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Jan Toms, Isle of Wight novelist and historian

Novels, history, the Isle of Wight and so much more.

John Wilkes on the Isle of Wight.

John Wilkes Esq.

Politician, Rebel, Pigeon Fancier.

In the spring of 1788, after several visits to the Isle of Wight, Mr John Wilkes found the retreat that he was looking for. A cottage had become available, recently vacated by the Earl of Winchelsea with fourteen years remaining on the lease. It came with four acres of land and the owner, Col James Barker of Stickworth Grove House, near to Arreton village, placed only one restriction on any alterations – that it should not devalue the property.

Until this point, Wilkes‘s life had been in turn turbulent, controversial and morally questionable. He was famous. He had been a rebellious Member of Parliament and a progressive Lord Mayor of London. He had been illegally arrested and thrown into the Tower before taking refuge in France. As a young man, persuaded into an arranged marriage, he found himself lumbered with a dull spouse twice his age and made up for it with clandestine affairs. Of his three children, only Mary, his eldest and favourite, was his wife’s child. He boasted that he loved all women except his wife. Now he was 59 years old and still viewed variously as hero and villain. Pronouncing himself to be “burnt out,” he was looking for some peace and quiet.

After his roller-coaster career and his appointment Chamberlain, John Wilkes now had sufficient income to afford a holiday retreat, plus a London home to share with his daughter Mary whom he called Polly. A third London property housed his long term mistress Amelia and second daughter Harriet. His natural son, John Henry Smith, made some demands on his purse, but was largely left to his own devices.

The Hampshire Chronicle of May 12 1788 informed its readers that:“Mr Chamberlain Wilkes and his daughter are expected in the Island soon; they have engaged the sweet retreat of Sandham Cottage for their residence, a spot which yields to none in this charming country for its soft retirement or magnificent prospect, a combination of the beautiful and the sublime.

Skirting the sea at Sandown Bay, to a city dweller Sandham Cottage must have seemed both striking and desolate in so far as other than soldiers kicking their heels at Sandham Fort, neighbours there were virtually none. Known as Royal Heath, the surrounding vista across Sandham Common consisted almost entirely of gorse.

On August 8, the Hants Chronicle confirmed that: “On Sat, arrived at his agreeable village near Sandown, John Wilkes Esq, accompanied by his amiable daughter, Miss Wilkes; on their passing through Brading, the bells rung and every respect was paid to them by the inhabitants”. This must have seemed a reassuring welcome.

Wilkes called the little dwelling his Villakin and set about transforming it. Too small to accommodate his books, paintings and papers, he ordered a supply of Kinghtsbridge Floor-cloth, a sort of heavy duty canvas with which he erected a large pavilion and several other chalets that he filled with elegant, expensive and often flamboyant furnishings. He favoured blues, reds and gold, both for the buildings and for his personal wardrobe. In his “Tuscan Room” alone, he had 1312 prints plus a substantial library. A separate building provided two bedchambers.

The acres of ground fronting Villakin were landscaped. Ornamental chickens pecked in the sandy soil, while Chinese pigs grunted among the shaded bowers of the dwarf apple trees. There was also a fishpond. Heading towards the sea, a special walkway was laid out for Polly and a large circle provided plenty of space for outside dancing. It seems that Polly preferred their London residence in Grosvenor Square, spending much of her time in the capital but in her absence, Wilkes wrote to her religiously, reporting on local events and improvements, providing priceless glimpses into 18thcentury Island life.

Like all celebrities, there was endless curiosity about his life and plenty of sources willing to satisfy that want. The Chester Courant (Oct 14 1794) described the grove at Sandham Cottage with its weeping willows yews and cypresses, where Wilkes had erected a Doric pillar dedicated to his friend the poet, Charles Churchill. It was nine feet tall, five feet in diameter and inside, Wilkes kept his stock of fine port.

