St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

From the book "The Haunted Holy Ground" by Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame published in 1988.

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RC D31


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Newport's Historic Celebrities

Final Corner For A Great Fighter

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

In the years after the First World War the name of Newport’s Johnny Basham was constantly on the lips of everybody with an interest in the Noble Art.

Basham was a boxer to beat them all: he fought his way through local contests, battled with the best of British Army champions and topped his career by winning the Lonsdale Belt, the British Welterweight Crown and major British and European titles. Johnny even got into English literature, for Robert Graves, the author of “I, Claudius” recalls in his book about the First World War “Goodbye To All That” taking to the ring with Johnny during a period of rest and recreation in France and getting a fairly resounding trouncing.

Johnny Basham at the height of his fame.

And yet when Johnny died in June, 1947, it was in obscurity. The man that had fought for some of the fattest purses in the world died almost penniless having spent his last years selling the South Wales Argus outside Newport market.

Johnny was born in the Shaftesbury area just behind where the Old Rising Sun pub now stands. It was a time when the measure of respect held for a man was often in the weight of his punch. Newport then was a tough place when talk was cheap and fast fists were the only reliable way out of dangerous situations which could develop in the blink of an eye in any of the scores of Newport’s seedy drinking dens.

There is something of a tradition of rearing boxers in Newport right up to near our own day when David Pearce was British heavyweight champion. It is said that one Newport boxer, Steve Simms, used to train by running up the steps of the transporter bridge!

But for Johnny, the fame so hard won was easily lost. After his fighting prowess peaked in the late twenties the decline was rapid, and he failed to capitalise on any of the chances his fighting had won for him. He won fame with a balled fist, but the fortune slipped away through all-too-open hand.

Even to this day stories about Johnny Basham told by those who knew the man can be heard. Several remember that when the American troops were in Newport during the last war Johnny would walk in to a pub displaying his Lonsdale belt and get a couple of drinks on the strength of it, and the belt could often be seen displayed behind a bar where it had be pledged against the price of a drink.

Johnny was a popular figure in the town and his only crime was to be poor. When we think of the huge sums which are paid to modern sportsmen who cannot show half the sportsmanship of Johnny it makes you realise the injustice that was done to this man.

Long after the profession had abandoned the old fighter the people of Newport rallied through a sportsmans’ committee and organised a boxing tournament the proceeds of which were to have provided Johnny with a pension. But even here there was pathos, because just one week before the tournament Johnny died.

There was a huge turnout for Johnny’s funeral with Newportonians of all stations of life lining the streets to say farewell to the fighter who had rolled with life’s blows and not complained. The simple wooden cross which marked Johnny’s grave sufficed for 40 years until the recognition that a man such as he should have something more distinguished.

Quite apart from anything else the old cross was too fragile to stand up to bumps from the mechanical mower and was frequently knocked over. It was often replanted in a slightly different place and it is said that over the years it migrated over five yards from the place where Johnny was buried.

This state of affairs could obviously not be allowed to continue and in 1987 it was decided a boxing tournament was arranged between Newport and its German twin town of Heidenheim. The ring was set up in Newport Centre, the advertising went out and by the end of the evening enough money was raised to pay for a handsome headstone.

The black marble headstone is a fitting memorial to the great boxer John Michael Basham or Johnny Basham
'Johnny Basham' - John Michael Basham -
Born September 13th 1890, Died June 7th 1947
British Welterweight Champion 1914 - 1920
European Middleweight Champion 1921
Location: RC D31

The black marble stone which stands just off the main avenue bisecting St Woolos cemetery is a fitting memorial to this great boxer.

How proud Johnny would have been to see the soldiers of 104 Air Defence Regiment, Royal Artillery, standing to attention either side of the stone as it was unveiled.