single combat


They made the history

Prize Fighters

Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes

Bare-Knuckled fighter
This is how Elizabeth Wilkinson and other 18th century British female prize fighters
are presented by the History Channel in the documentary "Fight Club: A History of Violence" (2010).

Hand-to-hand fighting is one of the oldest entertainments of both genders in Britain it is popular to this very day.
Prize fighting face to face is a truly folk sport and entertainment in Britain.

James Figg
James Figg, founder and promoter of boxing.

While low-class men fought, nobody paid attention but in the early 18th century it became known in media thanks to the interest to the sport from higher classes. The sport of bare knuckle boxing was born in the early 18th century from prize fighting famous boxing promoter James Figg is considered as its founding father.

Boxing Match, 1812 by Thomas Rowlandson
All Posters

Boxing began one of several periods of growth and transformation in the early 1700s when James Figg opened the School of Arms and Self Defense in London. Figg is considered as a great boxer, even though he actually was a boxing promoter and a great fencer engaging in sword duels and matches with quarterstaves and cudgels*. Figg changed the sport of boxing from one which used punching, wrestling and kicking (known as purring) to one which relied solely on punching skill. At the time, there were no weight restrictions or divisions, no gloves, no set number of rounds, no specified length to the rounds and no rest periods.

Although James Figg is considered as the first boxing champion, he rarely fought with fist (if ever), but mostly with weapon. However, fistfights were often held on his arena under his guidance, so he is justly regarded as the father of boxing. But there definitely was a questionless mother of boxing and hereinafter, her story will be told...

In 1743 Jack Broughton, a student of James Figg and known as the the father of English boxing, implemented the use of his Broughton Rules which soon caught on and became the standard for all bouts. Each round would end when a fighter was knocked down or out of the ring and a fight ended when one combatant was unable to rise from a knockdown within 30 seconds. Fights could end by knockout, capitulation or police intervention. These rules remained in play until 1839 when the London Prize Ring Rules introduced the use of a 24 square-foot boxing ring with ropes surrounding it.

As soon as the general public gets familiar with the sport of bare-knuckle fighting, it turned out that not only men had already been in the sport.

Martin Nogues "Voyages et Avantures", published in 1728, reported matches between girls and grown women "stripped to the waist." James Peller Malcolms "Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London" collected numerous references to female pugilists at Hockey in the Hole (a traditional venue for combat sports) and at James Figgs famed "Amphitheatre".

This old sport of prize-fighting when women participated in it was more close to kickboxing with elements of wrestling, rather than boxing. According to the rules women would punch, use their feet and knees kicking to all parts of their opponents body. They also could maul, scratch and throw. This resulted in serious injury for either or both fighters. Boxing fights at that time were bloody and bare-knuckled contests fought to the end among low class women. Sometimes female boxers were stripped to the waist.

In the 18th century, boxing became very popular in Britain men and women of low classes often fought for prize (and sometimes for spirit). But boxing was especially popular among male noble Britons (noble ladies of course didn't fistfight it was commoners' business; nevertheless, as you can see at the fragment of the engraving (right below), two ladies supporting different boxers fight each other during a boxing match in a noble house).

Bare knuckle prize fight
Bare knuckle prize fight
by Kirby

The sight of a vampish, aggressive woman, sweaty, bloody and often bare breasted, provided an exciting display of animality and passion. While this undoubtedly provided sexual titillation for the male audience, it also powerfully denies popularly held beliefs about the natural passivity, gentleness or weakness of the female sex.

Because there were relatively few women capable to fight, matches were often against men and sometimes women were the victors. More usually, women were seriously injured. On-the-spot stitching of large cuts was sometimes carried out so that a bout could continue, and women fought on with broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth and swollen eyes.

The first recorded modern female boxing fight with the bare hands took place in London in 1722 at the Boarded House, near what is now Oxford Circus, when Elizabeth Wilkinson, 'the Cockney Championess', beat Martha Jones. Elizabeth Wilkinson is considered as the first recorded champion female pugilist.

Later, Elizabeth married Stokes who owned a rival booth to James Figg on Islington Road in London. Elizabeth Stokes successfully fought in the husband's booth and called herself "European Championess". Actually she fought not only with her fists but mostly with weapons, such as dagger, cudgel, sword and quarterstaff.

