Originally there were very few boxing rules, bouts ended just by submission and kicks and wrestling holds were used along with punches – bouts were quite brutal and bloody actions. Women’s boxing spread in England simultaneously with men’s boxing albeit not in famous venues and usually as prize fights. In addition to "men's technique" women used teeth, nails and hairpulling. Londoners first enjoyed the version of female physical prowess, much less pastoral than Spartan girl wrestling that was drawn by the famous artists. Surprisingly, the vast major of testimonies about manifestation of female combative activities between the XVII and XIX centuries are about boxing. Those old regrets about Spartan girl wrestling started sounding irrelevant at the time when women fist fought. References to female pugilists occur with surprising frequency. The sources, mainly newspapers and travelers’ accounts, were seldom precise about the promoters of the bouts, but they were presumably men. It was unlikely that women’s opinions included this kind of entrepreneurship. The women who fought were almost certainly extremely poor and they were probably sexually disreputable as well. They had little to lose from what seems, in many instances, to have been a ritual of degradation similar to prostitutes’ races of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The female boxers, however, appear to have felt pride in their prowess rather than shame at the ignoble uses to which they were put.
When the German traveler Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach visited London in 1710, he attended a boxing match and was told by a rowdy female spectator that she herself "had fought another female in the place without stays and in nothing but a shift. They had both fought stoutly and drawn blood, which was apparently no new sight in England". If it was a new sight, it soon became a familiar one. 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, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage, and box me for three guineas; each woman holding half-a-crown in her hand, and the first woman that drops the money to lose the battle." Shortly after came the reply: "I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate Market, hearing on the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words – desiring home blows, and from her, no favor: she may expect a good thumping!" No doubt there were hordes who would have loved to have witnessed Elizabeth and Hannah belting seven bells out of each other, but the women were threatened with jail if they persisted in a public prize fight. Could this be the first time boxing was driven underground? In the following year Martha Jones, a Billingsgate fish woman, challenged Wilkinson to fight. In the Wilkinson’s reply she claimed she had defeated Hyfield - she referred to having "beaten the Newgate Market basket woman". Besides, she declared herself the "City Championess". The bout took place "at the Boarded House in Marybon Fields", and again Wilkinson won. By 1728 Elizabeth Wilkinson had married Stokes who had a rival booth to James Figg on Islington Road in London. Elizabeth Stokes was calling herself "European Championess". Then she was challenged by an ass driver from Stoke Newington, Ann Field, at her husband’s booth in Islington road. The flavor of the times can be detected in the bravado of the two women who publicly challenged each other in the "Daily Post" for October 7, 1728. "Ann Field of Stoke Newington, an ass driver, announced herself ready to take on Elisabeth Stokes, "styled the European championess." The "championess" was more than willing to enter the ring: "I, Elisabeth Stokes, of the city of London, have not fought... since I fought the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate 9 minutes, and gained a complete victory, which is six years ago; but as the famous Stoke Newington ass woman dares me to fight her for 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." Again, the formidable Elizabeth succeeded.
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.
Then later, a forthcoming match was publicized with fanfare reminiscent of twentieth-century hype: "There has not been such a battle for these twenty 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." 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" where "The Hibernian Heroine" entertained crowds. In 1768 at the "Amphitheatre", "Bruising Peg", dressed in white stockings and Holland drawers, outclassed her opponent to the delight of several hundred spectators. In August 1792, two women fought at Chelmsford for three quarters of an hour with their husbands as seconds: "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 of the spectators, they were separated". In April 1795 the most famous pugilists of the epoch, Mendoza and Jackson acted as seconds in a fight near the New Road in London between Mrs. Mary Ann Fielding and "a Jewess of Wentworth Street", won by the former in 80 (!) minutes. There were 70 knockdowns - and a prize of 11 guineas.
A brutal bout between two women in 1794 was described as follows: "Great intensity between them was maintained for about two hours (!), whereupon the elder fell into great difficulty through the closure of her left eye from the extent of swelling above and below it which rendered her blind through having the sight of the other considerably obscured by a flux of blood which had then continued greatly for over forty minutes... not more than a place even as large as a penny-piece remained upon their bodies which was free of the most evident signs of the harshness of the struggle. Their bosoms were much enlarged but yet they each continued to rain blows upon this most feeling of tissue without regard to the pitiful cries issuing forth at each success which was evidently to the delight of the spectators since many a shout was raised causing each female to mightily increase her effort."
An account of women boxers appears in "Famous Fights", published in 1803. In this the writer described an incident from the first half of the 19th Century which occurred outside "The Crown" in Cranbourne Alley, in London. "The Crown" was owned by Stunning Joe Banks, a well-known publican at the time and a close friend of the pugilist fraternity. The protagonists, Amy Russell and Julie Pyne, are described as ladies both well-known to the residents of St Giles and the police. During an argument, the ladies decided to settle their differences according to the rules of the prize ring, with Stunning Joe acting as the referee. "Then the two Amazons stripped to the waist, tied up their hair, chose seconds of their own sex, and then set-to stunning Joe himself being referee. For 20 minutes they fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on. Once or twice, forgetful of the rules of the Prize Ring, they went for each other, literally with tooth and nail, but Joe interfered, and savage though they were, the two females (we cannot call them women) restrained their natural inclination to tear and claw, and standing up like men punched each other with their fists till the blood ran in streams down their faces and breasts."
