HOLLYWOOD scriptwriters transposing the story of Tom “Pedlar” Palmer to the big screen would not need to fictionalise. The term “rollercoaster” does not do justice to the chaotic life of this quirky world champion from east London’s Canning Town, who was born in the district in September 1876 and earned the sobriquet “Pedlar” from a stint selling wares as a boy.

At his best he was spectacular, an instinctive genius and natural showman whose defensive wizardry earned him the pet name “Box O’ Tricks”. Half a century or more before the sport’s most renowned exhibitionist Muhammad Ali ever laced on a glove, Pedlar was famed for a flashy style of boxing you’d be forgiven for thinking belongs to the modern age.

Venerable boxing scribe James Butler, who witnessed Palmer’s career firsthand, noted: “Palmer was not the finest bantamweight I ever watched, because he was not a big puncher, but he was the greatest character the ring produced, and if you leave aside Jack Johnson and Jim Driscoll there are few finer defensive boxers. His defence was more spectacular than Driscoll’s as he would exaggerate his moves. And crowds would flock to see him, and laugh aloud as he would pull yet another move from his ‘box of tricks’ and cause an opponent to swing wildly and miss by feet…

“Every time he fought he gave an exaggerated exhibition of boxing science and members of the National Sporting Club loved it. One or two die-hards criticised him for his exhibitionism. What they forgot was that Tom Palmer was a born entertainer.”

The source of Palmer’s flair for the spectacular is easily traced to his youth. Long before his name ever graced a boxing bill, he and his brother Matt were part of London’s theatrical circuit, touring the city’s music halls with a boxing variety act. Tom played the clown and Matt the straight guy. As Matt chased him around the stage, Tom would call on his acrobatic ability – ducking, slipping, sidestepping and turning somersaults to avoid his brother’s blows – leaving the crowds in fits of laughter. It was only as he grew older that Palmer realised he was not just an acrobat but a superb boxer.

Fast-forward a few years to May 1893 and Pedlar was boxing for the first time at Covent Garden’s National Sporting Club (NSC), the prestigious HQ of British boxing. There, to the amazement of club patrons, he employed many of the cheeky eye-catching tricks he had used on stage, evading the attacks of his opponent Walter Croot with comically exaggerated moves. Palmer won the fight with a 17th-round KO.

Two years later, aged only 19, Pedlar won the world bantamweight title (then 8st 4lb) from the brilliant Brummy Billy Plimmer. Over the next three years, Palmer kept his crown through five defences and drew with world featherweight king George Dixon at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The gifted pair met three more times over longer distances, the Londoner gaining the edge with two wins against one defeat.

Pedlar returned to New York in September 1899 to defend against “Terrible” Terry McGovern, one of the hardest hitters in the history of the bantam and featherweight divisions. But the Palmer party – which included NSC boss Arthur “Peggy” Bettinson, a virtual czar of British boxing at the time – would wish they’d stayed in London. McGovern seized the title in brutal fashion, flattening his fleet-footed foe in the first world championship bout under Queensberry Rules to end by first-round knockout.

Although young enough at age 22 to rebuild, Pedlar was never quite the same after losing his world title. A cavalier attitude to training combined with a love of smoking, drinking and the race track saw his form become erratic.

Like most young men of his era and limited education, Palmer had only a vague grasp of banking and finance. His backer, an East End bookmaker called Alf Snelling, persuaded him to open a bank account when the ring money started to roll in, and he received a cheque book.

Palmer sprayed cheques like left jabs around the shops and restaurants of London and dolled them out freely to hangers on. Before long, his account was overdrawn. “What does that mean?” he asked his bank manager when given the news. “It means you owe us money,” he answered. “Don’t be daft,” said an indignant Palmer, waving a half-full cheque book under the man’s nose. “How can I owe you money when I’ve still got all these cheques left?”

Palmer pictured in Brighton in later life

In 1907 came the greatest tragedy of Pedlar’s life. On a train returning from Epsom races he got into an altercation with another race-goer, Robert Choat, a 42-year-old gas stoker from Deptford in south London, who boarded the busy train in an inebriated state and sat down near Pedlar.

After Choat swore at Palmer, the ex-world champion, who apparently deplored the use of foul language in front of women and children, was heard to say: “Don’t forget there are ladies in the carriage.” Choat, a large, muscular man, was said to have snapped back at the 5ft 3in Palmer: “I don’t care who you are – I’m not afraid of little people.”

At once Pedlar jumped up and delivered four or five rapid punches to Choat, who immediately fell silent and slumped down in his seat. At first, Palmer and the other passengers in the carriage assumed the man was merely unconscious. Soon, though, the full horror of the situation became clear. The rain of blows had killed him (the cause of death was a blood clot on the brain).

