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.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Richmond v Shelton: preview and tale of the tape

This Saturday marks the 200th anniversary of the Bill Richmond v Tom Shelton bare-knuckle boxing contest. By way of a celebration, I will be tweeting a live recreation of the fight, including many illustrations and images, via my twitter page @boxianajournal.  

Below I imagine what a preview of the fight back in 1815 may have looked like ...

Richmond v Shelton: the Tale of the Tape

Name: William 'Bill' Richmond
Nickname: 'The Black'
Born: 5 August 1763, Staten Island, United States
Age: 51
Height: 5 feet 9 inches

Weight: 12 stone, 2 pounds
Career record: 17 mills, 15 wins, 2 losses
Boxing style and qualities:
Expert in hitting and getting away, possessor of a terrible right-handed hit.

Typical quote: "A gentleman, sir, only uses his hands to defend himself, and not to attack; we call the pugilistic art, for that reason, the noble science of defence."
Career summary: After several impromptu set-tos in the north of England, where he was raised, educated and apprenticed after arriving on these shores with Earl Hugh Percy, Richmond entered the lists with a defeat against the seasoned George Maddox in January 1805 in a close contest. Thereafter, a run of three unbroken successes secured a contest with rising talent Tom Cribb, a tiresome contest in October 1805 which he lost. Since then, Richmond's science has become manifest to all and he has won all seven of his mills, albeit with several periods of inactivity. Richmond also won much notoriety when he mentored fellow former slave Tom Molineaux to the brink of championship honours, only for the American pretender to be vanquished by Cribb in two mighty contests in 1810 and 1811. Richmond is now an esteemed and respected member of the pugilistic corps, renowned for his good manners, milling anecdotes and tactical acumen.

Name:  Thomas 'Tom' Shelton
Nickname: 'The Navigator'
Born: 1 May 1787, Wrotham, Kent,
Age: 28
Height: 5 feet 10 inches

Weight: 12 stone, 7 pounds
Career record: 3 mills, 2 wins, 1 loss
Boxing style and qualities: Scientific boxer, good in-fighter, left-handed hitter.

Typical quote: "I like fighting; but I hate animosity."
Career summary:
Shelton’s eccentric nature is best summed up by a series of events in September 1812; by the end of a day’s drinking in Hampstead, the Navigator had gambled away all his worldly possessions, whereupon he risked the only thing he had left – namely his life – on the roll of a dice. The luckless Shelton lost that wager too and, bound by a
twisted sense of honour, tried to hang himself on a street lamp. His first attempt failed, so he tried again, at which point a passing police officer intervened. Although the policeman succeeded in preventing Shelton’s suicide, he received two black eyes and a broken nose for his troubles. Thereafter, Shelton threw his hat into the prize ring, defeating Fitzgerald at Tothill Fields in August 1812, before losing a distinguished battle to Harry Harmer in April this year. In June, Shelton bounced back to the top of the lists by vanquishing a Suffolk farmer by the name of Studd.

Verdict: Private pique between Shelton and Richmond resulted in this contest, which now unreservedly occupies the attention of the Fancy. Odds were even until Shelton injured a knee in training, meaning  Richmond is now the slight favourite. Both men are first raters, and much hinges on whether the Black's considerable advantages in science will compensate for his deficit of youth compared to his opponent.

Richmond v Shelton is recreated this Saturday on
Richmond Unchained is published on 15 August

Richmond v Shelton: 200th anniversary

This Saturday marks the 200th anniversary of the Bill Richmond v Tom Shelton bare-knuckle boxing contest. By way of a celebration, I will be tweeting a live recreation of the fight, including many illustrations and images, via my twitter page @boxianajournal
Richmond versus Shelton was a fascinating event from both a sporting and a sociocultural perspective. In purely pugilistic terms, the fight represented the perfect conflict between 'youth' and 'experience' that has become such a trope of sporting discourse - taking place as it did just two days before Richmond's 52nd birthday, while Shelton was a mere 27 years old. The contest would ultimately prove to be the final official contest of Richmond's stellar career, and the only time that he fought at the iconic venue of Moulsey Hurst in Surrey on the southern banks of the river Thames.

