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Henry Cooper 1934â"2011
The Authorised Biography
By Robert Edwards
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Robert Edwards
All rights reserved.
'It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.' CHARLES DICKENS, Great Expectations, (1861).
1857 was a busy and distressing year for London, indeed the whole country, for it was the year of the Great Indian Mutiny, which had swept through the north of the subcontinent with unimagined ferocity, and was, in the late autumn and early winter, suppressed with equal brutality. The mutiny was the single dominant event of the period, perhaps the most savage military encounter of the imperial epoch.
The London of 1857 would, to a twenty-first century time traveller, be physically recognizable, but rather strange. The Irish peer Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister and while he was no particular democrat, he was, despite the disaster of the mutiny, popular (except with the Queen) and ruled the empire not from No 10 Downing Street, which he regarded with disdain, but rather from his own fine town house in Piccadilly, far superior, and from where he could admire the streetwalkers, or from his grand country estate in Hertfordshire, Brocket Hall. Among his leisure interests (mainly carnal, it must be said), he was a strong supporter and defender of prizefighting.
On 16 June of that year, Tom Sayers, a compact but sturdy bricklayer from Sussex, challenged William Perry, 'The Tipton Slasher', for the English prizefighting championship title. The fight took place – eventually, after several hurried relocations – on the Isle of Grain, in Kent, and Sayers won it. It was a famous encounter, lasting ten rounds. Wince when you realize that the time elapsed was one hour and forty-two minutes. At 5ft 8in, Sayers gave away (four inches) in height and no fewer than 401bs in weight to his opponent. Technically, he was not actually champion yet; he still had to beat Tom Paddock, who had been the previous title-holder, but who had been too ill to fight before. Unsurprisingly, Sayers was to beat him, too.
Historic encounters though they were, great fights indeed, they were to be eclipsed by the dire news from India, which took six weeks to arrive, that ten days after Sayer's victory over Perry, the massacre at Cawnpore had taken place. No event in nineteenth- century history, not even the previous disaster at Balaklava (1854) nor the greater one to come at Isandlwhana (1879) made for a greater impact on Victorian English consciousness than Cawnpore. It was a seminal moment for the average Brit and rather served to set the tone, not only of public approval of the vengeance that would be wrought upon the mutineers but also the general tone of colonial military policy until the end of the century. It was events such as this that made it clear that an aggressive spirit was perhaps no bad thing.
These matters may or may not have mattered much to William Cooper, 24, from Bishopstoke, Hampshire, as the East India Company Army recruitment drive heated up to unparalleled levels of intensity, for his mind was probably more focused on his fiancée, Bedana Keenen, a year younger than himself, who had moved, with her father Edward, a labourer, and her mother and sister (both named Bridget), from County Kildare, probably in the wake of the series of potato famines that had swept through Ireland a decade before the mutiny in India. They might well, like so many others, have chosen America, but had they done so (they could almost certainly not afford the passage) this book would not have been written.
A cooper, of course, is a barrel-maker, but William Cooper was a farm labourer. In 1857 there was little difference between the Hampshire countryside where he had been born and raised and that of Essex, where, by the time of his marriage to Bedana on 6 September 1857, he lived and worked. The newly married couple settled in a house (which may possibly have then been a tied cottage) where they had already been living together, at 1 North Street, in the parish of West Ham, near Plaistow. Bedana's mother, Bridget Keenen, moved in too, which rather suggests that she was a widow by now. Bridget senior appears to have given birth to Bedana quite late, at the age of 46, as she gives her age in the 1861 census as 72, against Bedana's 26. A Catherine Tatum, 50, also from Ireland, who lists her occupation as laundress, is staying with them as a visitor.
William's new mother-in-law would have been old enough to witness that extraordinary event in Irish sporting history, the Donnelly-Cooper prizefight, which had taken place, allegedly in front of 20,000 spectators, in the year of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. The two men fought at the Curragh, just outside Dublin, and it was an encounter that both passed into legend and was immortalized in song. It is entirely possible that a young Palmerston was present.
In April 1860, three years after William Cooper's marriage, the English version of the prizefight of the century took place at Farnborough, on the far side of Hampshire from William's birthplace. It was between Tom Sayers and an American, John C. Heenan of California. Heenan was the 'US champion'. Although the fight was quite illegal, that little detail failed to prevent both Palmerston, current Prime Minister and also ex-local MP, as well as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray from turning up to watch, and neither did it prevent special trains being laid on to transport the avid punters to the match, to a resigned acceptance by the forces of law and order.