It didn’t take him long to make new friends, or to renew acquaintances. In an undated account he described going to church at Shanklin where he met the actor Richard Garrick and his “charming wife”, who took him back with them to Mr Fitzmaurice’s seat at Knighton. Here, he found Sir Richard Worsley and some of the “Neapolitan acquaintance.” Sir Richard promptly invited him to his seat at Appuldurcombe the following day where he entertained the whole Knighton set at a grand breakfast. Ever aware of beautiful women, Wilkes reported that Mrs Garrick was, as usual, the most captivating of the whole circle.

The dust had not yet settled following the scandal involving Sir Richard Worsley’s wife Seymour and the former owner of Knighton, Maurice Bissett. In the minds of respectable Islanders, Knighton was associated with the notorious Hellfire Club where black magic rituals and reprehensible sexual shenanigans took place. Six years before Wilkes’ arrival, when Seymour’s affair had become public, Worsley tried to profit by suing Bissett for damages, but found himself humiliated when the judge awarded him a single shilling compensation. Seymour and Bissett decamped to France and Worsley went on a European tour. But that was then, reputations were being restored and the past was discreetly brushed under the carpet.

Other than improving his new home, Wilkes’s main occupation was in writing to Polly and keeping her up to date with what was going on. On May 11 1789 he reported that On Wednesday we make war on the rooks at Sir W Oglander’s (Nunwell House), and on Friday we make war on the foreigners who keep such an uproar at Freshwater Rocks. He was then reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson and thanked Polly for sending some lampreys.

Calling at Sandham Cottage soon became part of the itinerary of tourists to the Island. On August 7 1789, Wilkes wrote to Mary that: Mrs Rolleston and a variegated group of males and females numerous enough to take Sandham Fort, have just been here and brought me your letter of the 4th. A solicitous father, he required regularly after Polly’s health with particular concern about her recurring sore throat, urging her to come to the cottage where she might find a perfect cure. He also passed on the general news that a certain Mrs Hill had returned – “most forlorn and disconsolate,” while Mr and Mrs Bissett were expected. Meanwhile, the business of stocking the grounds continued and on April 23 1790, he wrote to tell Polly that “ an owl and a pair of beautiful pigeons from Appuldurcombe Park” had arrived.

John Hamilton Reynolds, writer, poet and confidante of John Keats, also called on him. Inspired by Keats’s enthusiasm for the Island, Reynolds retired here, taking a house at Nodehill in Newport. When Reynolds remarked on Wilkes’s numerous pigeons, his host confessed to the difficulty he had in making them stay. In an effort to fill his dove houses with exotic varieties, he had procured birds from England, Ireland and France but the moment the latch was raised, they promptly flew back to their former homes. Wilkes described how “I bethought myself to procure a cock and hen pouter from Scotland; but I need not add that they never returned.’ A certain Mr Pennant described how the area was populated by vast flocks of pigeons that at certain times of the year made daily flights to Oxford to feed on the turnip fields before returning home each night. Perhaps John’s birds simply joined them. He finally abandoned the scheme as impracticable. Reynolds died in 1852 and his is one of the few remaining gravestones preserved in the old burial ground of Church Litten.

During the month of April, Sir Richard Worsley came to dine and the garden was in full bloom with violets, primroses and cowslips in great abundance; and our peach, apple and apricot trees are in full bloom and perfume the air. Daily Wilkes looked out for letters from Polly. In May an election took place and “this little Island is frantic about electioneering – except Appuldurcombe Park and Sandham Cottage, where we talk of better things. Politics was now a thing of the past.

Whether it was because of Wilkes’s notoriety, or his charm, Mr Henry Penruddock Wyndham, in his 1794 publication: Picture of the Isle of Wight, thought that he ought to comment on the fact that “Sandham Heath is, perhaps, more visited than any other spot in the island”. He continued: “and some ladies have, most provokingly, preferred it to the romantic cottages of the Undercliff, and to the luxuriant richness of the neighbourhood of Ryde”. At the cottage, he particularly pointed out “the grand covered bench, formed within the bank and which opens, from the bottom of the slope, upon a level with the bay and the ocean”. In physique, Wilkes was regarded as a particularly ugly man with a pronounced squint.

