In-depth blog about former slave and boxing legend Bill Richmond (1763-1829); subject of Luke G. Williams' biography, published by Amberley in August 2015.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Waterloo week: Richmond rallies for the national cause

Bill Richmond and the rest of the Fancy often rallied to causes of 'national object' during the Napoleonic Wars
The Battle of Waterloo took place 200 years ago this week. As Britain goes Waterloo-mad,  I'll be presenting a series of features in which I look at aspects of the famous battle which intersected with the world of pugilism inhabited by slave turned boxer Bill Richmond, the subject of my forthcoming book Richmond UnchainedToday this series continues with a look at how the Fancy rallied their charitable instincts during the Napoleonic Wars, and Bill Richmond's role in all of this ...

Although boxing was a wildly popular sport in Georgian England, its questionable legal status mean that many viewed it as something of a rogue pursuit. This was in sharp contrast to the sport's participants and supporters, who passionately believed that pugilism was an elevating pastime, essential in breeding a fighting spirit among all right-thinking and patriotic Englishmen, and thus preventing the rise of effetism, a quality traditionally linked by the English to the French, of course. As Pierce Egan once declared, the ‘practice of boxing through the means of the prize-ring is one of the corner stones towards preventing effeminacy from undermining the good old character of the people of England.’

In 1814, several elder statesman of the sport, led by former champion John Jackson, attempted to rid pugilism of its frustratingly notorious reputation by forming the 'Pugilistic Club' - the sport's first ever governing body. Horse racing and cricket were sports that had made moves towards greater central governance of their rules and administration, and Jackson believed boxing should follow suit.

John Jackson, leading light of the Pugilistic Club
The aim of the Pugilistic Club was not only to ensure sound financial governance and the sporting probity of major fights, but also to add a veneer of respectability to boxing. Annual subscriptions from its 120 or so founder members, including the famous black pugilist Bill Richmond, ensured that the PC would not only act as a guardian of the sport, but was also in a position to promote its own fights.

Even before the 'PC' was founded, there had been an inescapable air of patriotism about many of pugilism's leading practitioners. On 7 May 1812, for example, Jackson had organised a charitable sparring exhibition at the Fives Court in aid of British prisoners being held in France. The event raised the handsome sum of just over £132 (easily the largest sum on a 'subscription' list published in the Morning Post on Thursday 18 June) and was patronised by over twenty ‘noblemen’ and many members of the House of Commons. (Just four days after the exhibition, incidentally, the Commons would be rocked by the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval).

The Morning Post's account of donations received for the 'relief of the British prisoners in France', including over £132 raised by the 'Pugilistic Exhibition at the Fives Court' (Thursday 18 June 1812)
At this point in time, Bill Richmond was viewed by many within the Fancy with suspicion, due to his association with fellow former slave Tom Molineaux's twin title challenges to Tom Cribb in 1810 and 1811. Nevertheless, Richmond was among those who appeared at the prestigious sparring event in May 1812, perhaps as part of an effort to mend his public reputation.

The Sporting Magazine observed that Richmond’s performance ‘gave satisfaction’, while condemning the selfishness of absent Jewish pugilists ‘Bitton, Dutch Sam, Mendoza &c’ who it claimed were in the ‘habit of repeatedly soliciting public favours’ yet ‘did not condescend to make their appearance for this national object’.

The Fives Court - the famed home of London's most prestigious pugilistic exhibition events
Two years later, Richmond's career once again intersected with events of the Napoleonic Wars. In the wake of the foundation of the 'PC', Richmond had the honour of being one of the first combatants to fight under the aegis of the new governing body, when his comeback contest against Jack Davis on 3 May 1814 at Coombe Warren was organised and sanctioned by the organisation.

A mood of festivity prevailed that glorious day in Kingston-upon-Thames, not only because of the excitement surrounding the fight, but also because of the mood of nationwide exultation that still prevailed following Napoleon’s abdication of the thrones of France and Italy and his subsequent exile to Elba.

England was in the mood to acclaim its heroes and the very same day that Richmond faced Davis, it was announced that the Prince Regent had conferred the title of Duke of Wellington upon Arthur Wellesley, the hero of the Peninsular War.

Remarkably, the fifty-year-old Richmond won a spirited contest against his far younger opponent, winning plaudits in the press for a contest which one writer argued "afforded a striking specimen of what a man upwards of 50 (like Richmond) of first-rate science, could do against a fresh man under 30, of superior weight, length, and strength".

Richmond’s victory restored his reputation within the Fancy, a dramatic rehabilitation which was further emphasised the following month. As part of the celebrations relating to the Treaty of Paris, various royals who had allied themselves with Britain against Napoleon were welcomed to London, including King Frederick William III of Prussia and Czar Alexander of Russia.

On 17 June, Frederick William was among the members of the group who visited Lord Lowther’s rooms in Pall Mall for a display of sparring organised by Jackson. Richmond was there, alongside Cribb, Tom Belcher and several others.

Among the other events mounted to celebrate the ‘Glorious Peace’ was a recreation of the Battle of Trafalgar in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. A wide array of tents, stalls and booths housing refreshments, entertainments and amusements were also erected throughout the park, including the ever-enterprising Richmond, whose displays of his pugilistic and acrobatic skills made him ‘one of the most successful sutlers in this huge camp’.

An image of the celebrations of the 'Glorious Peace' in Hyde Park, at which Bill Richmond was present
Three years later, exactly a month after the Battle of Waterloo, the Fancy once again rallied to the national cause, this time by holding an exhibition in aid of those unfortunate women and children widowed or orphaned by events on the battlefield. Richmond spared at this event, along with many other stars of the London prize ring. The Sporting Magazine reported in detail the events of this 'grand occasion':

All that was needed now was a grand competitive spectacle at which the Fancy could truly celebrate Britain's glorious victory at Waterloo. As luck would have it, a falling-out between Richmond and a fighter he had formerly trained, Tom Shelton, provided just such an opportunity and a grudge match between the two men was duly brokered for 1 August. Only a bare-knuckles showdown between champion Tom Cribb and Napoleon himself could have caused more excited expectation and anticipation among the Fancy ...

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