I’m not a huge fan of the sporting world, I have to say. It’s ironic – as a child I lived in Twickenham and I went to school in Wimbledon. But even though I couldn’t give a damn about most sports today, I am quite interested in the history of a lot of them. Weird.

The history of boxing is particularly interesting (to me, anyway). It was in 18th and 19th Century London that it really started to take shape in its modern form. Indeed, so far has the sport evolved that it’s impossible to name an all-time great. Witnesseth the picture to your left, an impression of a major fight which took place between the American ex-slave Tom Molineaux and the popular British champion Tom Cribb. The most obvious difference to our eyes is the lack of gloves, which at the time were strictly for amateurs and fighters in training. That ain’t the half of it, though.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Boxing started to become popular as a sport at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but in many ways it was closer to wrestling, or even brawling, than the sport we know. Pretty well anything went, and fatalities were not unknown. It was around 1741 that Jack Broughton did something about this with his Rules.

Broughton was, by the standards of his day, a giant of a man at an inch short of six feet, and massy with it. His day job was working in the Pool of London as a waterman. He was, until the 1850s, entirely undefeated (or so it is claimed). He came  up with his Rules after causing the death of George “The Coachman” Stevenson in an effort to prevent similar fatalities from occurring again. The rules were:

1. That a square of a yard be chalked in the middle of the stage, and on every fresh set-to after a fall, or being parted form the rails, each second is to bring his man to the side of the square, and place him opposite to the other, and till they are fairly set-to at the lines, it shall not be lawful for one to strike at the other.

2. That, in order to prevent any disputes, the time a man lies after a fall, if the second does not bring his man to the side of the square, within the space of half a minute, he shall be deemed a beaten man.

3. That in every main battle, no person whatever shall be upon the stage, except the principals and their seconds, the same rule to be observed in bye-battles, except that in the latter, Mr. Broughton is allowed to be upon the stage to keep decorum, and to assist gentlemen in getting to their places, provided always he does not interfere in the battle; and whoever pretends to infringe these rules to be turned immediately out of the house. Every body is to quit the stage as soon as the principals are stripped, before the set-to.

4. That no man be deemed beaten, unless he fails coming up to the line in the limited time, or that his own second declares him beaten. No second is to be allowed to ask his man’s adversary any questions, or advise him to give out.

5. That in bye-battles, the winning man to have two-thirds of the money given, which shall be publicly divided upon the stage, notwithstanding any private agreements to the contrary.
6. That to prevent disputes, in every main battle the principals shall, on coming on the stage, choose from among the gentlemen present two umpires, who shall absolutely decide all disputes that may arise about the battle; and if the two umpires cannot agree, the said umpires to choose a third, who is to determine it.

7. That no person is to hit his adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist: a man on his knees to be reckoned down.

He was also the first to really treat boxing as a science, giving as much to defence as attack, and was regarded by commentators of the day as being virtually untouchable. While doing so, he also invented a device known as the “muffler,” now better known as the “boxing glove.”

Broughton’s work was built upon by Whitechapel boy Daniel Mendoza, who you may see on your right. Dan Mendoza again put much emphasis on the scientific side of things, believing that really it’s a good idea to avoid being hit where possible. To this end he advocated the use of fancy footwork, ducking and blocking as much as possible. In so doing he was able to become Heavyweight Champion, despite only being a middleweight himself. He published his advice in a 1789 book, The Art of Boxing, whose influence may be seen to this day.

Mendoza died in 1836, two years before the London Prize Ring Rules came in. These rules were, broadly, much the same as Broughton’s, but specifically declared headbutting, biting and hitting below the belt to be simply not on. Holds and throws were still part of the game, as – slightly worryingly – were spiked shoes.

The Marquess of QueensburyThe rules would be amended in 1853 and superseded in 1867 by the famous Marquess of Queensbury Rules. Contrary to popular belief, the Marquess of Queensbury, pictured left, did not actually invent these, merely endorsed them. Queensbury was an immensely unpopular man due to his outspoken atheism and, indeed, his support of the still-only-semi-respectable sport of boxing. Still, his detractors could take comfort in the fact that Oscar Wilde was shagging his son. ANYWAY.

The actual Rules were drafted by John Chambers at the Lillie Bridge Grounds in West London (now the site of a London Underground depot). They are:

  1. To be a fair stand-up boxing match in a 24-foot (7.3 m) ring, or as near that size as practicable.
  2. No wrestling or hugging allowed.
  3. The rounds to be of three minutes duration, and one minute’s time between rounds.
  4. If either man falls through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted, 10 seconds to be allowed him to do so, the other man meanwhile to return to his corner, and when the fallen man is on his legs the round is to be resumed and continued until the three minutes have expired. If one man fails to come to the scratch in the 10 seconds allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in favour of the other man.
  5. A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down.
  6. No seconds or any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds.
  7. Should the contest be stopped by any unavoidable interference, the referee to name the time and place as soon as possible for finishing the contest; so that the match must be won and lost, unless the backers of both men agree to draw the stakes.
  8. The gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new.
  9. Should a glove burst, or come off, it must be replaced to the referee’s satisfaction.
  10. A man on one knee is considered down and if struck is entitled to the stakes.
  11. No shoes or boots with springs allowed.
  12. The contest in all other respects to be governed by revised London Prize Ring Rules.

As you can see, we’re really getting the modern sport now. I’m intrigued by the mention of “shoes or boots with springs,” and wondering if maybe they were too hasty in eliminating them. I just think a couple of dudes bouncing around on springs would be an excellent addition to the Art. ANYWAY. These rules, in particular the mandatory use of boxing gloves, changed the way the sport was fought. Note Cribb and Molineaux’ defensive stances above. Now look at a modern boxer, Mr Muhammad Ali.

You’ll notice that he’s now leaning forward. The emphasis is on the fists rather than the forearms for defence.

Bare-knuckle fighting continued until 1882 (officially at least) when it was declared to be “assault occasioning actual bodily harm” in the case of Regina v Coney.

I can't work out whether this man is wearing tights or he has nothing to fear from blows below the belt.

Since then, the sport of boxing is as respectable as any other. This can largely be seen as a result of the old Marquess of Queensbury Rules, which completed the transition from something little better than a pub fight into a sport that was as much about strategy as brute force. The twentieth century saw the emergence of professional boxing. As the sport became more acceptable, so it became less concentrated in the fair city of London. And here endeth the lesson.


1 Comment

Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Crime, East End and Docklands, History, London, Notable Londoners, Regency, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, The City

One response to “Boxiana

  1. Very interesting article. Many of the themes mentioned feature in 2013 book, ‘Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan’s Boxiana World’. Egan revelled in his ‘Life in London’ scenes.

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