Copley, Clara (‘Ma’) (1865–1949), boxing promoter, was born 14 May 1865 at Masbrough, Rotherham, England, to Jonas Roddis, fishmonger, and his wife Mary Roddis. Clara was the sixth of their nine children. She married Joseph Copley of Leeds on 22 November 1886 at Darfield, Yorkshire. They had two sons, James Henry, born 1887, and Percy, born 1889. In 1891 the family was living in Rotherham, where Joseph had become a fishmonger. By 1895 the couple was operating a fish and chip stall in the fairground at Rotherham, and from this beginning took an interest in fairground entertainment. They moved to Liverpool where they operated an amusement arcade and owned a commercial waxwork museum.
Moving to Belfast, by 1901 the couple was operating a novelty stall at the Chapel Fields fairground, a large area of open land opposite St Malachy’s church, Alfred Street, in the city centre. Clara and Joseph were to live at the Chapel Fields for the next forty years. In 1908 she opened the Theatre Royal, a ‘fit-up theatre’ housed in a wooden building, in Bangor, Co. Down. During the next four years her theatre company, in which she also regularly performed herself, often staged three or four different productions each week.
Copley continued to develop her fairground interests at Chapel Fields, and by the 1920s she had become the proprietor of the site, with the entertainments advertised in the press as ‘Copley’s Amusements’. She had been interested in boxing since her early years and had allowed Jim Lagan, a local ex-professional boxer, to operate a boxing booth as part of the fair. Each booth would have a handful of professional boxers associated with it, and members of the public would be invited to attempt to last three rounds with a boxer of their choice; those few who did received a prize of around £1.
In 1934 Copley and Lagan started to use the booth to stage regular unlicensed boxing tournaments. Lagan died within a few months, and Copley took over the booth, relocated it within a large tent and continued to stage these tournaments as sole promoter. As they became increasingly popular, she constructed a wooden arena to replace the tent and applied to the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) to take out a boxing promoter’s licence.
The BBBC had introduced licensing in 1929 to improve the way in which the sport was administered and controlled. When Copley was granted her promoter’s licence in April 1936, she became, at the age of seventy, the UK’s first licensed woman boxing promoter and the first woman boxing promoter to operate on the island of Ireland. What she had constructed became known as the ‘Chapel Fields Arena’, sometimes also known as the ‘Belfast Arena’, and it proved to be the breeding ground for many of Belfast’s top-line boxing professionals during the bleak 1930s. The first tournament was held there on 30 May 1934, and her first licensed tournament took place on 4 April 1936. Rinty Monaghan, later to become the world flyweight champion, fought for Copley many times as an aspiring young professional and learnt his trade at the arena. She nurtured the careers of many notable Ulster boxers, including Jim ‘Spider’ Kelly junior, Bunty Doran, Tommy Armour and Jackie Quinn.
Copley fought hard to establish herself as a promoter in Belfast during the 1930s. A leading rival, Jim Rice, tended to promote shows of greater quality using larger and more prestigious venues, such as St George’s Market, the Ulster Hall, St Mary’s Hall and Grosvenor Park. Copley provided the quantity, staging nearly 600 boxing tournaments (averaging between two and three a week) in the four years her arena operated, greatly exceeding any of her rivals. She was ably assisted by her matchmaker, Mick Ross, who also acted as her general manager. Ross paired the fighters to provide competitive and entertaining contests. She kept a close eye on the financial side and rarely missed a tournament, for she genuinely appreciated the sport. Copley took a maternal interest in many of her boxers, most of whom were young lads from tough backgrounds; they all knew her as ‘Ma’. The support she provided to her boxers was long remembered by many.
The city council had become concerned about the safety of the arena, packed with spectators when her boxing tournaments took place, and ordered its closure. Her last show there took place on 24 September 1938. Within eleven days she had relocated her operation to the nearby Ulster Hall, where she promoted another 200 tournaments until 1942, when, aged seventy-seven, she finally retired from the sport. She had purchased some land and property at Donegall Pass, not far from Chapel Fields, and she lived out her years at 56 Donegall Pass, where she died on 14 March 1949, after being bedridden during her final months. She was survived by her husband James, then aged eighty-nine, and by her son James Henry.
In her later years she enjoyed regaling a constant stream of visitors with reminiscences of her colourful and eventful life. In March 2012 the Ulster Historical Circle erected a plaque in Copley’s memory (with an incorrect year of birth) at her former residence in Donegall Pass.