A drink and a boast about their boxing skills led to the death of a man in Stratford in 1910
By historian and writer Nell Darby
Drinking was a way of coping with your problems, of spending your week's wages, and, perhaps, of meeting new friends. However, when two men got drinking in one of Stratford's pubs in the autumn of 1910, their evening ended in a fight literally to the death.
The pub in question was The Oddfellows' Arms on the corner of Windsor Street and Mansell Street. Edward VII had died five months earlier, and Britain was now under the reign of George V, but in Stratford, life for the time being remained the same. That was certainly the case for Alfred George Payne, a local bricklayer's labourer. Aged 28, he had been born and bred in the town, but had previously served in the army, enlisting in 1900 and becoming a teenaged private in the infantry regulars, based at Budbrooke Barracks. He was now back in Stratford, currently living on Ely Street, and was a regular at the Oddfellows.
On this particular Sunday in October, he had first made his way to the pub at 1.30pm, staying to drink until 3pm. He then returned at 7.30 in the evening for another two hours of drinking. He was joined by Tom Kelly, a 40-year-old native of Walsall, who eked out a living as a pedlar, selling small goods from door to door. Tom did not have family in the town, and so paid to stay at what was described as a 'common lodging-house' each night. He also liked to have a drink and a chat in the local pubs, where he boasted of his history and prowess in boxing. He shared this interest with Alfred Payne.
Pugilism - boxing - had been popular in Britain since the late 17th century. Its early fans had seen it as a sport for gentlemen, with codes of conduct to abide by. It was not the done thing to avoid your competitor returning a blow by dropping to your knees, for example, and nor was it seen as 'manly' to screw your knuckles into your opponent's eyes - a practice known as 'gouging'. Its peak was in the early 19th century, but it continued to be a popular activity. The Queensberry rules were introduced in the 1860s in part to attract boxers from higher up the social ladder, but as time went on, it increasingly became a working-class activity, and disapproved of by the middle- and upper-classes, who disliked the violence of such masculine brawls. With the start of World War 1, however, it became recognised as being useful in training young soldiers both physically and mentally, making them brave and strong.
Both Tom and Alfred prided themselves on their skill at boxing. They discussed this over several drinks in the afternoon, with Tom Kelly boasting about having 'fought for the championship of England' (although he admitted losing), and having agreed to fight another man on a bet of £100. Alfred, 11 years younger than the hard-living Tom, must have liked the idea of fighting someone who claimed to be a good boxer, and fancied his chances as a still young former soldier.
At the end of the afternoon, the two men agreed that they should go to the boxing booth at Stratford Fair on 12 October, and have a fight, to see who was better. However, when the two met again that evening, and continued drinking, Kelly turned to Payne and said he would not wait: "the fight should come off at once in the street."