A Chat With the Champions Part I: JEM SMITH IN TRAINING

I present to you here, in full, a copy of The Sporting Life‘s interview with Jem Smith which appeared in print on Saturday 28 September 1889, two days before his boxing match with Jack Wannop. I have introduced paragraphs for ease-of-reading, and inserted an occasional photograph, but the text is otherwise reproduced verbatim.

It is a quite extraordinary example of eccentric celebrity reporting and perhaps, one could suggest from the comical introductory paragraphs, a forerunner to the ‘gonzo’ style of journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson in the 1970s. I believe the author of this piece to be Walter ‘The Cross-Buttocker’ Armstrong (1838-1917) but cannot be certain.

If you enjoy lengthy descriptions of farmyard animals, prize-winning horses, big eggs, and Jem Smith in the shower, read on.

Coming soon – A Chat With the Champions Part II: JACK WANNOP IN TRAINING.

A Chat With the Champions

(By our roving commissioner)


Big Bush Farm, where Jem Smith is being trained for his glove contest with Wannop on Monday next, resembles the gent in the popular song – “It’s alright when you know it but you’ve got to know it first.”

Kingsbury and Neasden Station is not too cheerful a place, nor are the denizens of those remote regions conspicuous for abnormal intelligence. The wan-eyed porter knew nothing; the Booking Clerk, who wore his face on the side of his head, had a vague notion that Mr Charles Blacklock had a farm “somewhere,” but I couldn’t get him to commit himself further; even the oldest inhabitant, who I found picking his false teeth outside the Old Spotted Dog, could not be induced by the price of a drink to vary his original statement, which was that “he had heerd on it.”

In these cases there is only one course open to the pedestrian, and that is to go straight forward and keep his pecker up.

After an hour’s brisk walk I found myself at the Welsh Harp, and was cheered to discover that I was as far away from Mr Blacklock’s farm as when I started.

For invincible stupidity and ignorance Kingsbury is entitled to favourable mention.

I was put on the right path at last by a pensive piscator, who was hopefully pursuing his wily art.

Big Bush Farm, it appeared, was situated on Old Kingsbury Racecourse, and as I approached the white walled residence memories of those peculiar and extensive meetings rose out of the dark past.

The poet Shenstone remarked that “Man found his warmest welcome in an inn.” Had he known Mr Charles Blacklock’s farm, he would have altered that line. When the stranger enters within its gates, his approach is heralded with the crowing of cocks, the clucking of innumerable hens, the quacking of ducks, the cackling of geese, the whining of a score of horses, and the barking of a regiment of dogs of all sorts and conditions, who evince a strong disposition to devour the timid and unsuspecting stranger.

A timely rescue was effected, however, by good old Jem Howes. To paraphrase the play, “Bush Farm hath a pleasant seat, and the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our senses.”

The day had turned out quite mild, and I found the Champion of England taking his dinner ease in his easy chair at the open window. He was without his coat, and wore a heavy sweater underneath his waistcoat, and with his slippered feet resting on a chair, he looked the embodiment of robust health.

Large portraits of J. L. Sullivan (Champion of the World) and Jem Smith (Champion of England) hung either side of the fireplace. These and a few sporting prints and and a curious assortment of carriage whips were the only decorations.

“Well Jem,” I said. “You’re looking first class.”

“Yes thanks,” he replied, with a smile, “I feel very nice. Health good, wind sound.”

“You like this place for training?”

“Capital. It’s so lovely of a morning – fine and sharp. I’ve got off over 2st since I’ve been here.” And the champion, smiling, held out a portion of his waistcoat for which he had no further use. “I was 16st 10lb,” he continued, “when I came down here, and when I get on the Novelty Theatre stage on Monday night I shall be 5lb or 6lb inside 14st.”

“But that’s considerably over your fighting weight.”

“Yes; but I shall get down lower than that. When I meet Jackson I shall be about 13st 4lb, and when I meet Slavin with the raw ‘uns” – and here the redoubtable Jem doubled up his left duke, and contemplated it with evident pleasure – “I shall scale about 12 stone 10lb, my proper fighting weight.”

“Do you prefer the mittens, or would you rather have a go au naturel – with Nature’s weapons?”

“I like these here,” said Jem, doubling up his right fist this time – and an enormous fist it is. “I’d rather fight with the knuckles than with the gloves; there’s more satisfaction in it.” And as the champion looked as if he was desirous of giving a practical exposition of his powers I drew my seat back rather apprehensively. 

