Blogger unearths history of boxing revolutionary ‘Peggy’ Bettinson buried in Highgate Cemetery

Blogger Sam Perrin unearths the colourful history of a man who transformed the sport from the ringside into a noble art appreciated by gentlemen.

On a lesser-explored pathway in Highgate Cemetery East lies a relatively modest grave.

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.

He continued competing as an amateur in exhibition bouts, but it was shortly before his 29th birthday that his passion steered him down a path that would leave his indelible mark on the sport for years to come.

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The Pelican Club, Gerrard Street, opened 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.

Just four years later it was declared bankrupt.

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.

They set up the fledgling organisation’s new headquarters at 43 King Street, Covent Garden and on Thursday, March 5, 1891, the National Sporting Club (NSC) opened to a throng of excited sports lovers.

The interior was impressive on an aesthetic level while simultaneously offering the utmost comfort to its members courtesy of the plush but elegant furnishings.

But the pièce de résistance was the boxing ring in the basement, which allowed up to 1,300 spectators and guests a good view from any angle in the room.

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.

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 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”.

He was determined that the NSC instilled a sense of fairness, good sportsmanship and respect among fighters and club members alike.

In 1897 John Fleming died unexpectedly and Peggy took over as managing director.

Four fatalities occurred in just as many years, resulting in a sea change for boxing rules. 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 fighters.

They 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.

With regard to Peggy’s personal life, he married Florence Mallet in 1890 and 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.

1914 marked the start of Tthe Great War. Peggy wasn’t sent away to fight in the trenches because, at the age of 52, he may have been regarded as a little too time-worn for combat. But he volunteered as a special constable, while son Lionel enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment.

In the year following the end of the war, Florence Bettinson died and less than a fortnight later, Peggy made Harriet Flint his second wife in a ceremony in Hampstead.

Even into middle age, he exuded a crackling energy and dedicated his spare time to authoring books dedicated to boxing and the NSC.

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 continued his journey through Italy. However he suffered a further cardiac arrest, forcing him to return to England.

Peggy died 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, December 29, 1926.