Jack Petersen was a fine Cardiff boxer, the first man be both a British light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion at the same time. He boxed in the 1930s and was forced to retire at the relatively young age of 25 after an eye injury. Tall, good-looking and articulate, he was a popular fighter and favourite with the general public. He processed tremendous courage but some say he was somewhat prone to injury.
Jack was a humble individual but found his own popularity somewhat tiresome. He liked visiting pubs in the valleys and talking with local miners who had walked miles to meet him, though was not a smoker or drinker himself.
Petersen was the first Welshman to hold the British heavyweight boxing title. He held it on two separate occasions as well as gaining the Commonwealth heavyweight title in 1934. He turned professional at the age of 20 and went on to top the bill in all of his professional fights.
Over 70,000 people went to see him fight at the White City stadium and 53,000 saw him box Heine Muller at Ninian Park.
Jack had won 33 of his 38 professional fights, winning the Lonsdale belt outright in 1935 after two successful defences. The belt was sadly stolen from the family home in 2013. His premature retirement came at the age of 25 due to eye injury.
Jack Peterson’s boxing career if well documented in his biography, ‘Gentleman of the Ring’ by Bob Lonkhurst. In this article we focus on his ties with our area.
Jack Petersen was born John Charles Peterson on 2 Sep 1911 at 52 Monthermer Road, Cathays. He was baptised at St John the Baptist church in central Cardiff on 2 Oct 1911. He was son of John Thomas ‘Pa’ Peterson (b.1885), a gym owner, originally from Passage West, County Cork, Ireland and Malinda Laura Peterson née Rossiter (b.1887) originally from Cardiff.
Jack’s paternal grandparents were living with them in Monthermer Road in 1911. They were Albert Peterson (b.1841), a ship’s carpenter, originally from Stavanger, Norway and Catherine Peterson née Cullinane (b.1853), originally from Cork, Ireland.
The Peterson family may not have lived at Monthermer Road for that long. In 1910, when Jack’s elder sister Kathleen was born, the Peterson family were living at 32 Albany Road. In 1913 when his younger sister Mabel was born the address given on the baptism register was 6 St John’s Square where the Jack’s father had his health health institute/gym.
John Thomas ‘Pa’ Paterson (Jack’s father)
Jack’s grandparents originally came to Cardiff in the late 1880s, no doubt attracted by stories of Cardiff’s rapid expansion as a port. In 1891 they lived at 49 Janet Street, Splott. At the time of the 1901 census they were living at 21 Railway Street, Splott and John ‘Pa’ Peterson, then aged 15, was working as a sawyers labourer.
Sometime over the next ten years he finds his calling as a trainer/masseur and amateur boxer. He had an interest in medicine and is believed to have studied in Norway. He purchased the Lynn Institute in St John’s Square in 1905 where he practiced physiotherapy, osteopathy and manipulation as well as teaching boxing and wrestling. In the 1911 census he describes his profession as ‘instructor of physical culture’, in other places as a Swedish masseur and even a Professor. Pa Peterson was described as a volatile character. His boxing record remains un-chronicled but it is thought that he at one stage boxed the famous Cardiff boxer Jim Driscoll.
Jack’s younger years
Jack Peterson’s commendable biography, ‘Gentleman of the Ring’ by Bob Lonkhurst describes his childhood as being unhappy years. He was one of six children born to John ‘Pa’ and Catherine Peterson. Jack’s younger brother spent some time in a workhouse. Pa Peterson also fathered a child with housekeeper Rebecca Morgan. Sybil Grace Morgan-Peterson was baptised at St John’s in May 1919.
Jack was sent away to school. In the 1921 census he is attending the St Elizabeth Convent school at Lower Bullingham, Hereford. At some stage Jack’s parent’s separated. When Jack returned from living at the convent school he spent much of his time at the Lynn Institute, doing chores and learning from his father. He then attended St Illtyd’s College in Cardiff.
Pa Peterson remarried in 1930 to Enid Williams before moving to Barry. He managed his son’s boxing career for most of his career.
The family’s religious background is somewhat puzzling. The children were baptised in St John’s Anglican church whereas they went to Catholic schools. This is probably explained by the Norsk/Irish ancestry.
