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.
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 higher classes. The sport of bare knuckle boxing was born in the early 18th century from prize fighting – famous boxer James Figg is considered as its founding father.
Boxing began one of several periods of growth and transformation in the early 1700’s when the first recognized boxing champion, James Figg opened the ‘School of Arms and Self Defense’ in London. In 1719, Figg became the first English bare-knuckle champion, and held the title for 11 years. Figg changed the sport from one which used punching, wrestling and kicking (know 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.
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 Nogue’s "Voyages et Avantures", published in 1728, reported matches between girls and grown women "stripped to the waist." James Peller Malcolm’s "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 Figg’s famed "Amphitheatre".
This old sport of prize-fighting 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.
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.
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 at the right, two ladies supporting different boxers fight each other during a boxing match in a noble house).
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.
The "London Journal" for June 23, 1722, refers to a battle between "two of the feminine gender" who "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."
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".
Prize fighting that time was legal on the London stage and there was a definite distinction between trials of skills which involved weapons, usually swords and/or quarterstaffs 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.
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 refrazed referring to a female pugilist: "Rule, Britoness…"
Fair Fight: an illustrated review of boxing on British fairgrounds by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin (World’s Fair Ltd, London, 1999)
Bare knuckle prize fighting ("Female Bruisers")
Mezzotint by Butler Clowes (after John Collet). 1868
From Live Journal
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.
Prize fighting in a London's street, 18th century. Sketch from an old engraving.
"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."
Illustration from the book "Women’s Sports: A History" by Allen Guttman (Columbia University press, 1991)
'Can't Make Scratch'
From Drew Hammond's collection:
"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."
Fistfighting riles, 1741
Pierce Egan. The second contest between Cribb and Molineux, September 28, 1811.
Women's fist fights from old illustrations:
Two ladies supporting different boxers, fight at a boxing match. Fragment of an engraving
Women fight in the street and in the market. Fragment of an engraving