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.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Waterloo week: Death of a pugilist

Mourners at the monument to John Shaw in Nottinghamshire
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 Unchained.

Today this series reproduces The Sporting Magazine's obituary of John Shaw, the boxer and lifeguardsman who was tipped for highest pugilistic honours, before his untimely death at Waterloo ... 

More on John Shaw here
More on pugilism and Waterloo here

The Sporting Magazine, July 1815,
pages 147-148

As well as the above obituary, The Sporting Magazine also published the following verse about Shaw, although the pun contained therein was in decidedly questionable taste ...
The same issue of The Sporting Magazine also found space to announce the upcoming Bill Richmond v Tom Shelton bout, which would be the first major pugilistic contest after the Battle of Waterloo. Waterloo Week here will conclude later this week with a look at that epic battle.

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 ...

Monday, 15 June 2015

Waterloo week: When Shaw sparred with Molineaux

Tom Molineaux, as rendered by The Sporting Magazine
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 begins with a look at the January 1812 sparring battle between Richmond's protégé Tom Molineaux and Lifeguardsman John Shaw, who would die a heroic death on the Belgian battle-field three years later ...

In January 1812, Bill Richmond was in a bitter mood. Tom Cribb had solidly beaten Richmond's protégé Tom Molineaux a few months earlier in their rematch for the English Boxing Championship, thus destroying Richmond's long-held ambition of overseeing the accession of a black boxer to the position of champion. To add insult to injury, it was a fight in which Richmond had invested pretty much every penny he possessed. Molineaux's defeat had therefore left him in desperate financial straits, and in danger of losing his status as landlord of the popular public house the Horse and Dolphin.

No sooner had the fight at Thistleton Gap concluded than the disputes which had raged between Richmond and Molineaux during the contest's build-up - which had mainly centred around Molineaux's lack of focused and dedicated training - flared up again.

By January 1812, the former friends had gone their separate ways and Molineaux was no longer a resident of the Horse and Dolphin. Richmond retreated to the north of England for a while to lick his proverbial wounds and try and ease his financial problems by giving a series of sparring exhibitions in a Manchester theatre with his old friend Tom Belcher. Molineaux, meanwhile, basked in the fame and attention that he had earned in his two epic contests with Cribb by remaining in London.

Perhaps in a bid to further irritate Richmond, whose relationship with Cribb had been mutually antagonistic for several years, Molineaux eagerly agreed to appear at a benefit the champion had arranged at the Fives Court on Thursday 30 January.

It was an event that would see the emergence of a formidable new pugilistic contender who many boxing experts remain convinced could have eventually become English Champion, had he not been killed at Waterloo in 1815.

This new contender's name was John Shaw.

Shaw was a splendid and sturdy specimen of English manhood. A near giant for the time, he stood over six foot tall, and weighed around 15 stone. Born in Nottinghamshire in 1789, he was said to have impressed the great Jem Belcher with his fighting ability and heart during a local set-to in his native county, prior to arriving in London after enlisting in the army in 1807 as a lifeguardsman.

With the likes of John Jackson showing eager interest in his pugilistic promise, an appearance at Cribb's benefit was a logical step in launching a potential prize-fighting career.

The contests at such benefits were not proper competitive contests, rather they were 'exhibitions'  and often utilised gloves (or 'mufflers') rather than bare knuckles. Nevertheless, despite their occasionally playful nature, many pugilists took such spars extremely seriously, especially ambitious newcomers who saw them as an opportunity to make a name for themselves and perhaps attract a patron from among the monied ranks of the Fancy.

This particular Thursday afternoon the Fives was packed to the rafters with around 1,500 eager spectators. The first spar saw Molineaux tangle with Jack Powers, a combustible young hot-head who both he and Richmond had mixed with with on previous occasions.

A couple of set-tos of 'inferior note' then took place before Molineaux took to the stage again, this time with Shaw in opposition. The Sporting Magazine recounted what happened next:

Shaw's impressive performance emboldened him greatly, and when Molineaux took to the stage after the exhibition, a fight between the two men was rapidly brokered:

In the event, a formal contest between the two men never took place. Instead, Shaw made his prize-ring debut on 12 July 1812 at Coombe Warren against Burrows, a former Molineaux victim, soundly beating him in thirteen rounds and just seventeen minutes.

