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extract from "bare knuckle fighter" by Bartley Gorman270 weeks ago
Chapter 1

In the Days of Giants

DONNYBROOK FAIR, DUBLIN, 1854. Blind Jimmy Gorman sat amid the din and chaos of a bustling alehouse, drinking stout. He was pleased with himself. Though sightless since birth, Jimmy had never let his affliction stop him doing business and had just bought and sold a horse in a matter of minutes. Now the profit was burning a hole in the pocket of his topcoat, and he intended to celebrate in the time- honoured tradition of the Irish travelling man: by getting drunk.

The annual fair at the village of Donnybrook on the outskirts of Dublin was a lawless event; so much so that an affray in Ireland became known as a ?donnybrook?. Itinerants, merchants, entertainers, cattlemen, farmers, con- men and rogues came from all over the country for an orgy of horse trading, dealing, drinking, wenching and thieving. Travelling theatres and freak shows, as well as bareknuckle matches, added to the atmosphere. The people were rough, illiterate and lived for the moment: one newspaper writer, visiting the fair in 1822, had reported that ?the Irishman is the only man in the world that fights for amusement.? Life and limb were cheap.

As Blind Jimmy lifted his tankard to his lips, he was unaware of the giant, black-headed man shouldering his way through the crowded bar. But he heard the room falling quiet, and could sense the figure looming over him.

?You, man, that has just sold me that horse,? came a growl.

Jimmy recognised the voice. This was the fellow he had slapped palms with a few minutes earlier to seal the deal.

?Yes?? said Jimmy.

?You?re a blaggarding bastard. That horse is lame.?


?It has a swollen spavin. I?m Jack Ward, the best travelling man in Ireland. And I?m going to make you pay hot and heavy for this.?

Before Blind Jimmy could say another word, Ward wrenched him by the collar and dragged him through the crowd of drinkers, punching him to the face as he went. He threw Jimmy outside and set about him with his huge fists. Each time Jimmy was knocked to the floor, he tried to crawl away, and each time Ward pulled him up and knocked him down again. Men crowded around to watch but no one dared interfere. Ward was the meanest fighting man in Ireland: the King of the Tinkers.

Ward left Jimmy unconscious in a heap. Some people who knew the blind man lifted him into a barrow and pushed him nearly dead to the small circle of wagons where his family was staying. The Gormans rarely stopped in the middle of a throng, preferring to stay on the outskirts or by a crossroads; they thought themselves a cut above the general rabble. His bearers shouted for help and the women came rushing out. They saw a bloodied pulp, barely conscious. There were wails and oaths. Wet towels were fetched and placed gently on Blind Jimmy?s swollen face.

Most of the Gorman men were at the fair or drinking in the pubs but Jimmy?s younger brother was still in his wagon. Bartholomew Gorman didn?t care for drink. He heard the commotion and came down the steps of his barreltop. He was eighteen years old, his shirt collar and cuffs undone, his shoulders broad in a collarless shirt. His family called him Bartley.

?Who has done this?? he asked.

?It was Jack Ward,? someone replied.

They carried Jimmy gently to his wagon. One of the women went to make a poultice to apply to his wounds. There was no thought of fetching a physician ? they couldn?t afford one. They were their own doctors. As they tended their barely conscious relative, no-one noticed young Bartley slip away.

The King of the Tinkers was still laughing when the saloon door swung open and Bartley Gorman walked in.

?Which man is Jack Ward?? he asked.

For the second time in an hour, the bar fell silent.

?I am,? said the huge, black-headed man. ?Who wants to know??

?Step outside,? said Bartley.

Ward looked him over and snorted. He put down his drink and strode outside, his men eagerly following. Bartley was alone, facing a powerful giant surrounded by cronies, but he was unafraid. He neither knew nor cared who Ward was. He believed that God was on his side, so who could harm him? They were taking bets on how long Bartley would last when he laid into Ward like a whirlwind. The big man swung back but his cumbersome blows were easily ducked. For the next ten minutes, young Bartley Gorman gave the King of the Tinkers the hammering of his life, until the vanquished giant could rise no more.

Donnybrook Fair was closed down a few years later because it was too rowdy. By then, Bartholomew Gorman had become the most renowned fighter among the travelling fraternity. That encounter with Ward had changed the course of his life; a century later, it would set the course of mine. Bartley was my great-grandfather. I would inherit both his name and his violent calling.

