By Ann-Marie Cartwright
The much coveted Lonsdale belt originated from the 5th Earl of Lonsdale, Hugh Cecil Lowther. A keen enthusiast of sports, Lowther became the first president of the National Sporting Club and bequeathed the first Lonsdale belt in 1909 for a boxing championship trophy. The original Lonsdale belts are crafted from porcelain and are twenty-two carat gold making them valuable items. An anonymous owner recently auctioned a nine-carat gold Lonsdale belt awarded to Randolph Turpin over 40 years ago, which packed a punch of its own, fetching a staggering £23,000.
The first boxer to be decorated with the Lonsdale belt was former British lightweight champion Freddie Welsh in 1909. Due to its historical and financial value, the original Lonsdale Belt is now kept at The Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, South East London. Unfortunately it is not exhibited to the general public.
The Lonsdale belt was originally given to the winner of each bout and was passed on as the title changed hands until 1929 when the belts were awarded by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC). Under the BBBC’s jurisdiction, the Lonsdale belt would become the property of a champion who had won three title bouts within the same division. Now however, the belt must be won and defended three times in order to keep the belt outright. Several champions have acquired two belts, but Henry Cooper (“Our Enry”) is the only champion to have acquired three in his illustrious seventeen year professional career.
The idea of a ‘trophy’ in the form of a belt was not the brainchild of Hugh Cecil Lowther. It had in fact been a long standing tradition and had previously surfaced in the cobbles and dusty rings of fairgrounds and market squares whereby pugilism was arguably more entertaining than it is today, with large and elaborate belts up for grabs to the victor of the bout.
The first recorded British champion to have received a belt as a prize was one of the most respected bare-knuckle boxers ever seen in a British prize ring, Tom Cribb in 1809. Cribb’s trophy was not comparable in value to the Lonsdale belt, but it was unique and valuable in its entirety, manufactured from lion skin and decorated with a large silver buckle. Whilst each belt was unique to each fighter, the belts were not automatically given to a fighter who won a championship within his weight division but often were awarded only if his fans could raise the money to buy an expensive trophy.
“Bombardier” Billy Wells from London’s East End was the first British heavyweight to win the Lonsdale Belt back in 1911 where he defeated Ian Hague with a knockout in the sixth round. For the non-boxing enthusiast, Billy Wells has also been seen by millions of spectators of the big screen and is ironically better known as the man who bangs the gong for the start of Rank films.
Wells defended the title thirteen times, a record that stood for many years, before losing against Joe Beckett in February 1919. The Lonsdale Belt that he won was the original heavyweight belt and is crafted from 22 carat gold unlike later belts.
For the next 50 years, these belts were one of the greatest prizes to be gained in Boxing before Britain was sadly swamped by a proliferation of dubious ‘championship’ titles which have devalued the British title to some extent.