Sunday, 26 November 2017

William (Bill) Strelley   9/3/1870 – 6/2/1954 Boxer, Promoter, Referee

William (Bill) Strelley 1948

These cuttings were sent to my grandmother in Sydney  (source unknown) 

It's probably the result of a long running guessing game with Bill Strelley. The truth is not only was his age a mystery in his time but also until recently a definitive  parentage.  Anyway back to William.... Bill Strelley. When I started this quest records were just being made available on Scotlands people. There are very few Strelleys and variations in the form of Stralley, Strally, Strellie and Strelly in Scotland.

With the benefit of their database and wildcard searching here’s his birth certificate.  
Birth Certificate William McHardy 1870
You will notice he is registered as William McHardy and illegitimate. His birth is 9/3/1870 at Bridgeton, Glasgow. Mystery solved as to his age but what  about the name of his father. It was suspected until just recently that his father indeed was William Strally, an army pensioner and tanner who lived with his mother Lavinia McHardy for about 30 years. During this period many children were born to Lavinia –all called McHardy and all named as illegitimate.

In the 1871 Census William is William S McHardy living with his mother (Strelley and his mother are on a separate page but same address to William Strally and his McHardy grandparents. By 1881 everyone has adopted the name Strelley and the status of a family. Over time the name Strelley was used by both Lavinia and the surviving children.

1881 census
For some reason there appears to be an impediment to the couple marrying.

Here’s a list of children attributed to be half or full siblings of William (Bill). Not many survived which is a sadness in itself for the family unit.

Janet Peoples McHardy 1/9/1862 Glasgow to 15/6/1863 (half sister)

David Skinner McHardy 11/9/1867 to 8/5/1867 to 8/5/1932 (half brother)

Thomas Gilchrest McHardy 13/1/1873 to 30/12/1874 (?)

Lavinia Strelley McHardy 29/12/1875 to 5/3/1876

Barbara Strelley McHardy 29/6/1880 to 9/9/1882

Robert Strellie McHardy 2/9/1886 to 27/8/1918

At first William(3) is a “visitor” in the household in 1871. One year after his birth. William (3) he was listed as a son to William Strelley (2) in 1881 census.

The 1890s was the start of an eventful decade, the smooth talking and handsome Strelley was winning over the ladies. By 1891 census at twenty he has left home and is working as a belt finisher. He is living in a lodging home.   During that decade Strelley fathered a number of children.

One was my grandmother Lavinia Strelley. Her mother was a pottery worker, Mary McLaughlin and Bill, now a builder’s labourer was present at her birth on 4 December 1896 and signed her birth registration. When I started this quest it was assumed Mary and Bill had married. Then I found more illegitimate children. He had also met and impregnated Ellen (Helen) Brown whose daughter Williamina Strelley was born on 10 March 97 only four months after Lavinia. A brother for Williamina -Robert Strelley was born on 8 October 1898. All of these children used both their mothers’ surnames initially but eventually assumed the surname Strelley. Even Ellen used the name Strelley.

He was a busy boy as by 1901 he's boarding with the family by the name of Short. Agnes Short the daughter of Annie is a shop assistant in the confectionary shop at Dalmarnock Road and he is a Confectionary Agent. A bit over 12 months later on 13th March 1902 Agnes and William have an illegitimate son called William (4). They do not tie the knot until 17th August 1903 under the rights of the Church of Scotland. The ever youthful William has changed his age to 27 for the marriage when he is in fact 32.

During this time he has returned to his trade as a cycle fitter but stated as a confectionary agent again on the marriage certificate. You can see why he might have changed his age but did he give the incorrect mother's name on the marriage certificate?

A lot has happened to Bill in the past few years. Besides the births of two sons and two daughters he had lost both parents. Firstly William his reputed father died 1898 of disease of the brain. He died at an old man's asylum in Glasgow. His death certificate describes him as a 70-year-old former labourer and army pensioner. The notation says "single" and Lavinia is not mentioned although her death registered by William 4 years later in 1902 has her as “married to William Strelley, Tanner deceased”.

William and Lavinia's situation by the end of their lives appears to have been quite dire. When she died of chronic nephritis (kidney disease) at the age of 50 in 1902 Lavinia Strelley (nee McHardy) was living at 40 Dale Street Glasgow. The census taken one year previously shows she lives as an inmate of a night asylum for the homeless. His household, most likely a tenement was already crowded with his own extended family. William (3) is the informant on her certificate. It is unlikely that the grandchildren would have known their grandparents.

