Rival Romeos in the Ring

Two boxers compete for a hand in marriage but the object of their affections delivers a knockout blow; PLUS Brendan I Koerner recommends.

In London in February 1927, two young men fought a boxing match for the favour of a woman with whom they were both in love. The two men, Phil Durley and Ernie Hockaday, had already come to blows over the affections of 19-year-old Matilda “Tilly” Lambert. All three worked at Norland Market in Hammersmith. Durley had previously dated Lambert. Hockaday was employed by Lambert’s father. Durley and Hockaday had engaged in “terrific fights” in the marketplace, and a police constable advised them to “finish it in the ring”.

The fight would take place at Shepherd’s Bush Baths on Tuesday, 22 February. Local boxing promoters stirred up considerable interest. Newspapers suggested the winner would earn Lambert’s hand in marriage. But Lambert, who said she had no involvement in the arrangements, was not so sure. “I have agreed to go out with the winner,” she said. “That does not mean engagement, however.” As it turned out, in this love match, Tilly Lambert would deliver a knockout blow.

Phil Durley was 24 years old, “a smiling, handsome youth in the pink of condition”. He was a butcher and had been boxing for several years. He weighed in at 8st 12lb (124lbs).

Ernie Hockaday was a 21-year-old delivery driver. He weighed 9st 4lb (130lbs). He considered himself and Durley to be friends. “We bear each other no ill will,” he said, “but this is a manly way of settling a dispute.”

Tilly Lambert, “an attractive girl” who had never seen a boxing match, was said to blush as she climbed into the ring to shake both men’s hands, pat them on the shoulders, and wish them good luck. Hundreds of spectators crowded into the hall and “cheered lustily” as the preliminaries were conducted. “Then the gong went,” reported the Weekly News:

From the first, it was obvious that the pair were well-matched, and there was nothing to choose between them. The expression upon the face of Miss Lambert as she watched was a study, which changed with every blow that was struck. She seldom applauded, and seemed to feel the actual blows as they were struck, and as first one then the other gained a point her eyes danced with excitement. The fight was no rush and bull strength affair, for both men displayed real science, and neither would give ground.

Round followed round and throughout the whole six sessions it was hard to find anything to choose between the pair. In the sixth round both came up fresh from their corners and when the gong went there was great controversy among the spectators as to who had piled up the greater number of points. Weight had told, however, and the referee raised the hand of Hockday as the winner.

Hockaday immediately rushed over to the corner of Durley and after shaking hands with him, immediately threw his arm around his shoulder in a friendly way.

Then came the anti-climax, for Miss Lambert went over to Durley and smiled. “I don’t know anything about boxing,” she said, “but to me the decision seems wrong. I think that I know who won, and anyway, I know my own mind.”

That was that, and so the winner, doubtless reflecting on the fickleness of the opposite sex, left the hall alone, leaving the man he had beaten the real winner.

Tilly Lambert and defeated boxer Phil Durley were engaged to be married. However, in November, London’s Weekly Dispatch reported that the engagement was off. The newspaper also offered a final nugget of information: “Miss Lambert’s sister married a Welsh boxer, Dai Chislett, who had fought for her under identical circumstances.”⬧

Now the Recommended section, with special guest Brendan I. Koerner:


Recommended:

One Man’s Amazing Journey to the Center of the Bowling Ball by Brendan I. Koerner (Wired magazine)

You don’t need to have ever swapped your shoes at a ten-pin alley to be captivated by this terrific Wired magazine article about a single-minded bowling ball designer who revolutionised the game. It’s a story about an infectious, passionate obsession with mastering the mysteries of ball dynamics. There’s a real kicker of an ending, too. Read it here.

You should also read Brendan’s Atlantic magazine blockbuster, A Kidnapping Gone Very Wrong, about the abduction of an American diplomat in Mexico in 1974, and his tremendous page-turner of a book on the “golden age of hijacking”, The Skies Belong to Us*, which weaves the bizarre story of a couple of loved-up skyjackers with the broader tale of a turbulent period that shaped the future of aviation.

