As an esteemed pioneer of women’s boxing in the 1950s, Barbara Buttrick, known as England’s Mighty Atom of the Ring, broke a good deal of new ground in her heyday. Being a nonagenarian has done little to impede Barbara’s ability or desire to lead the charge as a highly respected flagbearer for female fighters. When the International Boxing Hall of Fame finally saw fit to induct women into its hallowed halls last year, Barbara was rightfully granted the privilege of standing at the head of the Class of 2020, which also included Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker as well as promoter Kathy Duva.
As a little lass of perhaps ten or twelve, by her recollection, the athletically-inclined Buttrick indulged a pair of favorite pastimes in the streets of Hornsea, the charming coastal town in Yorkshire County in which she grew up—soccer and fighting. Barbara’s primary preteen adversary was a neighborhood boy a year and a half younger than she was, but the same approximate size, and the two would get together to engage in fisticuffs on a fairly regular basis.
When she wasn’t mixing it up, presumably not only holding her own but getting the better of the exchanges with her male counterpart on many occasions, Buttrick would gather her friends so that she could organize a spirited game of soccer, or at least urge them to run across town kicking the ball around pell-mell and willy-nilly. When she was fifteen, Barbara’s two passions would serendipitously cross paths, setting the determined youngster on a collision course with her destiny as a pugilistic trailblazer.
Buttrick and her friends bulldozed their way into one of her friend’s homes after a particularly rowdy and muddy session with the soccer ball, but were halted by the girl’s mother who understandably insisted that they at least clean off their filthy shoes before running amok through the house. A newspaper being the nearest thing at hand, the mom tore out pages of the Sunday Dispatch for each girl to use as an impromptu rag. Before she could busy herself with the task at hand, Barbara was simultaneously distracted and fascinated by a photograph on the sheet she was handed that depicted a female fairground boxer, accompanying an article titled “Polly the Champ.” She sat down and devoured the story immediately.
“It was reading about Polly Fairclough some years ago that first inspired me to take up boxing as my profession,” acknowledged Buttrick in 1954.
Just as Victor Frankenstein assembled a patchwork creature in the pages of Mary Shelley’s novel, so too has the story of Polly Fairclough been stitched together from various sources, most of which are at odds with the others, her legend as it exists today a composite of unsubstantiated details appropriated from a confusing genealogy, family folklore which has no doubt been embellished throughout generations’ worth of retellings, the unreliable accounts Polly gave of her personal biography late in life, and the 1997 documentary My Great-Grandmother Was a Boxer which wove all of these elements of fact and fiction into one fantastic yarn.
Universal Pictures contract player Edward Van Sloan, fresh off his role as the scholarly vampire hunter Van Helsing opposite Bela Lugosi in Dracula, appears in the prologue for Frankenstein (as well as in the role of Dr. Waldman) wherein he parts a curtain to step onto a stage and issue moviegoers “a word of friendly warning” about the thrilling, shocking, horrifying nature of what is about to unfold in the 1931 film adaptation. While there may be nothing about Polly Fairclough’s tale that will “subject your nerves to such a strain” as Frankenstein did, I feel that it would likewise be “a little unkind” to proceed any further without cautioning the reader that separating truth from myth in this case is all but impossible, bordering on folly, just as much as permitting and even encouraging the interaction of the two mischievous playmates known as fact and fiction is vital to one’s pure enjoyment of the following narrative. To borrow Van Sloan’s closing remarks from his tongue-in-cheek preamble to Frankenstein, “Well, we’ve warned you…”
Born in Whitehaven, Lancashire, England to a family of circus folk in 1881, Polly Fairclough’s given name is listed as Mary Agnes Taylor although her father James, a horse dealer and trainer, is identified by the last name Thornton. Her mother, the former Alice Brindle, was a trapeze artist who died after suffering a substantial fall during one of her high-flying performances.
