BACK in the 1980s there was a very popular advert on British TV for BT’s Yellow Pages in which an old gentleman eventually tracks down a beloved book, “Fly Fishing by J R Hartley”. Well, boxing has its own bibliophile by the name of Hartley, and he was quite an exceptional man.
I used to communicate intermittently with R A Hartley many years ago as he used to buy and sell boxing books and magazines, but he is most famous for his life’s work, the History and Bibliography of Boxing Books. Bob attempted to write a complete compendium of every boxing book ever published, both in the UK and abroad, and he succeeded in finding, and detailing, over 2,100 of them. For anyone seriously interested in building a collection of boxing books, and there are many of you, Bob’s book is an essential source of reference.
Bob always came across as quite a learned and scholarly gentleman and it came as a complete surprise to many to find that he had an extensive career as a professional boxer back in the 1930s. I have made it something of a personal mission to trace as many of Bob’s bouts as I can and, with him boxing in and around one of the backwaters of boxing at this time, Lincolnshire and East Anglia, it has not proved to be an easy task. A glance at his record reveals just how extensive professional boxing was at this time, with many small towns and villages that haven’t had a pro show for over 80 years appearing on it.
Bob was born at Billingborough in South Lincolnshire, and he was the best of a small group of around eight other boxers who came from the village, and even today its population is only around 1,000. He boxed as a middleweight, and he could punch. His record is decorated with clean knockouts against a host of men who, like him, were boxing primarily to put food onto the family table.
With attendances at some of the halls he boxed at regularly amounting to only two or three hundred, no one was ever going to get rich from boxing around there. The first contest that I can trace for Bob took place at the Forester’s Hall in his own village, a six-rounder against a lad from nearby Bourne, on a bill promoted by the Boston Boxing Syndicate and Bob knocked his man out in two rounds. He followed that up with a one-round knockout at Grantham a week later against a lad from Kirton.
Most of Bob’s early bouts took place at Boston, Grantham, Spalding and Billingborough, where he was naturally a big favourite, and he won his first 14 in a row. His first defeat came in March 1934 when he was knocked out of the ring at Grantham in a bout against Arthur ‘Knocker’ Freestone. Despite a valiant attempt Bob could not get back inside the ring in time. After this Bob continued to plug away in mainly eight and 10-rounders all over Lincs and East Anglia, boxing at Holbeach, Bourne, Skegness, Lincoln, Melton Mowbray and Woodhall Spa.
During 1936 he campaigned in Suffolk and Essex and then, in October 1937, he boxed at the Empress Cinema, Chatteris in a bill topped by local hero, Eric Boon, whose meteoric career was just starting to peak. This earned Bob his first, and only, London contest. He drew over eight rounds with George Thurcell at Canning Town Marina and the BN report for the bout tells us about Bob’s fighting style “A real sizzler and a toe-to-toe slam all the way with Hartley fighting splendidly.”
In his last contest Bob held the great Dick Turpin to another eight-round draw at Rugby. After a 56-bout career, with only 11 losses, Bob left the ring for the comfort of his study to produce the definitive boxing bibliography. What a man.