Allan Cooke (Warsop) North Midlands Area light-heavyweight champion 1950
Area championships have long been an important aspect of British professional boxing. Though less significant today, great prestige was once attached to area title bouts, especially in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In England, to be the Southern or Northern Area champion was a considerable achievement, and remained such into the 1970s.
Prior to the re-establishment of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBB of C) in 1929 there were no official titles at all below the British title. The National Sporting Club had brought some order to the sport when it established the original eight weight classes and introduced the Lonsdale belt in 1909. But there were no official area champions and there was no organised regional structure.
It was usually possible to identify the champions of Wales and Scotland, as both places had clearly defined boundaries and the claimants to the various Welsh and Scottish championships were, by and large, well known and undisputed. But any boxer laying claim to the featherweight championship of the North, say, might face dispute from a number of sources.
First of all, what was meant by 'The North'? The term today probably means that part of England above Nottingham, the Humber and the Potteries, but it is open to interpretation as there is no physical boundary to cross when one enters northern England.
Arthur 'Boy' Edge (Smethwick) Southern Area flyweight champion 1931-33 and Southern Area bantamweight champion 1933
This did not stop any number of claimants to this title. Often two contestants from Lancashire would meet for the title, whilst in Yorkshire two others did the same. Between 1926 and 1928 there were five championship matches for the Northern lightweight title, and all the contestants were from the North-East. As previously mentioned, there was no official body nominating challengers for these titles. The challengers, rather than being the best or the most deserving men, often emerged from the stables of the most influential or well-connected managers.
The newly established BBB of C sought to put this right. It introduced a system that divided Britain into six geographical areas: Wales, Scotland, the South, the North, the Western Counties and the Eastern Counties. Ideally it wished to see the sport run in each of these six areas by area councils, each empowered with the authority to sanction area title contests and to nominate official challengers for these titles.
The Welsh area council was already ahead of the game, as a Welsh Board of Control had been established in 1928 and was already arranging official Welsh championships, even before the BBB of C was re-constituted the following year. The Southern Area and Northern Area branches soon followed suit, and before long were sanctioning their own title fights. By 1933 there were recognised champions for both Areas at six of the eight weight classes.
Denny Dawson (Sheffield) Northern Area flyweight champion 1953
A particular anomaly with the Southern and Northern councils was the way in which the Midlands was carved up between them. There had been some resentment that a Midlands Area branch had not been established in the first place and further dissatisfaction was created amongst the Midlands licence-holders when it was decreed that Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire should fall under the jurisdiction of the South, whilst boxers from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire would be eligible for Northern Area title contests.
Nevertheless these area championships, along with the Welsh and Scottish titles, were highly prized, both by the boxers and by the fans. They were always contested over the full championship course of 15 'threes' and they commanded large purses for the boxers concerned. They were a stepping stone to a British title, as often the area champions were automatic nominees for British title eliminators.
Percy Dexter (Sheffield) Northern Area featherweight champion 1934
The Eastern Area and the Western Area made slower progress. Throughout the period 1929-1934 area title contests in the former were billed as being for the 'Eastern Counties' championship, and I suspect that some were not sanctioned by the area council but by enterprising promoters looking to fill their halls. In January 1935 the council was reformed as the Eastern Area Advisory Committee and its ability to organise and sanction area title bouts remained. This attempt to reinvigorate matters proved successful, as by 1939 championship bouts over 15 'threes' had been contested at every weight from bantam to light-heavy.
In the West, championship bouts were generally billed as 'West of England' title matches and, as in the Eastern Area, the area council appears not to have enforced its jurisdiction and this left an opportunity for promoters to stage their own 'area' contests. A Western Area Advisory Committee was established, and from 1935 'Western Area' title bouts were being staged, albeit infrequently.
In Northern Ireland, a council was established in about 1937 and championship bouts were fought for immediately. Prior to this boxers from the North tended to be matched against lads from Eire in unofficial contests for the All-Ireland title. A Northern Ireland council had been long overdue, and it quickly became very active and influential.
After the Second World War the regional organisation of the areas changed dramatically. In 1947 the Board established twelve new Area Councils:
Area 1 (South Eastern) London, Hertfordshire, Essex, Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, Sussex and the Channel Islands
Area 2 (Southern Central) Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
Area 3 (South Western) Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset
Area 4 (Eastern) Norfolk, Suffolk, Isle of Ely and Cambridgeshire
Area 5 (East Midlands) Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire
Area 6 (West Midlands) Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire
Area 7 (Wales)
Area 8 (North Midlands) Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland
Area 9 (North Central) Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Isle of Man
Area 10 (Northern) - Cumberland, Westmoreland, Northumberland and Durham
Area 11 (Scotland)
Area 12 (Northern Ireland)
Frank Kenny (Glasgow) Scottish Area Featherweight Champion 1938-47
In the 17 December 1947 edition of Boxing News this reorganisation was favourably received as it meant that amongst eight weight divisions, spread across 12 areas, and assuming two elimination contests per category that there would be the opportunity for 384 boxers to box for an area title or area title eliminator. This distribution of area titles, even though there will be so many," wrote Boxing News, "has its advantages and should bring boxing to many areas in which it has long been a neglected sport and keep boys to their own area. It will open out scope for new promotions and will be an incentive to success with the tag of championship added.
Unfortunately the reorganisation proved unsuccessful. There were, I believe, some pretty fundamental flaws in the venture. The Midlands licence-holders, so aggrieved by the decision not to form a Midlands Area 20 years previously, suddenly found themselves with three separate councils, thereby diluting the concept of a Midlands champion altogether. A boxer from Birkenhead could find himself competing against a boxer from as far away as Herefordshire in an area title bout; but could not compete for the same area title as a boxer from Liverpool, two miles away. Whilst such situations were inevitable with any structure, it was particularly glaring for boxers from the Wirral, brought up as they were at the Liverpool Stadium fighting fellow Merseysiders week in, week out.
The selection of the name 'North Central' was also puzzling. To be the champion of the North was one thing, but to be the North Central champion hardly evokes a similar feeling of prestige. Where on earth, after all, is 'North Central'?
Of the three newly formed Midlands councils, two of them, areas 5 and 6 (East and West Midlands) did not become established at all, no committee was formed, no meetings were held and, moreover, only one title bout was ever organised and fought for.
Gwyn Williams (Pontycymmer) Welsh Area welterweight champion 1945-48
In May 1950 these areas were scrapped and a new organisation put into place:
Area 1 Scotland
Area 2 Northern Ireland
Area 3 Wales
Area 4 Northern (Cumberland, Westmoreland, Northumberland and Durham)
Area 5 Central (Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Lincolnshire and the Isle of Man)
Area 6 Southern (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Bedfordshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Middlesex, Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire and the Channel Islands)
Area 7 Western (Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall)
Lew Lazar (Aldgate) Southern Area middleweight champion 1955
When one looks at this list it looks unwieldy. What, you might ask, did the Board have against the Midlands Area. Once again boxers from Nottingham and Leicester find themselves in two different areas. A Londoner would have to compete against boxers from as far afield as Norwich, Birmingham, Oxford and Reading for the Southern Area title.
Matters were eventually rectified in 1952 when Area 8 (Midlands) was established. The area took parts of the Central and Southern Areas and this final configuration stood the test of time as it still exists today.