In July, Polly announced her intention to visit. John promptly wrote, asking her to bring half a dozen tablespoons and a dozen silver-handled knives and forks, plus a marrow spoon and 6 dessert spoons. At various times he wrote to request coffee, wax candles (large and small ones for the veilleuses), macaroni, almonds and raisons, sugar and salad oil. A new clock was needed as he was using Polly’s old one that had been mended. Meanwhile he was growing asparagus and broccoli. As ever, he ended with the wish that my dear daughter pays the utmost attention to her health.

For most of the time, Wilkes lived alone but he was not lonely. He wrote that he had not lately seen Sir Richard Worsley but intended to meet Sir Henry Clinton, ladies and etc for a late hour and “tomorrow I dine at Captain Field’s”. He was also in the process of hiring a chef who was said to be “orderly, and, I believe, economical”. There was a new piece of gossip to pass on: “Mrs … has left St Boniface, the house is shut up, and many unpleasant circumstances are circulated about the finances of that family”. Not forgetting the garden, he reported how “30 blackbirds were yesterday morning on the large cherry tree near the bedrooms in the garden. I hope they will hail your arrival in their sweetest notes”.

During Polly’s visit, of course, there were no letters home to say how they spent their time. On her return, John did however have a last piece of scandal to impart. “Mr S’s daughter Jemima, whom you thought a modest, pretty girl…is gone mad for love of a designer in the Island and is now confined. “Heaven guard against us all from cupid’s bow.” Whether Mary was ever touched by Cupid’s bow, we don’t know. Born in 1750, she was well educated, having studied in Paris for a year and returning there again when she was twenty. She was not a pretty girl and from the age of 34, quite independent, having inherited her mother’s money. She never married.

When she was absent, John made a point of regularly visiting the fair at Brading to buy her some little fairing, a knick-knack chosen to please her. A weekly market took place in the village since the late 13th century, plus two fairs, the first at the Feast of the Apostles Phillip and James at the beginning of May, lasting for three days; the second for two days at the Feast of St Matthew (Sept 21). They took place on Brading Down and were rowdy affairs. An irate local described them as “gingerbread affairs where gypsies and other strolling characters …plan their depredations, the fair being a cloke[sic] for their congregating together”. He advised that they should be abandoned and by the 1840s they died a natural death.

In July 1781, Polly visited again. She came with a small entourage. John wrote to tell her that “Saunders’ wife will assist and Sally will make beds etc, but if you choose to bring any other female servant, I desire you would, I mean besides your woman.” John also mentioned that the gardener wished to marry and that “I have given my consent. He says that his wife can cook. He is to be married next week and to bring his wife here”. A dog called Trusty was now in residence but had a habit of running away. Wilkes had placed an order for some prints from London and requested that they should be sent to the care of Mr Wild, Bugle Inn, Newport.

Within a year, the gardener’s wife was pregnant. John related that she “increases in size almost as much as his [the gardener’s] pumpkins and next month we suppose, one or more strangers will arrive at the cottage. He is said to be very attentive to his mate”. Meanwhile, the weather was “louring” and John “panting for breath.” Each year he paid particular attention to the weather on St Swithin’s Day.

During this time the world outside the Island could not be ignored. The French Revolution and its aftermath raged across Europe. The Island was not immune to the dangers and one morning in Sandown Bay, John counted 150 ships, although many were merchantmen. Later, gunboats were moored off the most vulnerable parts of the Island coast from Bembridge to Shanklin and at Freshwater Bay. The Lincolnshire Mercury announced that “It is anticipated that such inhabitants as are capable of bearing arms will shortly be called on, to arm themselves.”


But John was growing tired. In 1795 he made plans to shut up the house for the winter and then returned to London to live with Polly. On Boxing Day, he died being buried at the Grosvenor Chapel. Three mourning carriages accompanied the hearse carried by six poor men who were each given one guinea and a suit of clothes.

Unsurprisingly, the main beneficiary of his will was Polly, but he also made provision for his mistress Amelia, leaving to her £1,000, the lease and all the contents of the Kensington house where she lived. Harriet inherited Sandham Cottage, its treasures and £2,000, to be held for her until she reached 21 years (she was then 17). She later married William Rough, a barrister at law, producing five children.

