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Sammy McCarthy, Flyweight Champion

July 12, 2012
by the gentle author

Let me tell you the story of “Smilin’” Sammy McCarthy, one of legends of East End Boxing. Voted “Best British Boxer of 1951″ by Boxing Times, Sammy was a golden boy who won eighty-three out of his ninety amateur contests and represented England four times in the nineteen fifties, before becoming British Featherweight Champion twice and then Lightweight Champion after that.

Yet to this day Sammy is resolute in his refusal to be called a hero. With his impeccable manners and old-fashioned proper way of talking, he is the paragon of self-effacement – an enigma who modestly ascribes his spectacular boxing career to no more than a fear of disappointing others. His contemporaries informed me that only once I knew about his background, could I fully appreciate the true impulse behind Smilin’ Sammy’s suave temperament, but what I discovered was something far more surprising than I ever expected.

Born in 1931 as one of ten children, Sammy grew up in a terrace off Commercial Rd next to Watney Market as the son of costermonger. “My father used to go round the streets selling fruit and veg and we all helped him, and I helped him more than anyone but I always hated it,” Sammy revealed to me, explaining how he visited Spitalfields Market each day with his father in the early morning and stood outside the church while his father bought the produce. Then Sammy had to wheel the loaded barrow back to Stepney but, although it  gave him the physical strength which made him a boxer, it was also was a source of humiliation when Sammy’s schoolmates jeered. “Subconsciously, I suppose I was a bit of snob – I wanted to be posh even though I didn’t know the meaning of the word.” he confided with a blush, expressing emotions that remain current even after all these years.

Sammy’s elder brother Freddie – whom he still visits each week, now aged ninety – was a boxer before him, and Sammy has a vivid memory of hiding under the table as a child, while his father and brother listened to the celebrated Tommy Farr and Joe Louis fight on the radio. “All the talk was of boxing and I so much wanted to participate but I was naturally timid,” he admitted to me shyly, “I was frightened of being frightened, I suppose – but after my fights I was always so elated, it became like a drug.”

Sammy joined the St George’s Gym in Stepney where his brother trained. “I absolutely loved it but each time I went, I was extremely nervous.” he continued, breaking into his famous radiant smile, “At fifteen I had my first fight and lost on points, so I didn’t tell my father but he found out and cuffed me for not telling him, because he didn’t mind.”

“I had a great following thanks to my two uncles who sold tickets and everybody in the markets bought them because my brother was already well-known. So there used to be coach loads coming to watch me box and I was always top of the bill, not because I was good but because I always sold plenty of tickets.” It was a characteristic piece of self-deprecation from a champion unrivalled in his era.

At nineteen, Sammy turned professional under the stewardship of renowned managers Jarvis Astaire and Ben Schmidt. “Every time I go to West End, I still go to Windmill St and stand outside where the training gym used to be. All the big film stars, like Jean Simmons and John Mills, they used to go there to the weigh-in before a big fight.” he told me proudly.

In spite of his meteoric rise, Sammy was insistent to emphasise his vulnerability. “Everyone’s nervous, but I was petrified, not of fighting but of letting the side down,” he assured me. “I’d rather fight a boxer who thought he could fight but actually couldn’t,” Sammy announced, turning aphoristic and waving a finger,“than a boxer who thought he couldn’t fight but really could.” And I understood that Sammy was speaking of himself in the latter category. “It makes you sharp,” he explained, “your reflexes are very fast.”

‘”I retired at twenty-six, but I didn’t know I was going to retire,” admitted Sammy with a weary smile,“I had to meet these people who were putting a book together about me and it turned out to be the ‘This Is Your Life’ TV programme. It was 1957 and they expected me to announce I was going to retire. I must have been a little disappointed but maybe I hadn’t seen I was slowing down a little.”

Married with two children and amply rewarded by the success of his boxing career, Sammy bought a pub, The Prince of Wales, known as “Kate Odders” in Duckett St, Stepney. You might think that Sammy had achieved fulfilment at last, but it was not so. “I hated every moment because I like home life and as a publican you are always being called upon.” he confessed, “I had a little money and I spent it all unfortunately.”

“My boxing career, it gave me confidence in myself. Boxing made me happy.” Sammy concluded as our conversation reached its natural resolution,” I didn’t enjoy the fights, but I love the social life. You meet the old guys and you realise it’s not about winning, it’s about giving of your best.” Living alone, Sammy leads a modest bachelor existence in a neatly kept one bedroom flat in Wanstead and he meets regularly with other ex-boxers, among whom he is popular character, a luminary.

