Boxing in Georgian Surrey: A Heroic Scene
The 23rd January 1804, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, witnessed a tumultuous bare-knuckle boxing tournament on Wimbledon Common, its leading event a match between champion Hen Pearce, the nimble ‘Game Chicken’, and Joe Berk, ‘the Glutton’, his larger and heavier antagonist. As is the case for the other major boxing matches of the era, there exist blow-by-blow accounts, quite literally, of the combat, in newspapers including The Times, and Boxiana, the sporting journalism of its day. Adding a characterful flavour of its age and the sport it celebrated, there also survives a manuscript Latin poem on the occasion (SHC G52/5/1).
Boxing in the 18th and early 19th century drew huge crowds known as ‘The Fancy’, a varied group of moneyed backers, supporters from around the country, gamblers, other enthusiasts and onlookers. Although the amateur sport was popular among gentlemen, prize fighters were generally of artisan status. These men were raised to extraordinary celebrity by the Fans, and exerted themselves to bloody limits, for the glory and the large prizes offered, at this time £90 (the average annual wage for a shepherd at the time was £16) for the winner, £10 for the loser. Prize fighting was also illegal. The boxers themselves could face arrest – indeed the clash between Pearce and Berk had been delayed due to Berk’s earlier imprisonment in Reading Gaol, and a punitive bond of £200 for good behaviour (Pugilistica).Wimbledon Common was a popular although not a fixed venue for matches, since ‘rendez-vous’ were chosen with an eye to avoiding the advance notice of authority. A contest between Tom ‘Paddington’ Jones seconded by Jem Belcher, against Isaac Bittoon ‘the Jew’ had also taken place there on 13th July 1801, for example. Initially the meeting convened on Coombe Hill, the highest part of the Common, but after a warning that the locals here would inform the magistrates, the ring was re-formed near the Putney Heath shutter telegraph (a recent installation by the Admiralty during the earlier period of the Wars). Meanwhile an unruly cavalcade of ‘all the amateurs in the country from the Nobleman to the Jack-ass driver’ hastened across to gain their view (The Times 24 January 1804).
Jostling amid the Fancy came middle-aged clergyman and oriental scholar the Rev Stephen Weston (c.1747-1830; Alumni Oxonienses), writer of our manuscript poem. Weston’s choice of commemorating the fight in Latin verse, quoting the Classical Latin poet Horace, and referencing the Greek Pindar, noted for his Olympian Odes on sporting contests of the distant Golden Age, drew on common classically-educated gentlemen enthusiasts’ parlance for the ‘pugilistic’ sport. The poem was perhaps intended for The Gentleman’s Magazine (it has not been found to have been published).
The poem in literary style elevates both the heroic competitors and their spectators. Mentioned specifically among the crowd are the noted soldier and eccentric George Hanger (1751-1824), ‘Mr Melllish’, probably Thomas Mellish (1773-1837), the renowned cricketer, and ‘Pittus’, probably William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), who lived at Bowling Green House nearby (the once and future prime minister seemingly unconcerned by sport on the wrong side of the law; his presence is absent from The Times report). Hen Pearce’s Bristolian supporters are intriguingly described as ‘the black people’. Pearce was white, but notable boxers of the time included Black men, such as ‘the World’s First Black Sporting Superstar’, Bill Richmond (1763-1829), not in fact from Bristol but present that day as one of the junior prize fighters. Perhaps we may assume that among the Fans were a significant number of people of colour.
