18th and 19th century fight club: the beginnings of British boxing

Every so often, during the course of my work, I come across books that enthuse me with the passion of the age in which they were written, and it was with fascination that I embarked on research into the beginnings of British pugilism. Eighteenth century Britain was rocked by political instability and was a society of extremes of poverty and wealth; amusements ranged from gin drinking, animal baiting, gang warfare, general rioting, and the pillory to public executions. Boxing displays first came into public fashion in Britain around 1720.

Notable early boxers:

James Fig 1719-1734 was acknowledged as “Father of the Ring” as much distinguished as a cudgel and back-sword player than as a pugilist. Gentlemen sought him out to exercise with him. Captain Godfrey author of A Treatise on the Useful Science of Defence (1747) says of him ‘I have purchased my knowledge with many a broken head, and bruises in every part of me. I chose mostly to go to Fig and exercise with him: partly as I knew him to be the ablest master, and partly, as he was of a rugged temper, and would spare no man, high or low, who took up a stick against him.’ Fig’s popularity induced him to open a boxing academy in 1719 known as “Fig’s Amphitheatre,” in Tottenham Court Road.

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Jack Broughton champion 1734-1750 is regarded as the founder of the modern art of self-defence. Henry Downes Miles in his work Pugilistica: being one hundred and forty-four years of the history of British boxing (1880), describes him:
“There was a neatness and quickness in his style which far distanced his competitors, and drew crowds to witness his exhibitions. He appears first to have introduced stopping and barring blows, then hitting and getting away; before him it appears to have been toe-to-toe work or downright hammering; at any rate, his method appears to have had the novelty of a discovery with his spectators and his antagonists. He stopped the blows aimed at any part of him with such skill, and hit his man away with so much ease, that he astonished and daunted his opponents…”

Daniel Mendoza One of the most elegant and scientific boxers recorded in the annals of pugilism, was born in 1763 of Jewish parents in the Whitechapel area. A reporter (Pugilistica 1880) describes a fight between Mendoza and Humphries in Stilton in 1789: “The first blow was struck by Humphries at the face of his antagonist, which Mendoza stopping with great adroitness, returned and knocked Humphries down. The second and third rounds terminated in precisely the same manner.

Astonishment at the confidence and quickness of Mendoza was expressed by every spectator…” Mendoza became a professor in the art of self-defence and he was highly successful as a pugilist professor exhibiting his talents to admiring and applauding audiences all over the country. Miles (Pugilistica 1880) said of him: “No man of his time united the theory of sparring with the practice of boxing so successfully as Daniel Mendoza; and hence, the “School of Mendoza” marks a period in the history of pugilism.”

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Bill Richmond 1804-1818 was born of enslaved Georgia-born black parents in 1763 on Staten Island, New York. One of the British officers in New York City took him under his wing and sent him to school in Yorkshire, later apprenticing him to a cabinet maker in York. In York Richmond attracted attention out in the street because he prided himself on dressing smartly and cleanly after work, but he beat all the men who challenged him to fight including a York brothel-keeper, who had called him a ‘black devil’ when he saw him walking down the street with a white female companion.

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Richmond turned professional boxer when he moved to London around 1804 and went on to a series of victories in 1805: notably over the Jewish boxer Youssop in six rounds at Blackheath on 21 May; and Jack Holmes, ‘the Coachman’, in twenty-six rounds at Cricklewood Green, near Kilburn Wells, on 8 July. However, Richmond was defeated by the future heavyweight champion Tom Cribb in a ninety-minute fight at Hailsham, Sussex.

The Science of Boxing

box4Among the diehard fans the art of boxing was regarded as a science. T. Hughes has plenty of advice for the aspiring pugilist. In his work The art and practice of self-defence; or, Scientific mode of boxing: Got up under the superintendence of a celebrated pugilist 1820, he warns against dropping, gougeing and shifting:

Dropping. ‘This is reckoned an unmanly shift…either done by falling on your breech, your knee, or your back, when your adversary strikes, or when you have struck at him, and wish to avoid the return. Every thing in boxing may be said to be allowable, except striking below the waistband of the breeches, scratching, gougeing, biting or tearing the hair, which are mean and unmanly practices; but one who drops cannot be considered a manly boxer, except it be to avoid his adversary’s closing in upon him, when he has reason to suspect such an intention, and distrusts his own strength.’