Fistfight It was time when bare knuckled prize fighting became legal on the London stage and there was a definite distinction between trials of skills which involved weapons, usually swords and/or quarter-staffs and trials of manhood involving fists. Tony Gee in his research into the early history of prize fighting has revealed that in 1720s Elizabeth Stokes was one on the rare examples of a fighter who was equally proficient in both arenas and would engage in combat both with weapons and fists. He explains that: "Contrary to popular belief, no performer was required to engage in the two disciplines during the same contest, although boxing matches were often on the undercard of weapons confrontations. Elizabeth Stokes was primarily involved in trials of skill, in which she occasionally fought with her husband against other couples. However, in these mixed paired trials the women always appear to have competed only against each other and were never matched against the men. At no time, though, did pugilistic contests feature mixed pairs and in her fistic encounters Elizabeth Stokes was always billed individually." There is little doubt that women were involved in the prize ring during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, their fights are rarely recorded or taken seriously by the commentators writing at the time or by later historians.

More about Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes

Elizabeth Wilkinson
Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes acted in the documentary "History of Violence".

Challenge by Elizabeth Wilkinson Unfortunately, quite little is known about Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes, an incredible outstanding athlete, founder and inventor some special female forms of combat sports. She is the first known female boxer and mixed martial arts fighter in the history, circa 1720. In that time, fighting with various weapons was called mixed martial arts; and interestingly, female bare knuckle prize fighting then was closer to the contemporary MMA than to the contemporary boxing. She fought in the streets, sports arenas and theaters of England, against women and men, with fists and weapons such as swords, quarterstaves, cudgels, and daggers.

Surviving documents provide few details about Wilkinsons life. The exact details of her childhood and family remain a mystery, but she appears to have come from a working class English household, which was the background common of eighteenth century English boxers.

She was born in London around 1700 and proclaimed herself as being of the famous city of London." Her birth name, however, remains a mystery. The 1735 work, "Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals", describes the life and crimes of Robert Wilkinson, a notorious prize fighter, thief, and murderer, executed for his crimes in 1722. The section on Robert Wilkinson ends with a reprint of the newspaper advertisement, printed just days after Wilkinson's execution, in which Elizabeth Wilkinson makes her first appearance in the documentary record. The document, in which Elizabeth Wilkinson challenged Hannah Hyfield to meet her in the ring, appears without commentary, leaving the reader to assume a connection between the executed criminal and the woman who shared his last name. Evening Post (April 9th, 1928)" suggested that Robert Wilkinson was Elizabeth's first husband: "Elizabeth Wilkinson does not appear to have been happily mated in her first matrimonial venture, as she was married to Robert Wilkinson, who was a stage fighter at Hockley-In-The-Hole". However, columnist and boxing historian, Christopher James speculated that Wilkinson was not her legal name, but that she adopted it as a stage name, calculated to strike fear into the hearts of would be opponents by suggesting a connection to the infamous Robert Wilkinson. After her first documented fight in June 1722, her prizefighting career lasted until roughly 1728.

Prostitutes Fistfight
"Duel of prostitutes" by Paul Ballurian.
"The Female Regency in the History of Humanity"
Reprinted from MorphoGallery

James Peller Malcolm (1810), refers to the London Journal" for June 23, 1722 which reported a battle between two women: "Boxing in public at the Bear-Garden is what has lately obtained very much among the men; but till last week we never heard of women being engaged that way, when two of the feminine gender appeared for the first time on the Theatre of War at Huxley in the Hole, and maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators." After this description the advertisement appeared: I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, who had earlier had some words with Hannah Hyfield, challenged and invited her adversary to meet her on the stage for three guineas. Each fighter would hold half-a-crown in each hand and the first to drop the money would lose the battle. Elizabeth Wilkinson won on that day. Shortly after this she beat another lady pugilist from Billingsgate Martha Jones. The only details of this contest are that it lasted 22 minutes."

Marylebone and St. Pancras: Their History, Celebrities, Buildings and Institutions, by George Clinch (1890), broadside: "At the boarded house in Marylebone Fields, to-morrow being Thursday, the 8th day of August (1723), will be performed an extraordinary Match at Boxing, between Joanna Heyfield, of Newgate Market, basket-woman, and the City Championess, for Ten Pounds Note. There has not been such a battle for these 20 years past, and as these two Heroines are as brave and as bold as the ancient Amazons, the spectators may expect abundance of Diversion and Satisfaction from these Female Combatants. They will mount at the usual hour, and the Company will be diverted with Cudgel-playing till they mount. Note a scholar of Mister Figg, that challenged Mister Stokes last summer, fights Mister Stokes scholar 6 bouts at Staff, for three Guineas; the first blood wins. The weather stopped the Battle last Wednesday." As a matter of fact, it could be concluded from this advertisement that 20 years prior that event (1703?), women also fought each other.

