STEP off the train at St James’ station on the Tyne and Wear Metro line and you are standing, more or less, on the site of a one-time North East boxing mecca. Tucked behind the Gallowgate End of Newcastle United’s famous ground, St James’ Park, the 4,000-seater New St James’ Hall was one of the finest fistic arenas in the north.
The original St James’ Hall, opened for boxing in 1909 by Newcastle world featherweight title challenger Will Curley, ran fight shows until 1929, when Curley sold the hall to a builder named John Paget. Having visited boxing halls up and down the country, Paget had a vision for his new venue and the existing hall didn’t meet his requirements, so he built a new one in its place.
Paget’s purpose-built fight hall held its first show in May 1930. Its opening coincided with two fortuitous events. First, the closure that month of what would have been its main competitor: Sunderland’s Holmeside Stadium, which was torn down to make way for a cinema and dancehall. Second, it was the start of a boxing boom unlike any seen before or since in this country.
As my co-columnist Miles Templeton outlined in a recent article, there were more active pro boxers and shows taking place in Britain in the early 1930s than at any other time. These were the halcyon days for New St James’ Hall when stars such as world champions Panama Al Brown, Teddy Baldock, Benny Lynch, Jackie Brown, Young Perez and Baltazar Sangchili appeared at the venue, as well as famed British titlists Len Harvey, Johnny Cuthbert and Geordie legend Seaman Tommy Watson; not to mention top-notch North East men like Jack “Cast Iron” Casey, Benny Sharkey, Douglas Parker [pictured above] and Mickey McGuire.
At the height of the boom there were six bills a week and the 4,000-seater hall, which offered an excellent view of the ring from every vantage point, had no trouble filling its shows. Every Saturday, people would leave Newcastle United’s ground after a match and queue up for the boxing. By 1937, however, demand for Paget’s shows had waned, with rival forms of entertainment drawing fans away from the sport.
Paget died in 1938, and the ownership passed to a local corn merchant and reputed millionaire called Adam Hedley, who then sold the hall for £50,000 to Sol Sheckman, owner of the lucrative Essoldo cinema chain. In 1938, Fred Charlton – who’d been matchmaker and referee at the Holmeside Stadium in the 1920s and wrote for Boxing News using the alias Carl Fedthron (an anagram of his name) – became New St James’ Hall’s manager. He guided the venue through the tough war years, when many top-liners were called up to serve, and stepped down in 1947.
Soon after taking over the hall, Sheckman appointed Joe Sheppard – a former pro fighter turned manager who had a long association with the venue – as its matchmaker. Joe staged popular fortnightly promotions that featured a new generation of North East heroes. Men like British and European champion Teddy Gardner, British title challengers Stan Hawthorne and George Bowes, plus popular performers such as Billy Exley, George “Ginger” Roberts, Wilf Bone, Jackie Keogh, Johnny Miller, George Casson and Ben Duffey.
Through the course of its long history, New St James’ Hall earned a reputation as a “graveyard of champions”. World flyweight king Young Perez was KO’d in two by local Mickey McGuire, world bantam champ Baltazar Sangchili lost to Benny Sharkey, European flyweight titlist Young Martin was knocked out in two by George Bowes, European bantamweight champ Mimoun Ben Ali was whipped by Alan Rudkin, British welterweight champ Wally Thom by Vincent O’Kine and bantamweight boss Johnny King by Tom Smith.
Sadly, New St James’ Hall took the full count in 1968, when it was converted into a bingo palace. The building was bulldozed in 1976.