And that is where this story would have ended – and it would have been quite a different kind of story – if Sammy had not confronted me with an unexpected admission. “I want you to know why I am divorced from my wife and separated from my children,” he announced, colouring with a rush of emotion and looking me in the eye, “I’m telling you, not because I’m boasting about it but because I don’t want you to make me out to be a hero.”

There was a silence as Sammy summoned courage to speak more and I sat transfixed with expectation. “I robbed banks and I stole a lot of money, and I was caught and I was put in prison for years.” he said.

“I think I was too frightened not to do it,” he speculated, qualifying this by saying,“I’m not making excuses.”

“I’m reformed now.” he stated, just to be clear.

“I was alright in prison because I’m comfortable with my own company and I read books to pass the time,” he added, to reassure me.

“But why did you do it?” I asked.

“Because we never had anything,” he replied, almost automatically and with an abject sadness. His lips quivered and he spread his hands helplessly. He had been referring back – I realised – to his childhood in the family of ten. A phrase he said earlier came back into my mind,“I can’t say that I experienced hardship,” he told me,“not by comparison with what my parents went through.”

Subsequently, a little research revealed that Sammy had been convicted three times for armed robbery, and served sentences of three, six and fourteen years. When I think of Smilin’ Sammy now, I think of his sweet smile that matches the Mona Lisa in its equivocation. It is a smile that contains a whole life of  fear and pain. It is a smile that knew joy yet concealed secrets. It is a brave smile that manifests the uneasy reconciliation which Sammy has made with the world in the course of his existence.

Smilin’ Sammy McCarthy

Sammy McCarthy, the Stepney Feather,  has Peter Morrison against the ropes under a fierce attack at the Mile End Arena.

Sammy McCarthy makes Denny Dawson cover up under a straight left attack.

Jan Maas goes headlong to the canvas after taking a Sammy McCarthy “special” to the chin.

Still smiling! Not even a knockdown can remove the famous smile from Sammy McCarthy, as he goes down for a count of “eight” in the fifth round.

Smilin’ Sammy McCarthy

Boxers, Photographs of Boxing in London by Alex Sturrock with interviews by yours truly was published last week by Ally Capellino

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37 Responses leave one →
  1. July 12, 2012

    Just great!

  2. Teresa Stokes permalink
    July 12, 2012

    A wonderful and moving story.

  3. Patricia Cleveland-Peck permalink
    July 12, 2012

    I almost didn’t read this as I am no fan of boxing but I am glad I did. Once again G.A you have produced a moving picture of a real human life.

  4. andrea permalink
    July 12, 2012

    Like you, didn’t see that one coming.

  5. Ron Pummell permalink
    July 15, 2012

    Sammy.
    My friend Terry Bryan tells me that he was an aquaintance of yours at the Broad Street Club many years ago. Terry sends his best wishes to you. Regards, Ron Pummell.

  6. August 20, 2012

    Sammy is one of life’s characters,always has time for everyone,always smiling,willing to do anything for anyone,pleased to be one of his numerous friends.

    “It’s Nice to Belong”

  7. Sheila walker and Georgie walker permalink
    September 18, 2012

    Sheila. Walker
    I remember my dad going to every fight that sammy had and abousautly loved every minut of it , my names archieshanley I am 17 and just read sammy and joes history tomy family and all what was said what a grate man with a cracking smile this story has moved me and the family just grate

  8. tony malone permalink
    September 20, 2012

    sammy is one the nicest people ive ever met hes such a gentleman, when you listen to the interview he done after “THE SHOREDITCH EXHIBITION” ,you wouldnt think he was a exboxer, he sounds more like a retired bank manager than a retired bank whatever, sorry sam lovely tribute to a lovely man

  9. September 20, 2012

    ever time i meet sammy its ajoy

  10. Johnny Oliver. permalink
    September 20, 2012

    To anybody who has met little Sammy, he is a Big, Big man,and has the respect of everyone in boxing circles, and beyond, he is an inspiration to those who have sometimes gone astray, and shown it is possible to make amends, and pursue a normal and happy life.

  11. Sam Marks permalink
    October 18, 2012

    Brought back some wonderful memories Sammy> Great to see that you still look fit, though just a little bit older, as don’t we all

  12. George Giller permalink
    October 31, 2012

    I’m alost exactly a year younger than Sammy, was born and brought up near Watney Street in Stepney and knew the McCarthy family very well.
    In my professional career (not boxing)I came across Sammy many times, but I do wish he would call me by my first name – not “Mr Giller”.
    Sammy loved the feeling of being terrified – that’s why he took up his 2nd “profession”. Victims of, and witnesses to the robberies, always spoke of the politeness of one of the robbers – and Sammy was soon ‘nicked’.
    Sammy, I haven’t seen you since that day at the London Crem., but I’ve thought a lot about you – especially since ‘Enry passed to the Gym in the Sky.
    Look after yourself, Mate.
    George Giller (NOT Mr Giller, please!)

