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Monday, 29 September 2014

Arthur Frederick "Peggy" Bettinson (1862 - 1926)

On a lesser-explored pathway in Highgate Cemetery East lies a relatively modest grave.  The earth contained within the grave’s curb is hard, dry and without floral tributes.  The plain white letters inscribed on the headstone reveal only a name and dates of birth and death.  Yet, to historians and aficionados of the noble art of boxing, the man lying beneath commands colossal amounts of respect.  A posthumous inductee to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, thanks to the immeasurable contribution he made toward revolutionising the rules and reputation of the sport, this is the final resting place of Arthur Frederick “Peggy” Bettinson. 
Born in Marylebone, Peggy grew up in Hampstead and was an avid sportsman throughout his life, partaking in competitive swimming while also enjoying rugby and cricket.  In his later years, he was also said to be an enthusiastic roller skater.  But boxing was always his first love and in 1882, aged 20, Peggy became the British Amateur Boxing Association's lightweight champion.  Peggy continued competing as an amateur in exhibition bouts, but it was shortly before his 29th birthday that his passion for pugilism steered him away from fighting and down a path that would leave his indelible mark on the sport for years to come. 
The Pelican Club on Gerrard Street opened its doors in 1887 as an entertainment venue for wealthy men of influence, but was soon frequented by rowdy rakish types who squandered their money on drink and gambling.  While its members (known as Pelicans) were no angels, the club boasted the largest boxing hall in London and hosted many a bout that featured the most illustrious fighters of the day.  The Pelican Club counted The Marquess of Queensberry as a member but despite such high level patronage, the club’s reputation suffered a blow in 1889 following its sponsorship of a bare-knuckled fight in Bruges between Jem Smith and Frank Slavin that ended in a riot.  The club’s standing was sullied further by the behaviour of the Pelicans themselves, who staggered out of the club into the surrounding streets of the West End in the early hours of almost every morning, inebriated and raucous.  In response, the sleep-deprived residents took out an injunction against the Pelican Club, resulting in the revocation of the club’s licence to host fights.  And so, just four years after its grand opening, the Pelican Club was declared bankrupt.

The steps and pillars outside what would later become the National Sporting Club are visible on the right (near centre) of Hogarth’s “Morning”, published in 1738 (see Additional Notes for more information on the building)

This presented Peggy with the perfect opportunity to establish a far more respectable boxing venue and, after ploughing a large amount of his own capital into the venture, he joined forces with the Pelican’s former manager, John Fleming.  Together they set up the fledgling organisation’s new headquarters at 43 King Street, Covent Garden and on Thursday 5 March 1891, the National Sporting Club opened its doors to a throng of excited sports lovers.
Peggy Bettinson                            John Fleming                         Lord Lonsdale

The interior of the club was impressive on an aesthetic level while simultaneously offering the utmost comfort to its members courtesy of the plush but elegant furnishings.   The grand entrance hall featured part of an ornately carved staircase that had once belonged to Lord Russell’s flagship, Britannia.  The Coffee Room was tastefully decorated, the walls adorned with portraits of notable sportsmen and other distinguished faces and complimented by a well-stocked bar.  Amongst the Club’s other attractions were the upstairs Billiard Room and the nostalgic London Room – the NSC even featured new-fangled electric lighting!

Images of the NSC entrance hall (above) and saloon (top) used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

But the pièce de résistance was the boxing ring downstairs in the basement, which allowed up to 1,300 spectators and guests a good view from any angle in the room.  The Club’s first President was boxing royalty, gloved boxing enthusiast Hugh Cecil Lowther (a.k.a. the fifth Earl of Lonsdale) and, while the Club’s focus was mainly on boxing, matches were often punctuated by performances from the leading music hall artistes of the day, as well as the occasional literary and musical recital - rather fitting considering that prior to occupancy by the NSC, the building had previously been home to a music hall and a theatre.  

Images of the NSC boxing ring (above) and floor plan (below) used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

From a business perspective Peggy ran the NSC in an exacting and unflinching fashion, taking responsibility for approving all fights, handpicking the original members and overseeing the general day-to-day mechanics of the club.  He is described in Andrew Horrall’s “Popular Culture in London C.1890-1918… ” as ‘opinionated’ and ‘outspoken’, while Arne K Lang noted him as being ‘autocratic’ in “Prizefighting: An American History”.  While Peggy may have ruled with a firm hand, it was this same single-mindedness that, in time, transformed the reputation of the sport from one linked with gambling and ne'er-do-wells to a respectable and noble art appreciated by gentlemen.   Under the NSC, Peggy also cemented the foundations for the British Boxing Board of Control as we know it today. 

