Sport, ancient and modern: Boxing

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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'Sport, ancient and modern: Boxing', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911), pp. 292-295. British History Online [accessed 20 June 2024].

. "Sport, ancient and modern: Boxing", in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911) 292-295. British History Online, accessed June 20, 2024,

. "Sport, ancient and modern: Boxing", A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911). 292-295. British History Online. Web. 20 June 2024,

In this section


Middlesex has always been the centre of the art of self-defence both for professionals and amateurs. A very large proportion of the champions of both sections have been Londoners or men long located in the metropolis. The first record that we find of public exhibitions and instruction in the art is in 1719 when one Figg, the champion boxer and back-sword player of his time, opened an amphitheatre near Oxford Street. He also had a boxing both at Southwark fair and at other similar gatherings. His prowess is commemorated by his pupil, Captain Godfrey, who in his Treatise upon the useful science of Defence speaks feelingly of the rugged way in which the preceptor imparted instruction to his pupils.

To Broughton, however, who was champion in 1734, belongs the honour of inventing the horsehair gloves and teaching boxing on scientific lines. His academy was situated in what is now Hanway Street, and a copy of his advertisement is here reproduced:


Oxford Street The back of the late Mr. Figg's

On Tuesday next, the 13th instant Will be exhibited


By the eight famed following men, viz.:-

Abraham Evans -Allen
- Sweep Robert Spikes and
- Belas Harry Gray the clogmaker
- Glover
- Roger

The above eight men to be brought on the stage and to be matched according to the approbation of the gentlemen who shall honour them with their Company.

N.B.-There will be Battle Royal between the Noted Buckhorse

and seven or eight more; after which there will be several Bye Battles by others.

Gentlemen are therefore desired to come by times. The doors open at nine; the champions mount at eleven.

Broughton was the first to draw up a code of rules for contests, and these rules were revised in 1853 and 1866 by the Pugilistic Association.

Broughton reigned undefeated until 1750, when he accepted the challenge of Slack, the Norfolk champion. Broughton looked upon the affair as a certainty; he did no training, and actually made Slack a present of ten guineas not to cry off. The match took place at the amphitheatre in Oxford Street, and Broughton's lack of condition lost him the day, his eyes so swelling from Slack's blows that he could not see. The Duke of Cumberland, the victor of Culloden, who was Broughton's backer, was said to have lost 10,000 guineas over the match.

After Slack succeeded champions of varying powers until Mendoza, a Jew from Houndsditch, gained the title in 1792. His battles with 'Gentleman Humphreys' attracted much attention to the art. In 1795 'Gentleman Jackson,' another Londoner, defeated Mendoza. Jackson subsequently at his rooms in Bond Street was instructor to half the nobility, including Lord Byron, the poet. Jackson died 7 October 1845, and a handsome monument was erected to his memory in West Brompton Cemetery.

In 1800 James Belcher of Bristol arrived in London and carried all before him until he was defeated by his fellow townsmen, Pearce and Tom Cribb. Pearce also defeated Gully, afterwards M.P. for Pontefract, for the championship, which Gully subsequently gained in 1808. Tom Cribb (long resident in Panton Street), became a very popular champion by reason of his two tremendous battles with the Herculean black Molyneux. For his second match with the negro he was taken to Scotland and specially trained by Captain Barclay of Urie.

These were the palmy days of the ring, when royalty in the persons of the Prince Regent and his brother the Duke of Clarence were not infrequent attendants at matches. At his coronation George IV engaged twenty of the leading pugilists as pages, and to commemorate their services presented them with a coronation medal, which was raffled for and won by Thomas Belcher.

To Cribb succeeded Thomas Spring, whose establishment, the Castle Inn in Holborn, now the 'Napier,' was long a favourite house of call for country squires and London visitors.

James Ward, a very scientific boxer from East London, gained the championship on Spring's retirement. He lived to the age of 84, and died in 1884. Another Londoner, Burke, a waterman in the Strand, succeeded Ward. In these days minor matches were numerous, and were decided no further away than Paddington, Highgate, Finchley, and Barnet, but when the authorities became more particular the railways and steamboats were utilized to reach spots where interference was unlikely. Caunt, who lived for many years off Regent Street, divided the championship for some years with W. Thompson, the renowned Bendigo of Nottingham, but the champions degenerated greatly in science until the advent of the redoubtable Tom Sayers.

Coming from Sussex at an early age that great fighter settled at Camden Town, and step by step fought his way to the top of the tree. During his career he contested sixteen battles. He only once, when hardly out of his novitiate, suffered defeat, at the hands of the scientific Nathaniel Langham, who, however, declined to meet him a second time. Sayers' height was 5 ft. 8½ in., and his weight 10 st. 6 lb. to 10 st. 12 lb.; but he took on all comers. With small hands and arms he possessed fine shoulders, with great muscular development, and his hitting was tremendous. He was an excellent judge of distance and of timing his blows, and very active on his feet. He rarely used his right hand until he had got the measure of his opponent, and then brought it into play with such telling effect, that that hand was called his 'auctioneer.' These qualities, and his indomitable pluck- he never knew when he was beaten-made him the idol of the sporting world. His great battle on 17 April 1860 with the gigantic American Heenan, to whom he conceded 4½ in. in height, 3 stone in weight, and seven years in age, was stopped by the police after two and a half hours' desperate fighting (during two-thirds of which Sayers fought with only one arm, his right, the dreaded 'auctioneer,' having been disabled in the sixth round). Public appreciation of this remarkable exposition of pluck was shown by a presentation of £3,000 collected for Sayers in the House of Commons, on the Stock Exchange, and elsewhere, on the condition that he never fought again. To his untutored mind-he could not tell the time by the clock-this enforced leisure was fatal. Dissipation did its fatal work, and the little warrior who knew no fear lived but five years after his great fight with the American giant. He died at Camden Town 11 November 1865 at the age of 39, and a vast concourse of people attended his funeral in Highgate Cemetery. A fine monument marks his resting-place.

