Iron Hague, of Mexborough, English Heavyweight Champion
Iron Hague, or to give
him his correct name, James William Hague, was born in a small back to back
house in Woodruff Row, Mexborough, believed to have been close to ‘The
Brickyard’ Lower Dolcliffe Road, on 6th November 1885.
He attended the nearby Garden Street, Primary School and because he hated it he played truant on a number of occasions the punishment for which was a sound thrashing It soon became evident that he could display almost superhuman amounts of iron self will, thus absorbing vast amounts of pain, and it was this which earned him the nickname of Iron Hague, and was used by classmates, teachers, and family alike.
He was popular and well liked among the pupils, he showed natural leadership qualities, which his teachers were quick to acknowledge, soon making him both Classroom and Playground Monitor and ‘woe betide’ anyone who disobeyed him, as he would administer, what he called a ‘love tap’.
His ability to withstand pain became known throughout the school and he was challenged to fight on a number of occasions in the playground. At first he earned himself boiled sweets but over time these became pennies and then pounds, then at the age of fourteen years he took part in his first bare knuckle fight.
It is questionable as to when Iron left school. The official leaving age, for the latter end of the 19th Century, was 12yrs and it would seem feasible that he would leave school as soon as he was legally allowed. Although it is reported by some that he did not leave school until he was 14yrs.
His first job was employed, on the pit face of Denaby Main Colliery, but he hated it and left after just three days to work at the Phoenix Glassworks, Mexborough, owned by Thomas Barron.
It was at this time that a boxing booth, owned by Jim Watson, came to winter in Mexborough and like a moth to a flame Iron was attracted to it and Jim, recognising the raw talent in him became his first trainer and it was with him that he won his first unofficial fight.
That winter Jim trained the youngster well and by the time Iron was 15 yrs, in 1900, the boxing bug had well and truly bit. He began to visit all the boxing booths that came to the town and surrounding area and never lost a fight.
His exploits in the booths attracted the attentions of William Biggs, landlord of the Bull’s Head Public House, High Street, Mexborough. Mr. Biggs became his organiser and promoter and arranged his first legal fight under rules.
This fight attracted the attentions of two men who were to be influential in his development as a nationally known boxer. These were none other than: Mr. F.J. Law the landlord of the Montagu Arms Public House, who was to become his trainer and provide premises for Iron to use as a base and also train; and Mr. T. Weston, landlord of the Reresby Arms Public House, Denaby Main, who would become his sponsor and financial backer. Messes Biggs, Law and Weston were to play a major roll in his climb to becoming the Heavyweight Champion of England.
It was under the patronage of these three gentlemen that he had his first professional fight. This took place in 1904 at the Volunteer Drill Hall, Doncaster, where he took on Dan Lewis and knocked him out in the 3rd round.
Hague’s next notable fight was at the age of 19yrs, in April 1905 when, again at the Drill Hall, he fought Dick Parks who was, at the time, the Pitman Heavyweight Champion who was felled in the 14th round by the hammer blow of Iron Hague’s right fist.
He was now the Pitman Heavyweight Champion and four months after, in August 1905 he took on Albert Rodgers to become Heavyweight Champion of Yorkshire after Rodger’s Seconds threw in the towel at the end of the 6th round. And 12mths later he knocked out Fred Drummond, a heavyweight boxer of London, in the 2nd round of a match at Sheffield.
Then the following month came a request he had waited for all his boxing life, he received an invitation to box, in the hallowed hall of the National Sporting Club, London. At this time the club was owned by Mr. A.F. Bettinson and its president was none other than the Earl of Longsdale, after whom the Longsdale Belt was named, and the club was run on very strict lines. Boxing was conducted in silence allowing the spectators to study the skill of the boxers and Iron gave them something to study. In a series of three eliminators he took on and beat: G. Turner and J. Gibson of Bow; H. Croxon of West Drayton; then lastly A. Pearson of Barnbury. Six months after he was back again, this time fighting Corporal Sunshine who had been the Army & Navy Champion for the past three years. The result, again, was a knock out to Iron Hague, in the 4th round. This was followed, early in 1909, by an invitation to fight Gunner Moir for the title of the Heavyweight Championship of England.
