Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Sport - Boxing 

click here for Henry Mayhew on costermongers and boxing
in London Labour and the London Poor

The Times, September 1, 1852

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES

Sir, - "G.W." in to-day's Times, expresses his surprise that no man was found who would assist in the capture of the brute who knocked a woman down. Your correspondent will probably cease to wonder when he reads the following:- About a month ago I was at breakfast with my family at Kensal-green, when I perceived a number of persons passing through the field adjoining my house. I endeavoured to ascertain the cause. With much difficulty I did so. The stream of men and women had come from Paddington to a prize-fight between two - no, not men - women! One of my family, being incredulous, contrived to look across the fields, and there saw the combatants stripped to the waist and fighting. Men took them there, men backed them, men were the bottle-holders and time-keepers. They fought for about half-an-hour, some say for 5s., some say for a sovereign, and some say they will do it again. I saw the winner led back in triumph by men. After the above, I think your correspondent will cease to wonder at the indifference of a Paddington mob. You, Sir, have already drawn the moral from such things. Perhaps you will permit me to add my matured conviction that some vices and some crimes are too disgraceful for mere punishment of a clean, well-ordered, and well-fed prison. Let us have the whipping-post again, and at the flogging let the crime of "unmanly brutes" be written over their heads.
    Aug. 31                                                C.E.W.

letter to The Times, September 1852

Sir - One of the points which the opponents to Mr. Gladstone's Wine Bill most earnestly seek to impress upon us is the very great respectability of the present class of publican. They assure us that the licensing magistrates inquire diligently into the character and circumstances of all applicants, and only intrust licences to those who are unquestionably men of capital and good fame. By these means, we are told, a class of sober, orderly, god-fearing tradesmen has been formed, far more desirous of discouraging excess and inebriety than of promoting a quick draught of porter and gin, although it is by the sale of these stimulants that they live. And if this be true, they must be a very extraordinary and a very admirable class of people indeed.
    But I am afraid it is not true. My fears are founded on an argument which fell from the lips of Mr. Edwin James but a few days ago, when he appeared at the Middlesex Sessions to support the appeal of Nat Langham, the pugilist, the late landlord of the Cambrian Stores, in Castle-street, Leicester-square, who had been deprived of his licence by the magistrates in consequence of the nuisance which has house had created to that neighbourhood.
    The Cambrian Stores was what is called "a fighting-house." It was frequented by pugilists and their associates. It was kept open all night. The preliminaries of prize-fights were staged there, they weighed there the day before they fought, they showed there the day after the battle, they took their benefits there. There was sparring, singing and dancing there every night. The dancing - chiefly "clog-hornpipes" on tables - was of the heaviest and noisiest description, especially when it was indulged in by a powerful negro performer known as "Langham's fancy black." On "weighing days," on "fighting days," and on "settling days," before, during, and after every great fight, between 2,000 and 3,000 of the lowest and most lawless ruffians London could produce, swearing, struggling, sparring and shouting, crowded the "stores" and streets around in such masses as to set the police at defiance, and to compel the terrified neighbours to close their shops.
    Over this pandemonium Nat Langham, an ex-pugilist, and licensed victualler, presided. All this and more than this was proved by the police and by the neighbours, nor was Mr. Edwin James able to shake their evidence by cross-examination. Whereupon, when that able advocate addressed the bench of magistrates, he pleaded Langham's case after the following fashion:- 
    "It is true that the Cambrian Stores is a fighting-house; that it is chiefly frequented by prizefighters and their friends and followers; and that the baits of these people are notoriously noisy, nocturnal and loose. But you magistrates were perfectly aware of this when you gave Langham his licence. You knew he was as fighting man, of no capital, put in expressly to attract this class of people to the house; you knew what sort of hours they would keep, and in what sort of dances and songs they would indulge, and nevertheless, you thought fit to intrust him with a licence. If you now turn round upon this man and deprive him of the means of earning his livelihood, because he has been proved to have conducted his house precisely as you knew from his previous character and habits he was certain to conduct it, and as dozens of other prizefighters whose houses you have also licensed are notoriously conducting theirs, I say that you are acting with the greatest hypocrisy."
    Such were the arguments, and such were almost the very words with which Mr. Edwin James pleaded the case of his pugilistic client at the last Middlesex Quarter Sessions. 
    It is clear from what Mr. James said upon that occasion - and no man is better versed in the working of the licensing system than he is - that it is an entire fallacy to suppose that the licensing magistrates only issue licences to men of known capital and character. The truth is that they intrust them to those whom the brewers recommend, and the brewers recommend those who are likely to attract most customers, taking care to exact from the publicans sufficient deposit, or caution money, to protect themselves from loss in case they should fail. 
    If the neighbourhood is a respectable and quiet one, they select for it respectable and quiet man, who will conduct the business in such a way as will not offend the neighbours; if it is a rowdy neighbourhood they pick out some well-known and popular ruffian, whose influence will fill the bar all day and all night with thirsty costermongers, thieves and prostitutes, trusting that if they carry their pranks too far the magistrates will allow the licence to be transferred to somebody else. 
    And in general the magistrates do allow this; but in Langham's case the evidence was too grave and too clear, and the licence of the house was lost. 
    The few facts I have here mentioned may be useful when the Wine Licences Bill is again debated. It is difficult to imagine that the project
wine-shops, under the superintendence of the police, can be conducted much worse than the night-houses, all over London, now are under the boasted supervision of the Middlesex magistrates.
    I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
   A THIRSTY SOUL.

