By Christine Bueno
This photograph is of a matched pair of Staffordshire pottery figures of the pugilists, Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux. Such pottery figures have been described as the ‘tribal art of England’ and the description indicates how the nineteenth century Staffordshire potters produced popular pottery for the people.
Prize fighters were particularly popular figures; they were heroes of the day, drawing large crowds. They also lost and won fortunes for their rich and aristocratic patrons.
The time was 1810 and Britain was in its golden age of organised boxing. As yet there were no Queensberry Rules, and boxing was bare-knuckled. There were few rules; there was to be no kicking, biting, gouging or elbowing. Grappling and throws were allowed above the waist. A round ended when one fighter was knocked down; he was allowed a 30 seconds rest, before the next round began. Fights were not scored, and only ended when one fighter was rendered unconsciousness or surrendered.
Tom Cribb was a Gloucestershire man, born at Hanham, near Bristol, in 1781. By the age of 28 he became Champion of all England. (He was generally in better condition than most other boxers, Daniel Donnelly, a contemporary, limited himself to 25 glasses of whisky a day, if he was preparing for a fight.)
Tom Molineux had grown up as a slave on a plantation in Virginia and had won his freedom in a fight. He then battled his way up from the Deep South to New York, where he claimed the title ‘Champion of America’. But it was in England where the real money was to be made, so he came there. At first, he was considered a crude fighter, but with time and the tutelage of Bill Richmond (another former slave and a skilled pugilist) Molineux became a dangerous one. In 1810, having defeated Tom Blake, Tom Cribb’s greatest challenger, he challenged Cribb himself to the first World Boxing Championship.
The honour of England was at stake and a very lively interest was taken in the matter. England’s main problem with Molineux had nothing to do with his colour; people were willing to give him credit as an excellent boxer, and his numerous affairs with white women were by and large overlooked. The much greater offence was the fact that he was an AMERICAN. The idea that a foreigner could take the trophy of British boxing was unthinkable.
However, on 18 December 1810, Cribb beat the American. They fought in the rain before 5,000 spectators. The wet turf made it difficult to stand and the falls were frequent. By the ninth round, the betting was 6-4 on Molineaux. By the eighteenth, each had taken such punishment that they could only be identified by their skin colour. In the nineteenth, Cribb was pinned against the ropes, Molineux having seized the top rope on either side of him, so that he could neither strike nor fall.
But the crowd beat Molineux’s hands with sticks, and he was forced to release his grip. Having benefitted from the rest, however, he then felled Cribb. Betting was now 4-1 on Molineux. In about the 28th round, Cribb was again felled and when the referee called time he was unable to resume. However, his second falsely claimed that Molineux was holding bullets in his fists and the resulting fracas gave Cribb time to recover whilst Molineux shivered in the rain. In the 39th round, Molineaux declared “Me can fight no more”, but was persuaded to try one more round. He agreed, but in the next round he collapsed unconscious. Cribb was declared the victor.
Molineux challenged Cribb to a return match, writing to him in The Times, on Christmas Day, 1810. This was accepted for a purse of 600 guineas. The fight took place at Thistleton Gap, in Rutland, in September 1811. This match was witnessed by a crowd of upwards of twenty thousand, one quarter of whom belonged to the upper classes. The fight much disappointed the spectators, as in the ninth round Molineux’s jaw was fractured, and in the eleventh he was unable to stand. The contest lasted only twenty minutes.
Cribb’s patrons had included Sir Thomas Ap Rhys and Captain Barclay, who was the first trainer to appreciate the value of road work, and who made Cribb lose 50 pounds (down to 13st) for his second fight. In contrast, Molineaux did not bother training; and in fact, just before the fight he ate a chicken and a huge pie, all washed down with a quart or two of stout. Cribb won easily, collecting £400 for what would be his last fight and Captain Barclay netted £10,000. Molineux received £50 from a collection. Cribb was declared ‘Champion for Life’.
Since Boxing is a manly game,
And Britons recreation,
By boxing we will raise our fame,
‘Bove any other nation.
The sons of France their pistols use
Pop, pop and they have done
But Britons with their hands will bruise
And scorn a way to run
Christine Bueno is a student on the Diploma in English Local History. She lives in Dorset.