Peterson or Petersen?
Yes, it is a bit confusing I admit. It seems the official spelling is Peterson. The birth, marriage and death records all appear to use that spelling. Indeed, Jack’s headstone at Cathays cemetery also uses the Peterson spelling. Petersen is more akin to the traditional Norsk spelling. It was used by both Jack and his father in boxing circles and was the spelling Jack used on his British Boxing Bard of Control application in 1932.
Early boxing career
At the age of 15 his father arranged a three month working trip for him to South America aboard the merchant ship Fairwater. It is said to have toughened him up no end.
Jack developed a love of boxing. He learnt some of basics from his time with Bob Downey at his gym in Tiger Bay as well as naturally from his father. After that he joined the Gabalfa Amateur Boxing Club and soon began his boxing career in earnest.
The peak and culmination of his amateur boxing career was when he won the ABA championship in a fight against Joe Goydner at the Royal Albert Hall in 1931. He turned professional soon afterwards although his father took some persuading, not keen initially for Jack to become a professional boxer.
After his parents separated his mother lived on Mynachdy Road, Gabalfa and his father moved to Kelston Road, Whitchurch which is probably where Jack spent much of his teenage years. He was a scout in nearby Rhiwbina. His dedication to the scouting movement was demonstrated in the fact that in Dec 1931 he boxed in a three round exhibition match against Andrew Pettigrew (of the Pettigrew gardening family) at Rhiwbina Scout Hall the day after he had been involved in a gruelling contest against Gunner Bennett.
In less than twelve months as a professional fighter Jack won three titles and he was not yet twenty one. Jack’s boxing career is very well chronicled in Bob Lonkhurst’s biography of Petersen and well recommended to any boxing fans. I’ve picked out a few snippets of stories related to our local area. In June 1933 Jack beat George Cook in front of a 50,000 crowd at Ninian Park. What interested me was the fact that George Cook and his team had their headquarters at the Claude Hotel in Roath.
On 9 Oct 1935 Jack took time out from boxing to marry 18 year old Annie Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Williams, daughter of an auctioneer. Betty lived at 18 Ninian Road and was herself keen on sport having played hockey and lacrosse for the school.
They got married in Marshfield church, between Newport and Cardiff, where the Williams family originally came from. Press reports say that 3,000 gathered to try and catch a glimpse of the couple despite inclement weather conditions. Jack’s father didn’t attend the wedding leaving the press to question why. The guard of honour was formed by the 1st Rhiwbina Scout troop where Jack was still a Rover leader. The wedding was covered by Pathe News. The reception was held at St Mellons Country Club. One of the bridesmaids at the wedding was Betty’s younger sister Barbara who sadly died in WWII whilst serving as an aircraftwoman with the WRAF.
Jack and Betty lived at 24 Tydraw Road, on the opposite side of the Rec to where Betty had grown up.
In 1933 he visited Cardiff Royal Infirmary when he heard that one of his schoolboy fans Clifford ‘Jimmy’ Laverick was ill with lockjaw after cutting his foot whilst bathing. Jimmy, a schoolboy boxer himself, had been making poor progress until he was told of the visit of Jack Peterson. When Jack walked into the ward he shouted “Who said boxers ain’t good looking?”. Jimmy made a full recovery and later appeared as a guest on Jack’s edition of ‘This if your Life’
Jack announced his retirement in April 1937, the end of a career of one of the most popular boxers Wales has ever seen. He quickly picked up a job working as a journalist for the Sunday Chronicle.
He spent many years in the army as a physical instructor. He became a Major with the Territorials and a Captain in the regular Army but his requests to serve aboard were always declined. Training young boxers with the Glamorgan Army Cadet Forces after the war became his pride and joy. In 1950 he was awarded the Territorial Decoration (TD), a military medal awarded for long service in the Territorial Force and its successor, the Territorial Army.
Tragedy struck in 1945 when his father, Pa Petersen, was found dead in a bath at the Lynn Institute, St John Street in 1945 having been accidentally electrocuted.
In 1938 Jack had stood for the council elections in Plasnewydd for as a Liberal Party candidate and narrowly lost. After the war he was elected to Cardiff City Council in Dec 1951 when he stood for the Conservative Party in the Plasnewydd ward. He stayed as councillor till May 1953 bur did not stand for re-election.