“Wake up, old man,” Palmer implored, lifting the man’s head and patting him on the cheek. Witnesses described how Palmer then cradled the dead man’s head and kissed him, exclaiming, “Oh, my God, what have I done? God bless you. I didn’t mean to kill you,” before weeping uncontrollably.

Pedlar was arrested for murder, then a capital offence, but at trial the charge was reduced to manslaughter. Taking into account a string of previous convictions on Palmer’s record, including for assaulting his wife and another assault for which he’d served one month’s hard labour, the judge, the well-known Mr Justice Bigham (later Lord Mersey), sentenced the former world champion to five years’ penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labour), of which he would serve nearly four years.

In passing the sentence, Bigham said: “I am satisfied you had no intention of bringing about this man’s death… But that you are a dangerous character I am also satisfied of. Hasty use of hands or fists, regardless of consequences, proves it… You have taken away this man’s life, and I cannot regard your crime in a lenient light.”

Upon his release in 1911, Palmer launched an inevitable comeback. By then in his mid-30s, his speedy reflexes had slowed. He scuffled through a series of minor bouts before retiring, but resurfaced in March 1919, aged 42, for a match with fellow old-time titlist Jim Driscoll. In their respective primes, it could have been a fight for the ages, but both were well past their best. Driscoll, 38 himself, dispatched Pedlar in the fourth round and the Canning Town man never fought again.

Palmer had won and lost a small fortune during his career, spending, gambling and handing out money to scroungers who spun him a hard-luck story. At the height of his fame, his admirers bought him a £1,000 diamond-studded belt, which he had loaned to various acquaintances over the years. Later, when he took the belt to be valued he was told it was worthless. The diamonds had been replaced by cut-glass stones.

Like many ex-sports stars, Pedlar battled alcoholism and was in court various times charged with drink-fuelled offences. But he seemed to treat these legal troubles with a devil-may-care attitude. “Another time, I met Palmer in Fleet Street,” James Butler recalled. “He was in merry mood. ‘Where are you going?’ I said. ‘To see the beak at Mansion House,’ he replied cheerfully. ‘I’m up for clouting a bloke who insulted me. The boys collected a fiver last night. Forty bob fine and three quid for the old Pedlar.’ He rubbed his hands and chuckled. Later that afternoon the tape machine was recording that Palmer had been given a prison sentence!”

But his post-prizefighting life wasn’t all fun and laughter. At his lowest ebb, in 1930, he was bound over on a charge of attempting to commit suicide by inhaling coal gas (incredibly, suicide was a crime in England and Wales until 1961). Palmer promised the magistrates he would keep away from drink and not attempt to harm himself again.

By that time, the former world champ was living in Brighton, on the south coast, a favourite training locale in his fighting days. A chirpy cockney with a mischievous grin, invariably decked out in a bowler hat and choker, he became one of the town’s best-known characters and a regular at Brighton Racecourse where he indulged his great love of horse racing. To young people, he was a quaint little old man from a bygone age who seemed as if he’d stepped out of a Dickens novel.

Palmer was often found hanging around the railway station or clock tower, hoping to bump into an old fight fan who remembered and appreciated his phenomenal ring skill, and occasionally he did. He liked to tell stories of the fortune he’d won with his fists and had lost or given away. The amount grew as the years passed and eventually he claimed he’d made and lost £100,000. The true figure is probably nearer £25,000 – still a huge sum for his day.

A London Daily News reporter who visited Brighton in 1940, on encountering the sprightly 63-year-old ex-world champion, asked him the reason for his longevity. “My secret is I’ve never been hit. You go to hit Pedlar, he’s never there, my boy. Look at my nose. I was fighting till I was 50 and I’ve never let it be spoilt.”

Contemporary accounts of Palmer’s ring exploits, particularly his freakishly fast head movement, suggest a defensive style akin to that of the uncannily illusive Brendan Ingle middleweight Herol “Bomber” Graham. But no doubt, given his lighter weight class, Pedlar in his prime would have been even quicker.

Sharing another pearl of wisdom from his eventful life, Palmer told the reporter: “The way to get on with the nobility is not ‘Yes, my Lord,’ and ‘No, my Lord,’ but just be rough and ready, same as you always are… and I’ve known nobility in my time.”

Palmer had indeed seen different stratas of society, and life – from the best to the worst. Boxing has no shortage of wild and tumultuous life stories, but his stands comparison with any. The Canning Town man’s final fight was against pneumonia, to which he succumbed in February 1949, age 72.

Alex Daley is the author of Born to Box: The Extraordinary Story of Nipper Pat Daly, Fighting Men of London: Voices from Inside the Ropes and Boxing Nostalgia: The Good, The Bad and the Weird, available from Amazon and all good books shops.