Pugilists – A short history of boxing in C18th London

Maybe you have slaked your thirst here at the Tom Cribb pub near Leicester Square?

Tom Cribb (1781-1848) was a pugilist, a bare-knuckle boxer. Born in Bristol he moved to London to find work as a coal porter aged 13. Carrying sacks of coal on his back must have really built up his muscles because he started prize fighting aged 24 and was only beaten once in his career. He was able to retire from boxing to become a coal merchant then ran this pub in Panton Street. Unfortunate he lost money. Pubs were expensive to rent and he was still involved in the prize fight business. He had to retire to live with his son in Woolwich. He was buried at St Mary Magdalene, Woolwich. A stone lion was put on his tomb in recognition of his bravery and honesty. The graveyard is now a park with no graves but the lion is still there and a road in the Woolwich Arsenal complex is named after him.

Tom Cribb Memorial

In 1809 the second to Cribb’s opponent (Jem Belcher) was Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), who featured in last week’s blog*. Mendoza revolutionised the way pugilists fought. He introduced new techniques like side stepping, blocking, holding your hands up to protect your head and striking with a straight arm.

In 1789 Mendoza wrote The Art of Boxing. He also opened a training school at the Lyceum theatre in the Strand and he ran a pub at one time. Sadly, he was involved in robberies and assaults. This lost him some of the esteem people had held him in and he died in poverty.

John Jackson
from Boxiana by Pierce Egan.
Public domain

One of Mendoza’s last fights had been against Gentleman John Jackson. John Jackson (1769-1845). He took the title of Champion of All England in that fight but Mendoza said it was because Jackson had kept hold of his hair and pummelled his head. Not very gentlemanly but not against the rules at the time (1795). It was such common practice that many pugilists shaved their heads.

The Gentleman title is because Jackson opened a Boxing Academy in Bond Street where he taught the kind of techniques invented by Mendoza. It was frequented by the gentry. In the academy hair pulling was not allowed. Jackson was generous and held benefit fights with the funds going to many charities. In 1814 he founded the Pugilist Club which was the first step in regulating boxing. He died a reasonably wealthy man and was buried in Brompton Cemetery, He also has a lion on his tomb, paid for by public subscription.

Tom Sayers (1826-65) was born in Brighton and like Cribb, came to London aged 13 to work. He lived with his sister whose husband was a builder and he entered that trade. He was nicknamed The Little Wonder because he was only 5ft 8in tall and weighed less than 11 stone. At the time, although people recognised the terms Lightweight, Middleweight and Heavyweight, there were no weight divisions in championships so he fought many men who were much bigger.

Sayer’s last fight was in a field near Farnborough vs a 6ft 1in American, John Camel Heenan. It made the news as the first ever international boxing match in England. Prize fighting was illegal, Even so, South Western Railway ran a special train to take 1000 spectators to the fight. The contest lasted for over 2 hours and ended in a draw with both men near breaking point. Tom’s fans later subscribed to a fund which raised £3,000 so that he would not need to fight for prize money again. It was his courage and skill that people admired.

Tom Sayers
from Library of Congress USA
Public domain

Sayers then worked as a circus performer but 10 years of no holds barred fighting had taken its toll and he died aged 39 of diabetes and consumption. A blue plaque is on the house in Camden High Street where he died. There was still money left from the £3,000 so a lavish funeral was organised with a procession to Highgate where he is buried. His mastiff dog Lion, was in the procession and a sculpture of the dog in on his tomb.

Photo CC 2.0 by Simon Hariyott, Uckfield.

Illegal prize fights were attended by the elite as well as the hoi palloi. Lord Byron, the Prince Regent and the Marquess of Queensbury were all aficionados. When the Prince Regent was crowned George IV, he asked Gentleman John Jackson to hire boxers, including Tom Cribb to act as security guards. They were officially called Ushers.

In 1867 the Queensbury Rules were published. They were more or less the current boxing regulations including the obligatory wearing of gloves. The rules were sponsored by the Marquess but written by John Graham Chambers, an old Etonian and a Cambridge rower and founder of the Amateur Athletics Club.

*For more about Daniel Mendoza, here is the link to last weeks blog On Mile End – GAIL JONES (gailtouristguide.com)

About the author: Gail Jones

Tourist Guide

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