  13. peter brooks permalink
    November 18, 2012

    I remember Sammy , walking up Cowley Rd Wanstead some mornings as I delivered papers as a boy , he always said good morning , I would sometimes add ” nice out ” and he would reply ” yes , I think I’ll stay out ” , I used to love talking to him , it made my day .

    regards Peter Brooks

  14. ANDREW MACROW permalink
    November 30, 2012

    Sammys first pro fight was against my now deceased farther Hector Macrow in 1951. Sadly all memrobilia from my farthers pro boxing career has been lost including an original script from Sammys this is your life which i can remember reading as a young boy. I would be very gratefull if any body has any photos programmes etc from my farthers career. macrowa@aol.com

    Found sammys story great reading regards Andrew

  15. Gary Burwood permalink
    December 6, 2012

    A TRUE GENTLEMAN
    I have the honour of knowing Sammy, a true gentleman, I now live in Jersey but was born in Watney street, through Billy Walker who also lives in Jersey, Sammy telephoned me at home in Jersey, we and had a long chat, which was wonderful, I hadn’t seen him for many years since my running days over Vic’y Park, were Sammy would also run around. I was so pleased he still remembered me and my farther Harold.

  16. Michael Marks permalink
    December 15, 2012

    Enjoyed the story and the great pictures all of which bring back a lot of memories of Shadwell and Spitalfields. Wonderful to see you looking great Sammy. All my memories of you from a kid growing up in Stepney were great ones. Your smile and lovely nature are still vivid in my memory.
    Best wishes,
    Michael Marks

  17. John Gray permalink
    January 15, 2013

    Great story. Just discovered this site a few days ago and haven’t stopped reading it since!

    J

  18. Sean permalink
    February 3, 2013

    Hi, I am Emily McCarthy’s (deceased) Grandson. She was Sammy’s cousin. I heard a lot about Sammy but never anything else about my McCarthy family as my Nan died when my Dad was only 9 years old. I would really love to get in touch with Sammy or others. My email is sapstead@yahoo.com I live in Thailand now but return to London, Woodford way, once a year. Any information, help, or other would be hugely and massively appreciated!! Thank You! Sean Sapstead

  19. gary permalink
    June 1, 2013

    brilliant like always

  20. Sam hall permalink
    July 23, 2013

    Sammy. My nan is your first cousin she regularly tells me stories of you all during the easy end days. All the best

  21. Lucy Broadbent (nee Inns) permalink
    July 31, 2013

    We met Sammy on a few occasions, unfortunately mainly funerals. My mum was cousin Maureen. My son recently wrote a story about you for school. When my brother came round we were chatting about you and it caused a wonderful afternoon of reminiscing and looking through old photos of nanny Daisy and grandad George. As said by so many, we remember you as a polite, well spoken, gentle man. We hope you are keeping well. X

  22. Louise permalink
    October 23, 2013

    Hello to all those who have responded! In response to those who are related. Fred McCarthy married Maude Cecil. Sammy McCarthy was their son. What side of the family are you from? Sammy’s sister was my nan, Joanie. She sadly died but the rest are still alive. If you google you tube Sammy’s McCarthy’s sisters, you will find a wonderful clip of them from when Sammy appeared on this is your life.

  23. tony permalink
    October 25, 2013

    i knew sammy when he had the kings head in kingsland road and as you say he was a gentleman he would help anyone and sometimes people took advantage of this but all i can say is that a nicer human being i,v never met he might have been a bit of a villon but he was genuine and of all the people i,v met in my life sammy pops up the easiest of fond memeries
    KEEP WELL AND GOOD LUCK WITH WHATEVER YOU DO IN THE FUTURE

  24. kenny holmes permalink
    December 8, 2013

    I remember Sammy from Maidstone 1976-80!! Wonder if he remembers me or my brother (Alfie)? Signwriter red-bands! Even in that world of hard-noses Sammy was universally liked. I’ll always remember how he demolished the marathon against fit lads half his age his age! Not bad for an old plodder. Sammy always has my utmost respect, long may he reign!

  25. Steve m permalink
    December 13, 2013

    I remember sammy in Maidstone as well as the Holmes bros above as we all shared the same wing (kent) for years. The most humble and politest man i have ever had the pleasure to meet. His smile and charisma was a daily helping hand to anyone who found it hard. He may have been twenty years my senior but by Christ he was fit. He outshone all!! Just see a clip of you on utube, fantastic. God bless you sammy.

  26. leefer (@leefer3) permalink
    December 26, 2013

    Great read…as usual.

