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April 17, 2007

Bare-knuckle boxing, fixed fights and growing up Romany: Emily Kingham hears a Traveller's Tale

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham hears a tale of one man's right of passage - and learns of a hidden world of bare-knuckle boxing, fixed fights and growing up Romany.

What are travellers known for, I asked a traveller currently residing in an Essex prison. "Dodgy driveways", he said. Why do they travel, I asked. "Fresh people, fresh money", he said. Many books have been written on Romany culture. I don't suppose any of them have summed up the nomadic spirit so cynically or pithily.

I have often found that the prisoners of Essex have a wonderful capacity for language that is formal and rigorously shaped. One man talked of the "princely sum of 500". Another that he was "most perturbed to hear the news of" etc. Sometimes I feel I am walking amonst the descendants of Samuel Wellers in Pickwick Papers. Essex boys like their utterances to be attention-catching whether they are plaintive, indignant, gloomy or humorous. Gypsy exuberance has contributed to Cockney rhetoric. Also, to the sense that we are at the receiving end of a tall tale. And these men, after all, have to tell tall tales quite often. It's the only thing that will keep them out of prison. So, ultimately, they are practised raconteurs.

But the story I heard from a traveller the other day was so resonant of a hermetic culture, of the unacknowledged tragedy of a little boy's rites of passage into adult violence that I had to get it down. Even if, as another prisoner suggested, most of it should be taken with a pinch of salt. It doesn't matter, I said, it's a good story.

I started him off by asking him if he was from Essex. "I was born in Friday Woods in Colchester", he told me.

"It's a big wood used by the local Military Correction Training Centre. My family are Travellers on my Mother's side - the Temples, the Taylors, the Hibbses, the Scamps and the Loveridges - we're all related. By the time I was born - 28th March 1975 - they had all moved on to land in the wood owned by a farmer. They worked the land for him and helped keep the cattle. They stopped gangs of kids racing cars and getting up to mischief at night."

"When I was born my Mum and Dad lived in a caravan. My Nan delivered me and my younger brothers. I went to school but most travellers don't like school. It doesn't fit in with our way of life. Every six months you're moving on, usually due to hassle from locals who don't want rogues in the area. But we keep moving because there's also a sense of freedom - there are no bills, just a one-off payment for your trailer. The downside is tht society looks down on you. I started school at seven, and I got called a dirty gippo. It couldn't be further from the truth."

"Hedge-bumpers [people who pull on to the side of the road] are a different matter. They leave oil cans and shitty nappies behind them. Tinkers, Irish travellers, do love a drink and a row - the kids do anyway. But Travellers are clean, and always have plenty of food for their families."

"I'm a lump now but I was tiny as a child. I got bullied a lot. My Dad left, and my Mum didn't want to live in a wood on her own with us kids so she took a house and we became Housedwellers. Kids on the estate weren't allowed to play with us. One day, when I was seven years old, I was coming home from school and a local tough nut picked a fight with me. I started crying. The closer I got to home, the more I was crying, until it was uncontrollable. I was sobbing. I was in the alleyway by our garden when I saw my Uncle Sid and Uncle Bill. I thought, I'm in for it, because they were the ones who dished out punishment. Crying wasn't the done thing."

"Uncle Bill took one look at me and went into our back garden. He ripped the fence up and got a pole. He snapped it in two.

Go and do him with it,
he said.
If you come back crying again, I'll hit you with it.
I was shitting myself. I went back to find the boy and he was setting up boards for his BMX bike. He saw me, and stood up. He was towering over me with a brick in his hand. Before he could do anything, I hit him across the chest with the pole. I started punching him and I went into a frenzy. My uncle pulled me off him. The boy's face was bleeding. He didn't get up."

"This started a big war on the estate, and I started fighting everybody. Eventually, my uncles sat me down with the other boy and we sorted out our differences. By now I had the mindset to fight anyone. The stamina wasn't there, though. My uncle started training me: cardio-vascular fitness, running before and after school. I went to stay with him in Friday Wood at weekends, and we'd do the Army obstacle courses and assault courses. As I got fitter, I started using a punchbag. I would punch tree trunks with nothing on my hands to strengthen my wrists and knuckles, and Uncle Bill would throw softballs at me which I'd punch away with my bare fists."

"One day, he asked me if I fancied making some money out of fighting. I was 13."

"My first competitive fight took place at night, in a clearing in the woods. The other lad was my age. His Dad was called Hector Seaman, and Uncle Bill had a bit of a feud with him. Bill had taken Hector's missus, Rosie, off him. So there was a bit of tension in the air. Me and Young Hector were wearing thin, high-impact gloves, like Thai boxers. There were around 50 men standing round a roped-off area. There were bales of straw stacked around it. We started fighting. All I remember is getting knocked down, and lying there looking at Uncle Bill and Uncle Sid. Everyone was shouting but my vision and hearing zoned in on my uncles. They were proper steamed up, frothing at the mouth. I could see the look on their faces. They wanted me to win - not for them; for me."

