A Hill for Billy

Standing just 5ft 2inches tall up on his tippy-toes Billy Beynon may not have been one of the tallest bantamweights in the world, but with a jaw dropping record of 193 pro fights in a 21 year ring career; punctuated by 1000’s of shifts at his local colliery plus the fathering 15 children he sure was one of the busiest!

Born in a small village called Bryn, near Port Talbot in South Wales in 1891, he was a small but healthy child and from an early age exhibited all the signs of a promising sportsman. For one thing he liked to keep fit and his favourite way of doing this was by running. Almost as soon as he was able to walk he began a daily routine of pounding the grass covered pathways of the glorious surrounding countryside where he lived. Regardless of the weather conditions he would be out there every day running his little heart out, and being the friendly amiable type that he was he always managed to find the time to give a friendly wave to local villagers as passed by their cottages. He especially liked to run the steep grinding path that took him from his home village of Bryn up and over the hill to the neighbouring town of Maesteg and back, an arduous meandering round trip of at least 5 miles.

This hill was to play a big part in his short but resolute life, hardly a day went by when he didn’t make this punishing run over the hill and back. Even when his boxing career was in full flow and he was already locked in to a gruelling training regime he thought nothing of scampering back and forth over this seductive hill before going off to fight a 20 round contest. Even after he had retired from boxing; and after working a 12 hour shift at the mine, he still managed to find the time and the energy to make his favourite hilly circuit, it was like an addiction to him.

Like most kids in the Welsh valleys at this particular time he left school at 14 and found work in the local pit. He was a honest hard working lad and well respected in his place of work, when he took up amateur boxing the following year he didn’t let it interfere with his job and never missed a shift. But then came a conflict of interests, he had showed so much promise in boxing’s amateur ranks that he was persuaded to hand in his shovel and pick and take up the sport professionally. But; because Billy had been such a good worker his bosses at the Bryn Navigation Colliery where he worked still allowed him to come in and do the odd shift for them when he was in between fights.

And in 1910 aged just 19 years he stepped into the ring for his first professional fight; a 10 rounder, which he won easily on points – it was to be the first of many. As I said at the top of this article he had 193 pro fights in all, his record reads; 64 wins, 100 losses and 29 draws. Included in his long index of wins were 5 point win decisions and a KO against the intrepid, Arnold Kid Sheppard who sadly ended his days in an insane asylum. But the crowning glory of his ring career has to be in 1913 when against all the odds he upstaged the enduring Digger Stanley to become the British Bantamweight champion. Sadly he didn’t hold it for very long before losing it back to Mr Stanley, but at least he has the kudos of being an ex-champion. He had his last fight in 1931, but because he loved boxing so much he didn’t opt out of the sport completely and enthusiastically took up the mantle of referee.

Monetary speaking; and so dismally true for many other unsung boxing heroes, Billy’s valiant efforts to secure his family’s financial future failed. Despite all of his long hard fought 21 years in the ring; he was no better off in his pocket than he would have been if had spent the last two decades digging coal. And with no savings to speak of and a wife and 15 kids to support he had no alternative but to go back to his full time job down the hell hole he called the pit. Even more heart breaking for him; because he had fought so desperately hard to avoid it, was the knowledge that before long his young sons would to join him down there too.

On July 20th 1932 both Billy Beynon senior and Billy Beynon junior were working together in one of the mines many tunnels when old Billy heard a terrible noise; it was a noise he had heard before and instantly recognized it as one of those ominous sounds that are heard immediately before a rock fall. Underground rock falls; although not usually as devastating as a complete cave in can still prove fatal for anyone caught in their immediate vicinity, and so it was for poor Billy. Without faltering for a second to think about his own safety he hurriedly shoved his son out of harm’s way but was tragically killed in the same incident – he was a mere 41.

His funeral was the largest the area had ever seen and was attended by many of the boxing greats of the day. But for me looking back at it all these years later it I think it took on something of a macabre twist. His youngest child who was just 6 weeks old at the time of his death had not yet been Christened, so his family decided to hold the Christening and the funeral on the same day. And for reasons best known only to them, they actually baptized the poor child right on top of Billy’s coffin!

However this is not the end of Billy’s remarkable story; almost 80 years after his death his descendants, together with the directors of the Bryn Colliery and the people of Bryn got together and decided that Billy had not been recognised properly for his heroic self-sacrificing deed, and after a great deal of lobbying they convinced the local council to officially name his favourite hill after him. So if you are ever lucky enough to be on holiday in the Port Talbot area and you fancy a vigorous stroll, why not take the old path that links the villages of Bryn and Maesteg, then you can say with pride I’ve just walked over Billy Beynon hill!