According to James Peller Malcolm (1810), bare-knuckle prize fighting as well as bear baiting were illegal activities at least until 1724 even though police rarely interfered to stop it.

Fistfighters posing
Fighters in the combative pose
Composition from artworks in
Drew Hammond's collection

Although James Figg is currently listed as the Champion of English Boxing" from 1719-30, it would be a surprise to Figg himself. He was famed as a fencer and MMA fighter with a quarterstaff or dagger (at that time, mixed martial arts was a term for fighting with weapons). Boxing had been a novelty sport of minor standing at the theater named after him. Figg had organized occasional boxing matches, which made money and were crowd pleasers, but he was not offering himself to fight. Every participant of a boxing or fencing match was called a champion." A person who fought with their bare fists was a pugilist." James Figg stood above all as an MMA fighter but he did not fight with fists. It is inaccurate to state that this was a bare-knuckle fighter champion" from 1719-1730. The most famous bare-knuckle fighting male fighters of approximately 1725-26 were The Venetian Gondolier," and an Englishman named, Whittaker. James Figg helped bring them together to fight at his amphitheater. Figg had promised fair fighting" and the bout made a great deal of money.

Malcolms Anecdotes Of The Manners and Customs of London During the Eighteenth Century (1811)": August, 1725, produced a conflict for the entertainment of the visitors of Mister Figgs amphitheater, Oxford-road, which is characteristic of savage ferocity indeed. Sutton, the champion of Kent, and a courageous female heroine of that County fought Stokes and his much admired consort of London; 40 Pounds was to be given to the male or female who gave most cuts with the sword, and 20 (pounds) for the most blows at quarter-staff, besides the collection in the box." It is reasonable to believe that this is Elizabeth Wilkinson as the much admired consort." She would partner with Stokes and advance her professional fighting beyond bare-knuckle to include fencing and other mixed-martial arts. An Irish female MMA fighter, who does not appear to fight bare-knuckle, would become her #1 rival. On October 3rd, 1726, The Weekly Journal/British Gazetteer announced the Irish equivalent of Elizabeth Wilkinson (for the first time suggested as married): Whereas I, Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught, and knowing the noble science of defense, and thought to be the only female of this kind in Europe, understanding there is one in this Kingdom, who has exercised on the public stage several times, which is Missus Stokes, who is stilled the famous Championess of England; I do hereby invite her to meet me, and exercise the usual weapons practiced on the stage, at her own amphitheater, doubting not, but to let her and the worthy spectators see, that my judgment and courage is beyond hers."

The Daily Post, 1728, via New York Times (7/23/1882): Whereas I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington ass driver, well known for my abilities in boxing in my own defense wherever it happened in my way, having been affronted by Missus Stokes styled the European Championess do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing for 10 pounds fair rise and fall; and question not but to give her such proofs of my judgment that shall oblige her to acknowledge me Championess of the Stage."

Prize fighting
Two ladies supporting different boxers at a boxing match
fistfight each other
Fragment of a 18th century engraving.

The reply: I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, have not fought in this way since I fought the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate 29 minutes, and gained a complete victory, (which is six years ago); but as the famous Stoke ass-woman dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses." Boxing had undergone an enormous popularity shift within England from 1722 to 1728. So, Elizabeth Stokes didnt quit prize ring even at the end of her fighting career. The Venetian Gondolier/Whittaker bout had proved its enormous popularity and financial profits. The Elizabeth Stokes and Ann Field bare-knuckle fight was the main bout for this October 7th, 1728 event. Men would be fighting as the under card. There would be cudgel fighting of some sort as an opening act. It would be followed by a male bare-knuckle bout, not for ten pounds, but a single guinea.

