Peerless Jim Driscoll, the most famous son of Newtown...
The most famous son of Newtown, Cardiff’s Little Ireland, was the boxer Peerless Jim Driscoll, who gave up the chance of fighting for the featherweight championship of the world to keep a promise to take part in an exhibition bout at the Park Hall in Cardiff, in aid of his favourite charity, the Assault at Arms Committee, which supported Nazareth House.
Peerless Jim worked in the composing room of the old Evening Express which had its offices at the Monument end of St Mary Street, Cardiff. He acquired his boxing skills in the fairground booths run by the infamous Jack Scarott.
At the age of 17, Jim was earning a sovereign a week from boxing. Scarott added a silver crown to each purse by tying the teenager's hands behind his back and offering a gold sovereign to anyone who could hit the courageous Driscoll on the nose inside a minute. The money was safe.
Driscoll won more than 50 professional fights in Britain before going to the United States where he crowned his achievements in 1909 by out‑boxing the world featherweight champion Abe Atell in a no decision contest in which Atell’s title was not on the line. But the hard‑bitten American boxing writers unanimously voted Driscoll as the winner and gave him the accolade of Peerless Jim, a tribute to his skilful left hand.
Arrangements were being made for a rematch when the title would have been at stake, but Peerless Jim stunned the boxing world by opting to go home to raise money for the orphans being cared for by the good Sisters of Nazareth at their house in Cardiff.
Wales has rarely given a greater welcome to one of its sporting heroes than that given to Driscoll as he left Cardiff General Station, surrounded by thousands of fans. He was carried shoulder high through the cheering throng to his home in Newtown.
The Great War deprived him of a chance of further world champion bouts. He joined the army and belonged to a famous khaki boxing squad that included Bombardier Billy Wells, Pat O’Keefe, Johnny Basham, Dick Smith, Captain Bruce Logan and the ‘Mighty Atom’, Jimmy Wilde.
After the war, Peerless Jim returned to the ring and although nearly 40, beat Pedlar Palmer and drew with Franci Rossi.
The end of his boxing career came at the National Sporting Club in London in October, 1921, when his heartbroken seconds threw in the towel after Jim had been battered for 16 rounds by the Little Assassin, Charles Ledous, from France.
Five years later, on January 30, 1925, Jim Driscoll died at the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel on the corner of Ellen Street, the street where he was born and raised. The headline in a national boxing magazine proclaimed:
THE KING IS DEAD.
Peerless Jim was a king among boxers and his funeral was fitting for a monarch, with titled men and famous boxers joining the congregation in and around St Paul’s Church in Newtown, where the Requiem Mass was celebrated by Monsignor Irvine, assisted by Canon Hannon and Fr Grieshaber.
Canon Alfred Winsborough, who was in his early 90s when he died at Porthcawl in 1982, often talked to me about the moving service at which he led the choir, mostly children from Nazareth House.
One of those children was Nora O’Connor, a parishioner of St Teilo’s, Whitchurch, Cardiff. She was placed in Nazareth House after her father was killed in the Great War and her mother was drowned with more than 600 other passengers when the Germans torpedoed the Irish Mail Boat, the ‘Leinster’, on October, 11 1918.
With other orphans of the Mail Boat tragedy Nora was adopted by the great Irish tenor, Count John McCormack, who provided her pocket money while she was at Nazareth House, in Cardiff. Nora told me how she and other youngsters from Nazareth House were each given a wreath to carry as they walked in front of Peerless Jim’s funeral procession as it left Newtown for Cathays cemetery more than two miles away.
Thousands lined the streets to watch the solemn procession.
Outside Cardiff Castle the coffin was placed on a gun carriage and an army band played solemn music as members of the Second Battalion of the Welch Regiment paid their tribute.
The graveside service was conducted by Fr Grieshaber, wearing vestments paid for by Peerless Jim.
The Last Post was sounded by an army bugler and rifle shots were fired over the grave, which is just a few feet away from where the Bishop’s Monument was later erected.
The headstone was paid for by the Sisters of Nazareth, who on the headstone posthumously gave Peerless Jim the title which he had sacrificed for them:
OF YOUR CHARITY PRAY FOR THE SOUL OF JIM DRISCOLL, RETIRED FEATHERWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD : PEERLESS JIM, DIED JANUARY 30, 1925, AGED 44.
In 1997 a statue of Peerless Jim was erected near the site of the former Central Boys Club where he used to train. The chairman of the committee which erected the statue was Carlow‑born Ricki Ormonde, a former Lord Mayor of Cardiff, who was a useful amateur boxer as a young man. Ricki was acclaimed as the People’s Lord Mayor during his year of office when his future wife, Val Singleton, was his Lady Mayoress.
More than 70 years after his death, Peerless Jim was still raising money for Nazareth House. His nephew, Bernard Rowlands, of St Joseph’s Parish, Penarth, presented Jim’s Welsh Silver Belt and Certificate of Appreciation from the Assault of Arms Committee to the Welsh Hall of Fame, at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans. A pair of boxing gloves, presented to Driscoll by Abe Atell, were also included in the presentation. The Hall of Fame Committee, chaired by Lord Jack Brooks, presented Nazareth House with a cheque in appreciation of the gifts.
The author, John O’Sullivan, born in Barry of an Irish father and a Welsh mother, is a journalist and local historian based in Cardiff. He is also the Press Officer / PRO for The Wales Famine Forum.