How a seaside town became a fighting capital

It’s been known for a scrap over the years, but a century ago Devonport was one of the fighting capitals of the country.

The Cosmopolitan Gymnasium, formerly on Mill Street, hosted some of Plymouth and England’s greatest boxers and contests. It was revered throughout the nation.

It opened in 1907 in the Winter Gardens, which was a run down building previously used as a storage area for fairground equipment.

A team of three men were initially involved. They were locals Billy Bennett, Harold Williams and a man called Silas Alger, who we’ll speak about later.

They didn’t have much experience in the boxing world and wisely roped in London based promoter Bert Dorman, who had already established a boxing club in London known as the Cosmopolitan.

That explains the name, although in true Janner fashion, Cosmopolitan Gymnasium was affectionately shortened to The Cosmo or Old Cosmo.

Old Cosmo closed after its final show on Boxing Day, 1924. Boxing historian Miles Templeton has researched the sport for over 40 years and thinks we had something special here.

He said: “For my money, outside of London before World War I, Plymouth was the most important fight centre in the country. Largely due to Old Cosmo.

“There was boxing every Friday night in Plymouth, almost without fail from the early 1900s until the outbreak of war.

“There would be 20, three minute rounds. Plymouth bred some exceptional fighters, largely because of the Navy based in Devonport.

A fight poster for an event at Old Cosmo

“Any serving Navy officers would be encouraged to box professionally, and many became British champions.

“Well into the 1920s, in virtually any weight division in the country, there would be a Plymouth contender.”

It’s not just the fighters coming out of Plymouth that we can be proud of, and people might complain we struggle to bring in big acts today, but not in 1908.

Jack Johnson, the first ever black heavyweight champion of the world. He had his first fight in Europe and only fight in England right here in Plymouth.

He was not world champ at the time, but held a belt probably best forgotten, the World Coloured Heavyweight Title.

In Plymouth at Old Cosmo, he fought and defeated British boxer Ben Taylor, July 1908.

In Johnson’s next fight on Boxing Day of the same year, he’d win the lineal world heavyweight championship at Sydney Stadium, Australia.

He defeated Tommy Burns, the only Canadian world champion ever, and made history of his own. However, he was not always well received.

Miles Templeton continued: “Jack Johnson, the first black man to win the world title in his day. As well known and controversial as Ali.

“Him coming to Plymouth, It’s like having Mike Tyson turn up to Bristol in his prime.

“His next fight was for the world title, fascinating. He was in Connecticut before, which tells you the size of the venue, he didn’t even go to London.”

The ovation must’ve been huge, as it was to honour the tragic passing of a lesser known boxing legend, Tom McCormick.

Apparently ‘outside of London before World War I, Plymouth was the most important fight centre in the country’

He was born in Dundalk, Ireland, August 1890. In 1906 he joined the Manchester Battalion and during his service, McCormick was called to represent his regiment in boxing tournaments.

Upon leaving the Army, he took on a career as a professional boxer, eventually winning the lineal welterweight title in Australia, 1914. It was allegedly in front of 14,000 people, and down under, he was known as The Plymouth Rock.

He was Irish but before winning the title, between June 1912 and September 1913, McCormick had 15 fights in Plymouth. Mostly at Old Cosmo, and one at Plymouth Albion’s ground.

He won them all. He wasn’t undefeated on the whole, but was certainly a crowd favourite with the Plymouth fans.

During his time boxing out of our city he was known to have married Violet Mary Bartlett and they lived at 25 Claremont Street, Stonehouse.

As mentioned, he won the welterweight championship in Australia. He also retained it, and then lost it there. His manager at the time was Silas Alger, remember him?

The pair returned to Plymouth in the summer of 1914, and following his flirtation with the gold, Tom lost his first fight at back Old Cosmo.

Speaking of McCormick’s return to Plymouth, historian Miles Templeton said: “Poor Tom, he was a great fighter.

“He boxed in the Army and Navy championships. He was a very good one.

Tom McCormick with his brother Patrick

“Tom had ‘ill-luck’ against a Romanian opponent who wouldn’t let him box. He was not to blame for it, and lost by DQ.

“He was meant to fight an Army lad who couldn’t get leave. Instead, it was Alex Costica.

“It was a dirty fight, he wouldn’t let Tom box. McCormick was said to be ‘greatly vexed’ at the performance.”

Silas Alger took Tom out of the match and the pair are said to have fallen out at some point that year.

Tom McCormick’s boxing career was interrupted by the outbreak of WWI. He enlisted with the 12th Battalion Manchester Regiment and became a sergeant.

Copy Pic of Championship Boxer Tom McCormick who fought and died in World War I Photo by Gavin Trafford.

The Manchester Regiment were heavily involved at the Battle of the Somme and took severe losses from the onset.

Tom McCormick was killed five days into the campaign as his battalion tried to push forward. Tom’s body was never found, and his name is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

He was 25-years-old at the time. On July 14 1916 Tom’s death was announced from the ring at the Old Cosmo in front of a stunned full house. He had been killed by a sniper the week before.