The unfortunate natural son, John Henry Smith, who was officially Wilkes’s “nephew,” and who had been packed off to India at an early opportunity, received only £100. Wilkes had educated the lad and secured him a commission in the East India Company but his situation could not have been enviable. As a child he had been taken from his mother, Catherine, a “low, illiterate woman,” in order to gentrify him. Despite this unkindness, Catherine Smith remained loyal to John Senior, writing thirty years later that “I often dream of you and wish myself young again.”

Ironically, at the end it was John Henry who perhaps came off least badly as far as the will was concerned, because when John Senior’s affairs were examined, he turned out to be insolvent. The windfalls turned to dust.

In July 1823, a correspondent to the Hampshire Telegraph calling himself CANTIUM left a glimpse of the little villa. The original part of the building was then still standing and formed “a pretty summer residence.” In 1845 it belonged to one, Charles Bridger of Winchester, and by 1860,it had disappeared, to be replaced with streets and houses.

CANTIUM left one other vignette. Wilkes had bequeathed to Sandham the Wilkes Rose - an “ elegant little red rose…which is very abundant, and they say he brought out of the West, and planted in great numbers about his grounds where they have taken such root that it is impossible to get rid of them – it is of the dwarf kind, blows full, and of a beautiful crimson tint. I am neither Florist or Botanist; but perhaps some of your Readers would have the kindness to give me their opinion of its Botanical name”. Alas, those builders succeeded in removing the roses and the name is long since lost - another vanished treasure.

Bare Knuckle Boxing in the Early 19th Century


                            Gambling Mania

In the time between Napoleon 1 declaring himself Emperor of France and Queen Victoria ascending the throne of England, the moneyed classes were swept along by gambling mania. Nights at the gaming table followed days at the races but the greatest rise in aristocratic entertainment was the prize ring.

The Sport of Kings?

Bare-knuckle boxing was open to anyone willing to step up to the line. It was the rich, however, who called the shots, putting up the prize money, patronising some young hopeful with the makings of a good fighter. 

After a drunken, sporting dinner at the Franklin, when the guests got around to discussing the merits of certain fighters, “a noble lord“ proposed a match 

between two pugilists Randall and Martin and the challenge was accepted by Martin’s friends. The Manchester Mercury of May 13 went on to comment that the prime Irish lad had nothing to do personally in making the bout but the courage of Randall would not let him refuse it when asked by his Lordship. The boxers were often pawns in a rich man’s game.

What the Papers Said

In much the same way that horseracing and football covered in the modern press, so details of forthcoming boxing matches and blow by blow accounts of fights featured in the newspapers. Early 19th century pundits pontificated on the merits of potential challengers and forecast the likely outcome.

Bare-knuckle boxing was illegal in England, not least because a gathering of the ‘great unwashed’ invariably resulted in disorder. The Riot Act of 1714 proved a useful tool to forestall trouble and as a result, the venue for such events was kept secret until the last minute. Forthcoming matches were often advertised as “within fifteen miles of London,” or “within twelve miles of Southampton.” Those in the know could guess the likely spot.

A Dangerous Game

Opportunities for poor, working men to grow rich were rare indeed, but if you were handy with your fists and could take the punishment, then there was a chance of both wealth and adulation, two potent drugs. They came, however, at a cost. With depressing frequency, the thrill of success and the magic of gold in your pocket degenerated into a loss of status, heavy drinking, gambling, damage to health and an early death. Jack Randall, mentioned above, was a case in point.

Jack Randall was born in London on November 1794, the son of poor Irish parents. By the age of 14, he was earning a few coins with his fists. In 16 recorded fights, he won 15 by knocking out his opponents, earning the

His exploits became so celebrated that he even appeared on the stage of the Regency Theatre, acting out his triumphs.

     To safeguard his future, Jack invested in bricks and mortar and acquired the Hole in the Wall pub in Chancery Lane that soon became a Mecca for boxing aficionados.