Seemingly destined for the life of a carny, Polly’s act was that of a strongwoman, thrilling the crowds by wrestling lions and lifting donkeys by her teeth. Polly wed a London-based pugilist by the name of John Fairclough in 1899 by which time she herself had been boxing for two years in the fairground booths. She would fight as many as 110 rounds in any given twenty-four hour period, unbiased in her predilection for blackening the eyes of both women and men and, at the age of sixteen, had her teeth knocked out by a sailor in Ipswich. Her smashed lips were sewn together right after the incident by an onsite doctor who used horsehair for the spontaneous procedure.
In her masterful book A History of Women’s Boxing, Malissa Smith quotes a July 1945 newspaper article that describes Polly as “a good-looking colleen, dark-haired and feminine, who was able to—and did—trade punches with the best fighters of her day.”
Speaking of which, Fairclough traveled to the United States in 1900 to challenge Women’s World Boxing Champion, Texas Mamie Donovan. A reticent Donovan no-showed the bout, thus forfeiting her title to Polly by default. Not content with claiming the championship on a technicality, and seeing as though she had traveled all that way only to be left itching for a fight, Polly climbed into the ring with a man that evening instead. (* This much of the story we can pretty confidently dismiss as a speculative fabrication, as Mamie Donovan—who had been a wrestler and carnival bag puncher and would indeed go on to enjoy a successful venture into “the manly art”—wasn’t known to have laced up a pair of boxing gloves before 1905 when she began participating in smokers in and around her native Philadelphia.)
Among the notable fistic contemporaries of the opposite sex against whom Polly sparred and fought exhibitions were Battling Nelson, Digger Stanley, ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, and then-heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, not to mention the man Johnson had taken the title from and would become her second husband, Tommy Burns. The first woman to compete within the confines of the London Sporting Club in 1913, Fairclough was put through her paces by Burns in that very venue and the two were married soon thereafter. The scrap-happy couple shared a sizable home on Merrion Strand Road in Dublin where they, animal lovers both, maintained an aviary housing more than 100 birds.
Polly, who had also displayed a proficiency in Greco Roman wrestling, quit the fight game in 1915, but a feature in a 1929 edition of The Police Gazette curiously tells of a “Mrs. Bobby Burns, a widow” who had previously fought as a featherweight and was now seeking a boxing license from the Maryland State Athletic Commission. “I’ll take on all comers in my class,” she scoffed at the timid office boy tasked with recording her information. “They’re all a lotta palookas.”
Regarded in certain circles as “cultured and cordial, well-mannered and gracious, with a great sense of humor,” Polly eventually parted ways with Tommy Burns and fell on hard times throughout her final two decades. She took to selling her sensationalized life story to British tabloids to make a quick buck, which is how fifteen-year-old Barbara Buttrick would have become acquainted with the saga of the legendary female fairground fighter back in Hornsea. Polly Fairclough-Burns outlived her similarly ill-fated ex-husband by four years, passing away in 1959 at the age of 77 in near-poverty and total obscurity.
Don Burleson. Polly Burns (Polly Fairclough)—World Champion Lady Boxer, 1900 (http://www.travel-golf.cc/genealogy/burns_polly.htm)
Michelle Genz. Barbara Buttrick: Natives (Miami Herald, April 12, 1998—accessed at https://www.iwbhf.com/buttrick.htm)
Susan McCarver. Female Boxer Polly Burns Calls Male Boxers Palookas–1929 (http://www.wbanmember.com/female-boxer-polly-burns-call-male-boxers-palookas-1929/)
Polly Burns, How Much is Fact and Fiction? (https://www.womenboxing.com/Burns.htm)
Polly Fairclough Family Tree (https://www.ancestry.com/genealogy/records/polly-fairclough-24-15ttfm)
Polly Knocked the Men for Six (The Irish Times, November 29, 1997—accessed at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/polly-knocked-the-men-for-six-1.132160)
Malissa Smith. A History of Women’s Boxing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)
Zing Tsjeng. A Pioneer of Women’s Boxing Looks Back on a Lifetime of Battles (Vice, March 6, 2017—accessed at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5e8wg/barbara-buttrick-womens-boxing-pioneer-interview)
University of Sheffield National Fairground and Circus Archive: Barbara Buttrick Collection (accessed at https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca/collections/barbarabuttrick)