KEVIN GORDON - World champions fight at Seaford

Boxing matches at the North Camp in Seaford
Boxing matches at the North Camp in Seaford
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The year 1917 saw a unique sporting afternoon in Sussex with three world champions gathering to entertain the troops at the North Camp, Seaford.

Two huge military camps had been built in Seaford in Autumn 1914, each to accommodate thousands of men training for the front. Entertainment was quite staid with piano concerts, a YMCA Hut, Catholic Recreation Room and Reading & Writing Hut.

There was also the occasional trip to the sea for ‘Bathing Parade’ where hundreds of naked men braved the cold waters of Seaford Bay. The men were used to physical exercise as, they not only had drill, but also had to practice digging trenches on the Downs around the town. They also liked a good fight (not surprising for a bunch of soldiers), so a spectacular boxing match was arranged.

Lord Glanusk (Colonel William Bailey) CB, DSO was the patron of the ‘London Command Deport Boxing Tournament’ which took place on a sunny Friday, June 1 in the boxing arena at the North Camp at Seaford.

The boxing arena was situated in a converted chalk-pit and could accommodate 6,000 spectators (although many more were able to watch by climbing on to the roofs of nearby army huts.) This was to be an important event and the referees were none other than Arthur Bettinson and Eugene Corri of the National Sporting Council (NSC). Bettinson a former British Lightweight Champion had founded the NSC in 1891.

He standardised weight divisions and arranged for the presentation of championship belts that had been donated by the first NSC President, Lord Lonsdale. (In 2011, along with Mike Tyson, Sylvester Stallone and Sir Harry Carpenter, Bettinson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.)

Corri was a renowned referee who invigilated in several world championship fights.

After entertainment from the band of the Dragoon Guards, the boxing started with some preliminary rounds followed by a ten round contest between Staff Sergeant Zimmer and Harry Jones of the Royal Fusiliers. Zimmer was one of the instructors at the camp and was able to beat Jones on points.

Next was a six round fight between Corporal Goggins of the Royal Fusiliers and Corporal George Baker, a Canadian who had been the amateur (ABA) featherweight boxing champion of Britain from 1912 to 1914. Baker knocked out Goggins in the fifth round. (After the war he regained his title from 1919 to 1921).

The star event however was a match between two champions, Frank Slavin (billed as the ex-heavyweight champion of the world) and Ernest Chandler (who at that time was the serving heavyweight champion of the world). Prior to the match, Major James Fowles told the assembled crowd how honoured he was to present the two men, especially ‘Paddy’ Slavin who 25 years ago almost to the day had fought Peter Jackson in one of the most celebrated fights of the Victorian era. He said that Slavin had not put on gloves since 1892, but had decided to fight for the sake of old friends.

This was not quite true as records show that Salvin had taken part in at least 27 fights since that date including three in London.

Slavin was a fascinating character. Australian by birth, he started his career as a bareknuckle fighter. He became Champion of New Zealand in 1888 and one of his fights that same year was refereed by none other than the Marquis of Queensbury. He was former all-England bare-knuckle fighter but his most famous match was between the black boxer Peter Jackson for a purse of a massive £2,000.

Jackson trained at Brighton and was heralded as the ‘Coloured Pugilist’. Slavin was the favourite to win but had aggravated his opponent by making racist remarks. He got absolutely pummelled which was made worse because he refused to be ‘beaten by a black man’ and throw in the towel. After the fight, he went to Canada to be a gold prospector. He had joined the army aged 54 and even spent time at the front at Ypres before his rheumatism caused him to be sent to

Seaford where he worked as an instructor at the North Camp.

Chandler, on the other hand, was at the height of his boxing career and was only 26. He had been educated at the City of London School and boxed for the Stock Exchange Club, however, like Jackson he did his training at Brighton. Three years earlier, he had travelled to New York where he become the amateur Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World.

Not surprisingly he beat Slavin in just three rounds. There were many more boxing matches including a hilarious recreation of the first world championship fight in 1860. Seaford had never seen such excitement!

After the war Chandler continued to fight, returning to the USA to fight the famous Jack Dempsey in 1925. He died under strange circumstances in Brighton in 1936. His friend Sir Harry Preston, the owner of both the Royal York and the Royal Albion Hotels, became ill and despite not being a doctor, Chandler gave Preston a blood transfusion. Both men were infected during the process and died within a week of each other.