Lets return to the fight between two great female athletes, Elizabeth Stokes and Mary Welsh. Much of the earliest female bare-knuckle fighting were Irish women, mostly referred as street women" or prostitutes, without names preserved. Mary Welch must have been a special athlete worthy of her own recognition. She had built some sort of fame as an MMA fighter before she had heard the name, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes. Mary Welch was an experienced swordswoman, along with quarter-staff and daggers. Welch would have had to surrender home stage advantage to Stokes, and it appears that she was likely defeated. It appears that Elizabeth Wilkinson married James Stokes, but Christopher James Shelton could not locate a London marriage certificate for the 1720?s. If she had been married prior, especially to a talented fencer, it would explain how she could have learned MMA technique. There must be some explanation as to how Wilkinson developed these skills. She would have been assisted by her husband, also an MMA athlete, but fencing is not the sort of sport that you suddenly develop. In fact, female bouts with weapons were quite fierce and bloody, especially with money on the line, she would be repeatedly slashed and profusely bleed. This is how Elizabeth answered Mary Welshs challenge: "I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, being well known by the name of the Invincible City Championess for my abilities and judgment in the above said science; having never engaged with any of my own sex but I always come off with victory and applause, shall make no apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the reputation I have hitherto, established, and shew my country, that the contest of its honor, is not ill entrusted in the present battle with their Championess." So, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes claims to have never fought MMA against anyone except men. Perhaps some would think it unlikely that a gentleman" would engage in fencing with a woman. We know, however, that in 1725 Ned Sutton participated in MMA mixed-gender fights. So it is not completely far-fetched to suggest that men and women could MMA dual against one another.

Prize fighting
Women fistfight in the market
Fragment of a 18th century engraving.

James Peter Malcolm, 1810 quoted the following newspaper ad: "In Islington Road, on Monday, being the 17th of July, 1727, will be performed a trial of skill by the two combative pairs which have exchange with messages: We, Robert Barker and Mary (Welch), from Ireland, having often contaminated our swords in the abdominous corporations of such antagonists as have had the insolence to dispute our skill, do find ourselves once more necessitated to challenge, defy, and invite Mister Stokes, and his bold Amazonian virago, to meet us on stage; where we hope to give a satisfaction to the honorable Lord of our nation, who has laid a wager of twenty guineas on our heads. They that give the most cuts to have the whole money, and the benefit of the house. And if swords, daggers, quarter-staff, fury, rage, and resolution will prevail, our friends shall not meet with a disappointment."
The reply: "We, James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the city of London, having already gained an universal approbation by our ability of body, dexterous hands, and courageous hearts, need not perambulate on this occasion, but rather choose to exercise the sword to their sorrow, and corroborate the general opinion of the town, than to follow the custom of our repartee antagonists. This will be the last time of (Elizabeth) Stokes performing on the stage..." Attendance will be given at three, and the combatants mount at six. They all fight in the same dresses as before."

Women fistfight in the street
Fragment of a 18th century engraving.

19th century American diplomat George Perkins Marsh during his lectures on the English language in 1861 (in context of bombastic language) mentioned a pugilistic challenge of 1720s, in the New York Tribune as of October 1858. It is said to have been taken from an old newspaper: "I, Felix Maguire, first master on the Kingdom of Ireland, tutor to the noted Mister Holmes, who has fought the celebrated Mister Figg this season to general applause, the last of which battles I was engaged with him myself, whereas I hit the said Mister Figg on the belly and gave him other convincing proof of my judgment therein, on Wednesday, the 11th instant, when, contrary to all expectations, Missus Stokes, styled the invincible, matchless, unconquerable city championess, took on her to condemn the method of Mister Holmes; displaying his skill before a grand appearance assembled, which, with regret, I was obliged to hear, and in regard, though said gentleman was my pupil, I so far resent it that I hereby invite Mister James Stokes, together with his said Elizabeth, his wife, at their own seat of valor, and at the time appointed, to face and fight me and a woman I have trained up to the science from her infancy, one of my own country, and who I doubt not will as far exceed Missus Stokes as she is said to have done those she has hitherto been concerned with."

In fact, success of Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes along with James Figg, gave them a reputation that encouraged challenges. It is unclear in what fighting style Felix Maguire managed to hit his opponent on the belly - it could be a bare-knuckle punch but more likely a weapon landed against Mr./ Figg given that he was the champion swordsman rather than a boxer as many think. The above mentioned challenge is another example of mixed-team gender MMA fighting.