A second impressive victory for Shaw followed against Ned Painter in April 1815 at Hounslow Heath, after the great battle between Harry Harmer and Tom Shelton. Shaw-Painter proved a one-sided slaughter, with the lifeguardsman at one point dishing out "ten knock down blows successively" before Painter was led away in a "deplorable" state after twenty-eight minutes.

According to Pierce Egan, Shaw's performance proved he had "materially improved as a scientific pugilist", while the man himself was now confident that "no boxer existed who could conquer him". The Fancy were divided as to whether this was true or not, but many were salivating at the prospect of a potential Shaw versus Cribb title contest.

Fate, however, had different ideas.

After Napoleon had returned to power in France in March 1815, the Seventh Coalition formed and Shaw's lifeguards were eventually ordered to the continent as part of the effort to resist the resurgent 'Boney'. It was said that some members of the Fancy offered to purchase Shaw's discharge from the army in order to preserve his pugilistic ambitions, but he would not hear of it.

On the morning of 18 June 1815, Shaw was among the 118,000 strong force opposing Napoleon. In the wake of the Coalition's glorious and hard-earned victory, described by the Duke of Wellington as "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life", news soon filtered back to England of Shaw's death and heroism, although accounts of his role in the battle and the circumstances of his death varied greatly.

For example, on 1 July, the York Herald reported that Shaw's head had been "carried off by a cannon ball", while Saunders News-letter of 15 July reported that Shaw had killed five Frenchman before receiving a "mortal wound". The Lancaster Gazette of 22 July, meanwhile, recounted the following particulars concerning Shaw's role in the battle and his death:

Henry Charles Moore, writing in the Dictionary of National Biography in 1901, described Shaw's role at Waterloo in greater detail. Although substantial debate exists concerning how accurate Moore's account is and what Shaw's exact movements were that day, common consent exists that he died a hero's death:

Corporal Shaw was sent out in command of a foraging party, but hurried back with his men in time to take part in the first charge. A cuirassier rode straight at Shaw, who calmly parried the thrust, and with one terrific stroke, the first blow he had dealt in real warfare, cut through the Frenchman's helmet and skull down to the chin. Shaw then rode at an eagle-bearer, killed him, and seized the eagle. He relinquished it, however, while cutting his way through the foes who immediately surrounded him. Although wounded, he took part in several other charges, exhibiting on each occasion his strength and marvellous dexterity with the sword. In the last charge but one made by the 2nd lifeguards, Shaw became separated from his comrades, and was quickly surrounded by the enemy. He fought desperately and killed nine of his opponents before his sword broke. Scorning surrender, he tore the helmet from his head, and, using it as a cestus, dealt some terrific blows before he fell to the ground, picked off by a cuirassier, who sat a little distance away, coolly firing his carbine.

After the battle was won Shaw struggled on in the track of his victorious countrymen, and at night a wounded lifeguardsman, lying on a dungheap, saw Shaw crawling towards him. 'Ah, my dear fellow, I'm done for!' Shaw whispered feebly, and lay down beside him. At daybreak he was found there dead.

Shaw was buried at La Haye Sainte, near to Waterloo and it was later said that his remains, or at least his skull, were transported to England, possibly on the promptings of Sir Walter Scott, the famous historical writer.

Today, Shaw's remarkable life and death are commemorated at the Household Cavalry Museum in London, where a plaster cast of his skull is still on display, as well in the form of a memorial obelisk in a churchyard in Cossall in his native Nottinghamshire, which also pays tribute to two other lifeguardsmen slain at Waterloo.

However it is John Haskins' 1816 poem The Battle of Waterloo: A Poem in Two Cantos which forms the most appropriate epitaph for Shaw, who was undoubtedly one of the most colourful and tragic figures from boxing and military history:

"Nor 'mongst her humbler sons shall Shaw e'er die,
Immortal deeds defy mortality."

A print from 1816 showing Shaw battling the French at Waterloo

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Richmond sites: The Horse and Dolphin

In the first of an occasional series, Luke G. Williams looks at some of the sites associated with Bill Richmond's life that pugilistic fans might like to visit. The series begins with a look at some of the confusion surrounding the location of Richmond's former public house The Horse and Dolphin ...

