News from Played in Britain

Graveyard sleuths wanted in search for sporting tombstones and memorials

June 04 2008


In the belief that graveyards are as much for the living as for the dead, Dr Mike Huggins, of the University of Cumbria, is asking all friends and supporters of Played in Britain to assist with the compilation of a gazetteer of tombstones and memorials dedicated for sportsmen and women. Can you help?

Dr Huggins, who has published widely on Victorian and inter-war sport, has already begun compiling the gazetteer, which will include any tombstones, graves or memorials which either make explicit reference to individuals' sporting achievements or contain visual images of their sport.

As his researches so far indicate, Britain has a rich stock of such memorials and sculpted imagery. Among the most prominent, Huggins cites the grave of the celebrated Cumbrian fox-hunter John Peel, whose grave at Caldbeck is adorned with hunting horns. In London the life of 'waterman' and professional sculler Robert Coombes is commemorated by an upturned skiff.

Famous mid-Victorian rowers such as Bob Chambers, James Renforth and Harry Clasper are commemorated on Tyneside. Bob Chambers (1831-68) was a Tyneside hero who won the Championship of England on the Thames in 1857, retained it for four years, and won the world sculling championship in 1863. Four years later he died of tuberculosis. His sandstone tomb, with a reclining figure beneath an ornately decorated canopy, bears the inscription 'This monument was erected by the friends and admirers of the later Robert Chambers who for a number of years upheld the honour of Tyneside as acquatic champion of England. He died at St Anthony's, June 4th 1868, aged 37 years.'

In London, the strength and aggression of several noted pugilists are symbolised by lions, both on Tom Cribb's tomb at Woolwich and on John Jackson's tomb at Brompton, and by a bulldog on Tom Sayers' grave at Highgate Cemetery.

Top jockeys of the past, such as Fred Archer, are also often commemorated in words describing their achievements, as are some leading Scottish golfers. One of the most stirring tombstone inscriptions is that of the 18th century archer James Rawson, in the now overgrown graveyard of what was once St Mark's Church, on St Mark's Lane, Cheetham Hill, Manchester.

Here were deposited the Earthly
remains of James Rawson who died
Oct 1st 1795 Aged 80 Years.
His dexterity as an Archer was unrivaled.
From the age of 16 to 60 he never refused a challenge, nor ever lost a Match.
Grim death grown jealous of his art,
His matchless fame to stop,
Relentless aim'd th'unerring dart,
And split the Vital Prop.
This favourite Son Apollo eyed,
His Virtues to requite,
Convey'd his Spirit to reside,
In beams of endless Light.

Sadly, as reported in Played in Manchester Rawson's grave is now untended, and inaccessible to the public, and no doubt there must be many other graves and memorials that have yet to be recorded or researched, or that may be in a poor state.

As Dr Huggins explains, 'There appear to be various lists of example of architectural and historic interest produced by local authorities, and some local historical societies have carried out tombstone memorial surveys. But these have proved difficult to locate, and very time-consuming to scroll through, often with little reward.'

If you can provide details of the location, inscriptions and associated sculpture relating to any sporting tombs such as those above, please contact Mike Huggins at The University of Cumbria, Rydal Road, Ambleside, Cumbria, LA23 8BB, or via Mike.Huggins@Cumbria.ac.uk.

Even better, if you can supply good quality photographs, Played in Britain will add them to a special gallery.

The grave of boxer James 'Jem' Mace

Shown to the left is the grave of boxer James 'Jem' Mace (1831-1910) widely regarded as the father of modern scientific boxing.

"Where hardy heroes nature's weapons wield,
he stood unconquered, champion of the field,
time counts him out, but memory will remain,
we ne'er will look upon his like again".

For over 90 years, the grave, number 594 in Anfield Cemetery (opposite Stanley Park, Liverpool) was completely unmarked, until a proper headstone was erected by members of the Merseyside Former Boxers' Association in 2003.

Otherwise known as the Swaffham Gypsy - he was born in Beeston, Norfolk, where there is another memorial to him - Mace was the last bare knuckle British heavyweight champion, beating Joe Goss in Purfleet in August 1866, shortly before the use of gloves became standard under the newly drawn up Queensberry rules.

On his return to Liverpool (where Mace was an instructor at the Liverpool Gymnasium), a crowd of 10,000 carried him shoulder high to a civic reception.

For more information on Mace and boxing in Liverpool see Played in Liverpool and www.jemmace.net.


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