While most people have heard of the gladiators of ancient Rome, far fewer know of those who fought in London and other places in the British Isles and British colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although these highly ritualized combats took place in locations as remote as Jamaica, Barbados, and rural Ireland, during the seventeenth century the most popular setting for such fights was undoubtedly the infamous Bear Garden in Southwark, London. In 1672, a Frenchman named Josevin de Rocheford visited the Bear Garden and observed:

We went to the Bergiardin, where combats are fought by all sorts of animals, and sometimes men, as we once saw. Commonly, when any fencing-masters are desirous of showing their courage and great skill, they issue mutual challenges, and before they engage parade the town with drums and trumpets sounding, to inform the public there is a challenge between two brave masters of the science of defence, and that the battle will be fought on such a day.

What followed these processions was violent and often gruesome. On the appointed day, to the sound of trumpets and beating drums, the two combatants would ascend the stage, strip to their chests, and, on a signal from the drum, draw their weapons and commence fighting. The combat would continue until one man conceded, or was unable to continue. In de Rochefords account, the combatants continue fighting while enduring horrific wounds, including severed ears, sliced-off scalps and half-severed wrists. Bouts occurred with different types of weapons, including longsword, backsword, cudgel, foil, single rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and gauntlet, falchion, flail, pike, halberd, and quarterstaff. Although such fights were not intended to end in death, the wounds received were often serious enough to incur it.

During the 18th century, the ampitheatre of renowned fencer and pugilist James Figg became the resort of all the most celebrated masters and mistresses of the art. On Nov. 20, 1725, Guests Journal announced the imminent arrangement of a gladiatorial fight involving females:

We hear that the gentlemen of Ireland have been long picking out an Hibernian heroine to match Mrs. Stokes, the bold and famous city championess. There is now one arrived in London, who by her make and stature seems likely enough to eat her up. However, Mrs. Stokes being true English blood (and remembering some of the late reflections that were cast upon her husband by some of the country folk) is resolved to see out vi et armis. This being likely to prove a notable and diverting entertainment, it is not at all doubted but that there will be abundance of gentlemen crowding to Mr. Figgs ampitheatre to see this uncommon performance.

A Husband and Wife Fight as Gladiators in 1727 London

Figgs vs Stokes
Illustration by William Hogarth

Weapons which Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes would fight with


Quarterstaff fight

Quarterstaff fight

Quarterstaff fight

Fighting with the quarterstaff. Contemporary role games.

Quarterstaff (also short staff or simply staff) is a traditional European pole weapon for stick fighting, especially as in use in England during the Early Modern period.

Sword, short sword and dagger

Rapier fight
18th Century Sword fight. Artwork by Julius Klinger.
From La Femme dans la Decoration Moderne

Rapier and dager fencing 1880's Austrian women's fencing team poses in the fencing style of sword and dagger. Old postcard.
From Michigan State University

Small sword (or smallsword or dress sword) is a light one-handed sword designed for thrusting which evolved out of the longer and heavier rapier of the late Renaissance. The height of the small sword's popularity was between mid-17th and late 18th century.
Dagger. A knife fighting weapon. The dagger was very popular as a fencing and personal defense weapon in 17th- and 18th-century. Daggers were the only weapon commoners were allowed to carry on their person. These weapons were often used as off-hand weapons in conjunction with a single-handed sword. It was also called "parrying dagger".


Wooden cudgels.
From Hoplology

Duel with cudgels by Francisco de Goya.
From Comics-Posters

18th Century country man and women
armed with cudgels.
Chap-books of the 18th Century. 1882

Cudgel or singlestick - a slender, round wooden rod, traditionally of ash, with a basket hilt (a hand protecting guard). Popular fencing weapon in the 18th century Britain.

Bare fist

Fistfight Fistfight Fistfight




Bare knuckle fistfight. Artworks by Pauline Goodwyn

Fist is the natural weapon of "unarmed" individuals. People have been using fists in fights and sport competitions from the ancient times. Bare-knuckle boxing (also known as bare-knuckle, prizefighting, or fisticuffs) is the original form of boxing, closely related to ancient combat sports, which was one of the first sports in the Ancient Olympics.

