17 March 2008
By John Prendergast
David Haye destroyed his Welsh opponent at the weekend and looks set to add to the illustrious history of boxers from the borough.
Left: At the Silver Jubilee of the Ring in 1935, Bella linked arms with the Master of Ceremonies Patsy Hagate and gave an impromptu dancing routine
But one thing the scramble for tickets proved was you had to be in the know to get one, or have a big wedge of cash in your pocket to view one of Bermondsey's finest take part in a career defining event.
Promoters such as Frank Warren or Frank Maloney could learn a trick or two from a women who brought boxing to the masses, ensuring the common man was never priced out of an event, all during a time when the female of the species would never be seen at entering a night of boxing never mind promoting an event.
Bella Burge, know as 'Bella of Blackfriars', was born in New York in 1877, but following the death of her Father when she was only four her mother took her to London to bring her up.
Before she turned to a career in the noble art Bella developed a love for the stage, and she built a highly successful career which included tours of South Africa and appearances all over the UK.
It was at a show in 1901 when her life defining moment happened, she appeared on a bill with a boxer Dick Burge who made stage appearances to supplement his boxing work. They fell in love and were married by October of that year. The marriage hit hard times early on as Dick was arrested for a bank fraud involving £169,000, and was sent down for ten years for one of the biggest crimes of its types ever known.
She stood by her man while incarcerated, throwing herself into to her stage career while he was away, but on his release in 1909 they had to come to a decision as to what to do, as being 44 Dick's boxing days were clearly behind him.
He did want to make a comeback but the redoubtable Bella put her foot down, and insisted if he was to be involved in boxing he would only be a promoter.
They decided to set up their own venue with the aim of putting on bills for all to watch, or in her own words: "Our place would be no place for Nobs Dick, our patrons belong to the cloth cap and muffler brigade."
hat was the ethos, the nobs had plenty of shows but the working class could not afford to go despite the fighters often coming from poorer backgrounds. The venue they selected was along Blackfriars Road and was built originally as the Surrey Chapel.
By the time they say the peculiar shaped circular building it was dilapidated, but the Burge's saw past that and viewed it as the perfect venue for their fights as a boxing ring would fit in well there. After negotiating a lease they had to clean the site of rubble, and Bella came up with the idea of using an army of down and outs to do the work in return for a decent feed.
The scheme was effective as The Ring staged its first bouts on May 14, 1910. Business was not brisk but to attract people to the venue they ran a soup kitchen that slowly built up awareness of the new venue, by October of the same year it was so high the money was rolling in on a regular basis.
Dick volunteered for the a Sportman's Battalion at the start of World War I, but the efforts of this took their toll on him and he died from double pneumonia in 1918. This was a major test of the resolve of Bella, as she promised her husband on his death bed that she would not close The Ring and carry on promoting events herself.
For a woman to take on the male dominated world of boxing was extraordinary, in the world outside women over 30 had only just gained the vote, but within the macho world of boxing women watching fights was sneered at never mind promoting whole bills.
But one thing she learnt from Dick was the boxers knack of getting to the punch first, and stamping your authority on a situations. On the first night she promoted an event after Dicks death, she stood in the ring in front of a baying all male crowd and repeated the promises she made to her husband, that being The Ring would continue under her guidance.
The tumultuous applause she received was said to be the basis of her future drive, and of her no nonsense approach. She got her hands dirty, when there was fights in the crowd she would personally confront the individual telling them to get out and get a refund on the way out. The warning would be issued to those around the fight in case they were in any doubt who was running the show.
Bills were successful for a while but one 'Nob' did gain entry in 1928, as the Prince of Wales made a visit for the night. The venue had put on 25 years of shows when it celebrated it Silver Jubilee in 1935 but hard times were around the corner.
By 1939 the money coming in did not cover the boxing purses or staff wages and she pawned most of her valuable to keep the place alive as long as she could. The Ring closed in the same year for refurbishments and to take stock, but a German bomber put an end to all dreams after a direct hit in 1940 turned the site into rubble.
She eased into a quieter life after this but her achievements were celebrated in an episode of This is Your Life in 1958, with guests from the world of music hall and boxing along to celebrate. She passed away in suddenly in 1962.
Where the boxing venue was is the site of The Ring pub now, and although it may attract a few too many nobs than Bella would like, the multitude of pictures of boxers that adorn the wall are a testament to what once went on there.
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