Hague moved to the Pier Hotel, Withernsea, on the east coast of Yorkshire, while training. The adjacent Assembly Rooms became his private indoor gym when the weather prevented work on the beach and word, that a future champion was training there spread and hundreds came to Withernsea, many from Hull, to watch him train.
At 10.51p.m. on 19th April 1909 Gunner Moir and Iron Hague met in the ring of the National Sporting Club. Again, in true Iron Hague style, it ended in a knock out to Hague after just 2mins 47secs. and he became Heavyweight Champion of England with his portion of the prize being £650.
When they heard the news in Mexborough the 2,000 people who stood outside the Sheffield Telegraph Newspaper Office (now Sheila’s Florist, Bank Street) went wild, cheering the new champ, and plans began immediately to welcome him home.
It is estimated that more than 50,000 people came into Mexborough, from the surrounding district on that day. So when he arrived at Mexborough Station, such were the numbers that Station Road and High Street, leading to the Bulls Head, were a solid, heaving, mass of humanity. Thousands of cheering voices, some almost on the point of hysteria, could be heard as his train approached the platform and as soon as he emerged from the railway coach he was seized, the horses removed from the traces of a carriage, and Iron was carried shoulder high, to be placed in it. The carriage was then pulled, not by horses but by men, fuelled by the enthusiasm of the crowd, to the Bulls Head, the crowds screaming their exuberance all the way.
Although he was now English Heavyweight Champion Iron remained naïve in the ways of the ring. If he was to succeed on the international fighting stage he needed to be taught ringcraft and who better to teach him, in the ways of the ring, than the Middleweight Champion of the World, Sam Langford, better known as ‘The Boston Tar Baby’.
They met at 11p.m. on the evening of the 25th May 1909 at the National Sporting Club and fought for the title of the Heavyweight Championship of the World. In the 2nd round they thought it was all over when Iron’s sledgehammer fist caught the left side of Sam’s head and sent him cart wheeling across the ring. By the fourth round Langford had discovered how raw the English Champ was, he drew him close by pretending to punch with his right, but as soon as Hague took the bait his left fist shot out and Iron Hague was on the canvas let down by lack of ring experience.
On 27th Oct. 1909 wedding bells rang out at Mexborough Parish Church when Iron married the niece of his trainer Mr. F.J. Law. Iron had known Lucy for some time as she was also involved in his training. Mr. Law was responsible for, besides many other things, his correct diet and Lucy, being his cook, was in control of making sure his diet was given correctly, and it was in this capacity that Iron and Lucy met at ‘The Low Drop’ to the rear of the Montagu Arms.
In January 1910 Iron, wishing to learn ring craft was to have sailed, on the Lusitania, for America. He was to again have met and fought Sam Langford, but this was never to be as the heavyweight boxer, Harry Crossly was killed in America and when his body was returned to Mexborough Iron was heard to state “Americans don’t fight by the Queensbury Rules” and refused to go.
