| POLLY BURNS was the
Women's World Boxing
Champion in 1900. A documentary was made about BURNS. The following article
was written by Jim Doherty, named "A Woman Who Was More Than A Match For The
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.
My Grandmother Was A Boxer' A review of the documentary - by an inside reporter -Sept 6, 1999
According to family legend Catherine's great-grandmother was a professional boxer at the
turn of the century and the documentary was based on Catherine's personal search for the
truth about this amazing woman. The program used a mix of interviews, archive footage, and
dramatic reconstructions in its search for an elusive truth.
"Any life is complex, especially when it's being pieced together from fragments of
newspapers," said Adrian Lynch of Graph Films, the production company that made the
documentary. "There's no doubt that, because Polly was a woman boxer, her life wasn't
written about, so in a sense we are bringing her back into history. There is that question
of our father's and grandfathers' histories being known to us, but of women's lives being
To say that Polly Burns led an exceptional life is something of an understatement. 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
The Dublin connection came about when Polly married Dubliner Tommy Lynch. They moved to
Dublin, where Polly gave birth to two daughters, one of them Catherine Morley's
grandmother Agnes. The marriage didn't last however, and Polly took to her old trade
"People think that women's boxing is a new thing, but that's not the case. The first
recorded bout was between a fishmonger and an aristocrat in 1727. So there is a strange,
other history that's being going on all the time," according to Lynch.
The pinnacle of Polly's fighting career must have been when she became Women's World
Boxing Champion in 1900. She had gone to Paris to take on the US women's champion,
Texas Mamie Donovan. However, the American failed to show up, whether through fear or not
we don't know, and Polly was duly declared the world champion.
"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 and a lot of the information about her comes from those tabloid stories;
so the question is, did she make up material for them? We've found a lot of evidence that
she didn't," said Lynch.
One of those who believes Polly's story to be true is the president of the Women's World Boxing Federation in Miami, and who as a
former booth boxer herself had heard of Polly's exploits in the ring.
We leave the last words on the subject to Adrian Lynch: "We like the idea that the
story is potentially not true. With Polly, it's very hard to separate the myth from
reality, because her reality is in other people's interpretation of her, which is
interesting because this film and these newspaper reports continue that on again. So she
keeps being reborn in the media. People will write about her and speak about her again,
and the question still remains: is it true?" But like the journalist says to James
Stewart at the end of 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance', "When the legend becomes
fact, print the legend".
The Polly Burns documentary was
a slight disappointment. It was mainly due to the fact that there
was not a lot of hard evidence about Burn's boxing career. There was
reference to her in various newspaper articles, and interviews with people
who had heard that she was once a fairground boxer, but not much in the
form of pictures and records. It was hard to distinguish the fact
from the fiction.
According to the documentary Polly Burns had an exhibition match with
Jack Johnson (The then heavyweight champ 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.
Also on the plus side, there was some old footage from newsreels showing women boxing in France
(Savate - French kickboxing) and in the US back in the 30's. According to the clip from US, a girls school in Virginia
had boxing lessons for the pupils, and apparently the boxing lesson was voted the most popular class among the girls. It was all very light
hearted, and showed a lot of girls sparring on the campus, so apparently Doyle Weaver wasn't the first to teach "The Noble Art" to girls.
Polly Burns: World Champion Pugilist