* * *

A WARLIKE SPIRIT runs through the bloodline of my family like a curse. A thousand years ago and more, Ireland was a Celtic kingdom ruled by warrior clans, or septs. The Mac Gormains were one of these ancient tribes and ruled lands around what is now the town of Carlow in County Leix. Their name came from the word gorm, meaning blue. Some say it signified woad, the blue plant dye that Gaelic warriors painted onto their bodies before battle to intimidate their foes; a prominent warlord would be renowned for his body decoration and his sons and daughters would be known as ?children of the blue one? ? Mac Gormain. Certainly they were fighters: our family motto is ?First and Last in War? (in Gaelic, Tosach Catha Agus Deire Air).

Like many Celtic chiefs, the Mac Gormains were driven from their fiefdom during the Norman invasion and dispersed, eventually settling in Clare to the west and Monaghan in the north. Some became noted for their wealth, hospitality and patronage of the Gaelic poets. But eventually my branch of the family was forced off the land again. What put them back on the road? There are various theories about the origins of the Irish travellers. Some say they are the remnants of an ancient class of wandering poets, joined by those dispossessed during times of upheaval such as Oliver Cromwell?s campaign of slaughter in the 1600s and the battles of the Boyne and Aughrim in the 1690s. Perhaps they were overthrown by a neighbouring chief, put to flight with their servants, their children and their dogs, and never again allowed to settle. Perhaps I am the King of Ireland in exile! Others were people left homeless by the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century, when the potato blight destroyed the staple crop and one-third of the population perished or fled abroad.

Many of them earned their living by crafts such metalworking: until not so long ago, all Irish travellers were referred to as tinkers, the word deriving from the Irish tinceard (tinsmith). Today it is often seen as an insult and many get upset if you call them tinkers. I am proud of it. In those days, people could not afford to buy a new pot or kettle if they found a hole in their old one. They had to repair things, a skill that has almost disappeared in our modern consumer society. How many young women ? or men, for that matter ? can even darn a sock today? Most of the travellers? traditional crafts ? spoon-mending, tinsmithing, flower-making ? have gone by the way, destroyed by new inventions and mass production, but in those days they were vital.

My great-grandfather, Bartley Gorman ? who took the mantle King of the Tinkers after beating Jack Ward ? was a genuine travelling tinsmith. I have a treasured photograph of him as an old man, mending a pot, his great fists and his battered face bearing testimony to a lifetime of fighting. He was born in Ireland in 1836 and named after Saint Bartholomew, one of the Apostles (Hebrew names run in my family). He was educated by monks and unlike many travellers could read and write. He was also an athletic young man but not known to be a fighter until the beating he gave Ward. He was certainly no thug. The wagon in which he lived was virtually a shrine to the Blessed Virgin and Our Blessed Sacred Heart and he would let no man enter it that used bad language or conducted himself improperly. Into old age he would read the Divine Offices in Latin every night.

The stories that follow have been passed down orally from generation to generation in my family and others. My great-grandfather is known in our family as Bartley I. His son, my grandfather, was Bartley II, and one of his sons, my uncle, was Bartley III. My cousin, another Bartholomew, is Bartley IV and so I am Bartley Gorman V. All were knuckle men except my cousin ? he says he was a lover, not a fighter.

Bareknuckle boxing is often described as an English sport, but the Gaels of Ireland had staged fighting contests at their annual Tailteann Games, at the site of the ancient queen Tailte, until the twelfth century. With the re-emergence of prize-fighting from the seventeenth century onwards, many Irish pugilists made their mark. The most famous was Dan Donnelly but there were many others, and most of the heavyweight champions of the American prize-ring were of Irish immigrant stock, including the great John L. Sullivan. Bartley never competed in the organised prize-ring; he was a tinker, on the margins of society, and stayed within his own world. There his fame quickly spread ? the tinkers called him ?Boxing Bartley? ? and his right-hand punch was christened the ?Dublin ox-dropper?.

By the time Bartley I reached manhood, the top fighter in England was, by coincidence, also of gypsy background: Jem Mace. He was flash, with silk tie, top hat and silk handkerchief (our word for neckerchief). He never paid for anything because of his fame and, even today, ?to mace? means to get something without paying or to take someone for a ride. He won the heavyweight championship of England against Sam Hurst in 1861, but lost it a year later to the bigger and heavier Tom King. King refused to give him a return match so instead Mace fought Joe Goss ? whose wife, Helen Gray, was a Romany ? and beat him in nineteen rounds for the middleweight championship of England.

