When world title fights had a real head of steam

Nearly 150 years ago, boxing’s first world championship fight took place between England’s Tom Sayers and John Heenan of the United States – but because bare-knuckle bouts were illegal, this had to be staged in secret. For this fight, everyone wanted to be involved: newspapers which had ignored pugilism for decades, put their best reporters on to the story, Charles Dickens was riveted, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote an epic poem, Prime Minister Palmerston ensured that police turned a blind eye.

Here, in an extract from his new book The Lion and The Eagle, Iain Manson recounts the build-up, and the way that London’s packed ale houses stoked up the anticipation, and the betting, for the estimated 10,000 spectators before they took their pre-dawn mystery train ride

Because pugilism was illegal, arrangements for a fight had to be clandestine. What this implied before the coming of the railway – which, for most parts of the country, meant the 1840s – was that, with the exception of the rich and leisured, only local people could attend a fight.

The railway simplified matters for fight organisers. Secrecy was now more easily achieved, since so few people needed advance information as to where the fight would come off. Indeed, with the exception of the organisers, only the train driver had to know, and even he could be left in ignorance until the train left the station – or even longer, as for the Sayers–Grant fight in 1852, when the driver had sealed orders to be opened en route.

The Pugilistic Benevolent Association, under whose auspices prize fights took place in mid-century, were well versed in ways of making things difficult for the authorities. In addition to the maximum secrecy in organising a fight, they always looked for a location on the border of two counties – or more, if possible. This enabled them, in the event of interruption, to resume proceedings quickly nearby, since a magistrate’s authority did not extend beyond his own county.

In the weeks preceding the big fight of 1860 there was endless speculation as to where it might come off. What everyone knew was that it would take place on or around April 16th, and that, in accordance with normal procedure, tickets would be available only the night before. The vital information would be printed in Bell’s Life in London, and would certainly be ascertainable at any sporting tavern in the metropolis as soon as it was known.

It was on the morning of Sunday, April 15th that readers of Bell’s Life learned that those wishing to attend the big fight should present themselves at certain of London’s sporting houses the following evening. No one was in any doubt as to what this meant: the fight would come off on Tuesday morning. Despite the earlier information that it would be on the Monday, no one would have been surprised.

This information ensured, amongst other things, a very profitable Monday night for the taverns named. As it happened, they had been doing pretty well anyway, for so anxious were the Fancy not to miss the fight that, even as early as Saturday evening, most of the city’s sporting houses were, as The Sporting Life put it, “crowded almost to suffocation by anxious inquirers wishing to know the whereabouts, &c. of the forthcoming fight for the Championship.”

Sporting houses were a well-established phenomenon. Virtually every prize fighter of any note aspired to have his own pub, and Tom Sayers was not an exception. The only reason that he was not a publican was that his one foray into the business in 1853 had ended in the failure of the Bricklayer’s Arms. Continuing success in the ring had rendered that failure less damaging than it might have been, but for many fighters, only a flourishing inn stood between them and destitution once their fighting days were over.

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In The Night Side of London, J. Ewing Ritchie gave his view of such hostelries around 1858. One of their regular patrons had recommended them to him for “fun, civility, mirth, good-humour… over a cheerful glass.” Ritchie decided to try one for himself. He identified Ben Caunt’s Coach and Horses in St Martin’s Lane just up from Trafalgar Square as “perhaps the principal one”, and it seems likely that this, the scene of the fire of 1851 which had taken the lives of two of Caunt’s children, was the one on which he based his description.

Inviting his reader to come with him in spirit, he made his own opinion clear at the outset. “In spite of the assurance of civility and good humour, I don’t think you will stay long, but will feel on a small scale what Daniel must have felt in the lions’ den.”

Sadly for Ben Caunt, his business was not bustling at the time of the big fight in April 1860, for, as a consequence of permitting gambling on the premises, he had just lost his spirits licence. Trouble was common at the Coach and Horses, and the magistrates’ decision should not have surprised him. Still, coming on top of the death of his wife the previous year, the relegation of his establishment to the status of alehouse must have been a heavy blow.

The nearby Round Table, headquarters of the Heenan contingent, was itself relatively quiet on the Saturday before the fight, but just along the way at Oxenden Street, George Bryer’s Black Horse was very busy, while in Soho, Alec Keene’s Three Tuns was crowded with those anxious to have the landlord’s informed opinion of the champion’s condition. He was, said Keene, at his very best.

The following night the Round Table was livelier, the Americans in high spirits after receiving a heartening report of their man’s progress. The Black Horse was packed, and in Tichborne Street off Haymarket, hundreds were locked out of Owen Swift’s Horse Shoe. Swift was one of the fight organisers, and was thus considered an excellent source of information. Betting, without which prize fighting could not survive, was lively, one well-known patron of the ring laying £100 to £55 on Sayers (pictured in an early photograph, left).