letter to The Times, 7 May, 1860

I was also exceedingly fond of sparring, which I learned first from old Nat Langham, in an empty room of a tavern in the Strand, where the barracks of the Commissionaires now are, and afterwards from young Alec Keene, a mighty pretty fighter. I never had much science, but being strong and very long in the reach, and being able to take a good amount of "punishment, I was rather an awkward customer.

Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1847-1852]

see also George Sala in Gaslight and Daylight - click here (1)  (2)

see also Edmund Yates in The Business of Pleasure - click here

see also James Greenwood on 'Bendigo' in Low-Life Deeps - click here

Boxing. Professional pugilism has died out, as much choked by the malpractices of its followers as strangled by public opinion;  and the public-houses kept by such men as Ben Caunt, Nat Langham, or Jem Ward, are no longer among the attractions London life has to offer to the Corinthian Toms or Jerry Hawthorns of the day, whose manner of enjoying themselves would indeed somewhat astonish their prototypes. The “noble art of self-defence” is not, however, a altogether neglected, but finds its place among the athletic sports, and the clubs by which it is encouraged may be congratulated on keeping alive one of the oldest institutions, in the way of manly exercise, on record. Perhaps the two most important of these clubs are the Clapton Boxing Club with over 100 members, and the London Boxing Club; the former of which was originally started a couple of years ago among the oarsmen of the River Lea, the latter being an offshoot of the West London Rowing Club. Boxing, it may be noted, has always been popular with rowing men as a capital exercise for keeping up some sort of condition during the winter months. The Clapton Boxing Club requires an entrance-fee of 5s.and an annual subscription of 5s. the election is by ballot at a general meeting, one black ball in five to exclude. The season is from October to March, and the practice-nights are Mondays and Thursdays, when a professional instructor attends. Valuable prizes are from time to time offered for competition among gentlemen amateurs. The head-quarters of the club are at the Swan Hotel, Upper Clapton, where the hon. Sec. may be addressed. With a, perhaps unconscious, touch of humour, the club has adopted scarlet as its distinctive colour—delicately suggestive of the “claret” which is occasionally ‘ tapped” at its meetings. The members of the West London Boxing Club meet at the “Bedford Head,” Maiden-lane, Strand. Some few years ago the Marquis of Queensberry presented three handsome challenge cups for the encouragement of amateur boxers, and the light, middle, and heavy weights compete for these at Lillie-bridge once a year. The entrance fee is 10s. for each candidate, and the winners receive silver medals. There is the further inducement that if the prize be won three years in succession the holder will receive a handsome silver cup. The judging is in the hands of the committee of the Amateur Athletic Club, the secretary of which may be applied to for further information, and there is an important clause in the rules that the committee reserve the right of requiring a reference or of refusing an entry. The London Athletic Club and the German Gymnastic Society also have boxing clubs during the winter months (see ATHLETICS). 