Next he was matched against an American of Irish birth, Joe Coburn. The American?s backers wouldn?t let him fight in England, claiming they would not get fair treatment, so the bout was arranged for Pierstown, Ireland, on October 4, 1864. Both men travelled there but at the last minute they argued over the choice of referee and the match fell through. It was re-arranged for October 14 but was again abandoned. The Irish were all for Coburn, who hailed originally from Armagh, and accused Mace of backing out. A ballad was later written about it, The Cowardly Englishman, including the verse:

"The Englishmen bet five to one that Mace would gain the day, But indeed they were mistaken for poor Jem he ran away, Our champion boldly stood the ring without either dread or fear, But he was disappointed Jem Mace did not appear."

The travellers were also upset with Mace; they believed he had let them down. And so it was that he was drinking in a Dublin saloon when in walked my great-grandfather and challenged him out. Mace was then the most famous bare knuckler in the world but my great-grandfather was now King of the Tinkers and feared no man. He was twenty-eight and Mace was thirty-four, so both were in their prime.

Mace knew the craic with the travellers; there was no backing down. He took off his coat, went outside on the cobbles and squared off. Mace was a master ? he invented half of the moves boxers use today ? but my great-grandfather went at him hell for leather. The garda intervened and stopped it, so we shall never know who was best, but Boxing Bartley always believed he would have won. The contest was later written about in an old boxing magazine called Famous Fights; it had a pencil sketch of my great-grandfather calling out Mace, with his cap in his hand. Speaking many years later at a Liverpool sporting club supper, Mace recalled that the only punches which had troubled him in his prime were the ?temple-tickler? of Bob Brettle and Bartley Gorman?s ?oxdropper?.

Two years later Mace regained the English heavyweight title and in 1870 he beat the American champion, Tom Allen, in Louisiana for the heavyweight championship of the world. He went on to travel the globe, conducting tournaments and teaching the scientific skills that enabled him to beat men nearly twice his size. But he never forgot the power of the punch that Boxing Bartley landed on his jaw. Mace died in 1910, and lies in an unmarked grave at Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool. With the help of the Merseyside Ex-Boxers? Association, I intend to erect a proper headstone on his grave in recognition of one of the most important figures in boxing history.

This same period saw an exodus of Irish tinkers in the wake of the savage Potato Famine. Many sailed to the British mainland, where they encountered the English and Welsh Romanies. At first there was a clash of cultures, and the Romanies developed a somewhat jaundiced view of the Irish tinker:

"He is by nature a fighter, and he fights with a cold fury and a fixed desire to maim that is rather frightening. When the travelling Irish first invaded Wales and the Welsh border counties they came in rough contact with the Gypsies, and the Gypsies very definitely had the worst of it. So much so, in fact, that they would rather move camp than risk a fight, unless they were in greatly superior numbers. All that was long ago, and the Irish tinker, with the passage of time . . . has softened, if he has not entirely disappeared. But the memory lingers in the Gypsy mind." (Gypsies of Britain, Vesey-Fitzgerald, p 184)

My breed were part of this exodus. They brought with them their secret language, Shelta, also known as Cant, which goes back hundreds of years. The Romanies, of course, had their own tongue: for example, they say gry for a horse, we say curry; their word for dog is juckle, ours is camra. There are hundreds of such words and they are still used today. Eventually, the travellers of both communities mixed more freely. They were not alone on the open road. Many people lived rough in those days: deserting soldiers, dispossessed tenants, seasonal labourers, orphans, vagrants, highwaymen and brigands. Fistfights were an everyday occurrence.

Bartley I observed a strict ritual on the eve of every fight. During the day he would sit for hours in the nearest Catholic church, praying. He would return at supper time, wash outside his wagon in a bowl of cold water and shave with a cut-throat razor. Then he would put his spindle-backed chair in front of a stick fire and sit up all night with his wife?s shawl over his shoulders, staring into the flames. No one could approach him: the women and children would watch him in awe from the windows of their wagons. ?He?s going to carib the juck,? they would whisper to each other, meaning, ?He?s going to fight the man.? As dawn broke, he would go to his opponent?s wagon, knock on his door and challenge him out in the time-honoured way. Gypsies did it that way so they would be fighting when sober, and God help the man if he had a hangover ? he had to come out anyway. They always did. Sometimes a ring was made up but more often they would fight in a hollow or the corner of a field or even right there amongst the wagons and horses.

