Bobby Whitelaw. Minmi legend and first to beat Les Darcy.
At Minmi School, in the township's heyday, any new boy who came on the scene was "trotted out to see how well he could fight". Usually, the boy he had to face was Bobby Whitelaw. "Bobby," the boys would boast, "could lick 'em all holler."
Bobby Whitelaw was born in Lanark Scotland, on the 16th June, 1879. The family migrated to Australia when John Brown, visiting Scotland, recruited Mr. Whitelaw Snr. to work as a blacksmith at Minmi. When Bobby reached school leaving age, he too went to work in the pits, "spragging up the sets on the Number Two Tunnel." He became pickboy then sharpened picks at Seaham No.1 and West Wallsend collieries.
Life seemed already mapped out for Bobby Whitelaw, until one day he got into an argument at a football match with another spectator called Tommy Fulton. A fight was arranged for the following Sunday to settle the matter. The bout took place in the bush near Ladysmith, where most bare-knuckle matches were staged. There are reports that five to six hundred spectators were there, even using high branches to obtain a view of the fight.
Without gloves, the two men fought through seven rounds, Tommy Fulton having a two stone advantage. The sudden arrival of the police caused everyone, including the fighters, to scatter, and some spectators, in their hurry, fell out of trees or into a nearby creek. Although the fight was never completed, it marked the beginning of Bobby Whitelaw's career. He gave up his job at the pit to become a professional boxer.
His first professional fight was against Fred Shears. They fought in Geordie Wiles' "Northumberland Hotel" hall at Minmi, using gloves that were "just like a coach-man's driving gloves." Billy McKell, uncle of the later Governor General, Sir William McKell, was Whitelaw's second, and Alf "Boko" Thompson was referee. Bobby Whitelaw won in nine rounds.
Serious training then began, with roadwork in the morning and gymnasium work in the evening. Bobby Whitelaw moved to Teralba for a short time, then to Lambton, living with people in the boxing game. He used to walk and run from Lambton to Merewether Beach and back. Later, when living at West Wallsend, his roadwork consisted of walking at a swift pace from the town to the Minmi turnoff, back through Young Wallsend, then over to Salty Creek. He would swim underwater across the creek then complete the walk back home, a distance of ten miles.
He was interested in athletics of any kind, especially sprint racing, and won a mile championship at the Federation Day sports at Sydney Sports Ground in 1901. But boxing was his main interest. His first fights away from Minmi were at the Victoria Theatre in Newcastle or in Sydney. Later, when the Summer Park was built in Hunter Street West, Newcastle, he appeared there, before moving on to fight in Melbourne. "If you got £60 out of a fight, you were doing pretty good." He went to Perth where he defeated the West Australian welterweight champion, Sam Keenan.
Soon, there was no one in Whitelaw's lightweight class with whom he could be matched. Sometimes, he had to fight welter or middleweight opponents. Yet, he was proud of the fact that during his sixteen years in the ring, he never once went home with a black eye.
Bobby Whitelaw came home from Perth in 1908 to marry Miss Lilian Nelson, daughter of the owners of the Travellers Rest Hotel at Young Wallsend. Mrs. Whitelaw never saw her husband fight because, "in those days, women didn't go to the boxing, and anyhow, I had the children to care for."
At the age of thirty-three he agreed to meet Les Darcy, then nineteen, at the Victoria Theatre in Newcastle. "I liked young Les," he said. "And I liked his people too. He had beaten everyone here." The match took place on the 3rd November 1913. "The theatre was packed, and there were hundreds in the street who couldn't get in. When a person stepped out of the tram at Perkins Street, there were so many people, you could have walked up to the theatre on their heads." The fight went twenty rounds, Bobby getting the decision on points. A return bout was arranged for the 21st March 1914, at Andrew's Stadium in Maitland. This time, Darcy won in five rounds, taking from Whitelaw the welterweight championship he had held for eight years.
Whitelaw had one more bout, but not until he had passed his fortieth birthday. He lost to Jim Bailey in six rounds at Cessnock, and retired.
After his retirement, Whitelaw returned to his earlier trade. He went to Whitburn Colliery as a blacksmith, to Rothbury sharpening tools, and then to Killingworth blacksmithing. When Killingworth closed he stayed on as watchman until he retired.
Bobby Whitelaw was one of the most popular boxers that ever came from Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, and many of his supporters were firmly convinced that, had he gone to America as they had wished, he would have more than held his own against the world's best in his weight. He died on September 26th 1964, aged 86.
- Neath Mount Sugarloaf, Volume 1. / West Wallsend Public School Centenary Committee, 1987
- Fighting (even Darcy) was strictly business: Ian Healy's Suburbia / Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner's Advocate Saturday 10 June 1950, page 5
- 125 years : Songs and stories of Minmi's colourful past / Don Speering and Bob Skelton. Medowie, N.S.W. : B. Skelton, .
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