  27. Sammy McCarthy Jnr permalink
    January 16, 2014

    Hi, I am Sammy McCarthy Jnr. My Grandad is Fred McCarthy (Sammy’s brother). This is a great article. Really made me smile that one man could mean so much to so many and makes me proud to be related to the great man. I also felt a slight sadness that for someone that reached so many, this generation will soon be gone, but yet deserves to live on forever. Would really love to get in contact with any relations so stories can be shared and let the memories live on. would be great to hear from anyone on sam_mccarthy83@hotmail.com, cheers

  28. Shirley Lile permalink
    January 16, 2014

    Hi Sammy back in the 70s I was fortunate to know you …I was then the partner of Terry Marks…My name is Shirley and you would come to the Island and pop in for a cup of tea…I remember an occasion we went to your house and meeting Sylvia and the biggest beautiful dog I had ever seen…I often thought about this over the years and it makes me smile…the dog was taller than you when he put his paws on your shoulders …you were so gentle with that dog…can’t remember if it was girl or boy..God bless you Sam…thanks for the memories

  29. Kevin hemingway permalink
    January 25, 2014

    I love how east end boxers are always associated with villainy. Good old smiling sammy. My hero

  30. Ernie Leahy permalink
    February 7, 2014

    I was born in 1943 so Sammy was about 12 years older than me but I can remember playing
    in the streets around Salmon Lane and someone would shout out look there’s Sammy
    McCarthy and we would all follow him up the road .I can remember as plain as anything the way he would chat to us pat a couple of us on the head and that great big SMILE,my cousin little Harry King was best mates with his brother Charlie for years.God bless Sammy 91 and still smiling
    Ernie Leahy.

  31. Bernard Kiernan permalink
    May 19, 2014

    I had the privilege of approaching and speaking to Sammy for the very first time this morning on the platform of Snaresbrook tube station. What a lovely man and such a gentleman. He is in brilliant condition for a man of 82, no doubt due to his pounding the streets of Wanstead for so many years, always with a smile for everyone as he jogged past. I did not know his name until this morning. This website is a great tribute to him.

  32. Jacqueline Dixon permalink
    March 28, 2015

    I was at Wanstead High school with Sam’s daughter Jackie, I was also known as Jackie back then. It was so lovely to read this article about her dad Sam, a lovely man, and I remember Jackie was very pround of her dad. If anyone can get a message to Sam for his daughter Jackie to say that her old school mates, the other Jackie, Kim and Tina are getting together in August 2015 in Wanstead for a reunion and would love her to come too and that she can contact me on the the above address (jacquelinepdixon@hotmail.co.uk).

  33. Brian Ekins permalink
    July 7, 2015

    From memory, my father, Stanley Ekins, who boxed mainly in North London, retired unbeaten from amateur boxing in the early 1950′s. I believe that he either boxed Sammy McCarthy as amateurs or was well acquainted with him. Does anyone have any information that could turn my memories in to facts?
    Regards. Brian Ekins

  34. Steve Faulkner permalink
    September 5, 2015

    For Sammy McCarthy – my father was a great Light Heavyweight out of Arbour Youth in the 1950′s (Amateur) – name, Michael Faulkner. You presented his Grandson with a winners trophy at a Dagenham ABC show on 07th February 2009. His name is the same as my fathers, Michael Faulkner – when I told my dad who had presented it, he was so chuffed – “Ol ‘Smiling’ Sammy McCarthy eh? – good on him, hope he’s well and give him my best!” he said – which I did.

  35. kirsten and bill lear permalink
    September 12, 2015

    we live in Wanstead and my husband was born on isle of dogs , Sammy McCarthy has lived around here for a very long time , he is a lovely sweet natured man and its hard to think that he has ever done any wrong . Saw him a few weeks ago in Wanstead high st. and as ever the manners of a gentleman ! Chivalry is not dead , know that this sounds odd in connection with a know felon but I feel this is true for Sammy McCarthy .

  36. Alex permalink
    October 10, 2015

    Great article. Yet another relation here. My grandfather Freddy McCarthy used to speak fondly of Sammy and his boxing exploits (and the later troubles that came along). Freddy married Jane nee King (Cohen) and had 3 children Irene, Freddy junior and Patricia (my mother). Unfortunately their house in Stepney was flattened during the blitz and they moved to Gloucestershire and with the passing of many years, all contact was lost with this side of my family.

  37. Baron Noonan permalink
    November 5, 2016

    Sammy is one of today’s Gentleman with old school values! I have known Sammy for many years and I feel very special when ever we meet. Like everyone known to Sammy he always greets you with enthusiasm and that wonderful smile of his!

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