Merthyr’s Boxers: Billy Eynon

The next boxer we are going to look at is Billy Eynon. Many thanks to Gareth Jones for his assistance and advice in writing this article.

Billy Eynon was born on 26 December 1893 in Treharris. As a teenager he was lured into fighting at the infamous fairground boxing booths at Georgetown. In his excellent book ‘The Boxers of Wales: Volume 2 – Merthyr, Aberdare and Pontypridd’, Gareth Jones relates the story of how he was tempted to fight at Jack Scarrott’s booth on the promise of winning five shillings. When he went to collect his winnings however, he was told by Scarrott that his cornermen (both of course employed by Scarrott) were both entitled to two shillings each, leaving the young Billy with just a shilling!

Eynon made such an impression however, that Scarrott offered him a week’s work at Brecon Fair. This was eventually extended to six-months, and provided Billy with invaluable experience.

Eynon’s first ‘legitimate’ fight took place on 31 January 1914 at the Drill Hall in Merthyr. The headline fight that night was between Eddie Morgan (see previous entry – and Tommy Phillips, which Morgan lost on points. The local crowd were appeased somewhat when Billy Eynon defeated Dick Jenkins in his debut match.

He was beginning to consolidate his reputation when the First World War broke out. Eynon joined the Royal Artillery, and despite being wounded in France, carried on boxing. He won the Army featherweight title in 1918 and met the Navy champion in Salonika before a crowd estimated at 200,000 people.

Western Mail – 19 May 1916

Following the war, Eynon, now boxing as a flyweight, appeared in his first fight against Kid Doyle at the Olympia Rink in Merthyr, a match which he won. The victory earned Eynon a rematch at the National Sporting Club in a fight which would be an elimination fight for the British title. Eynon lost the fight on points.

Soon after this, Billy Eynon changed weight-divisions to become a bantam-weight, and in 1920 challenged again for the British title. On 18 October he beat George Clark on points to earn a fight against the reigning British bantam-weight title holder Jim Higgins.

On 29 November 1920, Eynon faced Jim Higgins at the National Sporting Club. The fight would prove to be a controversial one. Eynon, hampered by weight difficulties was forced, on the day of the fight, to undertake vigorous exercises and have a Turkish bath to try to reduce his weight, whilst his opponent rested and prepared for the match. An exhausted Eynon took to the ring and although he acquitted himself well, the match went to Higgins on points. Many in the crowd, including the Prince of Wales, disagreed with the decision and vented their frustration by throwing gold sovereigns into the ring for Eynon. Although he lost the fight, Eynon himself said he made far more money that night than his opponent!

Billy Eynon carried on boxing for several years, but in 1927, he was forced to give up the sport due to a detached retina and the risk of blindness. In 1928 a boxing tournament was held in Merthyr to raise money to help for him.

Billy Eynon lived out the rest of his days in Merthyr and died in 1980.

Merthyr Memories: Discovering Tabernacle Orchestra, Treharris

by Christine Trevett

When I was at school at the start of the 1960s one of the books we had to study for the English literature exam was Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. Our English teacher said it was a gentle masterpiece. I hated it – it was all ‘rural’ and about Victorians regretting a lost age. Yet I did quite like the plot line about abolishing the church’s string orchestra. There was a plan to replace it with a mechanical organ. I’d never heard of a church orchestra and I’d certainly never seen one. I played in the Merthyr Borough youth orchestra at the time, though, so I felt some sympathy about losing a music group.

It was in that English class that one of my friends said there was an orchestra in her own chapel in Treharris, where I lived too, and it had had one for longer than anyone could remember. She played in it. Then one summer she asked if I’d go along one Sunday instead of her, as she was going on holiday. I was used to chapels and curious, so I said yes, though all I knew of it was that this chapel had had a minister referred to locally as ‘Thomas Tab’ and that the building was one of two chapels facing each other on Perrott Street, each side of the main street just below ‘The Square’, which was the hub of Treharris town.

Tabernacle Chapel, Treharris

The language of the chapel was Welsh. I had no idea when I turned up at Tabernacle Chapel that for them this was the tail end of a very lively orchestral tradition indeed. It was more than half a century later that I came across the photograph on the Internet headed Tabernacle Orchestral Society, Treharris: winners orchestral competition, Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales, Barry, 1920. It showed just two female players among over thirty musicians, with an age range from schoolboys to the very mature.

The chapel, built in 1883, was bigger than my own, which was two years older and far from small itself. Tabernacle had hosted great congregations in the 1905 religious revival. It was rich in panelled pews, balustrade, mouldings and an impressive pulpit front (the building would be Grade 2 listed in due course). The part of the chapel I remember best, though, from the two occasions (I think) when I joined the string players, was the spot on the balcony from which the music came.

Tabernacle Chapel pulpit from the balcony

There were just a few players accompanying hymns. I was on the ’cello. The galleries raked steeply and the floor felt slightly sloping where we sat, just a few chairs and some music stands. This teenager’s imagination was working overtime in the unfamiliar setting, sitting alongside others who knew all the ropes and knew exactly what they were doing. The whole building was ‘weighty’ and this youngster was nervous. What if the spike of the ’cello slid and slipped into one of those small gaps between floorboards, and got wedged? It would be like some animated cartoon – the player using knees to wrestle with the thing while still keeping the bass part going using both hands. I tried not to move much.  It didn’t happen of course.

I knew at the time that I was experiencing something being kept alive by the skin of its teeth. Chapels had organs and probably a piano in the vestry as well. Yet many nonconformists in the 19th century hadn’t been entirely at ease as organs and harmoniums were being installed. It had seemed ‘popish’ to some. Tabernacle, in decades past, had encouraged and built an orchestral fellowship that went beyond anything needed to accompany hymns and now it didn’t want even that to be ended.

Nowadays instrumental ensembles are common in churches and chapels again – a fiddle, a flute and piano/keyboard perhaps, in a modern ‘worship group’, or some people looking like a rock group in another. Some very successful churches have much more variety than this, to take account of all tastes at different services. So the tradition’s far from dead. You could say it’s been resurrected.

Tabernacle Chapel Orchestra in 1920