Old bare knuckled
fighter acted by
a member of the
Amateur Boxing
Association of England

She Made the History

English Historical Boxing Championship Timeline says: Male: 1725/26, Whittaker, Peartree, Gritton. 1727, John Gritton. Female: 1720?s, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes." Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes was an important bare-knuckle pugilist, irrespective of gender. There is little reason for James Figgs inclusion in the International Boxing Hall of Fame other than as a businessman or promoter. Historical proof concurs that Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes fought bare-knuckle during the 1720?s, but not James Figg. Despite handling a dagger, fighting with a quarter-staff, wielding a fencing sword against men, while landing and receiving punches, the 1720?s Invincible English Championess" has not been included in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Sometimes, when experiencing the human history, it is tempting to view someone as an innovative link to the future. In fact, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes was a forerunner in the area female combat sports, at that not in several of them at once in boxing, kickboxing (remember, prize fighters used not only their fists), stickfighting, fencing with variety of weapons. Although no female fighters of her level are known since her time until the modern era, her followers are traced throughout 18th and 19th centuries and various cases of female combat activities have been recorded.

Sketch by Thomas Rowlandson
In the 18th century, the popularisation of the sport of boxing coincided with a sudden shift in attitudes towards the playful transgression of gender roles which had characterised elite social activities. People began realizing that women were capable to inflict violence and to take the heat.
From the page PrintShopWindow

Throughout the 18th century, women's boxing was practiced and promoted alongside that of their male compatriots. In 1795, the legendary champions Daniel Mendoza and 'Gentleman" John Jackson even acted as seconds in a fight for a prize of 11 guineas, between Mrs. Mary Ann Fielding and a woman known only as the "Jewess of Wentworth Street". For that sum, the two fought for 80 minutes during which there were over 70 knockdowns between them.

An Essex local report said: "In August 1793, a pitched battle was fought in Elmstead, near Chelmsford, Essex, by two LADIES of pugilistic spirit. Being stripped, without caps, and their hair closely tied up, they set to, and for 45 minutes supported a most desperate conflict; when, although one of them was so dreadfully beat as to excite apprehension for her life, her husband possessed brutality enough still to prompt her to fight; but, through the interference separated."

Women's boxing continued into the early 19th century. The March 24, 1807 edition of the Morning Chronicle reported: "Several fights amongst the lower orders on Sunday morning near Hornsey Wood but the one which afforded the most diversion was between two women the opponents were Betty Dyson a vender of sprats and Mary Mahony a market woman. These Amazons fought in regular order upwards of forty minutes until they were both hideously disfigured by hard blows. Betty was once completely blind but the lancet restored her sight and Mary was at length obliged to resign to her the palm of victory. The contest was for five guineas."

The last major prize fight of note between women took place in 1822. The combatants, an Irishwoman by the name of Martha Flaherty and an Englishwoman named Peg Carey, were competing for the rather large purse of ?17, 10s. Bare-knuckle fighting for women drew an ever-rougher crowd. Fights were often staged at dawn before everyone went to work, or as they were coming home.

Boxing baroness Lady Barrimore In early 1790s, there lived The Boxing Baroness Lady Barrymore, who used boxing to amuse her sport-mad husband. The story of the boxing baroness is quite interesting. Boxing, or pugilism as it was then frequently called, was one of the Earl of Barrymore's particular pleasures. It was fashionable for aristocratic young men to exercise themselves at a sport that even the Prince of Wales had enjoyed in his younger and slimmer days, so the Earl kept a pugilist as his constant companion. He also boxed with his mistress, Miss Charlotte Goulding. The lady--hardly the right word, in this case--was neither rich nor well-born, being the daughter of a sedan chairman. It must have been true love for in June, 1792, the couple claimed to have eloped to Gretna Green. Seems they may never have reached Scotland but perhaps they were married soon after. The new Lady Barrymore enjoyed sparring with her husband---bare-fisted, as was the practice in those days. Their pleasure was short-lived. In 1793, the Earle's musket accidentally discharged and killed him at the age of 24. He was on the verge of financial ruin. After that, she seemed to live long among low class artisans and prostitutes where her pugilistic skills were very helpful.

In Victorian Era, female prize fights went underground until the end of the 19th Century when the new era of emancipation of women came (especially in USA) and first "world boxing championesses" appeared (but it happened in America).

Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes provided a point of imperial pride for authors that pointed to her as proof that the British of both genders were strong and brave. This began to change at the end of the nineteenth century. As the British Empire seemed in danger of collapse and the American economy shifted unpredictably, men on both sides of the Atlantic basin began to redefine Their masculinity. They embraced a new form of passionate manhood that judged men as lovers, athletes, and for their ability to give and withstand pain in the boxing ring. Boxing, which had long been British regardless of gender, now became male, regardless of nationality. Men built a mythical past for boxing that ignored Wilkinson and crowned one of her contemporaries, James Figg, even though being a fighter and boxing promoter, he was not a great boxer and didnt pretend he was.