 The NSC then and now
("Then" image (left) used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (, "Now" picture by Sam Perrin)
The etiquette expected of NSC members was a far cry from the pleasure-seeking antics of the Pelicans, with Peggy insisting that the NSC operate as a strictly private club which "was a businesslike undertaking of business men for other business men”.  Access to the club by non-members was by invitation only and a dress code (evening attire) was observed.  Following dinner, members would descend to the basement to observe bouts in decorous silence.  Even the fighters were expected to conduct themselves in a courteous manner, bowing to the audience after each bout - regardless of whether they had won or lost - and exercising the utmost compliance with any decision made by the referee. 

Images of NSC Programme (08 June 1914) and NSC logo used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (
In terms of the rules of the ring, a modified version of the Queensberry Rules was followed and no more than 20 rounds were permitted for championship fights.  Boxers were to wear padded gloves and a five-point round-by-round scoring system was now adhered to.  Overall, the standards of safety observed by the NSC were much higher than those of the boxing clubs of the past.  According to Graham Gordon in “Master of the Ring”, Peggy based the defence points system on the style of the great Jem Mace, who taught Lord Lonsdale to box and who both John Fleming and Peggy had observed for years.  Peggy was determined that the National Sporting Club instilled a sense of fairness, good sportsmanship and respect among fighters and club members alike. 

In 1897 John Fleming passed away unexpectedly and Peggy took over as Managing Director of the NSC.  Following his promotion, four fatalities occurred at the NSC in just as many years, resulting in a sea change for boxing rules as they then stood.  Peggy and the respective officials were hauled into court to defend themselves and the NSC against allegations of unlawful killing, culpable manslaughter and “felonious killing” of the deceased fighters.  However, in each and every instance, all were cleared of any wrongdoing.  After all the energy and effort Peggy and the NSC had put into transforming the sport’s image, these “not guilty” rulings essentially saved boxing from being outlawed.  One positive development that emerged as a result of the court cases was the implementation of a regulation in which a referee could now halt a bout as and when he saw fit.  Two types of knockouts (knockouts* and technical knockouts†) were also now clearly defined.

* Knockout (KO): When a competitor in the ring cannot get up from the floor without help by the count of ten
† Technical Knockout (TKO): When a competitor in the ring can no longer defend himself (or is unable to continue the fight due to being badly injured) and the referee stops the fight as a result

By 1909, the NSC’s influence within the boxing world was far-reaching.  It had begun regulating divisions, setting the bar for weight limits before the sanctioning of British title fights, as well as introducing the presentation of 22 carat gold and porcelain championship belts (donated by Lord Lonsdale) to the victors of all British title fights held at the NSC’s premises.  The belts were exclusive to the NSC, with Henry Cooper later being the first man to win three of them in succession.

Peggy on the front cover of Boxing, 18 December 1909
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

With regard to Peggy’s personal life, he married Florence Mallet in 1890 and together they had two sons, Gerald and Lionel (Lionel would later succeed his father as Managing Director of the NSC).  However at some point, it appears that Florence and Peggy’s marriage broke down and the couple were living separately.  The census of 1911 confirms that Peggy was living at 59 Clifton Hill with Lionel (aged 18), niece Florence (aged 18) and two servants (Alice Reed and Bridget Ahearn).  However, there were also two other people living in the house: “Kate H Flint” (aged 33, single, no occupation noted) and “Ralph Gilbert Bettinson” (son, aged 3).  At the same time, Florence was noted as living with an uncle in Northdown, Kent, and was listed as still being married, while Gerald wasn’t recorded as residing at either of these residences.