The English travellers thought they had found the man to beat Boxing Bartley in Caleb Wenman, a tearaway from the Bristol area, traditionally home to many of the best pugilists. He and Bartley met at the Black Patch at Smethwick, Birmingham, a vast camp which at any one time would have 1,000 horse-drawn wagons. Their fight was one of the most vicious in history. No quarter was asked or given. Finally Wenman, who was getting the worst of it, aimed a desperate right cross. The punch landed on my great-grandfather?s neck with a sickening crack: the force was so great that Wenman?s forearm broke and the bone stuck out through his skin. In agony and shock, he could not continue. Boxing Bartley was also in a terrible state; the punch had dislocated his neck. An old gypsy herbalist put a pony collar around his neck and strapped it to hold his head still. He had to wear that for three months. Wenman fared much worse; his broken arm became infected and had to be amputated at the elbow.

The ferocity of the Wenman bout deterred most challengers: who wanted to fight a man whose jaw was so strong that you broke your arm punching him? Boxing Bartley was now in his prime, six feet tall, strong and fearless. He looked like a human version of the bull terriers he kept for dog fighting. But one man was not afraid of him. Moses ?Moe? Smith was one of the great unheralded prizefighters, a pure-bred Romany from Wilmslow in Cheshire and the pride of the English gypsies. They said that even Mace avoided him. He and Bartley were similar, both gentlemen with manners, but a clash had to come.

The Englishman and the Irishman were finally matched in an outdoor cockfighting pit in Cheshire before a great crowd of gypsy elders. As the fight began, a terrible thunderstorm broke, with torrents of rain and great flashes of lightning blasting branches from the trees.

?Bartley, we will have to stop,? said Moe.

?I?ll stop this fight only if the lightning strikes and kills me,? replied Bartley.

Ankle deep in rainwater and mud, they punched each other to a bloody standstill. In the end, with darkness closing in, the storm still raging and both men barely able to stand, their supporters pulled them apart. They chair-carried Smith out of the pit, while my great-grandfather had to be led away, completely blind; they slit the swellings on his cheeks with a peg knife so he could see.

Several years later, he and Smith met by chance at a fair and shook hands. ?We have some unfinished business to settle, Moses,? said Bartley. ?I would like to finish it.?

?Well I wouldn?t, Bartholomew,? said Smith. ?But I tell you what I will do. If any man says to me that he can beat Bartley Gorman, I?ll fight that man. And if any man tells you he can beat Moses Smith, I want you to fight him.? They agreed and parted as friends.

Those fights were conducted largely under the old London Prize Ring Rules, with a round ending when one man was knocked down and a new one beginning when he was fit to resume. The floored man had thirty seconds to come up to ?scratch? ? a line in the middle of the ring. Throws like the cross-buttock were allowed; my great-grandfather was expert at it. The fighters were like lions, with manes of long hair, and were famed throughout the land. But they were fast becoming outdated: the prize ring was in its twilight period. The Queensberry Rules for boxing with gloves were published in 1867. Fifteen years later, an eleven-judge British court ruled in a landmark legal case that prize-fighting was unlawful but that ?sparring? with gloves was lawful. Within a few years, knuckle fighting had all but disappeared on both sides of the Atlantic: the last world heavyweight title fight without gloves was in 1889, when John L. Sullivan beat Jake Kilrain over seventy-five rounds in Mississippi, USA.

Fights did persist in secret, though the participants and spectators were liable to arrest. The gypsies had always obeyed their own laws and were not about to abandon one of their strongest traditions just because the police or Government said so. The Sporting Life in June 1887 recorded one such contest before 100 spectators at Chingford, Essex, between a local boxer called James and a Romany called Gypsy Lee, which arose from a quarrel:

Round 1 ? No time was lost, James being the first to get home, and showing himself the superior at outfighting, and at the end of 2� min. the Enfield man had the first fall in his favour. In the second round the gypsy was determined to get to close quarters, and in doing so had his claret tapped. After this he was a bit cautious, and in the struggle that ensued both went down side by side.

Round 3 ? This round in fact decided the battle. The gypsy forced conclusions, punishing his man severely, and at the finish, after some severe fighting, threw his man heavily. Some seven more rounds were fought that need little description. As soon as the boxer was hurt he seemed to lose all heart, and contented himself with fighting for the body, going in with his head down. [Lee], seeing this, kept jabbing him with the left on the right eye, which soon became useless. In the tenth round ?James? was knocked down, and refused to fight any longer. Time, 37 min.

Prizefighting also survived for many years in the tough mining communities of Wales and other areas, and it was here that the next great fighter of the Gorman dynasty would have many of his most famous contests.

