IT’S not well known today but before the Second World War it wasn’t uncommon to see children in professional boxing matches.
Many skipped the amateurs and boxed pro straight away, usually for tiny purses and their share of any nobbins (money thrown into the ring by spectators). Some boys were fairly matched against others at or near their age. But the less scrupulous managers and promoters pitted youngsters in their early teens against lads in their late teens and even grown men. Some boy boxers were relatively well handled and came through unscathed – Len Harvey (a pro from age 12), for example, achieved his full potential. Others, such as Nipper Pat Daly (a pro from age nine or 10 but “burnt out” by 17), did not.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy to stem from this era of child prizefighters involved a lad from Bristol.
Jimmy Cooper (real name James Edward Gallows) at age 14 was a protégé of the brilliant Bristol lightweight George Rose. Jimmy was a popular, clean-living lad who went to church on Sundays. He had his first paid bout in 1933 and fought occasionally in the evening to supplement his daytime job in a timber yard. Money was scarce in the Gallows household – Jimmy’s father was disabled and the family lived in a caravan. Jimmy’s ambition was to earn enough money to move them to a more comfortable home.
On February 12, 1934, Cooper was boxing at the Gem Stadium, a popular Bristol venue, in the first fight of the night. His opponent, Young Fear (real name Gilbert Fare), was aged 22. They were fighting for a six-round purse of 12s 6d (63 pence) each.
The stadium was buzzing with excitement as the bout got underway. Jimmy, pale and wiry, looked to have won the first round, and was sent out for the second to words of encouragement from his coach and cornerman George Rose.
But suddenly in that round Jimmy fell awkwardly to the canvas; some reports say he slipped, others that blows to the chin and heart put him down. Referee Bob Wade started the count, Jimmy half rose and then collapsed. The fight was over.
The ringside doctor tried in vain to bring Jimmy round. He was carried to a dressing room to wait for an ambulance but by the time it arrived he was dead. The crowd in the hall – Jimmy’s father among them – sensed something was seriously wrong, and their worst fears were confirmed when the MC, George Perks, solemnly announced that the boy had passed away. The rest of the night’s fights were cancelled.
At the inquest, the promoter, Al Harding, admitted that the show wasn’t licensed by the BBBofC and he did not know Gilbert Fare’s age. Fare said he had not known Cooper’s age but had thought he was about 17 when the match was made.
Referee Wade told the coroner that Cooper was ahead on his card and had “more than a sporting chance” of winning before the sudden ending. “You regard it as a proper thing to match a boy of 14 against a man of 22?” the coroner asked. “Yes,” said Wade.
The inquest found that the death, from paralysis of the respiratory centre, was most likely caused by the fall and not by a punch.
Thousands of mourners lined the streets outside Bristol’s Holy Trinity Church for the funeral. Inside, Jimmy’s coffin was carried by six Bristol boxers. His mentor, George Rose, wept uncontrollably.
Collections around the city raised £150 for the impoverished Gallows family. After the tragedy, the Gem’s next boxing show was cancelled and its doors were bolted shut. There would be no more boxing at the Gem. The venue had borne too much sadness.