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In search of the Pride of Poplar

PUBLISHED: 09:04 04 December 2008 | UPDATED: 13:51 05 October 2010

At the height of his boxing career, Teddy Baldock was one of the most celebrated names in British sport. But the fighter nicknamed the Pride of Poplar was burned out before his 25th birthday and died penniless and in obscurity at the age of 63

By JONATHAN CLEGG

AT the height of his boxing career, Teddy Baldock was one of the most celebrated names in British sport.

A world champion at the age of 19, the fighter nicknamed the Pride of Poplar thrilled capacity crowds from the Royal Albert Hall to Madison Square Garden during the 1920s, winning the World, British and Commonwealth bantamweight titles in a career that spanned more than 80 fights.

His popularity was such that his wedding in 1931 to childhood sweetheart Maisie McRae drew thousands to the streets of Poplar and featured on the pages of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express.

Yet his grandson Martin Sax knew nothing of Baldock's achievements when he was growing up.

It was not until Sax was a teenager, more than a decade after Baldock's death, that he was handed two scrapbooks outlining his grandfather's feats in the ring.

The discovery inspired a search for details and mementoes of Baldock's career that has lasted for 20 years, the results of which are published this week in a biography of the man who remains Britain's youngest ever world champion.

It is a cautionary tale. Baldock, who defeated American Archie Bell for the world title in one of the great bantamweight bouts of all time and made more than £20,000 from boxing before he was 24, died penniless and in obscurity at the age of 63.

"It's a huge regret that I never got to know him," Sax says. "I was two-years-old when he died, but I wouldn't have met him anyway because at that point he was living rough in the streets and he was too ashamed to see his own daughter."

The Prince of Wales once requested to shake Baldock's hand, but when he passed away in an Essex infirmary, he did not have so much as a pair of pyjamas to his name.

His death merited no mention in the national press and there is no memorial to his achievements at Southend-on-Sea Crematorium, where his ashes were scattered.

Yet Sax hopes that his grandfather's biography will finally serve as a fitting tribute to the once great champion.

"For me, the book is a tribute to my Grandad's achievements in the ring and the sacrifices he must have gone through to reach that pinnacle - the hardship, the broken bones, the sweat and toil that all these men went through," he says.

"When you see all the newspaper articles, the pictures of the wedding and everything else, it's such a shame that his ashes have been scattered on a piece of ground in Southend and there's nothing there at all.

"But now there's the book - that was my goal. This book has gone to the National Library and he will always be there now as a part of British history."

The publication of Baldock's biography also marks a significant point in Sax's own journey through history, to discover the grandfather he never knew.

The 39-year-old has been on a quest to piece together the tiniest details of Baldock's life, starting with a small notice in the Advertiser requesting information on the former East End hero.

His search included long hours of painstaking research at the British Newspaper Library in Colindale, before he finally created a website about his grandfather's career in 2007 - a move which ultimately led to the publication of the biography.

"The website was one of the best moves I've ever made because it's an advert to the world. Anyone that types in Teddy Baldock, there's my website at the top of the list.

"And on the back of that, completely out of the blue, I got approached by Brian Belton about doing the book."

Belton, a sports writer specialising in the East End, was fascinated by Baldock's story and with the help of Sax's volumes of research, agreed to write Baldock's biography The Pride of Poplar.

The book's release is a source of considerable pride for Sax, who acknowledges that his own life has been enriched by the discovery of his grandfather's achievements and the warmth shown to him by the boxing fraternity.

Yet he also admits to a deep regret that the grandfather he has spent two decades living with will always remain a stranger.

"You can imagine if it hadn't turned out like it did - if he had been the grandad at home with all the pictures on the wall, I would have known all about his life," Sax says.

"But at the same time, I wouldn't have had to go searching for it and I wouldn't have had the same journey.

"If you think of all these people that had grandfathers that died in the War, they might only have a couple of pictures of them in uniform. I'm lucky there's all this information about my Grandfather for me to find."

Teddy Baldock: The Pride of Poplar, by Brian Belton (Pennant Books), £16.99

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