Significantly, the bout took place less than two months after Britain's triumph in the Battle of Waterloo. The militaristic context of this, and many other Georgian prize fights, enables us to understand that for many people bare-knuckle boxing was a natural expression and off-shoot of Britain's military might and prowess.

Indeed, throughout the early part of the 19th century, the exploits of the country's leading pugilists inculcated many of the general public with a feeling of self-confidence that the nation would ultimately repel the challenge of France and Napoleon. Such confidence had been legitimised by the sensational events of Waterloo - hence by August, when Richmond fought Shelton, there was a sense of widespread pride and joy among the Fancy. No wonder, then, that over 10,000 spectators gathered on Tuesday 1 August to watch the contest!

As you would expect, newspapers published on 1 August were heavily preoccupied with the political and military fall-out from Waterloo and Napoleon's surrender, and speculation concerning 'Boney''s ultimate fate was a running theme in many journals. As the extract below from The Times of 1 August shows, some believed (or perhaps hoped!) that the former French emperor might end up in the Tower of London!

How then, did Bill Richmond - a black prize fighter who began life as a slave in the United States - fit into the celebration of British military and physical might that the sport of pugilism so often symbolised?

It's a fascinating question, and one which is examined in depth in my upcoming book Richmond Unchained. As a black celebrity within white-dominated Georgian England, Richmond was certainly in an unusual position; the Slave Trade Act of 1807 may have abolished the slave trade, but slavery itself still existed throughout the British Empire, as made clear by this advertisement which appeared in The Times the same day that Richmond faced Shelton.


Despite the continuing spectre of slavery, Richmond had achieved such a position of respectability and fame within sporting circles that his ethnicity was not mentioned or referred to in disparaging terms in reports of the Shelton fight. For example, the Morning Post's 1 August preview of the fight referred to him as "the black" and a "first rater", in sharp contrast to earlier in his career when he had been routinely disparaged by newspapers as "Mungo" or "Blacky".

By this stage of his career, Richmond's talents and fame seemed to render his ethnicity unimportant to many spectators and observers - one of many amazing achievements within his remarkable life.

Richmond v Shelton is recreated this Saturday on
Richmond Unchained is published on 15 August

Thursday, 16 July 2015

London pub to unveil memorial to Bill Richmond

It has been a dream of mine for many years to ensure a permanent memorial to Bill Richmond and his amazing life. Now, thanks to the cooperation of Shepherd Neame brewery and Earl George Percy, I am delighted to announce the details of the following event ... Luke G. Williams, 16 July 2015

Bill Richmond plaque and portrait unveiling ceremony

& ‘Richmond Unchained’ book launch
Wednesday 26 August 2015 from 2pm-3pm
Tom Cribb Pub, 36 Panton Street, London, SW1Y 4EA

The memorial plaque and portrait of Bill Richmond (1763-1829)
will be unveiled by Earl George Percy.

Drinks and canapés will be provided
Nearest tube stations: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Charing Cross
Event enquiries / media enquiries:
Press release and further information (for immediate release):


A permanent memorial to pioneering black boxer Bill Richmond (1763-1829) will be unveiled by Earl George Percy at the Tom Cribb pub, in Panton Street, London on Wednesday 26 August 2015 at 2pm. 

A portrait of Richmond and a plaque summarising his amazing life and career will adorn the wall of the historic pub owned by Shepherd Neame brewery in recognition of Richmond’s position in history as the first black sportsman to achieve international fame and significance. 

The unveiling will take place at a launch event for Luke G. Williams’ new book Richmond Unchained: The Biography of the World’s First Black Sporting Superstar, which is published on 15 August by Amberley Books.

