Carnera – heavyweight champion of Falkirk

Carnera with his 'sign'
Carnera with his 'sign'
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Although I wrote about today’s topic quite a few years ago I still get asked to tell the story of one of Falkirk’s most famous inhabitants – not a politician or a sportsman or even a wealthy foundry master but a horse, and a great big one at that.

A familiar local quiz question is this: what is the connection between Irn Bru and the heavyweight boxing champion of the world? The answer is not that Mike Tyson or Joe Louis built up their strength drinking Scotland’s other national drink though for all I know maybe that was their secret! The real answer is the most famous animal ever to tread the cobbled streets of Falkirk and district, the mighty Carnera.

This huge Clydesdale who pulled Barr’s delivery carts in the 1930s was nearly 20 hands high, that is he stood six and a half feet from hoof to shoulder.

It was of course his great size that gave him the name for at the same time as he was purchased by the Barr family, the great Italian boxer, Primo Carnera, known as the Ambling Alp, was beginning his rise to fame which culminated in his winning the world title in 1933.

At six foot seven, he was claimed to be the tallest heavyweight to hold the title (he wasn’t actually!) and when Robert Barr and his father spotted the huge horse standing in a field near Perth, the name seemed obvious.

The family was quick to realise the marketing potential of Carnera and within weeks he was moving about the district bearing above his neck harness a board with his name, and claim to fame. It said: “CARNERA” REPUTED TO BE THE BIGGEST WORKING HORSE IN THE WORLD.

He soon became a familiar sight and a popular character with bairns of all ages.

It was said that it took 24 inches of iron bar to make one of his shoes, seven inches more that the average for a Clydesdale. The man charged with doing the job, blacksmith Thomas Kidd, had to work outside his smiddy because the horse was too tall to get through the door.

Alas it was Carnera’s sheer bulk that brought about his sad demise in January 1937, just 80 years ago next month.

On a frosty day he slipped on the cobbles in the Cow Wynd and all efforts to lift him to his feet failed. It was his second fall of the day and this time his last.

Crowds of well wishers gathered bringing buns to feed the stricken beast and even a mattress to make him more comfortable. So many people came that the police were called to control the crowds!

With darkness falling it was decided to put him down to prevent further pain and distress and Mr Peter Bell the vet was called to do the sorry deed.

His heart-broken driver William Fotheringham watched as the great horse was carried off to Glasgow though one of his enormous hooves was kept by Barrs as a reminder of his story.

Primo Carnera was knocked out by Max Baer just one year after winning the title and he is largely forgotten today. His namesake, however, is still remembered after 80 years. Not many human beings earn such acclaim.

A further accolade came in recent times when Andy Scott, creator of the Kelpies, said that the story of Carnera had been part of his inspiration.

So, you call them Duke and Baron if you like. For me the first one is obviously Primo and the one with his head held high is Carnera.