Boxing Bartley had ten children: two boys, Bartholomew and Jimmy, and eight girls, Mary, Helen, Julie, Ann, Winnie, Delia, Maggie and Catherine, who burned to death as a child in a barreltop wagon. The eldest son would be known as Bartley II and would become, in my opinion, the best fighting man ever. He was born in 1883 and took after his mother?s family, the Maguires: while the Gormans were tall and dark, he would be only five feet eight and had blood red hair. He was very dapper and very vain: always smartly dressed, clean and neat, shaved with a razor and strap and with a checked cap pushed back on his head to show his three kiss-curls.

He was very handsome; all the women were after him. He was also a bold and fiery young man and, unlike his father, loved to drink and carouse. One night he came home drunk and challenged out the old man. Boxing Bartley came down the steps of the wagon in his nightshirt and hit his son so hard that he would say he felt the pain of it until the day he died. I thought he was exaggerating when he told me that story on his knee; then, many years later, a boxer called Don Halden hit me so hard as I was bending down to pick up my vest that I still feel the pain of it twenty years on. So I know my grandfather was telling the truth.

Bartley II would not let anyone, man or woman, touch him when he was dressed. He wore a silk handkerchief around his neck, a three-quarter-length shooting coat with leather buttons, a waistcoat, a gold watch and chain with a �5 piece on it, britches and leggings, shoes shining like a glass bottle ? he would clean them for an hour before he?d go out ? and a cane stick. He thought he was the bee?s knees, and he was.

He could lilt:

"Riddle-diddle da, riddle diddle diddle diddle-dum
Riddle-diddle da, riddle-diddle diddle dum
Riddle-diddle da, riddle diddle diddle diddle-dum
Ooh-ra-ra, riddle diddle diddle dum"

He was also one of the finest step-dancers in Ireland and would lilt while he danced. His favourite song was Willie Riley and His Own Sweet Colleen Born:

"Oh rise up Willie Riley, and it?s come along with me
I mean to go along with you and leave this country
For to leave my father?s dwellings, his houses and free lands
And away goes Willie Riley and his own sweet colleen bawn"

The fourteen verses were passed down in my family by word of mouth. An Irish lord once heard my great-grandmother, Bridget, trilling it by a roadside fire as he went past in a carriage and paid her a guinea to sing it right through. Bartley II learned and loved all of these old campfire songs. He was a fine lilter and a fine dancer and it was nobody?s business how he could fight.

He beat Walter Lee, a tough English Romany; Matt Carroll, the scourge of Ireland; Tom Daley, another rugged Irish traveller; Chasey Price, a man-mountain from South Wales; Will Rosamount, a Welshman; Wiggy Lee; fought Black Martin Fury, the most feared man in Wales; and drew with Irishman Andy Riley after two hours. He never lost.

He was staying on a heath near London when Walter Lee came to challenge him. ?You can?t come onto the British mainland and say you are the champion, you Irish so-andso,? said Lee. He had brought a ring with him and they staked it out the night before the fight in the middle of dozens of gypsy wagons. Bartley?s wife, Caroline Brian, was a brush-wagon woman ? someone who sold scrubbing brushes, wicker baskets, enamel pans and kettles. She and his sisters didn?t want him to fight, so while he was resting they locked him in his wagon. But this was for the title. He smashed the wagon to pieces with his fists to get out; smashed the doors, windows, the lot, got out and fought Lee for an hour and knocked him out. He said Lee was some man, about seventeen stone; my grandfather was fifteen-and-ahalf stone. ?Walter Lee wasn?t a man, he was a South African gorilla,? was his comment.

Bartley II could bounce three yards at a time ? sideways, forwards, backwards ? and perfected a left hook on the temple followed by a right to the chin or another left hook to the jaw. If he landed cleanly, he could put anyone away. He was also very hard to hit, a ghost, though he would have so many fights that his nose ended up like a piece of putty and his head like a bulldog?s, hence his nickname: Bulldog Bartley. He treated my grandmother like a white slave ? many travelling men were the same. An old man told me years later that my grandad used to lie in the lanes all day, eating and drinking, tending to the horses, and if anyone upset him it was like waking a bull.

His fight with Matt Carroll came about after Carroll?s sister Maggie hit Bartley I with a soldering iron outside a Dublin pub and broke his nose. Boxing Bartley?s daughter Ann vowed to get this Maggie and went looking for her. So Maggie told her brother Matt, a notorious knuckle man, who warned that if Ann came anywhere near his sister he would break her jaw. When Bartley II, who was then twenty- seven, heard of this threat to his sister, he sailed for Ireland with his siblings to settle it.