Born into slavery in America, Richmond travelled to England in the 1770s thanks to the kindly intervention of Earl Hugh Percy, a British soldier renowned for his humanitarianism, who ensured that Richmond received an education and was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. It is therefore fitting that Hugh Percy’s direct descendant, Earl George Percy, has agreed to unveil this memorial to one of sporting history’s leading pioneers.  

Although he only became a professional boxer in his forties, Richmond assembled an impressive record of 17 wins from 19 contests, while he was also a highly sought after trainer and gymnastic instructor. Richmond was one of the most recognisable celebrities in Georgian Britain, mixing with the likes of William Hazlitt and Lord Byron. A measure of the high regard in which he was held was the fact that he was present at the coronation celebrations of King George IV in 1821. 
Author Luke G. Williams said: “The Tom Cribb pub is a perfect location for a permanent memorial to Bill Richmond. Cribb was a champion boxer and contemporary of Richmond who was once landlord of these premises. The two men were initially rivals but eventually became firm friends and spent many evenings conversing and socialising at the pub. In fact, Richmond spent the last evening of his life with Cribb in the pub. 
“I am delighted that Shepherd Neame brewery have agreed that Bill’s amazing journey from slavery to sporting superstardom should be recognised with a permanent memorial. For it to be officially unveiled by George Percy, a direct descendent of the man whose kindness transformed Bill’s life, is incredibly exciting.”

Further details about Richmond Unchained:
Further details about Shepherd Neame and the Tom Cribb pub:

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Richmond sites: The Tom Cribb pub

In the second 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 continues with a look at Richmond's connection to the Tom Cribb pub in Panton Street, central London, which is today owned by Britain's oldest brewer, Shepherd Neame ...

Sadly, the Horse and Dolphin pub, where slave turned pugilist Bill Richmond was landlord for several years, is no longer in existence and the building which once housed it is also no more.
(Click here for the full story behind Richmond and the Horse and Dolphin).

However, there is still a pub in central London with a significant link to Richmond's incredible life and, indeed, an indelible link to the world of Georgian pugilism as a whole - namely Shepherd Neame's Tom Cribb pub on Panton Street, just off Leicester Square.

The Tom Cribb pub as it is today
Until 1960, the Tom Cribb was known as the Union Arms - so named in celebration of the Act of Union in 1707 between England and Scotland. In the early 19th century the pub's landlord was Richmond's great rival, the eponymous Cribb , who was one of the greatest pugilists of the Georgian age and reigned as English Champion from 1808 until his retirement in 1821. Cribb defeated both Richmond and his protégé Tom Molineaux during a glorious career, although he was inactive for a whole decade of his reign, failing to fight a single competitive contest after his second victory against Molineaux in 1811.

Exactly when Cribb assumed the position as the Union Arms' landlord is unclear, although it was certainly after the second Molineaux contest and before 1818, when Pierce Egan recounted in Boxiana that he had stepped back from boxing in order to "serve his customers in a more palatable style". Prior to taking the reins at the Union Arms, Cribb had also, according to Egan, served for short periods as the landlord of the Golden Lion pub in Borough and the King's Arms in Duke Street, St James's.

By 1821, Cribb was not merely the leasee of the pub but the owner outright, as recounted by Jon Hurley in his book Tom Cribb: The Life of the Black Diamond:

"The Sun Fire Office records of 1821 shows he purchased The Union Arms, Panton Street, for £950. A fair amount in those days. This figure included 'Household Goods', Wearing Apparel, Printed Books and Plate. Stock, Utensils, and Goods in trust add another £500 to the purchase, plus a further £50 for 'China and Glass' ... In 1822, the Sun Fire records reveal that the value of the Union Arms and its contents had risen to a total of £1,800."

Located just off the Haymarket and close to Soho and Leicester Square, under Cribb's aegis the Union Arms soon became a favoured haunt of 'the Fancy', the varied members of high and low society who followed pugilism and other pleasurable sporting pursuits. In Pierce Egan's influential 1821 masterpiece Life in London, 'Cribb's Parlour' was immortalised in Cruikshank's illustration (see top of this page), which indicates that boxing prints were a fixture on the pub's walls, including two which look like they are of Richmond and Molineaux.