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Boxing at a Men's Club, 1889 [ILN Picture Library]

Amateur Boxing Championships, London, 1890. [ILN Picture Library]

see also George Sims in How the Poor Live - click here

    Pitching the ring again in one field and warned off by the Kent constabulary, how invigorating the tramp through ploughed fields, till again we found a spot - this time undisturbed - in the muddy plains of Sussex. Wisps of straw provided for the more favoured by the attention of their punching cicerones, the biting of King's ear to bring him to "time", the two giants half blind, swinging their arms mechanically, the accidental blow that felled the brave Heenan, and the shameful verdict that denied him the victory ten minutes previously, the return to the "Bricklayers' Arms" - how vivid it all seems! And yet principals, seconds, lookers-on, where are they?

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908

    A plethora of coloured ex-prizefighters roamed about these latitudes in the long ago sixties. Plantagenet Green, an admittedly scientific boxer unaccompanied by any heart, was everywhere much in evidence, and Bob Travers, one of the best and pluckiest that ever contested the middle-weight championship, might have been seen years after selling chutnee in the streets. In those unenlightened days prizefighters, although made much of, never forgot their place, and the illiterate abortions in rabbit-skin collars that intrude into every public resort at the present day and dub themselves "professors" were creations happily unknown.

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908

see also Clarence Rook in The Hooligan Nights - click here

see also Some London Contests (1902) - click here

BOXING. - The Amateur Boxing Association, 49, Finsbury-pvmt, E.C. (founded in 1880 by the Boxing Clubs of that day, amongst which were the Clapton, West London, St. James, the Hon. Artillery Co's, the Highbury, The London Athletic, Birmingham and Cestus Clubs, also the German Gymnastic Society) was instituted for "the encouragement and development of boxing, the holding of boxing matches, competitions and assaults at arms, and the giving of prizes at such matches or competitions"; also "the association of all recognised amateur boxing and athletic clubs, who shall abide by and conduct all open competitions under the rules and regulations of the Boxing Association," and "the institution of championship prizes, the governing of championship meetings," etc. The first officers of this association were: Mr. Tom Anderson, president; Mr. R. Frost Smith, hon. secretary, and Mr. B.J.Angle, treasurer. Mr. R. Frost Smith afterwards becoming president. The present holder of that position is Mr. John H. Douglas, the treasurers Messrs. B.J.Angle and J.Hoare, and secretary, Mr. E.T.Calver.
    The Association defines the status of an amateur and has rules for the proper conduct of all boxing competitions which are binding on all the affiliated clubs and on all competitors for the different championships. These rules are made by the delegates elected by the various clubs, each being represented according to the numerical strength of members, and constituting the association. The fact that all the London Boxing Clubs of any standing are affiliated to this Association shows the position it stands in as the arrangers of and adjudicators in all amateur boxing contests.
    The following are the different championships with the names of the present holders:-
    Bantam Weights (8 st. 4 lb. and under), H. Thomas, Birmingham Amateur Boxing Club.
    Feather Weights (9 st. and under) T. Ringer, Lynn A.C.
    Light Weights (10 st. and under), H. Holmes, Polytechnic B.C.
    Middle Weights (11 st. 4 lb. and under) W. Child, Cambridge Amateur Boxing Club
    Heavy Weights (any weight) S. C. N. Evans, Reading A.C.
    The National Sporting Club (Mr. A.F. Bettinson, manager) 43, King-st, Covent-gdns, W.C., has long been associated with the support of the noble art of self-defence, having negotiated most of the professional boxing encounters of recent years, and these events, often international, have created great interest in the sporting world. The entrance fee of this Club is £5 5s., and £2 2s. for country members, and the subscription £6 6s. and £4 4s. The secretary is Mr. W.F.Lewin.

Charles Dickens Jr. et al, Dickens Dictionary of London, c.1908 edition
(no date; based on internal evidence)