Polly Burns (Polly Fairclough) - World champion lady boxer, 1900

Dublin circa 1900-1930

Polly Burns (who became the Women's World Boxing Champion in 1900) was my great aunt, married to Tommy Burns, my grandmothers brother. Family legend says that they met in the boxing ring, and Aunt Polly whupped Tommy, leading to a true love.  The book "A Boxers Heart" refers to a magazine article (pg. 58) titled "Polly the Champ" where she was 65 years old, placing her birth date at 1880.


Tommy Burns
Polly Burns was not your typical demure Victorian lady. Uncle Tommy was quite wealthy from his work as a fight promoter and they lived in a mansion on Merrion Strand Road in Dublin. Aunt Polly loved her pets and they had an aviary with over 100 chirping birds. 

Aunt Polly died before I was born, but I was told that she was cultured and cordial, well-mannered and gracious, with a great sense of humor. But Aunt Polly was no pushover.  Polly Burns was lightening fast, and she could take-on any professional boxer.

Polly Burns once fought an exhibition match in Dublin with the heavyweight champion of the world (Jack Johnson)! 

Polly Fairclough (Burns), center

Lady boxers were a circus attraction

Patrick Dillon (grandson of Tommy & Polly) notes:

Polly is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery just outside Dublin and Tommy Burns is buried with him.  We did take our children to Ireland when young and took a photo of the grave, but we did not have time to go back to see it this time.
 
Polly was known by several names and it has proved nearly impossible to ascertain her birth with any amount of accuracy.  We believe she was born Mary Agnes Taylor (or Thornton) in 1881 in Whitehaven, Cumbria.  Her father's occupation was stated to be a horse dealer on her marriage certificate to Tommy in 1925.  His name was given as James Thornton, BUT on my mother's birth certificate it states Polly's maiden name as Taylor, confusion reigns over this!  My mother's father was supposedly a comedian named Thomas Harris Fairclough-Padmore and Polly's name was given as Padmore-Fairclough.
 
In the 1901 London census Polly is named as Polly Fairclough - music hall artist - aged 20 and married.  She was also world champion lady boxer having gone to Paris to fight an American called Texas May ?  who did not turn up for the fight so Polly fought a man instead! 
 
It is rumoured that Polly met Tommy in 1913 when she boxed at the National Sporting Club in London, the only woman to have done so - we are still investigating this point but not getting anywhere at the moment.  My mother was born in 1913 and always went under the name of Burns, even on her marriage to my father Christopher Dillon it was stated that her name was Burns and her father was Thomas Burns.  Subsequently, of course, it was realized she was not Tommy's blood daughter - quite a shock for her.
 
About two years ago our daughter Catharine was 'surfing the net' and came across an article about a film having been made of Polly's life by her great granddaughter (also named Catherine).  She had quite a shock as we had no knowledge of any other children Polly might have had and, as you can imagine, I was very skeptical of this.  

It was produced by someone called Adrian Lynch.  We contacted him and told him we were coming over to Dublin and would like to meet him as he might have some further information for us, particularly about the two children Polly was supposed to have had prior to 1913 when she was married to a Thomas Lynch.  We also asked for a copy of the film.  Now, here is where the story gets a bit muddled.  Although we went twice to his studios by appointment he was never there. 

He gave us a cassette of the film but it would not play on our equipment (or anyone else's).  Eventually we got a disc from Radio Eire via a contact of our daughter-in-law and have seen the film.  Obviously, there is no mention of my mother, although she was the one who lived with Tommy and Polly.  It seems from speaking with my sisters that there was a woman called Agnes who Polly used to see and we now believe that this may have been one of the other daughters as that was the name of Catherine Morley's grandmother.  She worked on a market stall in Dublin.  We tried all ways to find out information while in Dublin, without much success.  We even phoned a number we had but when we gave our name were told that they knew nothing.  Strange that, as I would have thought that they would have been happy to meet long lost relations. 

They may have thought we would discredit some of the information in the film or at least challenge it but as they say in England 'nowt so queer as folks'

See this article on Aunt Polly titled, "A Woman Who Was More Than A Match For The Men.", where it appears that she met Uncle Tommy (her second husband), while fighting him in the boxing ring.