A mile and a half away at Barbican, Harry Brunton was doing equally well at the George and Dragon. As the champion’s trainer, Harry’s opinion was sought by all, and his large hall, which seated upwards of two hundred, was full to overflowing.

But if the sporting houses were lively on Sunday, it was nothing to the excitement of Monday. Owen Swift, Nat Langham, George Bryer and Harry Brunton were all guaranteed a big night, Bell’s Life having named them as ticket sellers.

The Americans were out in force, and the home-bred Fancy had flooded into London by road and rail, determined to witness the greatest sporting event of the age. Writing in The Illustrated Police Budget some forty years later, a participant recalled the crush at Owen Swift’s, where he was obliged to spend all evening, since “having once got in I was utterly unable to get out.”

From early afternoon the Horse Shoe was host to a large crowd, all anxious to have the latest news, and to get a glimpse of some of the noted pugilists who were certain to put in an appearance. The Horse Shoe was not short of former champions, for Bill Perry and Ben Caunt – who must have left someone else in charge at the Coach and Horses – were present. Bob Brettle, having quit the Three Tuns, took a seat briefly in the middle of the crowded coffee room, before going on to visit other houses.

It was just after nine o’clock when John Gideon put in an appearance. He was, as The Sporting Life put it, “all bustle and anxiety,” and “at once commenced diving in his capacious pockets for Tom’s colours, which he passed around with a mild enquiry of ‘Won’t you take one of our little man?'”

A short time later, a number from the enemy camp appeared, including Fred Falkland and Jack Macdonald, who rivalled Gideon in the business he did with Jack Heenan’s colours. The Americans readily accepted two to one on Sayers, Falkland saying that in the previous few days hundreds of bets had been made at those odds.

The only place which rivalled Owen Swift’s for business on the night was Harry Brunton’s. At the George and Dragon, everyone wanted to talk to Tom’s trainer. One of his customers was Jerry Noon, who wished to make an eccentric bet at ten to one that once the men were stripped, the American would be favourite. He also claimed that during training, Heenan had sparred with Nat Langham and had come off second best.

Anyone wishing to establish the truth of that story would have had to go west to Leicester Square, where Nat’s Cambrian Stores was busy all day, the odds in general being two to one on Sayers. Coincidentally, Nat was in the same plight as to his near neighbour and former mentor Ben Caunt: as a consequence of frequent disorder in the street outside his tavern, his spirits licence had been suspended. He was, however, still permitted to sell beer, and kept his house open on that basis. Many Americans were present, since Ould Nat’s was the only place where there was any possibility that the Boy himself might show. They were to be disappointed.

Still, it was quite a night for all the sporting houses. As for its cause, those lucky enough to get tickets had to pay three pounds for them. The purchasers had no idea where they might go, but they could be quite sure that the railway, with well over a thousand tickets to sell, would make a healthy profit from the excursion.

As Bell’s Life had warned, the departure time was very early. In fact, the expensive tickets required holders to present themselves at London Bridge Station at quarter to four in the morning. This told everyone that South-Eastern would be their carrier, and thus defined the area within which the battle would be staged. It was not the first time that South-Eastern’s secretary Samuel Smiles – who knew exactly where they were going, and knew they were paying six times the normal fare – had done a deal with fight organisers.

The archetypal Victorian, Smiles was a perfect exemplar of everything opposed to pugilism, but he was also a man of business. There were times when morality had to take second place.

Great was the speculation as to where exactly the fight would come off, but it didn’t really matter. All that signified was that arrangements were well in hand, and nothing was now going to stop the big event.

The brutally early start, however, posed problems. If they had to be up by three o’clock, ticket-holders had to choose between going to bed very early, and not going to bed at all. With lax licensing hours, many of those who wanted to make a night of it simply stayed in the pub all evening. The sporting houses at least were unlikely to throw them out on such a night – always assuming they had been able to get in in the first place.

One of those who preferred not to make a night of it was John Hollingshead, who had been deputed by Charles Dickens to report on the fight for his weekly All the Year Round, the successor to Household Words. It struck Hollingshead as he left his house that the policeman who saw him knew exactly what he was about, and his driver was “bursting with intelligence of the great prize-fight.” From two o’clock, similar scenes were being enacted in many places around town.

Hooves clattered, harness jingled, metal-rimmed wheels rasped as the fight-goers made their way through the dark deserted streets. There had been other early-morning fight excursions from London Bridge Station, but they were as nothing to that of Tuesday, April 17th, 1860. The bridge itself, with nearly everyone coming from north of the river, was almost as much of a bottleneck as during the day.

At the centre of each span, balustrades either side supported a gas light, which illuminated the most animated scene the bridge had witnessed at such an hour. Workmen’s carts, gigs, hansoms, broughams, for all the world as if it were the middle of the working day. And the clatter of hooves was accompanied by the tramp of feet as heavily-clad walkers, faces wrapped up to the eyes against the chill, made their more energetic way to the station. Below on the black water, barges and ferries crossed from the north bank.