     The critic William Hazlitt recorded calling at the Hole in the Wall to ascertain the venue for a forthcoming fight between “Neate the Butcher, and Hickman the Gas Man.”. He did so with some trepidation, having been previously ejected with “unnecessary force,” by mine host, after having made some minor comment about a chop.

     At his hostelry Jack entertained a liberal clientele, always happy to ply him with drinks and tellingly, by October 1827, when pushed to accept a boxing challenge, he declined.

     The Morning Post of October 15 issued a statement from the boxer saying: “It must be well known that my condition cannot be much improving, from my occupation as a publican.” Indeed, within the year, Jack died of an alcohol-related illness. He was 33. 

Simon Byrne and James “Deaf” Burke.

An unfortunate chain of events linked these two would-be champions. Byrne “The Emerald Gem” was born in 1806 in Ireland and won the championship of that country he came to England in search of bigger prizes. On June 2, he took on the Scottish champion Alexander McKay at in Buckinghamshire. The match aroused huge interest and the “Fancy”(boxing enthusiasts) was there in force. After 47 rounds, a blow across the throat saw McKay collapse. The following evening June 3rd he died. He was 25 years old.

     The Chester Chronicle followed the case, reporting that poor Mckay’s face “was so frightfully cut and disfigured, that the features were lost in a confused mass of gore and bruises.” A revealed damage to the brain and Byrne and the four accompanying seconds and bottle holders were jointly charged with manslaughter. As the influential forces came to their rescue and an impressive array of barristers and solicitors offered a defence. As five men were found not The Chester Chronicle (June 1830) railed against these …wealthy monsters in this affair of blood… the sanguinary cowards who stood by and saw a fellow creature beaten to death for their sport and gain!”

     On May 31, 1833, Byrne faced James Burke, contending for the Championship of England. Burke was born on December and worked as a Thames water-man rowing passengers across the river. During his career he became known for his gruelling marathon boxing matches and early on, one bout lasted so long that it had to be stopped because it was too dark to see.

     Burke and Byrne now embarked upon a vicious fight that lasted for 99 rounds. During this time Burke’s ear was bitten through. At one point he was said to have collapsed vomiting blood, but the fight continued for over three hours and it was Byrne who finally fell down unconscious. Three days later he died. He was 37 years old.

     Burke was tried for his murder, but a suggested that the Irishman might have had an existing condition of the lungs so Burke was acquitted.

     Thereafter, potential champions were wary of fighting him so that he tried his luck in America France and on returning to England survived by giving boxing lessons. By this time, that scourge of TB claimed him. In an obituary in the Kendal Mercury January 1845, it was observed that during his career he had earned “considerable amounts of money, of which, at his death, there remained, unfortunately, a very small remnant, if any.” He was described as very generous, the “Hero of twenty fights,” and on one occasion he had rescued horses at Astley’s when a fire raged at its fiercest, proving that “true courage is ever allied with humanity.” He had died ten days earlier, aged 36

Jem Belcher and Henry “Game Chicken” Pearce.

Tragedy also linked these two boxing stars, their lights being extinguished far too young.

     Jem Belcher, the son of a butcher was born on 15 April 1781 and came from a boxing family. His maternal grandfather, James Figg was the first official Champion of England and was said to have won 269 out of 270 fights.

     In 1800 Jem too claimed the championship. Elegant, fast, he was the darling of the aristocracy, mixing in their company, enjoying the good life, then at the age of 22, tragedy struck. Playing Fives, he was hit in the face and blinded in one eye, thus ending his high-flying career.

     Following a familiar route for retired boxers, he acquired a pub, the Jolly Brewer in Soho and for a while found consolation by promoting other promising fighters. Among them, was a young Bristolian, Henry “Hen” Pearce and before long Pearce began to claim the limelight. Watching his protégé eclipse him, Belcher’s envy drove him to challenge Pearce to a match. Pearce felt that he had no choice but to agree and in 18 heartbreaking rounds, Belcher was decisively thrashed. He tried a second time to claw back some of his success, against champion Tom Cribb, but again he was beaten. Now thoroughly demoralised, he sank into a round of depression and drinking. On July 30 he succumbed to pneumonia and died, aged only 30. The Morning Chronicle of the 31st reported his death at his house, the Coach and Horses in Frith Street, “after a lingering illness of two years which reduced him to a mere skeleton.” His funeral was attended by upwards of 10,000 people.

