In July, 1820, a crowd of 20,000 fight fans from Norfolk and London went to North Walsham. They were there to see a display of open air, bare-knuckle boxing. It was a golden age for the noble art.
Why so popular?
In an age lacking mass spectator sports, before the rise of the ball games that obsess us today, boxing rivalled horse racing for popular appeal. British enthusiasts embraced the ideas of heavyweight champion Jack Broughton. In 1743 he introduced the London Prize Ring rules.
No kicking, biting or gouging?
Bare knuckle boxing was as tough a contest as you could hope for, but Broughton’s rules said if a man went down, the fight was over following a 30-second count. The rules also outlawed hitting a downed man or punches below the waist. Otherwise, it was as you were. Boxing was taken up by the upper classes. By the early 19th century the gentlemen of ‘the Fancy’ – the unlikely brotherhood of the rich, usually aristocratic patron-gamblers and gnarled fighters from the wrong side of the tracks – adored the sport. Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, was a fan – and a bit of a participator, taking lessons in fashionable London gyms. Vast sums of money were won and lost on fights. The sport cut across classes. During the Napoleonic Wars, boxing was regarded as patriotic – a particularly British sport. Some of the big names of boxing found their way to East Anglia. For example, in 1807 celebrated pugilists Tom Cribb and John Gully gave exhibitions in front of appreciative crowds in Norwich. At the King’s Head Inn, Norwich, they were watched by 200 people, including MP William Windham. Local fighters made their mark too.
A bit of a slug fest?
Bouts were drawn out and bloody. At Wickhampton, in 1816, a fight between Samuel Smith and James Rushmer went 111 rounds. The previous year Pegg “the noted bruiser” and Fox, a horse dealer of Costessey, slugged it out for an hour, “when the former received such a ‘pegging’ that he was carried off in a state of insensibility.” At Limpenhoe, John Green and Rushmer dished out mutual punishment. “In the first seven rounds the latter received seven knockout blows; but in the eighth he gave the other such a violent blow that he knocked him out and won”. Enthusiasts spoke of ‘science’, a boxer with superior technique and ‘bottom’, courage and endurance. A few weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, a “long and scientific battle” took place between Chapman and Ellis on a meadow on the Suffolk side of the Waveney, near St Olaves Bridge. The match fluctuated throughout, as did the betting, but by the 54th round Chapman was weakening. “His left eye was closed, and his head became truly terrific, and had from its swollen state a giant-like appearance”. Ellis won a purse of £7. Similarly, in August, 1815, John Bell and Matthew Randall, “known for his skill in gymnastic exercise” fought at Cley. “The known bottom of Bell and tried science of Randall drew a considerable concourse of people.” Wrestling was also popular. In 1815 at Kirby “a finer display of science was never exhibited” as 24 ‘professors’ entered the ring. “A smart milling took place between Broughton and Ives. Ives proved entirely destitute of science and was badly beaten”.
Any famous names?
Norfolk fighters gained a following. Ned Painter, of Norwich, was one. “A boxer of the old English stamp, a stand-up fighter,” wrote contemporary journalist and fan Pierce Egan. In 1817 at Bungay Common, Sutton, ‘The Black’ fought Painter, who was accompanied from Norwich by a large number of supporters. The purse was £100; £80 for the winner, £20 for loser. Painter, “the best man of the day with Norfolk training” won. The writer George Borrow later immortalised his 1820 bout in his book Lavengro. With up to 20,000 people in the crowd near North Walsham, Painter boxed an opponent named Oliver on a specially built platform. According to a report in the Norfolk Annals:
“A staging about 100 yards in length was erected for the accommodation of spectators, for whom, also sixty waggons were formed in a circle round the outer ring; £50 was collected at the gate, and the sums charged for admission to the seats on the staging produced £80. The greatest order prevailed among the 20,000 persons.” Punters had come from London, and lost heavily as Painter won in 12 rounds. “His colours (yellow) were hoisted upon a waggon, and he was everywhere greeted with loud cheering.” The Norwich man subsequently announced his retirement during a special dinner held at North Walsham. He went on to act as a second to many other boxers. William Cox was another big draw. In 1818 this Norwich blacksmith and city weaver John Camplin fought at a field near Thorpe Asylum. Another of Cox’s fights drew 5,000 fans to Kirby Park. He won in 75 rounds against Christopher Barlee, “the Berghapton Groom”. Barlee took his revenge on Cox some time later. Despite Cox being the favourite, Barlee downed him in the 80th “by a tremendous blow under the jaw. Cox’s head and face presented a frightful spectacle, and not a feature of his countenance could be distinguished.” Cox remained popular. At St Faiths he tackled a London fighter, Teasdale. There had been some dirty dealings. It seemed Teasdale was a ‘ringer’ – “brought to Norwich and passed off as a countryman named Johnson”. After a hard fight, in front of 5,000, “superior science prevailed” and Teasdale won. But punters weren’t happy with the deception, and all bets were declared void. Barlee drew an even greater crowd on another occasion – 10,000 by one estimate – on Tasburgh Common.
Who watched the matches?
High society enjoyed the company of fighters. At Testerton Park, the residence of Major Case, Barlee fought a Norwich butcher called Gales. “Barlee, on being declared victor, immediately planted an oak in the ring in the presence of about 5,000 spectators. The two young pugilists were, by order of Major Case, taken under his hospitable roof and put to bed. A large party of the Fancy had the honour of dining with the Major”. At the fight between Bell and Randall, in the crowd were spotted “distinguished characters of the neighbourhood. A handsome subscription was made for the conqueror, who was taken from the ground in a gentleman’s carriage.” Reporters were taken with the number of female fans. At one of Cox’s fights, it was noted “among the spectators was a great number of females”. “Several well-dressed women were present” at Painter’s fights. Hundreds of women watched Christopher Barlee’s bouts, “some of very dashing and many more of respectable appearance to be spectatresses of bloody noses and cross buttocks,” recalled one correspondent, adding a bit too much detail.
Not everyone approved, particularly of fights held on Sundays. When, in October 1820, four fights were held on Mousehold Heath, participants and spectators were denounced for this “unchristianlike scene”. In 1822, a dyer named Grint and a weaver called Purdy fought near Bishop Bridge, Norwich, Purdy died. Grint was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three months’ prison. By the later 1820s the authorities were beginning to crack down on illegal fights. In a time of political unrest, large gatherings were suspected, while drunkenness, pickpocketing and disorder made crowds menacing. In 1826 a magistrate prevented a prize fight at Surlingham, while a parish constable at Bramerton “was almost killed attempting to stop a fight”. A magistrate also intervened at Mattishall, despite the presence of “many of the principal gentry of the county”. By 1840, after a boxer named Cracknell was arrested at the scene of his victory, it was noted: “That these brutal attacks are fast declining in the estimation of the middle classes may be presumed by the paucity in number and the circuitous route taken by many of them to the battlefield”. The days of bare knuckle boxing were ending. In 1867 the Marquis of Queensberry codified the sport, putting an end to its rough and tumble days.
This is one of 50 stories in A Moment In Time, a book by Peter Sargent