Carroll and his supporters were waiting on the quayside. As my grandfather came down the ship?s gangway, Carroll stepped forward. ?I?m the best man in the thirty-two counties of Ireland,? he roared.

Bulldog Bartley paused on the last step. ?Only until I step off this ship,? he replied.

They went to a nearby spot and fought as the peelers stood by and watched. Carroll knocked my grandad over a wall but he clambered back and kept hitting him with punches under the heart, wearing him down. At one stage, Carroll?s sister was shouting so much that my grandfather sidestepped him and knocked her out. It is said they fought for seventy-two rounds and then he knocked out Carroll as well. Now he was King of the Gypsies of Britain and Ireland.

They say that people have grown bigger over the past century but there were giants in those days too. The biggest man he ever fought was Joseph ?Chasey? Price, known as ?the Blackbird?. Price was only eighteen but already enormous. They met on Bryn Mawr mountain in South Wales and Bartley II knocked him out in one minute. Ten years later, he went back and Price was six foot eight. He put my grandfather on his knee like a child and said, ?This is Bartley Gorman, the only man ever to beat me.? Bartley said he wouldn?t have stood a chance with him when Price was older, though I reckon he was just being polite ? he always thought he could beat anyone.

My grandfather spent a lot of time in South Wales and said some of the best men he came across were colliers. They would fight in what they called ?blood hollows?, out of the way of prying eyes, and even the little boys took part. This was the golden age of Welsh boxing, when the country produced champions like ?Peerless? Jem Driscoll, Freddie Welsh and Jimmy Wilde. My grandfather said Driscoll, the great featherweight whose mother was an Irish traveller woman, was the best boxer he ever saw.

Outside the ring, the best man in the region was another traveller of Irish descent: Martin Fury, known as ?Black Martin? or sometimes ?The Giant?. He was related by marriage to my grandfather ? his brother Hughie married Bartley II?s sister Ann. Fury had gained much notoriety by beating Jack Hearn when he was outweighed by almost four stone, according to this account ? under the headline ?Gypsy ?King? Dethroned? ? in the South Wales Echo:

Hearn was a very fine man, about 15 stone in weight, about 5ft 10in in height and all strength and ruggedness from head to foot, while Fury was only about 11st 6lb. None of the gypsies could believe that Hearn could be beaten, for he had licked all the gypsy fighters that came his way, and those gypsies in those days didn?t fight for money, for there was nobody about to offer them purses, but just for the love of fighting. But this Fury turned out to be a very fast and clever fighter. He kept on ducking and dodging in and out, and playing on Hearn?s face, until it was dreadfully swollen and battered.

They fought for an hour and a half until Fury closed both of Hearn?s eyes and he could no longer see.

The gypsy women were now shouting to go for the police, and the fight was stopped, but a gypsy shouted, ?We will lance his eyes and get him to see, and he can fight again.?

They did it and the fight went on, but Hearn was blinded again, and the man could fight no more. Five minutes after the fight the police came, and an old gypsy woman said to them, ?My dear men, you?re too late.?

Fury must have been young when that took place because he grew to be a very big man. He and my grandfather fought to a draw. Our two families would remain close and, like the Gormans, the Furys would have a long fighting pedigree: my cousin Gypsy John Fury is a successful boxer, fighting an eliminator for the British heavyweight title in 1991 and beating the champion of Italy. John is 6ft 4in and weighs nearly twenty stone and is, in my opinion, the best man currently among all travellers and the best streetfighter in Britain. Black Martin was his great-uncle.

The best man Bulldog Bartley ever met, so he said, was another Irish traveller called Andy Riley. They fought in the Old Country for two hours to a draw. Those Irish could really mix it: even the great John L. Sullivan?s father once said, ?There?s at least a dozen men in the Emerald Isle have got the beating of my son.?

In England, the Gormans met another travelling family of Irish descent called the Wilsons. Jack Wilson was born in Pine Street, Toronto, Canada, in 1873, and would become my maternal grandfather. His family were horse dealers: they would take the train to the railhead at Winnipeg, then go out by coach and horseback into the North West Territories, buy Mustangs from the Indians, bring them back, rest them, put them on the train to Montreal, then ship them by cattle boat to England to sell to the British Army. Jack was once kicked in the head by a mule; he was unconscious for three months and carried a dent in his head for the rest of his life. He came to Liverpool when he was fifteen and stayed, eventually marrying Bulldog Bartley?s sister Mary. He was a hard man: he made his sons box each other and would take a bullwhip to them for any disobedience. One of them, known as ?Ballinasloe Joe?, became a good boxer. Jack Wilson made a fortune horse-dealing and always wore a derby hat, a navy suit and gold watch chain set with �5 pieces. He looked like a cross between Winston Churchill and Sidney Greenstreet, with a hole in his head.