Henry Pearce came young to boxing and was reputed to the have won all his early matches, but it was when Jem Belcher brought him to London that his career really took off. Between 1803 and 1805 he fought seven bloody contests, gaining the Championship of England. In his fight against Jack Fearby, it was feared that the latter was dead, although he ultimately recovered, while in a championship fight lasting 64 rounds against John Gully, Gully was struck across the throat and stopped breathing. It was the match against his patron and hero Belcher however that proved to be his last.

The experience of humiliating his friend and sponsor virtually ended his career. 

Over continued to give exhibition matches. Once he rescued a young woman from a burning building while on another occasion he was said to have trounced three men who were attacking a girl. By his health was suffering and he had developed tuberculosis. Boxing was still in his blood and in spite of the icy weather, on February 1809 he hastened to watch the fight between Jem Belcher and Tom Cribb. Now desperately ill, Hen Pearce lingered for a few more weeks, dying in London on April 1809. The Morning Post of May 2 announced that “his pugilistic career was put to an end by a complaint of the lungs, brought on by dissipated habits, and which at length caused his dissolution.” He was aged 32.


The labouring class apart, three distinct groups of citizens also saw as a chance to improve their lot. They were the Jews, the Romany and the Africans. They faced the same problems as their Anglo-Saxon contemporaries, plus the frequent hurdle of prejudice. Faced with a “foreigner” in the ring, the indigenous English found a focus for their xenophobia although sometimes, if a man proved himself to have plenty of “bottom” he might then become the darling of the boxing cognoscenti. However, they remained a part of, yet apart from the mainstream.

Elias “Dutch Sam” Samuel, “the Jew,” “the Hebrew,” “the son of Israel,” was born in 1776 in Whitechapel. After a successful but punishing number of fights (some say nearly a Sam retired having suffered only two defeats. In 1814 during a drunken encounter, he accepted a challenge from one William Nosworthy, a baker. His East End supporters, confident of his success, bet heavily on him to win but things went badly wrong and in round 9 his supporters invaded the ring. The Exeter Flying Post (December 1814) reported that this disruption was “laid to the charge of the Jews, to save their money and Sam’s credit.” 

The fight continued but after 40 rounds, “in a fit of despair, Sam yielded the palm of victory to the sturdy baker.” The Post then revealed that Sam was known to “guzzle down ten or a dozen glasses of gin in a morning.” In its obituary, the Chester 

Chronicle (July 1816) confirmed that between his retirement and fighting Nosworthy, “five years had passed in complete dissipation and intemperance…he sank into dejection, misery and want.’ He died in London Hospital on July 1816, aged 41.

Jack “Gypsy” Cooper came from a Romany family known for fighting. Under the heading Gypsies, an editorial in the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal of July 26 stated that “of late years, some attempts have been made to reduce the numbers, or at any rate to civilize[] the habits of that vagabond and useless race…”. It listed the names of families among which, was Cooper.

     Jack’s first official fight came at the age of 20 when for £10 he was matched to Somerset man West Country Dick. According to the Morning Chronicle, May 17, 1820, Dick had been up all night drinking and was lushed heavily but was the favourite. In the ensuing 29 Cooper appeared immune to being hit and slowly wore his opponent out. The Chronicle reported that Dick was “terribly beat,” and had to be taken away.

     On August 1821, the Morning Post regretted to announce that following the match between Cooper and Irish champion O’Leary two days earlier, the latter had died and that an inquest would take place that morning. The Cambridge Chronicle and Journal covered the story. Witnesses confirmed that it was a fair match. O’Leary had the best of it until an unfortunate blow to his temple ended the contest. Mr Wallace the surgeon opined that O’Leary died from the effects of the match but he hadn’t actually examined the head, at which point the coroner ordered that he should do so. The body “which was in a putrid state, was taken out of the coffin and the head opened.” There was a rupture of the brain but in Dr Wallace’s opinion, not enough blood to have occasioned death. The verdict was nevertheless that the deceased had lost his life whilst engaged in an illegal transaction. Cooper was charged with manslaughter for which he spent several months in gaol.

