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The amazing life of a true sporting ace

PUBLISHED: 14:14 30 November 2010 | UPDATED: 14:23 30 November 2010

Jem Mace with James J Corbett

Jem Mace with James J Corbett

Derek James takes a look at the life of Norfolk-born boxer Jem Mace on the 100th anniversary of his death.

A century ago today a penniless busker ended his life on a Jarrow “pit heap” – his name was Jem Mace, the world’s first superstar who made a fortune – and spent the lot.

This Norfolk-born former Norwich landlord lived an extraordinary 79 years. He was the first boxing champion of the world, but he rolled the dice too many times.

He was one of the most talented yet unconventional of all Victorians and his legacy lingers on.

Next time you are in the city take a look at the plaque on the wall at the bottom of Swan Lane – that’s where Jem ran his pub named after the lane. He was once the most popular landlord in the city – and then the most unpopular.

Jem Mace was born at Beeston in 1831. He didn’t go to school and helped his dad on the road as a travelling smithy where he met gypsies. He loved them, he loved their music and he got to playing the fiddle.

He ended up in Great Yarmouth where three drunken fishermen discovered young Jem was more than just a fiddle player.

For no reason one of them smashed his fiddle in half – Jem knocked the stuffing out of him, he did the same with the next man – and the third fled. The watching crowd cheered and gave him enough money to buy a new instrument.

From then on young Jem decided to chance his luck in the ring and became a prize-fighter. He joined the circus and then arrived in a rough and tumble Norwich where he became a star attraction.

But Jem loved girls and drink. He didn’t prepare for one fight against city landlord “Licker” Pratt and that’s just what he got – a good licking.

From then on Jem pickled his fists with horseradish, whisky and hedgehog fat before a fight. Next time round Licker was beaten.

Jem lived on notorious Timberhill. In the summer of 1851 he married Mary Ann Barton at Thorpe Hamlet and she lifted her husband out of the gutter and into fashionable Norwich – Gentlemen’s Walk and the like.

She took him to the Theatre Royal to see Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, sing and Jem was completely bowled over. From then on he loved the theatre.

His first full fight as a professional was at Mildenhall in 1855 when he beat the tough Bob “Slasher” Slack. By now, Mary was expecting her third child, but it was time for Jem to leave Norwich and seek fame and fortune – which is exactly what he did.

Jem made money in London and returned to Norwich to take over the White Swan. The people loved him.

But then Jem was pulled out of a fight in London because he had been drinking and had ended up with a girl.

But many people in Norwich had put lots of money on Jem and rumours spread throughout the city that he was an “arrant cur,” had been trembling all over and had fled “like a stricken deer”.

A mob torched his home in Bull Close Road, tried to burn down the White Swan, and Mary and the children had to flee for their lives.

The relationship between Jem and Norwich was over.

He then set about proving he was the best boxer in the world – and he did just that. He wasn’t a fighter. He was a boxer. The quickest mover and the hardest hitter in the business.

He was also a great showman, a good talker and a proper dandy. The Mohammed Ali of his day.

Jem became champion of England before setting sail for America.

He took on Tom Allen for the first championship of the world and beat him in such a way, that boxing would change forever. He ducked, he dived, and then he struck.

He took America by storm. Jem was the number one man. The girls and gambling came with the job, but he was very lucky to escape with his life when New York mobsters tried to kill him.

After boxing his way across England and then America he arrived in Australia where the Aussies also loved him. Not only as a boxer, but also as an entertainer and showman. He set up a school to train a generation of young boxers

As his money ran out and his boxing skills faded Jem ended up back in this country, and turned to the fiddle to make a few pennies.

He was playing in a circus when he was taken ill on a Jarrow pit-heap.

It took four men to carry him to a pub, where he died on this day in 1910.

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