Tent boxing was once an exciting part of rural agricultural shows, including Narrandera, and the name of Jimmy Sharman is synonymous with the sport.
Born as James Sharman in Narellan, NSW, the fifth of 13 children to James and Caroline Sharman, Jimmy Sharman established a boxing tent in 1911 at Ardlethan near Temora. The tent visited 45 to 50 shows each year, including Narrandera, and his son, Jimmy Sharman Jr, took over the business in 1955. The tent formed part of the Australian Show landscape until 1971, when regulations barred boxers fighting more than once a week. A member of the Showmans Guild of Australasia, he then turn-ed to dodgem cars in partnership with Reg Grundy.
Jimmy Sharman junior was born James Michael Sharman in Narrandera. He attended his first Sydney Royal Easter Show in 1926 working in his father’s tent. Sharman junior played rugby league for Western Suburbs Magpies. He was fullback in Western Suburbs’ 1934 premiership win against the Eastern Suburbs. In 1938 he became First Grade captain. He retired after 7 seasons in 1939 to become a journalist, taking over the boxing tent from his father in 1955. Sharman played 45 games between 1935 and 1939, scored 12 tries and kicked 11 goals. He was awarded life membership in 1998.
In 2003 the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW honoured Sharman Jr with the title of “Show Legend”. He suffered ulcers and missed World War II as he was medically unfit. Another bout of illness in 1945 drew him to his father’s tent.
Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Troupe followed the show circuit through four states for six decades of working eleven months a year. In each town and city Sharman Snr charged spectators to watch young black boxers teach half-cut local challengers to fight. “Who’ll take a glove?” and “A round or two for a pound or two” were famous Sharman catch-cries.
Sharman Jnr inherited the business a decade before his father died in 1965. He continued touring until 1971 when regulations barring boxers fighting more than once a week knocked the business out. Like his father, Sharman had one son, called James. Jim Sharman went into show business but not the boxing tent. The Sydney theatre producer won world acclaim when he co wrote and directed The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975.
Tent boxing emerged around 1900 with the rise of boxing as a legal sport. Boxing of the bare-knuckle variety had flourished in Australia but was illegal throughout the nineteenth century. With the adoption of gloved contests and the Queensberry Rules in the 1880s, a qualified acceptance of boxing in clubs and private schools emerged. By 1900 boxing stadia in Australian capital cities attracted committed fans.
Jimmy Sharman’s boxing troupe was not the first to operate but it became the longest serving and best known.
Sharman, one of 12 children of a Narellan timber cutter, became a successful boxer in the Riverina area winning all but one of about 80 fights before the near death of an opponent Jack Carter, at Wagga in November 1911 steered him into boxing tent promotion at the age of 21.
The more permanent, well-known troupes travelled from southern Australia in summer to north Queensland in winter and back again, following the annual calendar of 500 country agricultural shows (including Narrandera), carnivals and rodeos which spanned all but the Christmas season. They sometimes stopped in towns where there was no show but which promised an audience mustered from the surrounding district.
A half a dozen troupes ranged the country-side at any one time. In any one year, Sharman’s troupe visited about 100 shows in successive regions throughout the year. Within each region the randomness of the show dates meant there was often a mad dash from one part of the region to another— mostly at night— to set up for the next show. Most were one day affairs.
The troupes were popular and much sought after by the agricultural show committees. As Sharman II added: ‘all you needed was a merry-go-round, a knock-em down, and a boxing troupe and you had a show’.
The troupes were an important nursery for both boxers and fans. The showmen, especially Sharman, would spot likely fighters for the city stadium promoters and encourage the sport by featuring boxing stars in the troupe. Aboriginal Australian professional champions Ron Richards, Jack Hassen and George Bracken had their first fights in the tents as did other Australian champions Billy Grime, Mickey Miller and Jackie Green.
Many Aboriginal youths, young men, even ex-champions, joined the boxing troupes simply to earn money and engage in an exciting life but they found that they might not sleep much for days when doing one night stands and their living conditions were spartan and varied. Boxers in some troupes slept under a blanket in the saw dust of the tent floor. However, others snoozed in a fitted-out van, and Sharman’s boxers slept on fold-up iron beds.
The life of a tent boxer was one of travel punctuated by intense activity. They travelled a third of the week, pitched and took down the equipment, and fought in the tents on average several days a week. At country shows there were between three and eight sessions or ‘houses’ over the day and evening, while at the big city shows there were 10 to 12 ‘houses’ each day. Each ‘house’ contained three or two fights and a wrestle.
Tent promoter Jimmy Sharman II gave a much more conservative estimate in 1978, claiming: a couple of fights a day, sometimes a fight a week, all depends on the itinerary of the shows but the capital [city] shows always had two or three fights a day… the more fights they had the better they liked it.
It is unclear how much tent fighters were paid as some interviewees were either vague or cagey on this matter. Their wages were probably similar to the basic wage of the time (about three to four pounds in the 1930s, five to seven pounds in the 1940s and ten to thirteen pounds in the 1950s) but there were of course no sick or holiday payments.
Some tent boxers who fought around 1950 said they received one pound a day, others one pound a fight. The latter is unlikely for the average boxer, given the prizemoney and expenses the showmen had to pay. Several boxers claimed Aboriginal boxers were paid less than other fighters.
While some showmen were fair in the treatment of tent boxers, others were full of tricks to reduce payments to a pittance, or even to nothing. One ploy was to tell a young boxer he could not be paid to fight as he was an amateur. Instead, the promoter promised to write to Merv Williams, the Sporting Globe’s boxing editor, and have him featured in the paper to help his career instead. But such news was rarely published.
The boxers were controlled by a tight contract and a ‘good behaviour bond’ of fifty pounds. They breached it if they fell sick, were injured or drank to excess, and had expenses deducted from any wages owing. The general practice regarding wages was that all payments were held by the boss until the end of the tour—only the stars were treated differently. This practice ensured the boxers did not leave during the tour and it was a paternal effort to get them to save.
Jimmy Sharman II, stated they gave the boxers pocket money on request but held the rest so they would not ‘finish up broke’. Indeed, he claimed that his father (Jimmy Sharman I) paid the balance to some young Aboriginal boxers in front of the youth’s parents upon his being returned home at the end of the tour.
The tent boxers were part of the travelling show people’s community, were popular among the local Aboriginal community and among the rural working class as they provided new conversation about town and were young, dashing, adventurous types.