As the crowds converged on their goal, windows were opened by curious householders, few of whom would have been in any doubt as to what was going on. And far from attempting to prevent an impending breach of the peace, the crushers patrolling the dark streets would even call to the cabs to bring back good news.

Bill Bryant described for readers of the New York Clipper how the Benicia Boy’s inner circle spent the night. After the Round Table was closed to outside customers, they chatted about the only topic which interested them – and agreed that, barring accident or foul play, victory was certain. No one risked going to bed, and at one in the morning the Boy himself appeared in company with Jack Macdonald. They took breakfast at three o’clock, then boarded their cabs to join the crowds making for London Bridge.

At the station the noise was deafening as cabs forced their way through the throng, drivers all trying to outshout each other. “Long before four o’clock this morning,” reported The Globe later in the day, “the London-bridge station was literally besieged with spectators anxious to witness the fight.” For the Clipper, Bryant estimated that at least ten thousand people were there, and while this sounds seriously exaggerated, it is certain that there were far more people than tickets. Many were in possession of neat wicker baskets, Bell’s Life having warned prospective fight-goers that refreshments would not be supplied.

In the station yard, said Bryant, were at least three hundred cabs. The Sporting Life’s reporter did not mention his American counterpart, but noticed the arrival of Fred Falkland, carrying a large stone bottle and whispering confidentially to Jack Macdonald.

London Bridge Station, the city’s busiest terminus, was universally considered an eyesore. Constructed by South-Eastern ten years previously to replace an earlier building, not the least of its affronts was that it virtually blocked the view of the adjoining Brighton Railway terminus, an altogether superior edifice.

But such aesthetic considerations were not of concern to the besieging crowds in the early hours of April 17th, 1860. Anticipating that many would turn up without tickets, South-Eastern had retained a number for sale on the spot, and shortly before four o’clock a window opened. There followed an unseemly rush, leading to a press which made things difficult for everybody, and facilitated the theft of a number of tickets. One purchaser, seeing the danger, put his ticket safely inside his mouth the moment he got it.

As the throng waited for the station gates to open, numerous ruses were employed by those whose moral scruples were overcome by their determination to see the fight: one unfortunate person, producing his ticket in response to a call of “Get your tickets ready, gentlemen!” dropped his precious pass when his hand was grabbed and his fingers bitten. He did not see it again.

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At last the gates were opened. John Hollingshead found it a strange business altogether. For a start, they were opened by the police, who should theoretically have been determined to keep them locked. And then there was the behaviour of everyone involved:

…there was an affectation of caution on the part of the railway company in dividing the passengers, and admitting them simultaneously at different entrances. These passengers moved silently along the passages, and across the platforms, as if they were trespassers upon the company’s property, who had stolen in while the directors were asleep, and were about to run away with the rolling stock, with the connivance of a small number of the railway officers.

Hollingshead was being facetious, but any of the directors of South-Eastern who read his report in All the Year Round might have been forgiven for failing to see the joke. Less than five years had passed since the sensational robbery in which £12,000 in gold had been stolen from the night mail to Paris, the bullion being replaced by lead of equal weight. Train robbery was no laughing matter at London Bridge.

But despite the failure of the blues to prevent that crime, many of those present on April 17th, 1860 (a drawing of the fight shown, right)feared that they might yet stop the big fight, and every unfamiliar figure in the crowd, Hollingshead wrote, was suspected of being a policeman. He thought that in truth any apparent indication that the police were intent on preventing the fight was sheer affectation. “The nation,” he wrote, “has no logical complaint against the law for standing still on this occasion, but only for its ridiculous pretence of being constantly on the alert.”

A train of thirty-three carriages, with an engine front and back, filled up quickly, and then a thirty-carriage train, likewise with two engines, was called up. There was a weird assortment of rolling stock, much of it superannuated. Of the carriages, mostly some twenty feet in length, some resembled wheeled cottages, others were more like cattle trucks. The windows, according to one commentator, included Gothic, Norman and Early English. It was unimportant. The fight was the thing.

At about four fifteen, a thrill ran through the trains, and heads appeared at all windows. Wearing a fur cap, and with an Inverness cape covering his smart suit, Tom Sayers was walking down the platform accompanied by his father, by his seconds Harry Brunton and Jemmy Welsh, also by Farmer Bennett and John Gideon.

And just five minutes later, the American champion made his appearance, in the company of Fred Falkland, Jim Cusick and Jack Macdonald. Sayers had made no effort to disguise his appearance, but Heenan was hard to recognise behind a dark bushy beard and whiskers.

At Tom’s carriage door, the two men met for the first time, Jack Macdonald making the introductions. The American party was last to board the first train, and at half past four a bell rang. Steam hissed as the engines snorted louder and louder, faster and faster. Smoke belched from funnels, couplings snapped taut, the carriages lurched forward. They were on their way.

This is an extract from The Lion and the Eagle by Iain Manson, which can be bought at all good bookshops or direct from SportsBooks. Price is £14.99, with postage and packing included for the UK

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