In truth, it was a justifiable nervousness on the part of the authorities concerning the size and nature of the crowds who would attend these fights that really governed the attitude of the authorities to them. After all, there had been a serious risk of massive and violent civil disobedience since the 1848 Chartist riots. Boxing, as a violent sport, was considered to be a serious risk to law and order, given that the spectators, frequently drunk and energized by what they had seen, might decide to extend the spirit of the conflict out into the wider countryside. There had emerged an unwritten understanding, though, that prizefighting was an undesirable (but probably unavoidable) social necessity since the abolition of bear-baiting in 1803 and cock-fighting in 1849. Any activity that drew large numbers of unruly spectators to a given place was considered to be of dubious social value, and this state of affairs would last several decades. But given the interest shown in it by the upper echelons of society, it made strict enforcement of boxing's illegal status quite difficult; it was de facto protected, but remained firmly in the twilight.
But, illegal or not, this fight was an epic; after 2 hours and 20 minutes and totalling 42 rounds, the last five of which were total chaos, the result was a declared draw as the two contestants, who as a result of this encounter later became the best of friends, took to their heels. The unseemly riot that followed at least allowed the Prime Minister and his cronies to beat a dignified retreat.
The fight was hardly a secret (every major paper including the New York Times had a reporter present) and questions were asked in the House, which triggered a debate later on, in 1862 in the Lords. Palmerston, who carried the instincts of the Regency sporting gent well into the high Victorian period, argued strongly against Lord Lovaine, who argued, as a Whig would (most still do) that the sport was barbaric. A 'motion of censure' was passed, which, while it was neither one thing nor another, did not help the cause of prizefighting. In truth, it was a trivial matter by comparison with the demands placed upon parliament in the field of foreign affairs – there was by now a civil war in America, after all.
The great campaign to rebuild London's dire and unhealthy drainage system started in the 1860s and the requirements for labour were huge. This enterprise was one of the biggest public works programmes of the era and it went hand in hand with great swathes of public housing for the poor, led by the American philanthropist George Peabody and the English heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts. By 1864, we find that William Cooper has left the land and is now applying his skills working as a digger on one of Joseph Bazalguette's great enterprises, the Abbey Mills pumping station in West Ham. His life has moved on and, sadly, Bedana appears to have died, as his wife is now named as Bridget (also née Keenen), whom we might assume to be Bedana's sister. Interestingly, her age is given as the same as Bedanas would have been, so the two were probably twins, a characteristic that often runs in families and would certainly run in this one.
As William changed his job, so he changed his address, for by the time his third child (and second son), George, is born on 1 August 1864, the growing family (a daughter, Harriet, had arrived in 1862) are to be found at 5 Brooks Road, West Ham, which must have been rather handy for William's work. The new birth is registered on 9 September and we can see from the entry on the certificate that, alas, Bridget is illiterate, for she signs her name with a simple X.
But unlettered or not, Bridget is a true communicator. With her from Ireland she has brought her family's stories and songs, and one in particular is to have an important influence on the family's later life. It is the epic account of the Daniel Donnelly fight from all those years before and handed down in the oral tradition; it was to become a favourite of little George's, and thus rather important to this book. It is certainly not great verse – we will hear far worse before this book is finished, I assure you – but it is evocative:
Come all you true bred Irishmen
I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention
To those few lines I have here.
It is as true a story
As ever you did hear,
Of how Donnelly fought Cooper
On the Curragh of Kildare.
One important spin-off of the Sayers/Heenan encounter was that amateur boxers started to consider their position. The Corinthian tradition, as exemplified by men like Palmerston, was alive and well (if creaking, slightly) and living within the Amateur Athletic Club (AAC), a new organization whose members viewed with dismay the increasing socio-legal pressure to impose an absolute ban on boxing in all its forms, amateur or professional.
A founder member of the AAC was John Graham Chambers, not long down from Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he had befriended John Sholto Douglas, the eighth Marquess of Queensberry. Chambers determined that a set of rules that might serve to legitimize boxing was now mandatory, as the pressure mounting on the sport was huge, and those who were proponents of it were justifiably nervous.
