PEOPLE have often asked me why I am so fascinated by the exploits of long-forgotten boxers who were mostly active before I was even born. The truth is that I have always been a social historian very much interested in Britain between the wars. This may have something to do with my grandfather telling me stories of his youth when I was quite young. I grew up watching the return of Muhammad Ali and well remember his three contests with Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena and Joe Frazier.
A love of boxing quickly became allied to my love of history and it wasn’t long before I was visiting Newcastle Library to look at the newspaper reports of the second Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney bout in 1927. I quickly noticed that there was a lot of boxing taking place in and around the Newcastle area at that time. I started to write the results down and compile records for these fighters. That took me to Gateshead Ex-Boxers Association, where I became President at the age of 19. The old-timers couldn’t believe how much I knew about their careers. Most of these fighters that I got to know boxed in the 1920s and 1930s, but one of them was older.
He lived about half-a-mile from me and we used to get the bus together to go to meetings. Despite being born nearly 60 years apart we got on well and he told me many stories of his boxing career. His name was Bombardier Duncan McLeod, although everyone just called him “The Bombardier”. He had Scottish heritage, was born in Wiltshire, and settled in Newcastle after the first World War, in which he served with the Royal Field Artillery, hence his ring moniker.
“The most he earned for a fight was £7.50, although he topped the bill in 15-rounders many times.”
After learning to box in the army, he turned professional at the old St James’ Hall in Newcastle in July 1919, beating a Gateshead fighter called Billy Benson in one round. He quickly became a favourite with the Gallowgate fans, as he tended to win, or lose, quickly. He was an all-out scrapper with a hefty punch. Over the course of the next four years, “The Bombardier” had 33 contests, all taking place within the North East, and he won 18 of them. Only one of his wins went the full distance, such was his punching power. By 1921 he had earned the nickname “One-round McLeod”. The most he earned for a fight was £7.50, although he topped the bill in 15-rounders many times.
There was no question that, like many punchers before him and since, he wasn’t so good at taking it himself. I remember him admitting this to me freely. He got stopped very often and his last five contests, leading to his retirement at 25, were inside-the-distance defeats. In his last bout, in 1923, he was beaten by North Shields hardman Billy Forrest in three rounds. It was the love of a woman that put paid to his ring career. His new wife insisted he stop boxing and so he became a fan instead, collecting memorabilia and attending fights.
Whilst on the bus going to a Gateshead meeting, he told me of his collection, and what happened to it. His house received a direct hit from the Luftwaffe on a bombing raid in 1942 and he lost everything, including the records of his fights. This inspired me to research his career. It was not easy, back in 1976, to get copies of reports from old newspapers, but I somehow conspired with the staff to get them for him. I produced a dossier containing these reports, and his ring record, and I handed it to him at a meeting of the Association. When he saw what it was, he broke down in tears. He was so pleased to be able to read again about his exploits, but it also brought back hard memories of the bombing raid. What he had omitted to tell me, which he now did, was that he lost not only his collection, but his house and his wife in that bombing raid. I’ll never forget him – he was a wonderful old chap.