After the retirement of Sayers many clever men appeared, but the rascality of the low hangers-on of the ring quickly drove respectable people from attending matches, and the authorities took action by forbidding railway companies to run special trains. Nevertheless, many finely contested matches were brought off in the 'sixties between Mace, Goss, Travers, King, the brothers Allen, and others. Mace may perhaps be said to be the last of the champions of the old style of boxing, and probably was its most scientific exponent. He visited America and Australia, and carried all before him. King, a native of Stepney, was for years a well-known attendant at race meetings, and died in 1888 worth £54,000. Several attempts have been made to resuscitate bare-fist boxing, and as late as 1886 James Smith, a native of Clerkenwell, gained several victories and was dubbed champion. Since the legalizing of boxing with gloves fist-fighting has died out.

The transition stage between the two styles was the decade from 1870 to 1880. Many of the professors of the old style tried their hands at the new, and not always with success. Those who excelled at the one did not necessarily shine at the other. Even the great Sayers himself was not infrequently worsted with the gloves by men, half a dozen of whom he would have beaten one after another in the same ring with his fists. There were notable exceptions, however; Professor Mullins was never defeated in either style. He is still the most capable instructor of the day, and at his academy in Glasshouse Street has numbered, among his pupils, peers of the realm, men of letters, and even, it is whispered, embryo bishops. After the extinction of the ring, however, gloomy times followed in London for devotees of the art. Owing to the vigilance of the authorities it was at first most difficult to bring off matches with the gloves, and only a limited number of rounds were allowed as legal. Matters, however, gradually improved. Clubs were formed for the encouragement of professional boxing, and leading sporting men retained prominent counsel to prove the legality of boxing with gloves for prizes. The defunct Pelican Club in Gerard Street, which numbered amongst its members men of title and position, took boxing under its protection. Here Peter Jackson, the black champion of Australia, defeated James Smith for the championship, and many other notable matches were decided within its walls. When the Pelican Club ceased to exist the National Sporting Club was opened on 5 March 1891 in Covent Garden, in what had previously been Evans' Supper Rooms. immortalized by Thackeray. The Earl of Lonsdale was elected president of the club, a position which he still holds. This club is not only the head quarters of professional boxing in England, but is the Mecca of boxing champions from all parts of the world. Many hundreds of matches have been decided under its roof, the most famous being that between the two Australians, Peter Jackson and Frank Slavin, while more recently the Canadian T. Burns here defeated 'Gunner' Moir for the championship. The East End of London also has a famous arena called Wonderland, where boxing matches take place all the year through. The entertainment on a Saturday night is quite one of the sights of London.

Before leaving the professional section of boxing we may perhaps mention that a few veterans of old-style boxing may be met with in London, among whom we may name J. Carney; J. Baldock, a fine boxer and better second; and R. Travers, the only surviving opponent of Mace.

Though many fine amateur boxers were to be found in the early days when notable performers were Captain R. Barclay, E. H. Budd, the Hon. Robert Grimston, and Lord Drumlanrig, boxing was not seriously taken up by the mass of amateur athletes till about the time of the demise of the prize ring. In 1866 the eighth Marquess of Queensberry gave his approval to a code of rules drawn up for amateurs, which has ever since gone by his name. He also presented three twenty-five guinea cups for competition by light, middle, and heavy weights. These were boxed for annually at the Old Lillie Bridge grounds at Fulham, under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Association. In 1882 the cups mysteriously disappeared, and the newly-formed Amateur Boxing Association took over the title of championships for their meetings. These were first held at St. James's Hall, then at Clerkenwell, and more recently, to accommodate the numerous spectators, they have been held at the Alexandra Palace. Competitors are divided into five classes: Bantam weights, 8 st. 4 lb. and under; feather, 9 st. and under; light, 10 st. and under; middle, 11 st. 4 lb. and under; heavy, any weight. A ten-guinea silver cup is presented to the winner in each weight.

Amateur boxing clubs were never more numerous in London than at the present time, some of the better known being the Polytechnic, the Lynn, the Columbia, St. Bride's Institute, Belsize, the Eton Mission, Gainsford, and the German Gymnasium.

The art is also scientifically taught by qualified professors at the great public schools, Harrow, Highgate, and St. Paul's. The students annually compete in the Public School championships, and those from St. Paul's have received from their instructor, Professor Driscoll, such a sound grounding in the grammar of the art, that they have been remarkably successful. To the famous amateurs mentioned above should be added the name of Canon J. J. McCormick, D.D., of St. James', Piccadilly, the Cambridge double 'blue,' who in his university days could hold his own with the scientific Langham and other leading professionals.