The Gorman and Wilson families became very close and grandfather Jack was prepared to back his brother-in-law against any fighter in the world. In the winter of 1907, the Canadian-born world heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns, arrived in the British Isles to pick up some easy money defending his boxing title. He breezed through several challenges, including a one-round knockout over Irishman Jem Roche in Dublin. Wilson met Burns in a Dublin hostelry and said, ?You were fighting the wrong man when you fought Roche, it should have been Bartley Gorman.? He offered �5,000, a fortune then, as a straight bet, winner-takes-all, to fight bareknuckle against the heavyweight champion of the travellers, Bulldog Bartley, in Dan Donnelly?s Hollow on the Curragh. Burns declined but Wilson followed him to London and repeated the offer. Again he declined. Before twelve months were out, Burns had sailed to Australia and lost his title to Jack Johnson, the first black champion, for a purse of �6,000. The gypsies said he would sooner fight the giant negro than Bartley Gorman II. I?m sure my grandfather would have beaten him.

Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, has a special place in the affection of the gypsies, perhaps because, like them, he was an outsider. The Irish travellers were up all night singing camorlias before he beat Burns. He was an all-time great ? some say the best ever ? and even now, gypsy fighters will declare, ?I?m not scared of Jack Johnson or any man.? Johnson used to stand with one hand on his hip, a habit my grandfather shared; it is something I do too.

They could fight then. People shouldn?t make the mistake of thinking that Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis could beat the likes of Johnson or Jim Jeffries. Those were the days when a man would walk with a plough behind a horse all day long, not sit on a tractor. You couldn?t beat a farmer in those days, never mind a prizefighter. My grandfather used to practise on a gate: he would tie rags around it to save his knuckles and would then have someone swing it towards him while he hit it back with his bare hands.

Even though knuckle fighting was now strictly illegal it was a regular event at fairs. The police weren?t interested ? they weren?t about to raid a big gypsy gathering and cause a riot. Tom Daley, another traveller of Irish descent, had fallen out with Bulldog Bartley and bumped into one of his sisters at Oswestry horse fair.

?Tell that brother of yours that when I see him I will beat the living daylights out of him,? said Daley.

?I?ll make sure you have that opportunity,? she replied.

She went back to Wrexham and told him, and Bartley II walked the eighty miles to Llangefni Fair, an annual event at a small village on the Isle of Anglesey, to fight him. Daley put one hand on a five-bar gate and jumped straight over it. All the Welsh horse dealers were saying, ?Oh, what a man Tom Daley is.?

My grandfather, a fearsome drinker, pretended to stagger up to the gate and trip over it. But when he stripped off they couldn?t believe it. He sparked out Daley with a tremendous leaping left hook but it took him an hour.

Though my grandfather was never beaten one-to-one, such a violent life had its price. Later that year he had an argument with six farmer brothers in a pub in Anglesey and drew off and hit the biggest of them. He couldn?t help himself ? he was a terror for ?drawing the box?, which means hitting someone before they know it. Anyway, the brothers ganged up on him, kicked him unmercifully and left him draped over a stone wall. He was in hospital for two months and they reckon he passed little bits of bone through him until the day he died.

You could hear grandad coming from two miles away when he had been drinking: he would be challenging out everybody, especially on the tough grounds. ?You couldn?t trust him,? my dad used to say. He fell foul of the law on several occasions. He did twelve months in Walton Prison in Liverpool for hitting a man. Another time, the family was stopping at a wood near Rhyl when the estate keeper came, rattled the front of the wagon with his cane and said, ?I want you gypsies out of here when I come back from the pub.? They were still there when he returned and he hit the wagon again.

My grandad came out with a candle and said, ?We will go in the morning, sir.? As he said it, his son, my Uncle Bartley (yet another Bartholomew in the family) came from the side and sparked out the keeper. My uncle fled and my grandfather took the blame, spending six months in Ruth in jail, near Denbigh, sewing mailbags all day long. I remember passing the jail and my father saying, ?That?s where your grandfather did time. Your grandmother and I would stand outside on the bridge and he would wave to us from his cell window.?