"We went on fighting for another five three-minute rounds. I beat him. The feeling I got was of total elation. I felt like the biggest person there, even though we were one of the warm-up events. My uncle gave me 50 and some money to my Mum. She went mad. She didn't know I'd been training to fight all this time."

"After that, I took part in several bare-knuckle boxing matches a year. The most I got was 15,000 for a win. You get 4,000 for taking part, but from the age of 13 to 21, when I stopped, I had 46 fights and I won each one."

"These fights took place all over Essex, Bedfordshire and Suffolk, always outside. Sometimes the fight would kick off before we'd got to the place. The only rules are: no biting, no kicking, no clawing the eyes. Only fist blows. There are 15 three-minute rounds. Sometimes I took part in "swipe fights". If you're right-handed that hand is taped behind your back and your left hand is dipped in treacle and then rolled in broken glass. The idea is to scar your opponent."

"My last fight took place in 1996. I was in a pub with my wife and our friends, all non-Travellers. I was approached by Noah Deakins, someone high up in a Traveller family, not quite the head, but close to it. He asked me if I kept up with my training. Six months previously I'd had two operations on my nose which was like a big S on my face. Three months before that, I'd had my last fight. He was offering a pay-off of 45,000. I wasn't really ready, if I think about it, but I was drunk and I thought, why not? He gave me 7,000 upfront."

"A couple of days later I was jogging across a field in Elstead when Noah pulled up in a big jeep and wound down the window.

You know you've got to take a dive, don't you?
he said. I stopped running straightaway. This was not the sort of man who would take the money back. His family had had dealings with my Uncle. They had shot his horse. I knew I had to do it. I couldn't believe how stupid I'd been, but I'd been caught off-guard."

"The fight was due to take place six weeks later on Bonfire Night. On the one hand, there was no point training, but I had to make the fight look convincing. The Deakins had close to half a million on me losing this fight. I had no choice. I had to go down in the second minute of the third round. The signal was Noah taking off his Trilby hat."

"The fight took place in Boxstead, on a piece of land, behind a couple of trailers. There were 300 men there. I started fighting. If I'm going to take a dive, I'm going to hurt him as much as I can, I thought. He was a big lump, about 17 stone. His face was a mass of scars; he looked proper menacing. The bell rung. I hit him four or five times but that didn't seem to wobble him. He had an unbeaten record as well. He was soaking the punches I gave him like a sponge. I stepped back to assess the situation. He was holding his hands low then he came forward and connected a punch with my nose. I felt it go. There was blood everywhere. I could taste it down the back of my throat. My eyes were watering so much when I shook my head all I could see was red mist. How am I going to see the hat?, I thought. That's the last thing I remember. I let rip. To my utter surprise, I knocked him out in the second round."

"I dropped to my knees and slapped him round the face to wake him up. He had fallen in the foetal position. His eyes were gone. The first people I turned to, as always, were my uncles. They were jumping for joy."

"Noah was fuming. He pulled his jacket back. I thought, I'm a dead man."

"There was a wood at the end of the field with a fence around it. I ran towards it. As I jumped on to the stile, I heard a crack. I thought it was the wood under my foot. I fell forwards and felt a sharp pain. It was as though I had been hit in the back of my leg with a sledgehammer. I landed in a ditch, and crawled through the wood, my left leg numb."

"My Mum's Uncle Tommy took the bullet out of my leg in my Nan's front room. He used a pair of tweezers. I've still got the bullet in a jar, as well as a bit of bone from my nose and two teeth."

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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Strong stuff !

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 21, 2007 10:10 AM

Cracking story - now, where's the MMA channel?

Posted by: Whodymaflip at June 14, 2007 11:13 PM

this story might be partley true. but travelers never fight rounds.. and anyone who believes that utter bullshit about swipe fights has never seen a real bareknuckle fight in their lives. swipe fights- what a joke.

Posted by: truth speaker at July 19, 2007 01:30 PM

Biggest pile of shit I've ever read. If he would of had his first fight at 13, the person he was fighting against was 8. Biggest Pile of shit i've ever read sorry. This story is full of myths and lies. The only true thing that came out of this was him getting his name right and i think he had help with that. He'd been watching to many movies. I dont need to go into any particulars, but truth speaker is right.

Posted by: Paul Seaman at April 12, 2009 11:29 PM

the names and places exist but thats where it ends. for the author to use peoples real names and not attempt to verify the story is absolutely shameful and probably slanderous.

Posted by: jim mann at October 13, 2009 11:56 AM

for a start hes "uncle bill " NEVER "TOOK" ROSIE OFF HECTOR ! THE TRUTH IS bill left rosie AND SOME YEARS LATER she WENT WITH hECTOR ! FACT .

Posted by: amyphylis at September 14, 2011 09:10 PM
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