“I don’t like the gloves,” he went on, “they get in your way. I prefer the game without ‘em.”

At this moment the veteran trainer, Jem Howes, entered with a foaming flagon of the national liquor.

“You’ll find that alright: plenty of body in it,” said the Champion. He was right. It was extremely nourishing, and quite superior to Eppa’s cocoa in its grateful and comforting qualities.

“And what’s your opinion of your contest with Wannop?”

“Well, I think I shall beat him. I ought to beat him without he’s improved wonderful.”

“And what sort of work do you do?”

“Oh, I average sixteen to twenty miles walking every day, swing clubs and dumb bells, punch the sack, and use the skipping rope. I rise about half-past six, walk about five miles, have a good rub down, and have a good break-fast: chops, new laid eggs, watercresses, and tea. Then I have a rest, and go for another five mile spin, round the old racecourse sometimes. Then dinner at half-past one, a rest, and have half an hour with the sack.”

“You don’t use the ball then?”

“No,” and the champion smiled grimly. “I had enough of that at Brighton. Tore my foot with the iron staple by which the cord was attached to the floor.” And the champion showed the ugly scar that yet remains on the hollow of his foot.

“You’re quite comfortable here?”

“Yes; I cannot speak in too high terms of Mr Charles Blacklock’s kindness. He gives us the free run of the farm. Have whatever we want, and kill as many poultry as we require.”

“Has Howes trained you for all your fights?”

“Yes, with the exception of my fight with Jack Davis.”

And at this moment a great outcry from members of the animal kingdom heralded the arrival of Sir John Harper and his high-mettled steed Nicodemus, alias Stilts. It was now time for the Champion’s afternoon spin, so buttoning himself up, and tying a thick muffler round his neck, he set out at 3.30, with springy and elastic gait, accompanied by Adair, the athlete. 

During his absence we were enabled, owing to the kindness of the stud groom, Mr George Hair, to inspect the stables and it was, indeed, most interesting. Mr Blacklock is evidently a thorough and genuine sportsman. He has an extremely fine show of trotters, hunters, and harness horses: and as for dogs, he seems to have specimens of all the canine race, from a boarhound to a toy terrier.

Perhaps the most remarkable exhibit is the American trotter Bye Bye, over thirty years old, with legs as straight as a gun barrel, and winner of a prize at Alexandra Park last week. The Champion has his own pony and gig there, as well as his bull terrier Charlie. We were shown Princess, on whose back Bob Habbijam figures as Nimrod, with the 5lb allowance. Bob, a nine-year-old pony, which is Jem Smith’s mount when the champion feels inclined to take his hippie way; Cock of the Walk, a white horse of harness class, who has taken between forty and fifty prizes; Ongar the boarhound pup suckled by a greyhound bitch (bitches of the boarhound breed occasionally devour their offspring); Quiz, the comical looking Irish terrier (good old Quiz); and the bulldog Bat Mullins. Then we are shown the picture gallery, which is literally stacked with prizes.

“Those are new prizes where you see the ribands,” says the groom, George How, with excusable pride.  

Then we are shown into the Paddock, where there is an old mare, Gypsey, thirty-three years old, with a three-weeks’ foal by Schoolboy, an American trotting cob, who has a record of 2 min 35 sec on the ice.

At 4.20 the champion returns, having done his five miles, and we go to see him take his bath. They have rigged up two shower-baths in the coach house. This rather arouses my curiosity. “Bless you,” says Jem Howes, “he’d have ten if he could get ‘em.”

Hot and dripping with perspiration, the champion plunged into one, and when he is tired of that he splashes into the other. Then he is vigorously rubbed down for half an hour, and red as a peony and fresh as a daisy he sits down to tea craftily, qualified with a certain potent cordial from a mysterious square-faced bottle.

The food consists of dry bread and a egg. No goose ever laid that egg. Mr Blacklock must have an ostrich concealed on the premises, though Mr Howe did not show us the creature.

Having seen the champion set about the haystack – beg pardon, haysack – in a manner which caused me to give thanks devoutly that I was not part and parcel of the said sack, it was time to get back to town. The grand old veteran Howes went down in the cellar to spoil another barrel, and quickly returned with a fine pottlepot of strong Hampstead ale, in which we drank the Champion’s health and success.

We were rolled rapidly back to town by the skewbald pony Bob, followed at a respectable distance by Sir John Harper and his remarkable quadruped. 

Jem Smith is in splendid fettle: in fact, he has never been in better trim, and his condition reflects great credit on his trainer, the evergreen Jem Howes. 

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