After a gathering on a winter’s dawn, the event was finally ready to begin at 11. Weston’s poem describes the men poised, “Bare chested now the heroes limbs and mighty shoulders square, On toes they stand aloft, fists raised to the air”. The combatants would fight to the end: an indefinite number of rounds until the downed man was no longer able to ‘come up to scratch’, the line marked up in the centre of the ring, within half a minute (according to what were later formally known as London Prize Ring Rules).With sanguinary [blood thirsty] relish, the Rev Weston continues to the violence. After indecisive early rounds, Berk was rapidly felled in the fourth and fifth, “his strength, as much as his blood” escaping his nostrils. Redoubling his blows, he brought down Chicken in the sixth, but Chicken’s strength was unabated through the seventh and eighth; in the ninth the Chicken was again brought down breathless, but after four more rounds Berk was on his knees. Berk’s second urged him to yield the duel, “always unequal”, but Berk, still with self-belief, joined combat, unguardedly offering his face to the Chicken’s right fist, whereat “with thunderous crack his nose is broke, his eyes are veiled with blood and all is fugitive, even seeming life itself”.
Weston’s manuscript ends with ‘testimonials’ in praise of the victor, in Latin, Greek, Italian and English, perhaps written by Weston’s learned pals from the Society of Antiquaries. Hen was poetically expanded to make ‘Stephen’ rather than his given name Henry, perhaps to exploit the possibilities of the name in Greek, which means garland or victory garland (Joe Berk also became Edward Burke).
The punning English epigram (a pithy saying or remark expressing an idea in a clever and amusing way) is poignant:
“Stephen beat this time but time will beet Stephen/
Square all the rounds and make the odds even”
Pearce’s victory confirmed his status as the boxing champion of England. He was reportedly a self-effacing man, much respected for his courageous rescue of a young woman from a burning building. However, time would not take long to settle up with him. The hard living of the prize fighter is thought to have destroyed his health, and he died young in 1809, having retired aged 30 two years earlier.
In the meantime, Pearce had more immediate consequences to face. He was charged at Surrey Quarter Sessions at Reigate on six counts including duelling and conspiracy, along with Berk and their seconds William Gibbons and Tom Owen. No charges were brought against the wealthy organisers.
Pearce did his 3 months in Horsemonger Gaol (close to present-day Newington Causeway in Southwark) before returning to fight at other Surrey locations. He fought at Molesey Hurst in March 1805 (after a hasty river crossing from Hampton Court) and Shepperton Common in April 1805. A July match scheduled for Virginia Water scrambled to Chobham Common and retreated thence to Blackwater, pursued by the magistrates’ men bearing warrants, and Pearce did not eventually fight.
Surrey open ground offered a convenient day out for the boxing Fancy from London, and its commons continued to be the stage of such bloody and exciting entertainment – and to rouse the pen-wielding efforts of artists and poets. Epsom Downs at the Rubbing House is among the venues listed in Pugilistica, but Molesey Hurst beside the River Thames, already a cricket venue, became by far the most favoured battleground for English prize fights by the end of its Georgian era. Half the recorded events between 1805 and 1824 took place there (Rowland GM Baker, ‘Thameside Molesey’ (1989)). Bill Richmond, who was a minor contender on 23 January 1804, and lost to the ‘Veteran’ George Maddox at Wimbledon, would win a famous victory of revenge against Maddox at Molesey in 1809. Bill Richmond was buried in the St. James’ Chapel Burial Ground, Euston, London.
Written by Isabel Sullivan
- ‘Puglistica: The History of British Boxing’, Henry Downes Miles (Edinburgh John Grant, 1906) Vol I provides highly detailed accounts of the major prize fights of the Georgian period http://www.gutenberg.org/files/59465/59465-h/59465-h.htm
- Pierce Egan, ‘Boxiana, or sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism’ (1819)’
- Article on ‘London Prize Ring Rules’ in Wikipedia
- For the life of Bill Richmond, a Black American born boxer, trainer and former slave, who was an usher at the 1821 coronation of boxing Fan King George IV, see Luke G Williams, ‘Richmond Unchained: the Biography of the World’s First Black Sporting Superstar’ (2015)
- The Rev Stephen Weston’s poem is among the archive collections of the Surrey antiquary William Bray, who was perhaps a friend of Weston’s; the paper is among the archives of the Westons of West Horsley acquired by Bray but it has not been determined whether clergyman Stephen Weston (of Exeter) is related. SHC ref G52/5/1