BILLY BURNS’ BARROW                                                                                                                      

 This month’s little article is considerably different to my normal pugilistic offerings; in fact it’s not about boxing at all, but it is an amusing anecdote that revolves around the two momentous Spring and Langan fights in 1824. I know I’ve covered these events before but rest assured this story is vastly different!                                                                                                  

Although the names, Spring and Langan and their two great fights are nothing more that ink stains on the pages of history these days, I can’t stress just how big they were at the time, their names were on everybody’s lips including those of royalty and the boxing world waited with bated breath for the outcome of their encounters.                                                                                    

Much of the country was divided at the time on who would win the rematch, half of it supported Langan and reckoned his size advantage would win the day, the other half supported the much smaller lighter Spring believing his speed would be enough to carry him through, and because Manchester hosted such a large Irish contingency as it did it is quite possible that Langan had more fans here than anywhere else outside of Ireland, and none were more avid than the outspoken Irish born barrow-boy Big Billy Burns.                                                                                                                       

There were no radios, televisions or internet in the early 19th century and apart from newspapers which were few and far between news travelled slowly via word of mouth, and believe it or not one of the best places to catch up on the latest news was in your local barber’s shop; they were the newsrooms of their day. Procter’s family barbers situated in Mark Lane in central Manchester was typical of this type of establishment, and for the meagre outlay of just one penny you could enter their shop and come out 30 minutes later clean shaven and fully acquainted with everything that was going on in the world.                                                                                                   

 One of Procter’s regular customers was a blackguard of a fellow called Big Billy Burns. Loud and brash with no need of a megaphone he sold sea food from a barrow for a living and his big booming cries of cockles and mussels for sale could be heard for miles around.                                                                                                           

He was a dedicated boxing fan and a diehard supporter of Irish Jack Langan and he never missed a chance to impress his views on the customers of Procter’s barbers shop. On the 9th June 1824, the day after the second Spring and Langan fight it came like music to his ears that his countryman had won; he had just loaded his barrow up for the day and was passing the barbers shop on the way to his regular pitch when he was so overcome with excitement about Langan’s win he couldn’t resist the urge to duck inside the shop and cockcrow about it to its mainly elderly and English clientele who he knew were fervent supporters of Tom Spring.                                                                                            

Parking his barrow up at the step he burst through the door like a madman and immediately began bellowing at the top of his voice about the Irishman’s incredible victory over Spring; he said a lot more things too, most of them racist and offensive, but this was the 19th century and nobody gave a damn. He spent a good 10 minutes or more gloating to the shop’s browbeaten customers about how easy it is to defeat an English man in the ring before storming out again with a big beaming smile on his face.                                                                                                                              

But the smile soon disappeared from his face when he got outside and discovered someone had not only stolen his stock of seafood but they had pinched his barrow too. Shocked and visibly distraught, the teary eyed Billy spent the remainder of his day running around Manchester like a lunatic accusing everyone he came across of stealing his barrow; but he never did find it. And to make matters worse when he eventually got home he learned he had been wrong about the outcome of the fight, it was Spring who had actually won and not Langan; he was mortified, not only had he made a complete ass of himself he’d also had his heart broken twice in a single day!                                                                                                                            

 You may think this is an oddball story for a boxing newsletter; and there’s no denying it is, but there is something about this story that intrigues me. I first stumbled across it when I spotted a photograph of an old black and white lithograph in a magazine I was reading, the image was a bit grainy but it appeared to show a circus clown crying profusely in front of a row of dilapidated shops. Puzzled, I made inquiries into what the picture symbolized and to my amazement discovered this cracking little story.                                                                                                  

Then it suddenly occurred to me: If an outsider  artist working hundreds of miles away from where the event took place  deemed this incident interesting enough to depict it in art, then surely it must be worthy of a mention in our Manchester newsletter!