Fairground booths were an important part of boxing in Britain and enabled many aspiring professionals to hone their skills against a wide assortment of challengers.
The booth fighters typically signed up for several months and travelled with the booth from town to town. They were given food and lodgings and paid a small wage for their services. The bulk of their income (small though it was) was earned through ‘nobbings’, coins thrown into the ring by spectators as a show of appreciation after they had fought.
When the booth arrived at a new location it was the boxers’ job to erect the ring, tent and platform, to be dismantled later and loaded onto a lorry when the booth departed. They were also called upon to second other boxers or time-keep when not in action themselves.
Hughes's boxing booth.
The blare of a trumpet or banging of a drum summoned an expectant crowd to the boxing booth in readiness for a new ‘house’, meaning a new set of fights. The booth boxers stood on a platform in front of an ornately decorated facade, often depicting ring heroes of yesteryear. A man called the ‘barker’ or ‘spieler’ introduced each fighter, told the crowd something of his record and reputation then, dangling a pair of well-worn boxing gloves, called for a challenger from the crowd, to whom the gloves would be thrown. If the challenger lasted three rounds, he would win a small monetary prize.
Challengers were sometimes unskilled young men looking to impress friends or girlfriends or sailors or soldiers who had imbibed too much ale. Such an opponent usually needed to be ‘carried’ by the booth fighter, so the crowd had a worthwhile spectacle. Additionally, however, when the local fighting men got wind that a booth was in town, they would turn up to test their skill against the booth boxers, and thereby much experience was gained.
If no challengers were found for a particular boxer, there was usually a ‘plant’ hidden within the crowd, who’d challenge the said fighter and the pair would perform a staged fight or ‘gee’ fight, unbeknown to most onlookers. Once the challengers had been found, the crowd filed inside a marquee, paying an admittance fee as they passed, then that set of contests got underway.
The booth fighters were obliged to take on ‘all comers’, which often meant conceding age and weight. The booths were a nursery for fledgling boxers but also attracted well-established pros, who would use the booth to remain in shape, pass on their knowledge to the younger boxers and pick up fights in the various towns and districts they visited.
Champions such as Freddie Mills, Benny Lynch, Tommy Farr, Joe Beckett, Jim Driscoll and Jimmy Wilde were products of boxing booths; but sadly the booth tradition began to die out after the BBB of C passed a rule barring its license-holders from performing on booths. There are no active booths in Britain today.