Swimming instructor who packed a punch

A PASSING reference in this column in July to “Bandsman Blake (an ex-leading boxer)” prompted a reader to inquire: “Bandsman Blake the boxer. Who's he?”The answer? On his death, exactly a half-century ago, he had the distinction of being the only Yarmouth man to have been a British boxing champion.

A PASSING reference in this column in July to “Bandsman Blake (an ex-leading boxer)” prompted a reader to inquire: “Bandsman Blake the boxer. Who's he?”

The answer? On his death, exactly a half-century ago, he had the distinction of being the only Yarmouth man to have been a British boxing champion.

The inclusion of his name came in recollections of the borough's two long-gone open-air unheated bathing pools. One of my regular correspondents reported that when he was a pupil at Great Yarmouth Grammar School in the mid-1950s, swimming lessons in the Yarmouth pool were “under the guidance of a very ancient-looking Bandsman Blake who had taught my mother to swim many years before! Mr Blake arrived at the pool on an equally-ancient upright bicycle, and he would not tolerate any insubordination!”

Well, I doubt if any recalcitrant swimming pupil aware of his instructor's boxing background would have given him any cheek, for Bandsman Blake was once the British middleweight champion for 18 months until he relinquished the crown to the man whom he defeated to take the title.

His was a colourful story.

John Blake, popularly known as Jack, was the son of a fisherman and was born in Tower Street, Yarmouth, in 1890. On his death at his North Denes Road home in 1960, aged 70, the Mercury told its readers: “When he was in reminiscent mood, he had fascinating stories to tell of his ring experiences - of boxing in air raids, of once boxing eight rounds with a broken collar-bone, three with a broken nose and three with a broken wrist.”

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The Mercury continued: “His boxing career was meteoric and distinguished. He went to the Nelson School in Yarmouth and at 14 joined the 2nd Norfolk Regiment with which he served in many parts of the world.

“His introduction to the boxing ring was a casual affair. When he was at Gibraltar in 1910 his name was entered - unknown to him - for a middleweight competition. When he won this, he had serious thoughts about a ring career. Two years later, he became middleweight champion of India.

“After leaving the army he took up boxing professionally and, from the time he first fought as a professional in January 1912, to the time Bombardier Billy Wells knocked him out in March 1914 in their fight for the British heavyweight title, he was unbeaten. His victims included the Dixie Kid (who lasted the full 20 rounds), Jack Harrison and Young Johnson (a relative of Jack Johnson).”

In 1916, Blake reached the peak of his career by becoming British middleweight champion when he outpointed Pat O'Keefe in no fewer than 17 rounds. He held the title for 18 months but I think he defended it only once when O'Keefe knocked him out in the second round of their return bout.

“Blake's last fight was at Yarmouth's Hippodrome in 1921 when he knocked out Arthur Cameron, of Fulham, in four rounds,” continued the Mercury obituary.

The Dixie Kid, an American who once knocked out the legendary Frenchman, Georges Carpentier, was described by the national Daily Mirror as “one of the cleverest boxers the world has ever seen” but met his match in the tough and skilful Yarmouthian.

In a post-bout interview, the magnanimous Dixie Kid told the Daily Mirror: “The Bandsman beat me fairly and squarely. He is a fine young fellow with the most remarkable judgement. I can say that sincerely, and I take my hat off to him.

“I should say he is about the cleverest man I've met for about ten years. He certainly is the strongest. I couldn't move him an inch. He was like a rock! He is very tricky and clever too.”

The experienced American gave his successful opponent's manager some advice: “He wants to develop a punch. Make him work at the punching ball and make him work hard - it will work marvels for him. A punch is all he wants and a punching ball will make a remarkable difference in a few weeks.

“Blake is one of the coming men.”

The Mirror reported that Blake was unaffected by his notable victory. “He is a man of few words and scarcely ever talks,” wrote the correspondent. 'I thought I could win and I won,' Blake said simply.

“'I do know, though, that I have learned an awful lot in this fight with the Dixie Kid. He is a marvel in his way and it has done me a tremendous lot of good. I have never met a cleverer man and I do not expect to meet another like him for some time. The Dixie Kid's cleverness has opened up a whole lot of new possibilities for me.'”

Blake's manager, Dan Sullivan, gave the Mirror an unexpected insight into his formidable boxer: “Blake is a peculiar man in some ways. His first thought is for his mother and sister. He thinks of them before all else.

“He might have stopped in London for a few hours, just to have a look around, but he is off right away now, back to Yarmouth to see them. He has never smoked or drunk anything stronger than water in his life, and he is always fit.”

On his return to his home town, he became a prominent all-round sportsman, playing football for Yarmouth Town, winning many swimming races and becoming one of the town's best anglers, his name figuring in the prize lists for years. Also, he was appointed a boxing referee.

But he was widely known because, for many a summer, he taught local schoolchildren to swim at the open-air Yarmouth pool, thousands of youngsters benefiting from his tuition. He was a swimming tutor until his death. A Gorleston octogenarian who used to train at the outdoor pool in Yarmouth remembers Bandsman Blake wearing a rubber suit - “he used to tease me, calling me Tarzan, but he could be very severe.”

For a time between the wars, he ran the Army and Navy public house on Blackfriars Road.