Peggy on the front cover of Boxing, 13 August 1910

(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (
In 1911, despite the sport beginning to enjoy an increasing surge in popularity with the public, boxing became the focus of yet another court case.  A fight between Owen Moran and Jim Driscoll was scheduled to take place in Birmingham on 16 December 1911 and the stakes were high: the victor would’ve walked away with a purse of £1,560 (quite a sum in those days) and the title of Featherweight Champion of the World.  But before the fight could take place, each boxer was issued a summons and ordered to appear in court, the fight accused of being a now-illegal prize fight (as opposed to a sparring exhibition) and, as a result, a breach of the peace.   The promoter, Mr Gerald Austin, stood accused of soliciting and inciting the two boxers to partake in a prize fight and the safety of the sport was also microscopically scrutinised.  Once again Peggy and a number of officials rallied around in boxing’s defence, with the cost of the defence borne entirely by Lord Lonsdale.  Despite the testimony of numerous experts defending the sport, the fight was declared illegal and Moran and Driscoll were each fined £50 (as well as sureties of £25 each).  The newspapers of the day lamented that this ruling had sounded the death knell of professional boxing and an appeal was launched, but the Crown only withdrew the charges two years later.  And so, on 27 January 1913, Messrs Driscoll and Moran finally partook in the fight that should have taken place over two years earlier.  Hosted at the NSC (naturally) the fight was a 20-round battle that ended (much to the disappointment of the crowd) in a draw, with Driscoll retaining his title of Featherweight Champion of the World.
Peggy and co in court on the front cover of The Mirror of Life & Sport, 18 November 1911
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

1914 marked the start of The Great War.  Peggy wasn’t sent away to fight in the trenches because, at the age of 52, I suspect he may have been regarded as a little too ‘time-worn’ for combat.  This didn’t stop him from volunteering as a Special Constable though, while son Lionel enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment.  In the year following the end of the war, Florence Bettinson passed away (aged 46) and less than a fortnight later, Peggy made Harriet Flint his second wife in a ceremony in Hampstead. 

Peggy certainly didn’t rest on his laurels as an ex-amateur champion, manager, match-maker,  promoter and referee.  Even into middle age, he exuded a crackling energy and dedicated his spare time to authoring books dedicated to boxing and the NSC.  Along with Ben Bennison, he penned “Famous Fights and Fighters: From Jem Mace to Tommy Farr” (published 1913) and “The Home of Boxing” (published 1922).  ‘The Guv’nor’ (as he was known to many) was also responsible for writing “The National Sporting Club, Past and Present” with William Outram Tristram (published 1902).  Of all the luminaries within the sport, Peggy Bettinson possessed an encyclopaedic and multi-faceted knowledge of his subject matter, fuelled by a deep love of the sport and based on vast personal experience.

Peggy on the front cover of Boxing, 21 June 1922
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

In the weeks preceding his death, Peggy had been travelling through Europe and suffered a heart attack en route. After being hospitalised for a month, he was discharged and continued his journey through Italy.  However he suffered a further cardiac arrest, forcing him to return to England accompanied by his son, Gerald. 

Peggy passed away on Christmas Eve 1926 at his home on Fairfax Road, south Hampstead, aged 64.  The news of his death shocked and saddened the boxing world, both in the UK and internationally, and Peggy’s funeral was held at Highgate Cemetery on Wednesday 29 December 1926.  The cemetery seemed an especially fitting place for Peggy seeing as it is also the final resting place of Tom Sayers, who famously fought John C. Heenan back in 1860, and who Peggy was said to have held in high regard. 

The Daily Herald described Peggy’s funeral as being attended by “a gathering of men mostly with battered faces and gnarled ears but with hearts of gold” and his friends, colleagues and fellow boxing devotees and were certainly not restrained in their admiration and respect for Peggy and his contribution to the sport:

He did more than any other six men for professional boxing.  I have lost a good friend and sport has lost a great figure
John Douglas (referee)
A national figure in boxing has gone.  He was a good friend and the game has lost a great supporter.  He was more than a manager; he was an authority on the history of the game.  I am sure all boxers will join me in my deep regret
Bombardier” Billy Wells (former British heavyweight champion)

Billy Wells pictured above (centre) with Peggy (right, with bowler hat and ever-present cigar) in an earlier photograph
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (
It is bad news.  I met Mr Bettinson frequently and he always struck me as a man on whom one could rely for a fair deal.  He did professional boxing many services which none of us can forget
Jimmy Wilde (former flyweight champion of the world)

A multitude of wreaths were sent to Peggy’s home, the NSC and Highgate Cemetery, with an especially poignant tribute left by Jimmy Lambert made of violets and shaped as a boxing glove.  Modestly inscribed, Peggy’s headstone is a simple chunk of grey granite set at the head of the plot which, I think, sums up his character and legacy quite nicely: straightforward, tough and enduring.