     Jack Cooper was no stranger to the courts. In January 1824 he appeared on a charge of rioting and “cocked his eye at the Chairman in a very knowing manner,”(Sussex Adviser). In view of was found not guilty.

     By 1823 he seemed to be over the hill and began to then after he was transported to Australia for an unspecified crime (www.romanygenesm). At the end of he chose to remain there and allegedly died in Tasmania at 105 years of age.

Tom Molineux epitomised the mercurial life of a black boxer. Born into slavery, his master grew rich from his boxing abilities. Tom was rewarded with his freedom and in 1809 came to England where he fell in with fellow African Bill Richmond who became his mentor. Richmond ran his own boxing school, approximately where Trafalgar Square now stands. His ambition had been thwarted when he failed to beat the boxing champion Tom Cribb and through he hoped to get his revenge.

After several boxing successes, Molineux discovered the joys of celebrity. He was taken up by the glitterati, both male and female. The Bury and Norwich Post, May 22 announced that Molineux the black pugilist had a dinner party on Thursday, which was graced by two Noble Marquises, 6 lords, 4 baronets, with several Captains, Esquires, Fighting men, etc.

The battle with Tom Cribb was arranged for October 1811 going down in the annals of boxing lore. However popular Molineux might be in some circles, national pride demanded that the English Cribb should prevail and as soon as he showed signs of losing, the ring was invaded. During this furore, Molineux’s hand was badly damaged. In spite of this the bout continued but after 40 rounds Cribb

     Having failed to fulfil Richmond’s dreams, Molineux was cast aside. Broke and heavily dependent on drink, he made his way to Ireland. The Chester Chronicle (August 28) reported that thanks to the “humanity and attendance of three men of colour,” Molineux was kept alive until August 1818, dying at their army barracks in Galway. The Chronicle expressed the opinion that Tom had been viewed by English boxers “with jealousy, concern and terror”. He was a “fine young man of stamina and strength of the first quality but he did not have a shadow of a chance”.

He was thirty-four. 

First Aid

Medical care was cursory. During a match, it was not unknown to lance the swollen tissue around an injured eye so that the boxer could see to continue.

     When poor Alexander McKay left the ring, “he was so bruised about the nose as to make that organ useless in the act of respiration”(York Herald June 1830). Immediately he was bled on the arm and this having little effect, later bled in the temple. When this failed, his head was shaved and a mustard poultice applied, but he died. When his conqueror Simon Byrne was fatally injured, the surgeon gave evidence that leeches were applied to his bruised head and his right ear was lanced, but to no good effect.

The End of an Era

It cannot be that with the accession of Queen Victoria, boxing gradually fell from favour. Until that time it had the support of both King George IV and William IV, while the Duke of Cumberland alone, lost £10,000 on a single match.

     The Irish Champion Dan Donnelly was pleased to recount his meeting with the Prince Regent: “the finest prince I ever wid,” (The September 1829). The prince insisted on having a sparring match, during which time Donnelly knocked him down. Un-phased, Prince George then allegedly presented him with a knighthood. At the height of his Donnelly owned his own carriage with liveried servants, then became a publican. Too soon he earned a reputation as a boozer, gambler and womaniser. He died on Feb 1820, aged 32.

     The emergence of the new royal family as models of respectability slowly changed the national attitude to fighting. In 1887, looking back on the century, the Hampshire Telegraph wondered at a time when “Champions of the ring were the pets of every class of society and their deeds were as well known then as the deeds of Nelson and they were regarded as little lower on the ladder of heroism.

The 19th publication Boxiana by Pierce Egan gives a vivid contemporary account The on-line Boxing Hall of Fame also includes biographies of many of the fighters mentioned in this article.


August 2016

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