Obituary: Richard “Skeets” Gallacher, boxer and entertainer

Richard "Skeets" Gallacher: 'Uncrowned flyweight champion' of the world, honoured for his community work
Richard "Skeets" Gallacher: 'Uncrowned flyweight champion' of the world, honoured for his community work
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Born: 24 August, 1925, in Renton, Dunbartonshire. Died: 10 December, 2013, in Dumbarton, aged 88

Richard Gallacher, who boxed for Great Britain against the Golden Gloves champion of the USA at Wembley’s Empire Pool and was afterwards named “the uncrowned flyweight champion of the world”, has died in Dumbarton, aged 88.

A member of a large and successful sporting family, he was one of five children, the second eldest of four boys and a girl, born to Clydeside shipyard riveter Jim Gallacher and his wife, Martha.

He was brought up in the village of Renton, a close-knit community whose main workplaces were silk-dyeing factories and bleach fields on the banks of the River Leven. Renton or “the Renton” as it is widely known, was famous for its footballers and became legendary throughout the country as the cradle of Scottish football.

That was when teams from the neighbouring towns of Vale of Leven and Dumbarton were amongst the best in Scotland. Renton FC itself was world famous as one of the first clubs to have laid claim to the title Champions of the World when in 1888 they beat the FA Cup holders West Bromwich Albion.

The village also produced James Kelly, one of the founders of Celtic Football Club, Alex Jackson, who played for Arsenal and Scotland and was one of the Wembley Wizards, and John Ryan, who became captain of Tottenham Hotspur.

It was expected that Richard would take up soccer, and he showed early promise, but unlike his brothers, Hugh and Jim, who were twins and became professional footballers in Scotland and England, he traded in his football boots for boxing gloves.

His eldest brother, Willie, was a well-known Scottish international marathon and cross country runner.

Born into hard times in 1925 at a time of widespread unemployment, Richard was educated at North Street School in Alexandria and later at nearby St Mary’s Primary School and then St Patrick’s High School, Dumbarton.

He was a bright pupil who went on to become a marine engineering apprentice at Babcock and Wilcox in Dumbarton and a time-served journeyman in John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank.

He had played in juvenile soccer with Alexandria’s Argyle Select and it was next door to their training centre in a tenement room in the town’s Main Street that Vale of Leven Boxing Club met. Founders, Alan Jardine and Jim Brown, invited him and a few of his pals in to watch and then box and he was a member there until he was 17 when he enrolled in jujitsu classes and more boxing training just to keep fit.

He weighed just seven stone at the time and was spotted by a Clydebank bookmaker, Harry Woods, who had an interest in boxing and considered he had the potential – and the proper physique – to make the grade at flyweight. Woods recommended Gallacher, who by this time had been nicknamed Skeets after the handsome Hollywood film actor of that era, to his brother, Danny Woods, and persuaded him to train him.

Boxing gymnasiums were dank, dark and dirty places in those Second World War days prior to the Clydebank Blitz, but Gallacher’s talent and southpaw stance were unusual and eye-catching and shone through the gloom at the John Brown Welfare club.

Benny Lynch, the most famous Scottish boxer of all time, who toured around the gyms and spit and sawdust pubs of the West of Scotland with his mentors and hangers on, took a shine to the wee lad from Renton.

Skeets’ son, Richard, has a memorable story about the relationship between his father and Benny Lynch, who came into the gym one night unannounced. He says Skeets, who had initially been trained by his own father, had never worn the correct bandaging on his hands or been gloved up properly while he was training.

When Lynch, who was the world professional fly-weight champion, appeared he asked him about this and Skeets said he had a couple of old bandages which he had used when he cut his hand at work.

Lynch then gloved him up himself – “the first night my father actually boxed, Benny Lynch put the bandages and gloves on him. From then on the champion was always in and around my father’s corner when he went into the ring.”

Lynch’s words to Skeets that night were: “A word of advice son, always remember there is no point in fighting three rounds when you can finish the fight in one. Good luck to you.”

Skeets went on to win 34 consecutive amateur contests and in doing so became Scottish and British Champion.

Beating French and American rivals later saw him crowned unofficial flyweight champion of the world.

Gallacher was also considered to be a good singer and in addition to the boxing circuit he played the music halls with a group called the Rae Brothers.

This involved doing impersonations of The Ink Spots at prestigious venues including the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, the Caird Hall in Dundee and the Metropole in Glasgow.

His sister, Mary, was also a singer and sang with a dance band while his brother, Hugh, who played for Dumbarton, Clyde and Queen of the South, was Britain’s highest scorer with 47 goals in one season.

Jim, Hugh’s twin, played for Hamilton Academicals and was a gifted half-back with Rotherham and Gillingham and the eldest brother, Willie, was an international athlete.

It was little wonder then that when the Gallacher children turned up at their parents’ home for dinner on a Sunday that the street outside was crowded with children seeking autographs.

Skeets fought for Scotland against Ireland in Dublin and for Britain against France in Paris and London

Britain won by five bouts to three and Gallacher was lauded in the press – “The 19-year-old shipyard worker’s meteoric rise in amateur boxing in this country seems destined to eclipse in brilliance the records of such famous fighting Scots as Benny Lynch and Jackie Paterson.”

The pinnacle of Skeets’ amateur career came in 1946 when he was the only Scot chosen to represent Britain in a team which included the legendary Freddie Mills against the USA’s Golden Gloves Champions and he was immediately offered a professional contract by Jackie Paterson.

Gallacher declined the offer and went on to beat the American flyweight champion John Arduini who told him after a close contest during which both fighters were knocked down: “By winning tonight I hear this makes you world champion.”

When he returned home the following evening he found Renton en fête with flags and bunting everywhere, a dance band playing and villagers dancing in Cordale Crescent, the street where he lived.He was hoisted shoulder high and carried through the streets accompanied by Renton Pipe Band which had also turned out for the occasion.

Later that evening Gallacher was finally persuaded to turn professional. That was the wrong decision and he suffered a serious eye wound in a clash of heads during a fight in Dundee.

This sent his professional career into a downward spiral and he ended his days fighting in mismatched contests in boxing booths in the North of England and as a sparring partner for famous boxers including Dado Marino and Rinty Monaghan.

Gallacher married Annie Dunn in November 1948, and they had two children, John James, who died in infancy, and Richard.

Although he lost his last job in industry when the Singer factory closed in Clydebank in 1982, Skeets was a well-respected figure in the community.

He involved himself in keep- fit classes and local boxing clubs and was honoured with a civic reception for his community work by Dumbarton District Council.

Richard Skeets Gallacher, who is survived by his brother, Willie, son, Richard and daughter in law Shona, died in Dalreoch old people’s home in Dumbarton.

His funeral Mass, conducted by Father Charles McElwee, will take place at Our Lady and St Mark’s Church, Alexandria, tomorrow at 10am and the final committal thereafter in Vale of Leven Cemetery.