In fact, permanent British love of both genders to fistfighting (specifically existence such fighters as Elizabeth) reflects their national character including proud, persistency, toughness, and purposefulness, vigor, self-dependence. Not without reason the song is still popular: "Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves, Britons never will be slaves!" It might be rephrased referring to a female pugilist: "Rule, Britoness"

How Elizabeth and other female fighters looked like, where and how they fought and what they wore when fighting?

Since very little first-hand information is available about the first female prize fighters, we just can speculate.
We should try to answer the following questions:

- What social class they belonged to?
- How they looked like and what attire they wore when fought?
- How they fought (rules, terms, techniques)?

Street prize fight
Street prize fight

Prize fighting in a London's street, 18th century. An old engraving and the sketch.
"The ladies decided to settle their differences according to the rules of the prize ring, stripped to the waist, tied up their hair and fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on. Forgetful of the rules of the Prize Ring, they went for each other, literally with tooth and nail."
It seems to be the most valid depiction of topless female fighting which usually involved prostitutes.
Illustration from the book "Womens Sports: A History" by Allen Guttman (Columbia University press, 1991)

Unlike male fighters, female ones mostly belonged to the low class who had to put themselves into real danger in order to earn a few pence. Famous Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes started her prize fighting career as a low class woman who competed with market girls or ass drivers. However, she eventually grew up into a skillful performer who fought on stages against women and men not only with her fists but also with fencing weapons. Perhaps, in her late career period she moved socially, even though stage performing was still not considered as too respectful occupation.

By the way, the prize to the winner was not necessarily money; it might be a glass of gin, new clothes and even a man. So, any fight or brawl based on the principal "the winner takes all" might be considered as prizefighting.

Prize fighting The most if female prizefighters were extremely poor, they might possess very few pieces of clothing; considering it was a pre-loom era. Since the prize fights were bloody, female fighters "tied up their hair and stripped to waist" in order to safe their clothing. The most of available reports testifies that the most of female fighters (particularly prostitutes) fought topless. It is unclear though whether they were able to strip down the upper parts of their costumes or put in separate skirts. It is also possible they fought in underwear breeches or even naked.

In fact, professional stage performers (like later Elizabeth) had special attire or uniform if performed in front of decent audience. According to the ads of the match between Mrs. Stokes and May Welch in October 1726, they fought in close jackets, short petticoats, coming just below the knee, Holland drawers, white stockings, and pumps. It is interesting and significant that the clothing of the combatants is described (nobody cared what men wore), and sounds very practical and modest. Female fighters probably set their hair into bins in order not to obstruct the view.

Female fighters probably set their hair into bins in order not to obstruct the view.

In the 2012 documentary Fight Club: a History of Violence, female fights in the 18th and 19th were illustrated as the no rules catfights of the stews rather than pugilism. Although the girls in the video footage were not topless and fought in typical underwear clothing of commoners of that time, in the program they said the girls would have worn considerably less than in the video footage. The historian from the British Library said they had no actual accounts of any fights for Elizabeth but that her public shows of martial arts skills were documented.

Prize fighting Referring to the documentary, Pauline Goodwyn, a professional in historical clothing, says Elizabeth Stokes would more likely have dressed in similar fashion but wearing a simple chemise top especially as her public displays had her demonstrating her skills with men. Tight breeches and what look like buckled dancing shoes rather than the boots. She depicted Elizabeth who she thinks as a big girl, in outdoor training.

Another testimony about the attire of female fighters: "In 1768 at the Amphitheatre, the 'Bruising Peg', dressed in white stockings and Holland drawers, outclassed her opponent to the delight of several hundred spectators."

According to available records about female prize fights, most of them were extremely brutal and bloody until one of two fighters is incapable to continue. However, more humane prizefighting terms were introduced specifically for women' contests. It is so-called "half-crown rule" (allegedly invented by Mrs. Stokes) - women fought with half a crown in each of their fists, and the first to drip a coin lost the bout. Elizabeth Stokes preferred to fight according to this rule.