On 1st April 1911 Iron was again invited to fight at the National Sporting Club. This time it would be for the honour of fighting for the first Heavyweight Longsdale Belt. On 24th April 1911, he meet Bombardier Billy Wells and on that fateful night the bell rang and Iron shot out of his corner, in usual form, but the Bombardier was more skilful and, working on Hague’s upper body won the first round on points. The forth round Iron’s blows hit the back of Wells’ head, leaving Iron open, the Bombardier sent first a right and then a left to Iron’s jaw, and he hit the canvas. Iron was up again on the count of six but the superior skills of Wells again put Hague on the canvas. Hague shot out of his corner at the start of the fifth round, Wells slipped while trying to avoid one of Iron’s mammoth punches thus a terrific match began between the two men. The quiet of the hall was shattered as the shout of “foul” was heard as Hague, who began to rise from the canvas following a blow to the jaw, was rushed by Wells who gave him another right and left, then another right to the shoulder, as he hit the floor. The referee waved Wells back, giving Iron time to rest for a few seconds, but it was all over for him. Wells worked on Iron pushing him onto the ropes, then after a punch to the throat, which made him drop his hands,
Wells gave an almighty right to the jaw which sent our champion sprawling onto the canvas. But, true to his Yorkshire Grit, he was up again, onto one knee, but he fell back and was counted out. Hague later commented that Wells, at 6ft 4in, had outreached him and with his expertise had out boxed him and “Had him down seven times before knocking him out”. Whereas Wells stated that he had carried Iron’s marks on his left side for some time after the fight, also that Iron had been a “Hard Hitter” and that the only way that he had been defeated was by the use of a boxing plan. Again Iron had been let down by his lack of ringcraft.
Iron continued to fight for a number of years and on 11th May 1912 went into partnership with George Law and opened an open-air arena named ‘The Stadium’. This was situated to the rear of the Montagu Arms, off Station Road, but unfortunately this venture failed.
Then on 21st December 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the 1st. W.W., he joined up and became Guardsman 21499, 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards. He gave his next of kin and address as Lucy Hague, 22 Orchard Street, Mex. Records described him as: 29yrs & 30days; 5ft 10in tall; with a chest of 45in; his weight is not mentioned. Other items recorded are that he had a daughter, by the name of Jane and that his occupation was a miner. In January 1915 he began his training at Caterham and in August of that year was sent to the frontline in France.
The man that returned to Mexborough was far different from the one that left. He was physically a broken man, having been invalided out of the army due to his lungs being badly damaged by German Mustard Gas, and it wasn’t long, after his return home, that he contracted double pneumonia. On his recovery he became a second and also acted as a referee and timekeeper at a number of fights. He was also a barman at the ‘Low Drop’, a bar situated to the rear of the Montagu Arms.
Between the 1st & 2nd W.W., he became a general handyman at a holiday camp at Bridlington, where his wife Lucy was a cook. Jane, his older daughter, took a job as barmaid at the Bull’s Head, while his youngest daughter Agnes, stayed with his parents at their home on Orchard Street.
But times were hard and in March 1939 Rev. Somerset, the vicar of our town, received a letter from the Reg. Adjutant for the Grenadier Guards which stated that it had been reported to him that J.W. Hague, 22 Orchard Street, Mex. was living in distressed circumstances and in need of financial assistance. The vicar visited him and, finding the report to be true, filled out the necessary forms enabling him to obtain help.
It was soon after that that the 2nd W.W. broke out and Iron was found a job as a ‘Firewatcher’ (a lookout for incendiary bombs) at Steel, Peech and Tozer, Steel Foundry. It was here where he was later to slip and break his hip.
In 1947 his wife Lucy died and his health began to fail rapidly. He moved to live with his younger daughter, Agnes Ruecroft, where he died of pneumonia, aged 65yrs, in 1951. A sad end to once very proud fighting man.
We have received the following information from John Townsend (01.01.10).
I have read with interest your account of Iron Hague. However Iron never fought for the World Heavyweight title
Harry Crossley did not die in America - it was his brother Herbert. Harry died in England. Herbert was the heavyweight and Harry was a champion cruiserweight. My father saw the body of Herbert after it was brought back from New York.
I enclose photos of the graves of Herbert and Harry in Swinton cemetery
Information Obtained From:
Radio Sheffield 4th
May 2009. Broadcast covering interviews with Iron Hague’s family & friends.
Commemorating the Centenary of his fight to become English Heavyweight Champion.
Interview with Stella Batty in 1992
Iron Hague, 1885-1951, Heavyweight Champion. ‘A Champion’s Diary’ collated by B. Chambers in 1997.
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