 By the 1911 census family of three- William, Agnes and William are living alongside the Short in-laws. On the census document Strelley claims to have been married for 10 years perhaps for his son’s sake and he’s changed his profession-he’s a physical education teacher.

Energetic and athletic people do the same today. Combine a living with their passion. By this time Strelley had achieved notoriety as a champion bare knuckle boxer. These boxers shunned the regular boxers. This original form of boxing is a combat sport which involves boxing without gloves or any sort of padding. It’s accepted set of rules made it more acceptable than street fighting.  

Eventually Strelley tried his hand at conventional boxing using the “cushions” as the gloves were described. The only boxing fight I can find recorded is one on 27 April 1906. Strelley makes his unsuccessful debut at the Tivoli Theatre in Glasgow possibly against Owen Moran who was known as the “toughest and roughest” boxer with a nickname “The Fearless”. A newspaper report later in his life has him fighting Toffee (Robert) Docherty who also came from the East End of Glasgow.

However our William was an all-time champion and was legendary in Scottish boxing circles. It was his experience with boxing that he was able to set up a gym called the Scottish National Club and eventually he became a boxing promoter and was a well known and respected referee. He was responsible for bringing boxers from all over England Scotland and Wales to fight at the Scottish National Club in Bridgeton Cross and his venue was popular and well attended with healthy boxing audiences.

When his previous trainer set up in competition with him Bill lost money through date clashes and not enough attendees to go around. A story about Strelley and an eventful night in Glasgow is recalled by Burrowes in his book Benny: Life and Times of the Fighting Legend (John Burrowes 1982). It was a bare knuckle grudge match between Bill's friend and previous trainer, Geordie Atkinson and Strelley himself. So many turned up it had to be relocated to Rottenrow Amateur Athletics Club. He writes “it was no holds barred heads, knuckles, elbows... They gave it everything and the packed hall cheered them like it was a world title fight. There were no rounds or rules. They just fought and it was Strelley who had to admit defeat.”

Burrowes also describes Strelley as a referee. “When he refereed at his promotions he would lambast man on the floor if he you gave in the count if he thought they were malingering. It would go… ‘One… you better get up quick… two… you’re just swanking lying there… Three… You're just lying there to get the easy road and get your money… Four… Right you'll get one last chance… Five…’”

William’s son William was also a champion boxer winning the Amateur Boxing Association Public Schools Championship (Featherweight) in 1921. 

Bill’s wife Agnes became a well known Nurse in the East End and was well known as “Nurse Strelley”. She died in 1931.

I know that my grandmother knew her father well and spent with time with him in the gym. The wife of one of his boxing mates put her up prior to her departure for Australia. Until recently it was assumed that she had “worked out” at his gym but really that’s a bit unbecoming for a female in the 1920s. Lavinia worked in a regular job in a biscuit factory. Possibly she was employed to help at her father’s boxing promotions taking /selling tickets or other duties at the night time fights. After a recent blog where I included a photo of a young Lavinia, a relative came forward and said he recognised her photo as having been similar to one displayed in Bill’s place at Roslea St and later his son William's house. It added strength to the belief that she hung around with her father and idolized him.

A few more snippets of information have been gleaned about Strelley. He was in the ARP during World War II. He volunteered in the East End Glasgow Air Raid Precautions group. From about 1839 men were needed to enforce the blackout curtains on windows on the premises protecting the citizens of Glasgow from potential targeted bombs. They also trained in rescue work, First Aid and bomb protection. I bet Bill looked smart in his steel helmet, wellington boots and blue serge uniform as he did his nightly rounds. Rumour had it that Bill was in his 50s at this time. In fact he was in his seventies. Apparently his youthful appearance made him look much younger.

He was also a member of the 103 Union and Crown Masonic Lodge Bridgeton which met in the now demolished building in Landrassy St.

I also heard it mentioned that he was a bookmaker for the trots. I suspect some of his Sydney son in law’s relatives back in Glasgow may have kept in frequent touch!

