The Bar Man - Boxing clever in the pub

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It was interesting to see that a boxing tournament was recently staged at Chicago’s on Norfolk Street, Lynn.

There has long been an association between boxing and pubs, sometimes because the landlord was formerly a boxer or because a pub also housed a gym.

The golden age of fights being staged in pubs or sponsored by landlords goes back to bare knuckle times in the Georgian and Victorian eras. The aim in those days was to make money. Not only could admission be charged, but huge sums would be gambled on the bout.

Down the street from Chicago’s was once the Wheatsheaf and in one of the wine and spirit stores there once existed a cockpit, where the fighting arena was enclosed with banking wide enough for a couple of rows of interested spectators. This activity was banned in 1849, just before the hotel was taken over by one of Lynn’s greatest sporting publicans, James Fiddaman. Gambling had, by this time, become such a problem that in 1853 it became illegal to post odds and take cash bets, to protect the working class from becoming exposed to temptation. The rich, as always, operate under different laws and could continue to gamble on credit, and so James organised plenty of opportunities for them. Live pigeon or sparrow shooting seemed to be popular, and although there was space at the rear of the premises, big contests would be held at the cricket ground off Hardwick Road, or the one near the workhouse (which I suspect is where The Walks football stadium now stands). The birds would be released from a basket and shot from a range of 22 yards (closer for sparrows) with a single-barrel gun of less than 10 bore. Head-to head contests would attract thousands of spectators, each paying 1/-.

Equally popular, it seems, was a succession of long-distance walking challenges. In 1853 A Elston was challenged to walk 60 miles a day for six successive days. He set off each day from the Wheatsheaf and walked to the Lord Nelson at Dereham by way of Swaffham before retracing his steps and returning to the Wheatsheaf where he would spend the night. The next year he returned and attempted to walk 100 miles in 24 hours, again starting at the Wheatsheaf. The walking contests were still taking place in 1883 when Madame Eagle walked 1,500 miles in 1,000 hours. Starting at the beginning of September she completed the walk successfully on October 15 witnessed by large crowds. This took place at Fiddaman’s sports ground, a field off Gaywood Road.

The Wheatsheaf was also the HQ for the Lynn horse racing and rabbit coursing meeting, where entries were made and, no doubt, bets settled. The races were held at a course over in West Lynn and at their height were attended by many thousands brought from all over the country. They were killed off eventually by unpleasant incidents blamed on “some of the veriest riff-raff of the metropolis” despite being accompanied by their own police escort on a special train. Let’s hope that such incidents are a thing of the past, and boxing thrives in its spiritual home on Norfolk Street.