Newspapers, journals and books of the period make it clear that visiting the Union Arms was a colourful experience. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, most probably drawing on Cruikshank's illustration of the pub and the folklore surrounding it, later imagined - in his 1909 short story The Lord of Falconbridge - what it would have been like to visit the Union Arms in 1818, writing:

"Behind the bar of this hostelry there was a green baize door which opened into a large, red-papered parlour, adorned by many sporting prints and by the numerous cups and belts which were the treasured trophies of the famous prize-fighter's victorious career. In this snuggery it was the custom of the Corinthians of the day to assemble in order to discuss, over Tom Cribb's excellent wines, the matches of the past, to await the news of the present, and to arrange new ones for the future. Hither also came his brother pugilists, especially such as were in poverty or distress, for the Champion's generosity was proverbial, and no man of his own trade was ever turned from his door if cheering words or a full meal could mend his condition."

Conan Doyle was correct in his insistence that Cribb was a generous soul. This side of his character was amply demonstrated, for example, by his conduct and generosity towards a German dwarf named John Hauptman, who he employed and whose honour he defended, in an incident recounted in Bell's Life in London dated 22 December 1822:

Another famous resident of the Union Arms was Cribb's dog Billy, a canine of  "rat killing celebrity" who was said to have slaughtered upwards of 10,000 rodents in his life, as well as winning every single dog fight he participated in. How many of these acts of violence were committed at the Union Arms is unclear. However, after his death aged 14 in 1829, which was widely reported in the press, Cribb had Billy stuffed and he resided thereafter on the counter of the pub!

During Bill Richmond's later days, when he faced considerable financial challenges, he often met and conversed with Cribb at the Union Arms, helping mend their previously fractious relationship and rivalry. Indeed, the two men became such close friends that it was soon their custom to dine together at the Union Arms on Sunday evenings. It was after one of these meals, on Sunday 27 December 1829, that Richmond returned home before falling ill with a coughing fit and then dying in the early hours of Monday morning.

Cribb and Richmond drinking together, as drawn by Trevor Von Eeden,
in an illustration for my forthcoming book, Richmond Unchained
After Richmond's death, a heartbroken Cribb wrote an extravagant eulogy in Richmond's honour, based on Mark Antony's tribute to Caesar in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Interestingly, Cribb pointed out that although Richmond had been free to "sluice his gob for nothing" in the Union Arms he had always proudly insisted on paying his way. Sadly, Cribb's 'oration' was never delivered in person - the former champion missing Richmond's funeral because of a serious incidence of gout.
Bill Richmond, Cribb's old rival turned friend
As the 1830s advanced and pugilism's popularity declined, Cribb faced increasing financial troubles. Sometime towards the end of the decade, Cribb had to give up the Union Arms, probably around 1839 when Hurley claims he moved to live with his son and daughter-in-law in Woolwich. It was here that the great pugilist died in 1848.

As shown by the research on, the Union Arms has continued to trade ever since Cribb's death. Although it is thought that the building was substantially rebuilt in 1878, it remains on the same site as in Cribb's day, namely "the corner of Panton Street and Oxendon Street" as described in Bell's Life in London in 1821. Changes in numbering on the street account for the fact that the pub is now 'no. 36' rather than 'no. 26' as it was in Cribb's time.

An old pub sign from the 'Union Arms days'
In 1960, the pub was renamed in Cribb's honour, and today, owned as it is by Shepherd Neame, Britain's oldest brewer, it is a delightful old-fashioned central London boozer, which celebrates its boxing heritage not only through its name and the pub sign, which features a likeness of Cribb, but also with an English Heritage plaque in Cribb's honour and numerous boxing prints on the walls.

For lovers of pugilism, the Tom Cribb is a must-visit if you're ever in London and, as readers to this blog will discover in the next few days, an exciting new boxing memorial will soon adorn the walls of the pub which will further reinforce its links to the glorious and fascinating history of boxing ...