In 1865, Chambers set to work. What he came up with was in effect the invention of twentieth-century boxing: a sport we would recognize now. The Chambers rules, which passed into history as the Queensberry Rules (their noble sponsor) are relatively simple. There are 12 of them:
1. To be a fair stand-up boxing match in a 24 foot ring, or as near that size as practicable.
2. No wrestling or hugging allowed.
3. The rounds to be of three minute's duration, and one minute's time between rounds.
4. If either man falls through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted, ten seconds to be allowed for him to do so; the other man meanwhile to return to his corner, and when the fallen man is on his legs the round is to be resumed and continued until the three minutes are expired. If one man fails to come to the scratch in the ten seconds allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in the favour of the other man.
5. A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down.
6. No seconds or any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds.
7. Should the contest be stopped by any unavoidable interference, the referee to name the time and place as soon as possible for finishing the contest; so the match must be won and lost, unless the backers of both men agree to draw the stakes.
8. The gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new.
9. Should a glove burst, or come off it must be replaced to the referee's satisfaction.
10. A man on one knee is considered down, and if struck is entitled to the stakes.
11. No shoes or boots with springs allowed.
12. The contest in all other respects to be governed by the revised rules of the London Prize Ring.
These rules impose upon boxing a code that puts it firmly within a type of moral framework that is both humane and perhaps even legally defensible. They mark a turning point as the sport finally starts to put its house in order. There can be little doubt that their mere existence ensured the survival of the sport in any form. The most important aspect of them was their clear intention in attempting to ensure that the art of pugilism would be allowed to dominate the ring. A secondary effect was that the sport of wrestling could now develop on its own. Whether we should be particularly grateful to Chambers and Queensberry for that is quite another question.
There was another Chambers involved in drafting these rules. He was Arthur Chambers (no relation) a professional boxer and a friend of Queensberry's. The pair had toured America together shortly after the Civil War. It is likely that his contribution was to add to and modify the original proposals to include several new elements, which result in an activity that is clearly recognizable today; indeed, a fight fought under these regulations would still be perfectly legal. I list them on the following pages, as it is interesting to note the effect of the input of a professional boxer.
The rules were finally published by a committee of the Pugilist's Benevolent Association in 1866.
1. All contests to be decided in a roped ring not less than 15 feet and not more than 24 feet square.
2. Contestants to box in light boots or shoes or in socks.
3. In all contests the number and duration of rounds must be specified. The limit of rounds shall be twenty three-minute rounds; the interval between the rounds shall be 1 minute. All championship contests shall be of twenty three-minute rounds. The gloves to be a minimum weight of 6 ozs. and shall be provided by the promoter.
4. The contestants shall be entitled to the assistance of not more than four seconds who are to be approved by the promoter, and no advice can be given by the seconds during the progress of a round. In all contests the decision shall be given in favour of the contestant who attains the greatest number of points. The points shall be for:
ATTACK – direct or clean hits with the knuckle part of the glove on any part of the front or sides of the head or body above the belt.
DEFENCE – guarding, slipping, ducking or betting away (Where points are otherwise equal, the preference to be given to the contestant who does most of the leading off, or who displays the best style.)
6. The referee may disqualify a contestant for delivering a foul blow, intentionally or otherwise, for holding, butting, palming, shouldering, falling without receiving a blow, wrestling or for boxing unfairly by hitting with the open glove, the inside or the butt of the hand, with the wrist or elbow, or for roughing.
7. If in the opinion of the referee a deliberate foul is committed by a contestant, such contestant shall not be entitled to a prize. The referee shall have the power to stop a contest if, in his opinion a man is unfit to continue, and that man shall be deemed to have lost the contest.
8. No seconds of any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds. Each contestant shall be entitled to the assistance of not more than four seconds, who must take up positions outside the ring during the rounds and who must not, under pain of disqualification of their principal by the referee, coach, assist in any manner or advise their principal during the rounds, or enter the ring during the progress of a contest. A second refusing to obey the order of the referee shall be removed from his position and replaced by another approved by the referee.
9. The contestant failing to come up when time is called or refusing to obey the referee, shall lose the contest. A man on one knee, or when on the ropes with both feet off the ground, shall be considered down.
10. If a contestant slips down, he must get up again immediately. His opponent must stand back out of distance until the fallen man is on his feet, when the contest shall be resumed. A contestant who has knocked down his opponent must immediately walk to his own corner, but should the fallen man be knocked down in that corner, the contestant delivering the knockdown shall retire to the farthest corner. A man knocked down must rise unassisted in ten seconds or lose the contest.
Excerpted from Henry Cooper 1934â"2011 by Robert Edwards. Copyright © 2012 Robert Edwards. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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