Jack remained an ardent supporter of the scout movement. He was also very much dedicated to developing facilities for the youth of the area in South Wales and did a huge amount of work for the Sports Council of Wales.
He ran a sports shop in Barry but it was not a great commercial success as many of the visitors wanted just to talk to him rather than make purchases.
In 1978 he was awarded an OBE for his services to sport. He had spent 40 years striving to give youngsters opportunities he had missed out on as a boy.
Jack was the subject of BBCs ‘This is your Life in 1957’, filmed in Barry.
The Petersen family later moved from Cardiff to Itton near Chepstow and later to Porthcawl.
Described as a perfect ambassador for the sport of boxing, he was elected President of the British Boxing Board of Control in 1986 and their headquarters in South London is now names Jack Petersen house.
Jack died of lung cancer in Bridgend on 22 Nov 1990 aged 79. People described him as polite and well-spoken, a gentleman in every sense and a great personality. He is buried in Cathays cemetery.
Jack and Betty had five children, four sons and a daughter. They appeared together in 2011 when a plaque to Jack was unveiled outside 5-6 St John’s Street, site of the Pa Peterson’s gym. The premises is currently up for let. An ideal opportunity to open a new gym?
One of Jack’s sons is David Petersen, the successful sculptor. He went to Marlborough Road Primary school and afterwards worked at the steel works in Cardiff before going to college to study art. Perhaps his most famous work is the dragon memorial at Mametz Wood, erected in 1987, where the 38th (Welsh) Division lost about 4000 men.
David Petersen has three sons who are all sculptors and blacksmiths in their own right including Gideon Petersen who made the trophies for the 2015 Young Dancer of the Year Competition.
Roath Virtual War Memorial
In researching this article I came across two of Jack’s family who were lost in conflict and both have now been added to the Roath Virtual War Memorial:-
NORMAN JOSEPH PETERSON
Rifleman, 10th Battalion, Rifle Brigade (Service Number: S/5568)
Norman Peterson was living at 52 Monthermer Road, Cathays when Jack was born there in 1911. Norman would have known Jack for about four years before he went off to war. Norman Peterson served as a Rifleman with the 10th Battalion Rifle Brigade. He died of wounds on 14 Apr 1916, aged 24. He is buried at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium (grave VI. B. 20). His Commonwealth War Graves Commission record states he was son of Catherine and Albert Peterson. This would have made him an uncle to Jack Petersen. It appears however that Catherine and Albert were probably his grandparents making Norman cousin to Jack. After Catherine dies in 1922, Mary Ann Greenfield of Bedford Street, Roath, claims to be Norman’s mother and is awarded his pension. In the 1911 census Norman is working for Pa Paterson as an ‘assistant instructor of physical culture’. A couple of stories appear in the newspapers of him boxing in the same contests as his uncle.
BARBARA SARAH WATKIN WILLIAMS
Aircraftwoman 1st Class, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service Number: 883075)
Barbara Williams was Jack’s sister in law and a bridesmaid at his wedding in Marshfield. She was born on 29 Jul 1922. Barbara joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1939. She died on 20 Jun 1940, aged 17, as a result of injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident at Temple Bruer, Lincolnshire. She was in a car with two RAF pilot officers on the Lincoln-Sleaford road during the black-out when it was involved in a head-on collision with a truck. All three occupants were killed. She is buried at Cathays Cemetery adjacent to Jack’s grave . Commonwealth War Graves Commission record. She is remembered on the war memorials at St Edward’s and St Martin’s church.
I first came across Jack Peterson a few years ago when a friend pointed out his grave to me when we were walking through Cathays Cemetery. I took some pictures and put them aside. I happened to come across him again this month as part of my Armchair Travel Challenge where I visit a different country each month ‘in my imagination’ and set about a series of challenges. This month I am in Norway. I was reading about the Norway connections with Cardiff; the Norwegian church in Cardiff Bay, Roldh Dahl and up popped the name of Jack Petersen and his Norwegian background. I thought I would take a look at his background not expecting it to be so connected with us here in Roath, Cathays and Splott.
Ted Richards – July 2022