Image by Sam Perrin

By 1933, seven years after he’d passed away, Peggy’s influence in the boxing world was still evident following the implementation of an idea he’d formulated 15 years earlier.  Peggy had been looking to promote the “institution of new boxing championships at the eight weights for belts such as offered in the British championships in a new series of British Empire titles.”  The 10 May 1933 edition of the Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror reported that “the project will be sponsored by Lord Lonsdale and the trophies will be known as the Lonsdale Empire Belts.  Rules for the new championships are being framed.” 

Peggy had accomplished an astonishing PR coup by transforming public opinion so favourably of a sport that had once been viewed with disdain.  Nevertheless, boxing’s increasing popularity ironically contributed to the downfall of the once-mighty NSC by the end of the 1920s.  Boxers who’d once flocked to the venue described by Peggy as a “Temple of Sport” had learned and evolved, and were now positioned to command larger purses at bigger venues.  This impacted negatively on the NSC’s profitability and in 1928 the club had no option but to renege on its exclusivity as a private club by opening up to the public.  Unfortunately, this effort was long overdue and the club was forced to shut up shop at 43 King Street the following year and move to another premises.  Members of the NCS went on to form the British Boxing Board of Control, the organisation’s primary goal being to act as “the sole governing body for the professional sport”.  The Board reformed in 1929 and is still the governing body of professional boxers in the UK.  The National Sporting Club is also still in existence, the organisation now specialising in providing hospitality for corporate and sporting events.  Curiously, there is not a solitary mention of Peggy or John Fleming within the ‘History’ section of the NSC’s official website, with the inception of the club being credited solely to Lord Lonsdale. 

As for Peggy’s nickname, he offered up the following explanation not long before his death:

I was the baby of a large family, and as a youngster fresh to an infant school my mother tried to break me of left-handedness.  I always held my knife in the left hand and my fork in the right.  One day at dinner my mother said, “You’re not a boy; you must be a girl to eat your food like that.  We shall have to call you Peggy.

“My elder brothers, always glad to take it out of me, carried that name to school, where the other boys seized upon it, and it has stuck to me through a life-time, though it is years since anybody was curious enough to ask how I got it.”
Peggy Bettinson image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (


43 King Street
Originally designed by Thomas Archer, 43 King Street is the oldest surviving building in Covent Garden’s Piazza.  In June 2013, a proposal to award the building a commemorative green plaque was put forward to Westminster Council, which responded that “the nomination for a commemorative Green Plaque at 43 King Street, Covent Garden to commemorate the National Sporting Club, be approved subject to sponsorship in full”.  The official unveiling of the plaque to commemorate the NSC’s former headquarters as the “home of gloved boxing” is scheduled for May 2015 and the interior of the building is currently being renovated to house an upmarket shoe shop.

John Murray, first editor of “Boxing”
20 years after Peggy’s death, Highgate Cemetery would count John Murray, the first editor of “Boxing” (later known as “Boxing News”), as a permanent resident after he passed away following a long illness.  Like Peggy, John possessed an all-encompassing knowledge of (and was a great friend to) the sport.  Peggy featured on the cover of “Boxing” a number of times and it appears that both he and John Murray shared the same desire to make the sport fair and reputable.

Boxing News (as it later became known) remembers John Murray, 27 March 1946 
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

Sue Berdy
Prizefighting: An American History by Arne K. Lang
Popular Culture in London C.1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment by Andrew Horrall
SPORT AS HISTORY - COLLINS SOCIETY: Essays in Honour of Wray Vamplew, edited by Tony Collins
The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde's Nemesis by Linda Stratmann
The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book by James B. Roberts & Alexander G. Skutt
The National Sporting Club Past and Present by A.F. Bettinson
The Argus, 15 November 1911
The Spectator, 18 November 1911
The Straits Times, 16 December 1911
Kalgoorlie Miner, 28 December 1911
New York Times, 29 January 1913
Auckland Star, Volume XLIV, Issue 29, 3 February 1913
Sunday Post, 26 December 1926
Evening Telegraph, 27 December 1926
Daily Herald, 30 December 1926
Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror, 10 May 1933
Aberdeen Journal, 29 December 1937
Copyright © Sam Perrin September 2014


  1. Florence died in 1919. He remarried very quickly afterwards.

  2. Hello, it's Arthur not Alfred. Very good blog post other than that!

    1. Good grief, you're right! I had a typo in the title, thanks for pointing that out and for your feedback :-)