Brendan was kind enough to tell us about his Wired article, and offer his own recommendation:

Paul: What was it about bowling ball designer Mo Pinel that attracted you to his story?

Brendan: I've long been fascinated by people who devote every fiber of their being to mastering arcane subjects. And even before I knew all the twists and turns of his life, it was clear to me that Mo Pinel was just such an individual. His name was on the lips of everyone who cared about the physics of bowling balls, and I was eager to learn why. Once I started talking to him, our conversations never disappointed: He revealed himself to be someone whose whole world centered on bowling, and who was happiest when helping others deepen their love for the game. To me, there's something sublimely beautiful about that degree of obsession.

Paul: We’re asking our recommended writers to suggest their own recommendation. Can you recommend something like-minded readers might enjoy?

Brendan: I'm going to veer just a bit away from the recommended path here and give a shout-out to a work of cinematic art, albeit one based on real events: Olivier Assayas's 6-hour Carlos miniseries, about the rise and fall of the international terrorist-for-hire Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos the Jackal). I've probably watched the whole thing, start to finish, about a half-dozen times over the years, and I never stop marveling at its structure, its pacing, and the way it illuminates how idealism can curdle into narcissism and nihilism. It's taught me a lot about how to stitch together my nonfiction projects so that all the elements are in balance: the central plot, the character arcs, the set pieces, the subtext. It also gets extra points for some A+ use of New Order’s “Dreams Never End.”

Carlos was originally released in 2010 as a three-part miniseries and then as both a 338-minute movie and an abridged 165-minute movie. The full miniseries is currently streaming on the US-only Criterion Channel service and is also available to purchase on good old DVD from Amazon*. You can also rent the abridged movie to stream via Amazon*.

As a bonus recommendation, Brendan’s bowling ball story reminded me of one of my all-time favourite longform magazine articles, The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever by Michael J Mooney (D Magazine, 2012). This one’s about a guy named Bill Fong, who came so close to bowling perfection that it nearly killed him. Suffice to say, this lives up to the headline — it’s up there with The Big Lebowski and the Pin Pals episode of The Simpsons. Read it here.


Finally this week, a different ball game: I wrote a fun new article for the summer 2021 issue of The Nightwatchman, the Wisden cricket quarterly. The Undercover Cricketers is the true story of a dogged detective who goes undercover at a London cricket club to catch an elusive thief. Here’s a teaser:

In the spring of 1933, Hampstead Cricket Club was embarrassed by a series of mysterious robberies. An unidentified thief stole a gold watch and several “considerable sums of money” from the dressing-room at the club’s ground, off Lymington Road in northwest London. The club called the police and – giving prompt attention to a petty theft at a minor cricket club – Scotland Yard sent one of its best young investigators. Detective Claud Baker, at 28, was building a reputation for solving the type of peculiar crimes that might happen only in a leafy English suburb during the time-locked vacuum of the interwar years. Baker arrived in Hampstead with a local police constable named Taylor and a suitably quaint plan. In a plot straight out of a cosy Sunday night TV drama, Detective Baker and PC Taylor went undercover as cricketers to catch the Hampstead thief…

You can read the full story in issue 34 of The Nightwatchman, available in print or as a digital download.


Next time: Saved by a Football PLUS Erik Larson Recommends. Yes, the Erik Larson.

Here’s the New Order track mentioned by Brendan. Thanks for reading.


Main sources: Weekly News, 27 February 27 1932, London Weekly Dispatch, 21 February 21 and 6 November 6 1932, London Daily Herald, 22 and 23 February 1932. Image from London Daily Herald, 22 February 1932.

Ads: Links marked with an asterisk (*) are affiliate links. If you use them, we may receive a small payment to help with the running of this free newsletter.