He is always a popular figure in the boxing world. Everyone knew him and knew he was hardly ever without a cigar in his mouth. He was also said to have always worn a bowler hat -“always natty and worn with becoming poise”. As reported in a Glasgow paper on 27 November 1948 notable boxing and sporting friends contributed to a testimonial which they claimed was richly deserved. Oh to be a fly on the wall and hear his stories and to hear them still trying to guess his age. Presumably they thought he was retirement age. In fact he was 78 at the time.

Over the years he saw his younger brother , another Robert Strelley, who was a ship’s rigger marry in 1912. Robert signed up for Service in the Highland Light Infantry and as an Acting Lance Corporal he was killed in action in Flanders France. He had married a lass named Janet Bell. His two daughters died – Annie within the year of her birth in 1912 and Agnes born 1917 within a few short months of his death. Very sad. It was a rather tragic family. His half brother, David Skinner married in Mary Hammond Storrie in 1890 worked as a belt manufacturer and died in 1932.

So at his death they were still guessing his age and there was none left who might have known the truth.

This is an excerpt from a Glasgow newpaper report that he had died.

“When Billy Strelley, the grand old man of Scottish boxing died at his home at 50 Roselea Drive Dennistoun, last Saturday, he took with him a secret that not even his family shared -- his age.

For many years Billy defied anyone to tell his age until it became a talking point and almost a major mystery in boxing circles.”

The papers quoted Strelley's daughter-in-law, Mrs William Strelley

“he kept his age a closely guarded secret. He wouldn't tell a soul ..."

His death certificate reports him as 77.

Newspaper clippings of his death (source and date  unknown)

In fact he was just shy of 84.

Bill’s 1954 death certificate certifies him dying of Cerebral softening –senility. Both he and his father died of disease of the brain and his grandparents (William MD and Matilda) had died of old age too. Sometimes it’s a euphemism for senility. Doctors’ reports from another close member of the family describe William the Doctor’s, brother Benjamin and father Robert as “eccentric and some say insane”. Something to ponder. Is senility a Strelley trait? Perhaps knowing what we know now about sports and brain injuries we wonder if boxing was to blame.

As I mentioned previously Strelley is not that common a name in Scotland and given Scottish naming patterns it is relatively easy to piece together what became of William (McHardy) Strelley's four children and the rest of the generations up to the present day. My grandmother Lavinia has had her story documented in a previous blog.
Lavinia before she left Scotland

Williamina Strelley b 1897 married Robert Balfour MacAuley at Blythwood in 1937.  She died in 1977 aged 79. As she was 40 at her marriage she is unlikely to have had children. Her brother Robert born 1898 never married.  He enlisted in the Royal Scots in July 1918 but was discharged one month later. He died in 1970 aged 71.

His son William (4) an electrician married Jane Cranston in 1934.  The Standard in 1954 reported that he was an outstanding athlete winning the public schools championship in the annual contest in England. Dying in 1974, he is the father of William Ian (5) born 1935, Janet Allison born 1938 and Duncan born 1941. William Ian had a military life. He and his family moved to Canada around 1970.  William Ian, his son Andrew and grandchildren are following the family roots back to England with interest.
L-R (b) Duncan, Janet, William (4)
L-R (f) Ruth Flanagan , William Ian (5) Jane  Strelley nee Cranston  1962

Here’s a shot of when we met up a couple of years ago.
Myself,  William Ian and Andrew Strelley in Canada 2015

Recently Andrew mentioned that my grandmother reminded him of his cousins- I checked the tree and yes there’s few back in Glasgow. Yay ! There are more out there who could add to my story and photos. Please share. There are a few more mysteries to solve.

Now back to the question of William’s parentage.  If you have been following my recent blogs you know I’ve been seeking the definitive answer for whether William Strelley the Army pensioner was William the Boxer’s father. I’m pleased to report that the answer is YES. I took an DNA Ancestry test and I’ve found a distant cousin who matches me via Matilda Strelley nee Johnston.  Also a couple of DNA distant cousins in Canada who descend from the Strelley line in Derbyshire have matched.  This has to mean William (4), William (3), William (2) were all ancestors of William (1) MD from Derbyshire. The DNA matches the paper trail.

So in case you are wondering – yes we are related back to the Strelleys from Nottingham and Derbyshire. That’s another story to be told. For now this branch of the Strelley tree here in Glasgow is firmly intact and remains attached!  


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