Gougeing ‘Is unmanly and barbarous, and introduced into the new school by a farrier, to take ungenerous advantage. This gougeing, is screwing your knuckles into the eyes of your adversary, and when practised at all, is generally done in closing, if you get his head under your arm…Gougeing, however, was more than once practiced both by Mendoza and Humphries, on each other, at the time of their contest at Stilton.’

Shifting ‘This mode is not accounted honourable by many, as the signification of the word is synonimous with running away. Shifting is nothing less in fact than running from your adversary whenever he attempts to hit you, or come near you, or when you have struck him, and is done with a view of tiring him out. It is rarely practised by good boxers…’

box5Recommendation before the fight:
‘On the morning of fighting, eat only one slice of bread, well toasted, without butter, or a hard biscuit, with a pint of red wine mulled, and table-spoonful of brandy…’

box6Defence of Pugilism Boxing, of course, had its opponents, but it was well equipped to defend itself from attacks, even with the pen. One of the most erudite pugilists of his day, Tom Reynolds born 1792 in the county of Armagh came to London early in life. He had received a good education, possessed a strong mind, and could write as good a letter as any of the “scribes” of the time:

“I must acknowledge the gentlemen of the Press are favourable to the cause of pugilism; and it is not surprising when we consider that the persons conducting it are men, in general, possessing a liberal education, and blessed with a greater share of brains than the average of the community. Yet there is no rule without an exception; for two or three of the London journalists, imitated by a few country flats, occasionally give us a ‘facer;’ though I am confident it is not from conviction, but because they think a little opposition to generally received opinions may suit their pockets better than the tide, where the brightness of their genius would not make them conspicuous. One of these worthies speaks of us as monsters that brutalise the country; another describes our poor little twenty-four foot ring as the only place in the three kingdoms where rogues and blacklegs spring up like mushrooms; a third says a pair of boxing-gloves debase the mind, and recommends the use of the foils as a preferable exercise; and a fourth, after a most violent philippic against the Ring, blames Government for not immediately putting an end to pugilism, and recommends, as a substitute, that Government should take into their wise consideration the propriety of giving greater encouragement to dancing assemblies. This idea is ridiculous. Certainly, if the editor does fill up his leisure hours as a hop-merchant, I do not blame him for putting in a good word for the shop, but what the devil has dancing to do with fighting? Can two men decide a mill by ‘tripping on the light fantastic toe’? The French dance every night in the week, and all day on Sunday, and what are they better for that? Are they better men? Can they boast nobler feelings than Britons? They certainly make graceful bows, and there is no doubt dancing has an effect on the heels, for Wellington has often scratched his head, and given them a left-handed blessing, for their quickness in giving leg-bail… The dancing Frenchman would shudder with horror at the sight of two London porters giving each other a black eye or a bloody nose and say ‘twas a brutal practice’; yet the same fellow, in his own country, would take snuff, grin like a monkey, and cry ‘bravo!’ at seeing two poor devils boring holes in each other’s hide with a yard of steel. So much for the consistency of the ‘Grande Nation,’ and the sense of the men who recommend dancing as a substitute for pugilism.”

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian, Guildhall Library

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3 thoughts on “18th and 19th century fight club: the beginnings of British boxing

  1. I enjoyed your article very much. However, I think you need to revise the surname and dates for James Figg. In D Brailsford’s A Social History of Prizefighting, (Cambridge, 1988), p. 2, the opening of Figg’s amphitheatre is placed around 1720 although according to your dates (1719-34) Figg would have been one year old. Also, many contemporary and historical texts use a double ‘g’ at the end of his name- Figg. I hope this helps. Des.

    • In reply to this comment I am glad you enjoyed the piece. The source I used for this piece was Henry Downes Miles Pugilistica: being one hundred and forty-four years of the history of British boxing The only complete and chronological history of the ring (1880); therefore I went with his spelling of Fig. Of course, since the publishing of his book spelling of surnames such as Fig/Figg or Peg/Pegg have become standardised and are now more commonly spelt with double consonants.
      The dates beside his name refer to when he was fighting rather than birth or death dates.
      I hope this helps.

  2. Pingback: History A'la Carte 4-17-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

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