In 1912, my great-grandfather, Boxing Bartley, died at the age of seventy-six. His body was taken on a ship from Liverpool back to Ireland and was buried by the Roman Catholic Brothers of the Brown Scapula in Greenland Cemetery, Larne. Two years later, the world was at war. Like many travellers, my grandfather tried to avoid military service, but was caught and conscripted into the Black Watch, the famous ?Ladies from Hell?, so-called because of their kilts. They were in camp in Scotland and there is a stile on an old road out of Stranraer where the family used to meet him when he got leave. He suffered a wound to his leg in training and opened it up a little to get invalided out, which a lot of gypsy men did.

It was around this period that he met his most famous opponent. Johnny Basham was a former British champion, the first man to win the Lonsdale Belt outright at welterweight. He had a famous series of fights with Ted ?Kid? Lewis, who in my opinion was the best boxer Britain has ever had. Basham also boxed in the booths occasionally and one day was appearing in a marquee at Wrexham Beast Fair, offering �5 to anyone who could last three rounds with him. Bulldog Bartley was there with his former opponent Tom Daley, both in checked caps and spotted handkerchiefs. The barker asked if any man would fight Basham ? who was in military uniform himself at the time

? and Daley shouted up, ?I will.? The old tent was bulging. When the barker looked to see who had shouted, Daley whipped off his cap and pointed to my grandfather.

?It wasn?t me,? said Bulldog Bartley.

?Come on, Ginger. It?s only an exhibition,? said the barker. ?Are you afraid??

?No, I?m not afraid of anyone.?

He didn?t know who Basham was. Boxers didn?t mean anything to him, not when he?d fought the likes of Chasey Price and Martin Fury. So he got in the ring. He had an old railwayman?s waistcoat on with long silk sleeves. He took his hat and coat off but kept the waistcoat, and they commenced boxing with gloves on. From the first bell, it was no exhibition. Basham nearly killed my grandad, and after a couple of minutes Bulldog Bartley was completely exasperated.

?I can?t pick a chicken with gloves,? he said. ?I?ve got to get these off.?

?You can have it any way you want,? said Basham and, being the man he was, took off his gloves. My grandad did the same, removed his waistcoat and they went at it bare- knuckle. In the second round my grandfather knocked Basham down with a left hook-right cross. Someone cut the lights, a riot broke out in the crowd and my grandad grabbed his coat and left.

Fifteen years later, he was in a caf� in Wrexham with some of his sons having a fry-up when a man at next table said, ?I?ll buy that for you, Ginger.?

?What do you mean, sir??

?I?ll pay for that.?

?It is very kind of you but I don?t know you.?

?Well I remember you. Do you remember boxing a soldier

on the beast market? You broke my jaw, you red-headed bugger.? It was Basham. They shook hands and had a laugh.

Of course, there were many fine gypsy men whom Bulldog Bartley never got down to business with: you couldn?t fight everyone. One of the best was Bill Elliott (pronounced Ellit), who was born around 1888 and whose family were originally sheep drovers in Scotland. He was the same size and weight as my grandfather and was also never beaten. He travelled from county to county to fight, wearing a silk around his waist, and after beating another sheep drover at the big gathering at Appleby Fair in Cumbria declared, ?I?m the best gypsy man ever.?

A Welsh traveller took issue with him. ?No, there is a man called Martin Fury down in our part of the country.?

So Elliott upped sticks and went to fight Fury. They met at Merthyr Tydfil, Fury arriving on a landau with a load of men behind him. Apparently it was a draw, because Elliott later said to Fury, ?You never bet [beat] me Martin, I never bet you.? He gave Fury great respect for coming to fight him. They were supposed to have a second fight at a donkey fair at Gloucester but it never came off. Elliot, who died in 1953, could still fight into his sixties and had a saying: ?Never mind my old round shoulders and my old splaw feet, I?m old Bill Ellit, the best unscienced travelling man that ever slept in a van.?

Each family of gypsies say that their own folk were the greatest fighters. Travellers are like American Indians: the Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Sioux, Apache and Comanche. They are breeds. Travellers are the same. My jeal (a Cant word meaning kin) consists of seven families: the Bryans, Furys, Gormans, Kellys, Maguires, O?Neills and Wilsons. Others are just as tribal and won?t admit anyone else is champion because of the pride of their breed. When I fight, it is for the ghosts of my grandfather and great-grandfather, the memories of my breed. It is deeper than people know. It is not a man having a fight for money: it?s for honour and valour and glory.

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