FEATURE: Town's boxing legend lives on

HEAVYWEIGHT champion Bruce Woodcock is fondly remembered as Doncaster's greatest ever boxer.

The town has had many fighters who have enjoyed varying success since Woodcock's heyday in the 1940s. But few have as colourful a story to tell, both inside and outside the ring, as Armthorpe's Peter Aldridge - who was managed by Woodcock himself. Aldridge was an outstanding amateur before switching to the paid ranks while at the same time working down the pit. After retiring from boxing he became a publican and mixed with film stars and gangsters – including the infamous Kray twins. Now coping with the early onset of Parkinson's disease Aldridge still proved entertaining company when sports reporter LIAM HODEN paid him a visit.

PETER Aldridge did not have the best of starts to life - but you would not know that sitting beside him.

He may be 73 now but he is still a hulk of a man, his huge hands demonstrating why he was a feared big-hitting fighter.

His face shows little sign of the wear and tear of a tough career between the ropes, nor the stresses of running some of London's busiest pubs and dealing with gangsters.

It is hard to tell that it was a struggle from the start.

Born into the widespread poverty of the 1930s Aldridge was the youngest of six surviving children.

His father was an unemployed steelworker from Sheffield whose superb singing voice enabled him to make enough for the family to survive.

But at the end of World War Two he died of pulmonary tuberculosis which claimed so many lives in the deprivation around that time.

Looking for a way out of poverty Aldridge turned to boxing at the age of 16 when he knocked on the door of the Woodcock brothers' gym in Doncaster.

At a recent boxing reunion Malcolm Woodcock, who trained him, said: "You don't get the likes of Peter Aldridge knocking on your door and asking you to teach them how to box anymore."

His amateur career got off to an explosive start against a man eight years his senior.

He said: "My first fight was at Elmfield House which wasn't a big venue - but big enough for me.

"I fought George Topham, who was 24, and I knocked him out in the first round.

"I did a repeat job on him not long after and he ended up retiring.

"He said to me 'when a 16-year-old does you, that's it, I'm packing in' and he was true to his word."

In his first year in the ring Aldridge met and fell in love with his wife-to-be Shirley, who was working in a childrens' home in Dunsville.

From then on he enjoyed a brilliant amateur career winning his first 52 fights and he was beaten only three times in 104 contests overall.

Among his victims was the highly rated Peter Bates who went on to chalk up victories over British champions Henry Cooper and Joe Erskine.

He said: "Beating Bates was a huge win for me.

"He was rated as one of the best heavyweight prospects in the country and I was only a light heavyweight at the time."

In 1954 Aldridge reached second place in the British amateur rankings.

He believes his success came from training at Woodcocks' gym with former British and European heavyweight champion Bruce as well as many top professionals who came on tour.

Aldridge said: "It used to be the best gym in the north of England.

"All the top professionals came through there and I sparred with the likes of Randolph Turpin, who was a world champion.

"That's what stood me out above the rest."

Aldridge's success as an amateur saw him turn professional in 1955, spurred on by Bruce Woodcock who became his manager.

At the time the Yorkshire Evening News described him as 'an idol of Doncaster fight fans' but he shrugged off the praise commenting: "All they go for is to see you knock someone out."

His professional career started with another first round knockout of Ray Evans - with the first punch of the fight downing his opponent!

He admits that he arrogantly believed his fortune was already in the bank but future fights did not prove as easy.

In a career that took in Earl's Court, Ibrox Park and Doncaster racecourse, Aldridge would win seven fights, lose ten and draw three before his progress was cut short.

All the time he was in the ring he was still working as a miner at Markham Main and a broken finger at the coal face would ultimately weaken his devastating right hand.

It was also discovered that he had tumours between his eyes and doctors told him that to fight again would be risking brain damage, or even death.

His boxing career was over and Aldridge went on to work in the haulage business before deciding to move to London and use his big fists for pulling pints.