His image was on the front page of Boxing magazine with a full page obituary inside. It stated he was the first purely professional boxer to ‘go out to the fighting-line’ and the first to ‘appear on the Roll of Honour’ too.

Tom McCormick’s tribute in Boxing magazine

His one time manager Silas Alger was born in London, 1868 and died in Plymouth September, 1924 aged 56.

He originally worked as a cooked meat merchant in Plymouth. In 1907 he formed the aforementioned syndicate with Billy Bennett and Harold Williams.

Someone by the name of Harry Jenkins became Alger’s right-hand man just before the First World War and Jenkins took on more and more responsibility from then onwards, with Alger in the background acting as adviser.

After Alger’s death, Jenkins operated Old Cosmo for its last three months with the place finally closing on Boxing Day, 1924.

In the year Alger and McCormick returned to England, Tom was said to have fallen on hard times. This could tie into how the pair fell out.

McCormick had purchased a ring in Australia, for a finger, not for boxing. He sold the ring for just £70 to Alger.

The Newmarket Hotel can just about be made out if you zoom in

It was put up for auction over 100 years later by Alger’s granddaughter, and the antique 18ct gold thirteen stone diamond ring went for £1,400.

John Burns reached out to The Herald on behalf of the McCormick family up the line. He spoke of a pub in Plymouth owned by Tom’s son which showed off some boxing memorabilia. Do you remember it?

Alger has links to several pubs, The Newmarket Inn/Hotel on Cornwall Street, Devonport. As well as The Wellington on Adelaide Street and The Talbot, formerly of Union Street.

Pat McCormick(L) with his Uncle George McCormick(R) with a photo of Georges Uncle Championship Boxer Tom McCormick who fought and died in World War I Photo by Gavin Trafford.

John Burns also shared so much of what you’ve read. If you’re in Plymouth and think you might know more about Tom McCormick, please get in touch and I’ll pass the information to him: peter.chapman@reachplc.com

I’d also like to thank several people for their help in compiling this.

Miles Templeton, you can find his boxing history site here. This guy told me the Dewey Decimal number for boxing off the top of his head. He knows it all.

Roger Malone, my old pal. Chris Robinson, who called me while he was on holiday. Plymouth CAMRA for taking the time to look.

I couldn’t find too much about Plymouth boxers Joe Symonds and Frankie Ash, but read on below to learn about Cornish legend Len Harvey.

Len Harvey

CORNISHMAN LEN HARVEY IN HIS PRIME

Muhammad Ali may have won the hearts and minds of the world in the 1960s and 1970s but 80 years ago, it was a man from Cornwall who captured the imagination of the nation with his boxing prowess.

His stunning victory at the Royal Albert Hall meant he had held three British championships at different weights within the same year

Len Harvey was born near Stoke Climsland, Cornwall. He went to school in the village and… beat Jack Petersen to become the British heavyweight champion.

A remarkable feat as he had also won the light heavyweight and middleweight championships in the previous 12 months.

Cornish people sat glued to their crackling early radios to listen to the broadcast of the fight and cheered when Len took the title.

Len was born in July, 1907, and his father was a farm hand at Polhilsa and drove a steam traction engine. In 1914 the family, including three children, were due to emigrate to Canada but the start of the First World War put paid to that.

Len’s father, Ted, had always been interested in boxing and was a great admirer of Cornishman Bob Fitzsimmons, who became heavyweight champion of the world in 1897.

Ted became a trainer at the Cosmopolitan Gymnasium in Plymouth and his sons took up boxing there, Len and his elder brother Wilfred joining in 1918.

Len was just 11, and frail, and it was thought the physical exercise would benefit him. He built up his physical strength and fitness and won his first bout on points.

Len left school at 14 and began to work in a garage but was already building up a reputation for his boxing skills and ability to beat bigger opponents with sheer class and a long reach.

He fought in Plymouth, Truro and London, where he eventually signed up with a leading promoter.

At the age of 17, Len had a knockout punch and other London boxers avoided him. Boxers were brought over from Holland, Belgium and Italy to be beaten by the Cornishman.

He became known as Britain’s Wonder Boxer and at 23 fought for the British welterweight championship over 20 rounds at the Royal Albert Hall, a fight which ended in a draw.

Len’s first British championship, and with it a Lonsdale belt, was presented in person to him in the ring by Lord Lonsdale, as a middleweight.

He retained that championship on December 12, 1932, then took the light heavyweight title the next April.

By the end of 1933 he had also won the heavyweight championship, on November 30, 1933, and at just over 12st was the lightest man to do so, with a points decision over the ‘Welsh Tiger’ Jack Petersen.

He became the Empire champion the following February and was determined to go for a world title, especially as the last British holder of the light heavyweight championship was another Cornishman, his hero Bob Fitzsimmons.

Harvey fought Jock McAvoy for the vacant world title before a packed audience at the White City. A points victory meant he was the World, Empire and British champion, adding to his two as a heavyweight and making him the first man to hold five championships at the same time

.The outbreak of war in 1939 saw him become an RAF PT instructor, and he lost his light heavyweight titles to Freddie Mills, 12 years his junior, at White Hart Lane in 1942.

Plymouth Live