Bill Richmond fanatics will be aware that the great pugilist of the 19th century was once landlord of a pub known as the Horse and Dolphin, just off Leicester Square. Contrary to the myth that marrying a wealthy woman enabled Richmond to assume proprietorship of a pub once jokingly referred to by famed boxing writer Pierce Egan as 'The Prad and Swimmer', it is likely that Richmond's winnings from his victories against Isaac Wood and George Maddox in 1809 provided the economic ballast for his new-found status as a landlord. Land tax records suggest he assumed proprietorship of the pub in 1810.

For a couple of years, Richmond led a lucrative and happy existence at the Horse and Dolphin. The journal Bell's Life in London vividly described this period, which coincided with Richmond mentoring fellow former slave Tom Molineaux to the brink of the English Boxing Championship, and the Horse and Dolphin becoming known as "the headquarters of the black work":

As Bell's Life also mentioned, Richmond was forced to leave the Horse and Dolphin after he fell on hard economic times when Molineaux lost his rematch against Cribb for the English Boxing Championship, a contest for which Richmond was his principal backer as well as his trainer. Land tax records suggest he left the pub sometime in 1812.

For years there has been confusion about where exactly the Horse and Dolphin was located, despite clear historical references to its location at 25 St Martin's Street (a road that snakes southwards from Leicester Square) - references, incidentally, which are backed up by land tax records and other documentation.

Horwood's map of London from the 1790s, coupled with research from the City of Westminster Archives Centre, indicates that 25 St Martin's Street was located at the southernmost corner of the street, where the road begins to swing around and meet with Whitcomb Street.

25 St Martin's Street is marked in red on this map (courtesy of City Westminster Archives Service)
Confusion seems to have arisen because, during Richmond's lifetime, his pub was not the only 'Horse and Dolphin' to grace the streets of London - there was also a pub with the same name based in Macclesfield Street in Soho, on the site now occupied by the well-known 'Dutch pub' De Hems. This is the reason why the Wikipedia page for De Hems, as well as several other websites, erroneously claims that De Hems was "once owned by bare-knuckle boxer Bill 'The Black Terror' Richmond in the early 19th century". It's an understandable mistake to make, particularly given the existence of a small alleyway named Horse and Dolphin yard to the right of De Hems, and the proximity of the site to Leicester Square, where some sources have lazily stated Richmond's pub was located.

Sadly, unlike De Hems, the site once occupied by Richmond's Horse and Dolphin in St Martin's Street is no more. In the 1820s many of the streets near to Leicester Square were gradually redeveloped to make way for the construction of Trafalgar Square. The Fives Court in St Martin's Lane, which for years had been London's leading pugilistic exhibition venue, was one such building to be demolished.

By this stage, Richmond himself had long since ceased being landlord of the Horse and Dolphin. Nevertheless, the pub itself stubbornly survived this period of urban development; a map from 1871 clearly shows its location at the southern end of St Martin's Street (marked by the initials P.H. - public house), as well as the nearby existence of the new National Gallery building, designed by William Wilkins which had begun construction in 1832 as part of the extended Trafalgar Square project.

The Horse and Dolphin pub was still in business in 1871, as marked here with the initials P.H.
(see the left-hand side of the map, at the southern end of St Martin's Street)
Furthermore, records held by the London Metropolitan Archives prove that the Horse and Dolphin was still in existence and trading under this name until at least October 1950. However, I have been unable to establish exactly when it ceased trading, or when the building itself was demolished. (If anyone has any information about the Horse and Dolphin post-1950, I'd love to hear from you. I'd also love to find an illustration or photo of the pub, having never succeeded in finding one. Email me at if you can help!)

The most likely explanation of the Horse and Dolphin's demise is that it occurred during the 1980s when the Sainsbury Wing was added to the National Gallery. Certainly this seems the most likely date when the building was demolished, although the pub may have ceased trading earlier.

If you compare this modern-day map to the one from 1871, it is clear that the north-east corner of
the Sainsbury wing is located where the Horse and Dolphin / no. 25 St Martin's Street used to be
Today, if you want to stand where Bill Richmond's pub once was, all there is to mark his former home and business is a bland concrete wall to the rear of the National Gallery. It's hardly a fitting memorial to the world's first black sporting superstar ... which leads me neatly on to the subject of Shepherd Neame's Tom Cribb pub in Panton Street, for reasons which I'll reveal more about in due course ...