A Feature by Keith Harvey
Les Darcy, the ‘Golden Boy’ of Australian Boxing, died one hundred years ago this month in Memphis, Tennessee, aged 21 years. It is possible to see Darcy as one of the casualties of the conscription campaigns waged by the Government of Billy Hughes during the First World War.
James Leslie Darcy was born at Stradbroke near Maitland in Hunter region of NSW in October 1895 the second eldest son of Australian born parents Edward Darcy and his wife Margaret, née O’Rourke. Darcy’s grandparents came from Tipperary, Ireland. Darcy’s eldest brother was partially crippled with a club foot and it fell to the second son to do as much as he could to assist the family financially. Darcy’s father was a labourer/dairy farmer.
Apprenticed to a blacksmith at the age of 14 or 15, Les Darcy developed a powerful upper body and despite his relatively short stature and weight was more than a match for men who were older, heavier and taller. He fought his first fight at 15 and quickly progressed from local fights in Maitland and Newcastle to bouts in Sydney against much more fancied boxers.
Darcy’s earnings from these fights were soon much more significant than his wages as an apprentice blacksmith and his family – he was one of nine children – came to rely on this income.
By 1913, Les Darcy was Australian welterweight champion and in 1915 won the Australian and British Empire middleweight championship. He lost only four professional fights in his career and from February 1915 until his death he was undefeated.
After winning the middleweight title, Darcy found it difficult to get further fights at this weight so he decided to challenge Harold Hardwick for the Australian heavyweight title. He beat Hardwick in this fight in February 1916 but in the process lost two teeth. Boxers did not wear mouth protection in those days and although Darcy found his teeth and had them re-fitted by a dentist, this did not prevent them from becoming infected.
It is said that Darcy tried twice to enlist in the Australian army to fight overseas but that his mother, whose permission was required as he was under age, refused to agree to this as the family was now completely dependent on his income from boxing. Darcy would turn 21 in October 1916 at which point he said he would enlist. Like other sportsmen, he was subject to criticism from some quarters if they failed to join the armed forces.
However, he said he wanted to fight professionally in the USA, where prize purses were much more significant, to ensure his family’s financial security before he enlisted. He applied for a passport to travel overseas, but his application was rejected by the Federal Government, using powers under the Hughes Government’s War Precautions Act. Darcy’s Australian Dictionary of Biography entry tells the story:
At the end of 1915 Darcy announced his intention to accept an offer of fights in the United States of America but, probably influenced by [local promoter] Baker, he changed his mind. Six months later the political atmosphere had been radically altered by the Easter week rising in Dublin and W. M. Hughes’s commitment to conscription; and passports were being refused to men of military age. Darcy began to come under pressure to enlist—partly at least as an example to other young men—and his predicament was aggravated by his Irish-Catholic background. His own attitude was ambivalent, but he was now anxious to go to America. He claimed that he wanted four or five fights there to make his family financially secure, and then he would go to Canada or England to enlist. His decision may have been influenced by E. T. O’Sullivan, an ingratiating adventurer who had made a big impression on the naive boxer. He and O’Sullivan sailed clandestinely from Newcastle on 27 October, the day before the referendum which, had it been carried, would have made him liable to conscription.
The Hughes Government was certain that the conscription referendum would be carried, but it failed. Darcy’s decision to leave unlawfully for a neutral country [Chile] the day before the referendum was held left him open to charges of disloyalty and draft dodging, although conscription never became a reality.
The Australian boxing authorities stripped Darcy of his titles and action was taken successfully when he arrived in the United States to prevent any bouts involving Darcy taking place, even though the US was neutral at the time. However, President Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917.
At the same time, Darcy took steps to begin the process of becoming a US citizen and later to enlist in the American army. He was given time off initially to train prior to a boxing match. However, he collapsed during training for this bout and died in May 1917 of the infection which entered his body when his teeth were knocked out in his Australian heavyweight title fight in February 1916.
Darcy’s body was embalmed and brought back to Australia to a hero’s reception from the Australian people:
As the coffin was taken from the funeral parlour to Central Railway Station for its final journey to Maitland, over 250,000 people lined the route…Three special trains had to be laid on to carry the crowds from Sydney, Newcastle, and Cessnock to Maitland – and an estimated 100,000people watched the internment in East Maitland cemetery. A Celtic Cross marks his grave… [Frank Clarke, Les Darcy – Australia’s Golden Boy]
Further reading: Les Darcy