A THEME that I constantly parrot is that, back in the 1930s when there were so many professional fighters up and down the country, virtually every town had a stable of fighters, never more so than in the working-class towns and villages across industrial Britain. Take Stanley, for example. Unless you are familiar with the North-East, this is probably a place that you have never heard of, and yet, between 1925 and 1935, it played host to more than 400 professional tournaments, both indoors and outdoors, in seven different venues.

Stanley is situated between Durham and Newcastle and was, of course, in the heart of the Durham coalfield. Even today the population is only around 30,000, but when it was a boxing hotbed the population was even smaller, yet it produced swathes of good fighters, and virtually all of them were miners.

Fifty hours down the pit every week and then a 10-rounder on a Friday night was what they endured. They didn’t have time to train in the same way that the lads do today, but life – markedly harder back then – made them tough and fit to fight.

The place had always known hardship, and tragedy. In 1909, it lost 160 of its best men and boys in a pit disaster, and quite a few of the professionals that followed had lost fathers and uncles in this disaster. Stanley was a close-knit community, where everybody knew each other, and with any number of pits surrounding the town there was great rivalry when a boxer from one mine boxed a lad from another.

Inevitably, this led to the ‘Pitman’s Championships’ and Stanley had more than a few of these. My photograph shows Barney Whitney, resplendent in his trilby, and looking every inch the boxing manager and promoter, surrounded by his lads, all of whom come from the town. Three of them, Miles Connelly (seated left), Joe Broughy and Teddy Joyce (both standing) claimed the Pitmen’s title of Northumberland and Durham and all of them were highly skilled ring men with a big punch. The other lad, Jimmy Rogers, a flyweight, never attained the same heights as his stablemates, but was one of many similar lads who made up the Whitney’s frequent bills.

Battling Sullivan, the father of the British middleweight champion of the 1950s, Johnny Sullivan, moved to Stanley in 1931 and ran weekly shows from his boxing booth until 1933, and, as he was born in December 1932, I think it likely that Johnny was actually born in the town. Battling Sullivan, originally from Preston and whose real name was Hallmark, campaigned as a middleweight and light-heavyweight between 1927 and 1936, meeting men like Reggie Meen, Con O’Kelly, Jack London and Harry Reeve.

While operating his booth he also regularly boxed himself at the New St James Hall, Newcastle. He often promoted on a Saturday night and then topped the bill at Newcastle the following Monday.

Another ex-fighter, George Harwood of nearby Craghead, who I wrote about in a separate article back in 2020, also ran a booth in Stanley. As a consequence of his boxing career, George had gone blind, and he tried to eke out a living as a promoter between 1932 and 1933 and he found it tough. The depression had kicked in by this time, and even if there were plenty of lads willing to fight for pay, there wasn’t enough spare money in the town to guarantee an audience, especially with Whitney, Sullivan and others also promoting at the same time.

The last show for very many years took place in Stanley at the greyhound stadium in 1949 until, 40 years later in June 1989, Glenn McCrory won the vacant IBF cruiserweight title in the town, beating Patrick Lumumba at the Louisa Centre.  This venue was built on the site of the Louisa Colliery and therefore provided a fitting link between the best man to ever have fought in the town and the many young lads, all coalminers, who preceded him.