Now, the last (but not least) question: what techniques female prizefighters used? Some records described some female fights as brutal no holds barred (closer to the mixed martial arts) - not only punches were used but also kicks, holds, throws as well as scratching and hairpulling. These matches actually were "no rules" and no time limits and it was thought particularly effective to punch and scratch an opponent on the face and breasts, this rough boxing was popular with the Irish, both as fighters and as spectators and as it was fought on such a low level, few records remain. However, under the half-crown rules, the contestants just punched each other (mostly in the face) holding a half a crown in each hand - until someone dropped it. (The half-crown had the diameter 1.3" or 32mm.) It was quite clever, as it stopped scratching and gouging, and put a time limit on the fight. It was really pure decent boxing in which women were pioneering (while men fights were bloody until the knockout).

As it was said, in the early 18th century Britain women began their prize fighting experience at the dogfight arenas; that's probably why womens fights were called catfights at that time. So, originally, the term catfight was related to real bloody and brutal fight for prize between women. In fact, since not only punches were allowed, those fights could be called no-hold barred or mixed martial arts (while then it was a term for multi-weapon martial arts). Other usual venues for female prize fights were barns and bars. As Elizabeth got married Mr. Stokes, a prize arena owner, she performed in his amphitheater and perhaps, she acted more as a fencer and stickfighter rather than a fistfighter.

ASo, it is right to say that British women first began no-hold barred hand-to-hand contests for prize, in front of spectators. Moreover, they invented a decent term of a boxing match which allowed avoid brutality and made the bout as noble as a fistfight even can be. In this regard, Elizabeth Stokes is remembered not just as the first prize fighting championess but also as an inventor of a decent boxing style. Not to mention, she was also the best in fighting with the quarter-stuff, dagger, short sword and cudgel.

Artistic glance at Elizabeth Wilkinson and her combative contemporaries

This is how Pauline Goodwyn, an artist and a professional in historical clothing, thinks Elizabeth Stokes might look like in her outdoor training

This artwork depicts female prize fighters
competing topless in skirts.
Composition based on artworks of Calvados

Elizabeth Stokes has defeated an opponent in a quarterstaff bout.
By Gina

Bare knuckled fight
This is how Pauline Goodwyn envisages an old female prize fight.
From DeviantArt

Female boxing in the Georgian Era (1714-1830) included
not only punches but also holds and throws.
Composition of artworks in Drew Hammond's collection

July 30, 2008
Renewed: August 2014

Exclusive of the Female Single Combat Club


A History of Women's Boxing by Malissa Smith

Womens Sports: A History" by Allen Guttman (Columbia University press, 1991)

Fair Fight: an illustrated review of boxing on British fairgrounds by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin (Worlds Fair Ltd, London, 1999)

"Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London during the Eighteen Century"

Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London from the Roman invasion to the year 1700 by James Peller Malcolm, 1811

"Bare Fists: The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting" by Bob Mee

Social Life & Customs in London. Book Reviews

Pierce Egan. Boxiana: sketches of ancient and modern pugilism, 1824

Eighteen Century boxing by Randy Roberts

'1720s English MMA Fighter: Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes' by Christopher James Shelton

The Martial Chronicles: Fighting Like a Girl by John S. Nash.

History Channel: 'Fight Club: A History of Violence'

The Boxing Baroness

Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals

'Disappearance: How Shifting Gendered Boundaries Motivated the Removal of Eighteenth Century Boxing Champion Elizabeth Wilkinson from Historical Memory' by Christopher Thrasher,

British women in street fistfights by artists

Female Bruisers
"The Female Bruisers" by John Collet, 1768. Canvas.
From Page of Stuart S. Laing

Sal Dab giving Monsieur a reciept in full

Sal Dab giving Monsieur a reciept in full
Satire against the French, with a fist fight between an English fish-wife on the right, and a Frenchman; in a cobbled street, with three bystanders including a fishwife who holds out a lobster to pinch the foreigner's bottom. May 1776
Mezzotint with hand-colouring. British Museum

Ladies' fight. 18th century satirical engraving

Theatrical knockout

Outdoor Pugilism
'Can't Make Scratch'
"Back in the 1700 and 1800's in England, when a fighter is knocked down they have to get back to a scratch mark in the center of the dirt ring in a short period of time, in order to continue fighting."
From Drew Hammond's collection

Fistfight under the bridge and praise of the winner.
Illustration from 'the National Police Gazette', 1870s-90s

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