have been.