2017 marked the centenary of Les Darcy’s death.
Stories of his larrikinism are almost more infamous than the tales of Darcy’s boxing prowess round these parts. His was a short life, but one of big impact.
Les was born in 1895 at a property in Woodville called ‘Stradbroke’. He came from poor beginnings with a large family, however the birthplace of Maitland’s most famous historical figure nonetheless inspires many a tourist and is worth the visit. It once flourished with commemorative wattles to mark the birthplace, but today all that can be seen are a few gums and rolling lands of the neighbouring properties.
An Australian folk hero akin to Ned Kelly (without the criminality), Darcy captured the imagination and adoration of his city of origin. And still continues to.
With a stellar ring record, he only lost four of his 50 fights and never hit the mat once, he is said to have had a reach of 180 centimetres that enabled him to give as good as he got in the ring. He was best known as the ‘Maitland Wonder’ and was hailed by many as the ‘Middleweight Boxing Champion of the World’, however never actually crowned.
To get a true sense of the fighting spirit and his achievements, head to the Les Darcy statue in King Edward Park at East Maitland. It is here that you will find a life sized bronze statue of the boxing great standing in the park, an obvious nod to Darcy’s enviable physique and undeniable strength.
While you’re there head across the park into East Maitland Bowling Club where you will find the Les Darcy Museum. It’s here that Darcy comes to life. With memorabilia (and the obligatory boxing gloves) it doesn’t take long to scan the club and run into someone who has their own unique folk tale to share. Here’s a tip: over a cold schooner or two, the stories get wilder.
Through perseverance, courage and a bit of cheek, Darcy triumphed to become one of Maitland’s favourite sons. He had fists that were like lightening, and was said to have a grin from ear to ear that led people to call him a smiling assassin.
His character and strength was forged at Billy Ford’s Blacksmith Shop where he worked as a blacksmith, building his strong physique. Now a tyre service centre, there is a plaque, which you can’t miss.
From here, Les would make his way across to Ascot Stadium in Abbot Street in Maitland where he trained. Making this trip yourself, your mind starts to wonder what it would be like to walk in his shoes. Ascot Stadium is no more, but it is well documented that this was where Darcy fought a lot of his bouts (between 1913-1916).
Another important icon of his legacy in Maitland is his family home ‘Lesleigh’ in East Maitland, which still stands today. And it’s said that immediately after winning a local fight, he took the prizemoney of one pound straight to the bank cashed the pound in for 240 pennies. He then took the money home, put it on the kitchen table and famously said ‘Mum, that’s to go towards our new home’.
For all of the potential, the accolades and support he received, what truly makes Les’ story so devastating is his sudden death at the age of just 21.
He had gone to the USA seeking to challenge for the world title, only to collapse from septicaemia and later pass away from pneumonia in Memphis, Tennessee.
His passing was unexpected. He neither drank or smoked, was an avid Catholic and had an unbeatable aura about him. When his body was finally returned to Maitland, newspaper reports of the day say that an estimated 35,000 people lined the route to attend his funeral, it was a sea of people.
The body of the champ rests in the Darcy family monument, in the Catholic section in East Maitland cemetery. Wander through the sprawling cemetery to find the Catholic section far at the back. Here you’ll see a tall stone cross in a well kept plot. Although the inscription says James Darcy lays here (his middle name Leslie), it’s ‘lovable’ Les that many knew best. A visit to his family’s monument feels like a visit to a relative you never met but still feel an affinity to. I guess Les really was Maitland’s son, brother and mate.
To visit all the sites mentioned here and more, pick up a copy of Les Darcy – The Legend at the Maitland Visitor Information Centre.
Story by Tess Campbell.