William Hickey, a Hogarthian rake fond of eighteen-century low life, wrote memoirs that include a vivid account of a ferocious fight at Wetherby’s in Drury Lane: "The whole room was in an uproar, men and women promiscuously mounted upon chairs, tables and benches, in order to see a sort of general conflict carrying on upon the floor. Two she-devils, for they scarce had a human appearance, were engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their backs. For several minutes, not a creature interfered between them, or seemed to care a straw what mishap they might do each other, and the contest went on with unabated fury." The fight may have been simply a bar-room brawl, but the "London Times" continued to publish accounts on regular matches conducted under the same rules as men’s fights. The tone of the reports changed, however, early in the nineteen century when pugilism began to seem intolerable to middle-class sensibilities. When Betty Dyson, a vendor of sprats, met Mary Mahoney, a market woman, "The Times" (March 24, 1807) commented that "the Amazons fought for over forty minutes and were both hideously disfigured by hard blows. It was a sight that "afforded the most disgust." The "Sporting Magazine" of December 1811 had also carried a report of what it declared to be "Amazonian boxing". Two women, Molly Flower and Nanny Gent, fought to settle a family dispute for the price of a pint of gin and a new shawl. Flower won after a 20-minute struggle, and the writer was impressed: "Both were good hitters, and they were worse hit the head than is witnessed amongst many second-rate pugilists. Nanny jibbed a bit in the twelfth round and gave in from a dexterous hit down in the following round." Another match, which took place in 1822, fifteen years before Victoria’s ascent to the throne, signaled a sea-changed in British manners. It pitted Martha Flaharty against Peg Carey. As was often the case, the promoters of the bout counted on English-Irish antagonisms to increase the crowd’s excitement. The social class of the two participants was obvious: they fought for a prize of nearly eighteen pounds; they began at 5:30 am, before the fighters and the spectators had to be at work; and Flaharty consumed half a pint of gin before she stepped into the ring. Perhaps the gin deadened the pain of the blows she received. She won despite severe injuries.
Actually, bare-knuckle prize fist-fighting was very widespread entertainment in Britain. Participation in the Prize Ring was open to all social classes and to the both genders, although those who needed to fight for living far outnumbered those who fought for fun of love (especially it applied to women). Many of the fist fights were also organized as a way to settle disputes between two people – the most such fighters belonged to the working class, and occasionally some were women. Fighting women were often more vicious than the men - they would often strip each other naked, scratching and hitting until they were completely covered in blood. Since early the XVIII century (when female pugilism and boxing started having the notable history) until the Victorian era female prize fist-fighting was quite popular in the lower-class of Great Britain (see a newspaper article below). Irish female fighters were considered as the toughest ones - the frequency of references to Irish women in the prize ring was remarkable. The versifier James Bramston wrote on "Figg's new Theatre" where "cocks and bulls and Irish women fight."
As we mentioned, it was the sport 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 working class women, thought to be "naturally" tougher and more brutish than the delicate and docile Victorian ladies. 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 rarely seen in the sexually repressed Victorian woman. 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.
In the middle of XIX century, women’s prize fighting was taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Because there were relatively few women competitors, exhibition matches were often against men and sometimes women were the victors. More usually, women were seriously injured; at least one may even have been killed. 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.
But why it was common for female boxers to fight bare-breasted in the ages when women wore strict clothing in public? To excite male spectators? An interesting explanation has been offered: "In fact, women did box and "free fight" in front of working class crowds for money during the late 18th and 19th centuries and could make quite a bit of money doing it (compared with their less than subsistence wages). And yes, they did often fight bare-breasted. These fights were long and bloody and many of the blows were aimed at the upper torso. Given the scarcity of medication and the fact that any upper garment they would normally wear would be somewhat dirty, a skin-breaking blow with such a garment on could cause a life-threatening infection. So the 'healthy' alternative was topless boxing!" :-)
Such wild and brutal fistfights until submission became better regulated and organized after Marques of Queensberry in 1867 introduced new boxing rules based on the ideas of John Graham Chambers. The most important novelty was mandatory wearing boxing gloves. Many parameters of a boxing match were determined: sizes of the ring, weight of the gloves, introduction of the ten counts in the event of a knockdown, three minutes in duration followed by a one-minute interval. The Chambers-Queensberry regulations made boxing bouts shorter and more humane.
At that point the history of the old prize bare-knuckle fist fighting was over and the new epoch of the contemporary boxing began.
From Werner Sonntag's book "Kampfes Lust"
Prize fighting in a London's street, 18th century.
"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."
From the book "Women’s Sports: A History" by Allen Guttman (Columbia University press, 1991)
Spontaneous fist fight in a London market. Print. XVIII century.
Phillips Glass Plate Negative Collection
Two 19th Century maids bare their heaving bosoms and box it out bare knuckled for the pleasure of lords and ladies. In a time when the boxing was tough and the women tougher it's brutal bare-chested fist fighting for honour and pride.
Artwork from umbongo6's collection
Fistfight between two girls over a man.