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Palmer, Ambrose Harold (1910–1990)

by Bill Kent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ambrose Harold Palmer (1910-1990), boxer, boxing trainer and Australian rules footballer, was born on 16 October 1910 at Footscray, Melbourne, third child of Victorian-born parents William Arthur Palmer, labourer, and his wife May, née Ranger.  Ambrose, with his three brothers, was trained by his father, himself a Victorian champion lightweight boxer, and at 15 he became Victorian amateur welterweight champion.  When he lost his job as a blacksmith’s striker early in the Depression, which hit Footscray particularly hard, he became a professional boxer.

On 27 December 1930 Palmer achieved national fame when, aged 19, he knocked out Jack Haines, the Australian middleweight champion, having been summoned to the bout in Sydney by telegram while humping his swag in northern Victoria.  He quickly became a public idol during a period in which champion fighters enjoyed great prestige.  During his professional career he fought sixty-seven bouts, winning the Australian middle, light-heavy and heavyweight titles.  His was a Depression success story that inspired a working-class generation.  In Footscray alone, during the 1940s some 150 young men were undergoing boxing training.

A cool, courageous and intelligent boxer, Palmer was not a fighter or brawler of the type promoted by the travelling tent-shows of the period.  Nevertheless, he inflicted several bloody defeats on opponents, and suffered severe punishment during some bouts with imported fighters.  He wept publicly after his defeat by Leo Kelly in April 1936, feeling that he had let down his fans.

Fleet-footed outside the ring, Palmer ran professionally as a sprinter, and between 1933 and 1943 played eighty-three Australian rules football games with Footscray Football Club, having graduated to the Victorian Football League from the local Riverside team.  A ruck-rover, he scored forty-four goals and was praised by his contemporary Jack Dyer as a dedicated player.  Never using his pugilistic skills on the field, he earned considerable attention from opponents precisely because of them.  In what was apparently an accident, in 1939 he received a head injury much more severe than any he had suffered while boxing.  On 16 December 1941 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force but was declared medically unfit for duty and was discharged from the army in February 1942 because of 'post-traumatic headache'.

Retiring from the ring in 1938, Palmer became a trainer-manager and, despite twice giving it up, could never resist returning to the profession.  In his last decade he coached a grandson.  Operating at different times from gymnasiums at Footscray, central Melbourne and West Melbourne Stadium, he trained and managed generations of young boxers.  He coached the Australian team at the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956, by which time he was acknowledged to be the doyen of his trade.

Palmer’s determined and intelligent approach and his rather old-fashioned, gentlemanly attitudes and demeanour were vividly recalled, in both personal and professional terms, in the autobiography of his most famous pupil, the French-born John Famechon, a world-title holder whom he trained throughout the 1960s.  He also trained other talented boxers such as Paul Ferreri, Mickey Tollis and Aldo Pravisani, and lesser lights, among them Joe Pompei and the tough Billy Lowe, who recalled that Palmer 'tried to turn me from a fighter into a boxer'.  Preaching what he had practised, Palmer advised Famechon that 'science and speed will beat strength', and that a boxer should aim 'to hit and not be hit'.  Ferreri described himself as boxing 'in the typical Ambrose Palmer-trained manner, chin tucked in, nimble-footed'.

Ambrose Palmer’s was a very Footscray life, although as a trainer he was later to travel widely, enjoying the fruits of his success.  Famechon’s autobiography included a charming photograph of mentor and star protégé in Paris together, both sporting bowler hats and button-holes.  On 12 September 1931 at the Footscray Baptist Church he had married 17-year-old Emma May Gibson, a stationer.  For many years they lived in a modest house in Errol Street, just across from the Western Oval, later moving to Ballarat Road.  While he remained a handsome, dapper figure into middle age, the damage above his eyes was permanent and betrayed his profession.  A local hero, he was appointed MBE in 1971.  After suffering for some years from a failing memory that finally necessitated his living in nursing homes, he died on 16 October 1990 at Yarraville, survived by his wife and two daughters; he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Mitchell, Great Australian Fights (1965)
  • J. Famechon, Fammo (1971)
  • P. Corris, Lords of the Ring (1980)
  • J. Lack, A History of Footscray (1991)
  • J. Finley, Fighters: 25 Australian Lives In and Out of the Ring (2001)
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 5 May 1978, p 39
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 August 1980, p 17, 5 March 1986, p 17
  • B883, item VX68317 (National Archives of Australia)
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Bill Kent, 'Palmer, Ambrose Harold (1910–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-ambrose-harold-15016/text26212, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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