"She was supposed to have fought men at the National Sporting Club in London, and one of her opponents there became her second husband."

Aunt Polly Burns is also discussed in the book "The Boxer's Heart: How I Fell in Love With the Ring", by Kate Sekules, and Polly Burns was the subject of a documentary film "My Grandmother Was A Boxer" on the RTE network in Ireland.

"RTE screened an amazing documentary in its 'True Lives' slot on Monday night. 'My Grandmother Was A Boxer' told the story of Polly Burns, who became the Women's World Boxing Champion in 1900, through the eyes of her Dublin great -granddaughter, Catherine Morley. . .

She was born in 1881 to an old established Lancashire circus family. After the death of her mother in a trapeze accident her father remarried to a member of "the famous fighting Fairclough family". Polly went into the circus life early and eventually became a 'strongwoman', famous as "the lady who held up donkeys with her teeth".

Connected as she was to a famous family of pugilists it's little wonder that Polly strapped on a pair of gloves and entered the boxing ring. She was 16 when she began her boxing career, fighting in booths at fairs, and mostly against men. "She was one of the few women at the time who fought men," said Lynch "She made thousands out of it.

A lot of the respected experts, especially the male ones, don't believe Polly was a fighter. At the end of her life, living in poverty in Dublin, she sold her story to the British tabloids "

This link notes:

"She was one of the few women at the time, who fought men," said Morley "She made thousands out of it." According to the documentary Polly Burns had an exhibition match with Jack Johnson (then heavyweight champion of the world) in Dublin.

Also, she was supposed to have fought men at the "National Sporting Club" in London, and one of her opponents there became her second husband." (Tommy Burns)

Tommy Burns, the son of Dr. J. A. Burns,, it was said that he met his demise in a murder, but this has not yet been verified.


 

World Champion Lady Boxer takes off the gloves

A reader with whom I am peripherally acquainted, told me the other day that my notes on Boxing as a sport not for women somewhat intrigued him. He wanted me to meet the "only woman boxer he ever saw who really knew how to box."

He told me that in spite of my statements he has known many women boxers-but none of them knew the game really scientifically except his friend-and she had more technique in her day than most men. Naturally I was interested, and we drove out to a house on Merrion Strand Road.

She was not a bit like what I expected. A charming white haired motherly woman of fifty odd years, she is Mrs. Tommy Burns, and has not engaged in pugilistic encounters in the ring for many years. Mrs. Burns, known in her spectacular days as Miss Polly Fairclough, comes of a family of boxers.

For generations they numbered many many champion boxers and wrestlers in their ranks. Miss Polly Fairclough was the Lady Champion boxer and wrestler of the world. She was the first woman who ever boxed in the National Sporting Club.

It was in the boxing booths of the North of England that she learned the artistry of the fistic sport. In a single day she often boxed no less than 110 rounds. As good a wrestler as a boxer, she had a reputation for neat footwork , clean, straight, and well-timed hitting. Training with the gloves is a good thing for girlseveryone should be taught the art of self defence, Mrs. Burns contends.

 A woman is not less womanly for indulging in boxing.

It teaches her what perhaps a great number of stay-at-home ladies do not know

never to clinch an argument with a straight left.

Mrs. Burns brother was the 9st. champion of England and she has had her rounds with Battling Nelson, Bombardier Wells, Digger Stanley, champion of the world, and a host of others.  

In wrestling she used the Graeco Roman methodno holds below the belt. 1915 was the year in which Mrs. Burns as Polly Fairclough bid farewell to the gloves. The majority of you may not like the sport, but Mrs. Burns seems in no way to have suffered by her indulgence in it.

Now she devotes herself to her home which is a charming one, mothers her friends of the rind and music hall days, and keeps open house for most theatrical folk.

All the celebrities who come to the Theatre Royal may be met there. When not engaged in her mothering activities Mrs. Burns devotes her time to her garden and to the aviaries that are now her great hobby.  She has over a hundred birds, varied and beautiful specimens of which she is very proud.
 

 

Rosaline & Polly Burns?

 


 

 

 

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