After a period as a relief manager he was handed the stewardship of celebrity haunt The Porcupine before heading to the writers' favourite The Olde Cheshire Cheese.

In 1969 the family relocated to Scarborough, eventually taking over the notorious Silver Grid and turning it into a respectable establishment.

Aldridge said: "The mayor at the time came in and said he used to cross the street to avoid the pub but now felt safe enough to come in."

But a fire, while the family was on holiday, devastated the pub and took with it the majority of the keepsakes from his boxing career.

Only one trophy remained intact while a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings had luckily been borrowed by a local doctor.

He said: "I was devastated and I still am really.

"All of it went up and I got just 250 in insurance for what I lost."

After a spell in another Scarborough pub he became superintendent of Low Hall, the National Union of Mineworkers' huge convalescent home in the town.

Aldridge spent 21 years running the home before his retirement.

In 1995 he wrote his autobiography 'Punches, Pints, Politics and Pensioners' but soon after his publishers went into liquidation and he is now hoping to re-launch the book.

Aldridge recently discovered he is suffering from Parkinson's disease but is determined to enjoy his retirement.

He said: "The doctor told me I could have had it ten or twenty years and it's only just starting to show.

"I haven't got the shakes, or anything like that yet.

"I'll be alright."

Despite no longer living in Doncaster Aldridge still has a great deal of fondness for the town where he grew up.

He said: "Most people there will never have heard of me but I still have a lot of love for Doncaster.

"I always look for the Doncaster Rovers score first on a Saturday and it's great to see the football club doing well again."

Life outside the ring

AFTER moving down to the capital Peter and Shirley Aldridge were working as relief managers at various pubs around London until a chance encounter with two burglars catapulted the couple into one of the most prestigious public houses in the city.

Aldridge said: "We were looking after The Devonshire while the manager was away and one night I heard two robbers downstairs.

"They were taking the safe out when I walked in.

"But they didn't know who I was so we started to fight and I gave them some hammer.

"Because of what I'd done they gave me The Porcupine on the corner of Leicester Square and the Charing Cross Road.

"It was one of the top pubs in the West End and it caused a right fuss with people complaining about me jumping the queue.

"Apparently you were supposed to serve an apprenticeship in the sticks somewhere - but we went right to the top."

Their tenure at The Porcupine brought the couple into contact with a whole host of celebrities.

Aldridge added: "John Lennon lived in a flat above us and used to park his psychedelic Rolls Royce outside."

Famous faces such as film idols Doris Day, Diana Dors, Patrick McGoohan and Kim Novak were also regulars - the latter not shy in demonstrating her short temper, according to Aldridge.

As well as the famous faces frequenting the area there were also several notorious ones.

And he came into direct contact with Kray twins Ronnie and Reggie in a terrifying incident in which his boxing connections came to the rescue.

Aldridge said: "One night a fight broke out and I got this Savile Row dressed gentleman in a lock with his arm up his back and threw him out.

"Now his suit must have been worth 300 back then and he ended up on the floor so he wasn't please.

"He turned round, looked me right in the eye, and said 'you're dead.'

"It turned out he was in the Kray gang and some time later he ended up getting locked up for 15 years for murder.

"I was frightened to death and a copper from Bow Street made me feel worse when he told me to walk round in crowds and take different routes every day.

"Fortunately a friend of mine got in touch with the Krays and told them I was an ex-boxer like they were.

"One day I was down in the bar on my hands and knees rearranging things and in walks a group of five men with Ronnie Kray right in the middle.

"He says to me 'I hear you're in a bit of trouble?' I nodded and he went 'give me a second and I'll sort it out.'

"So he walks through to the phone at the bottom of the stairs, came back and said 'he's coming in tomorrow - make sure you buy him a drink.'

"When the guy came in the next day I put a drink in his hand straightaway.

"He said to me 'are we all right then' and I almost fell over myself nodding at him."

Aldridge later became friends with the Krays and their family but was unaware of the extent of their violent activities when they ruled the East End.