Middlesbrough is a large industrial town on Teesside in North East England. Dominated by the iron and steel trades, the area produced many hard men. The earliest boxing I can trace in the town took place at a venue known as the Circus in December 1887 with local Jim Fellows at the top of the bill. Six years later Fellows topped the bill again against another local, Steve Chapman, in a 20-rounder in an open air show at the Middlesbrough Ironopolis football ground, which was known as the Paradise ground.
In 1913 regular boxing commenced at a venue known as the Ring on Oxford Street. The promoter was a man called Dick Dempsey and two shows per week were held throughout 1913 and 1914. After a break at the start of the First World War, weekly shows took place at the Ring throughout 1916. The leading fighter in the town during this period was Ike Pratt. A middleweight, Pratt was amongst the top rated men in the country just before the war, beating future British champion Jack Harrison of Rushden in a 20-rounder in the town in March 1914.
On 10 May 1919 boxing resumed in Middlesbrough with a show at the Theatre Royal in Albert Street. Local man Billy O’Brien was at the top of the bill in a 15-rounder against Londoner George Harrison (Bermondsey). Weekly shows took place here until the end of the summer and there were occasional shows during 1920.
In 1923 regular boxing recommenced, firstly at the Drill Hall and then at the Linthorpe Garage. From November the Olympia Skating Rink was used for a long series of shows which took place over the next two years. Some real talent started to develop in the town with so many regular shows and Jim Carney and Eddie Donoghue, at lightweight and featherweight respectively, soon became top-liners, journeying all over the country in their pursuit of honours. Backed up by the likes of Barney Nertney, Jack Gurk, Joe Grewer and Young James, the shows held at Olympia, staged by promoter Jack King, were a success until 1925.
After a few shows were held at the Theatre Royal by Tom Wheatley in 1927, promoter Joe Miller organised weekly shows throughout 1927 and 1928 at Eckert’s Assembly Rooms on the Albert Road. Donoghue and Carney were still the leading lights in the town but locals Harry Nettleton, Young Lippett and Curley Harker, amongst others, were used regularly to fill the bills.
The Olympia was used again during 1928 and 1929, and then the building was demolished. Sporadic shows also took place at the Winter Gardens (promoter Stan Yates), the Holy Cross Mission Hall and the Cleveland Park Greyhound Stadium (promoter Jack King) and then, in 1931, the Middlesbrough National Sporting Club in North Ormesby was opened. This proved to be the dominant venue throughout the rest of the 1930s. Regular weekly boxing took place there between 1931 and 1936, after which the venue closed for boxing.
Shows at the NSC were initially promoted by Mr T B Chisman, but by 1932 messrs Ashton and Hazeltine had taken over. Walter Hazeltine, a West Hartlepool man, thus commenced a connection with the sport in Middlesbrough which was to last for over 25 years. They bred some fine talent at the club during this period, including Joe Green, Joe Doyle, Eric Munro, Ike McGowan, Kid Rich, George Dicko, Mick McKay and Jim Teasdale.
The best of the lot was Harry Craster, a lightweight active between 1931 and 1942. Harry won the Northern Area lightweight title in 1937 against Jimmy Stewart of Liverpool in a 15-rounder at the New St James Hall, Newcastle. He then went on to beat future world middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan by disqualification at Earl’s Court in 1939. Harry boxed five British champions, including Jack Kid Berg, another holder of a world title.
After the NSC closed further shows were held at the Velodrome and at the Cleveland Park Greyhound Stadium where 6,500 paid to see Craster lose over ten rounds to Jimmy Walsh of Chester in a match made at 9st 10lbs. Three months later Walsh became the British lightweight champion.
In October 1938 the Farrer Street Stadium opened for boxing. This venue dominated boxing in the town until 1964. The two promoters were Arthur Clarence, and then Walter Hazeltine. During the 1940s and early 1950s shows were held at the Stadium virtually every week. The local stars during this period were Ernie Vickers, Jim Teasdale (the son of the 1930s boxer of the same name), Jimmy Pearce, and Ike Pratt the younger. At the time the boxers trained at a gym owned by ex-fighter Eric Munro and the leading manager in the town was Jack King.
When the government introduced a prohibitive entertainment tax in the 1952 budget, many promoters found that they could not make the sport pay. Consequently shows held at the Farrer Street Stadium became less regular, but during the next 10 years a further 32 promotions took place there. The local lads making up these bills included Colin Stirzaker, Billy Linton, John Bacon, Freddie White, Jimmy Lawson, Gordon Teasdale, Eric Grieves and John Spencely.
Spencely was a heavyweight who, after retiring from the ring, became a successful businessman. This enabled him to initiate a revival of boxing in the North East of England during the late 1970s and he held a series of shows at the Country Club at Marton, and once again, the lads from the Boro’ had a chance to shine.