The East End of London is synonymous with boxing. I was fortunate enough to be invited to watch a series of bouts at York Hall a few years ago and the place was packed with locals, all knowledgeable about this sport. I’m aware that boxing isn’t everybody’s idea of a sport but when its fair, properly regulated, and boxers are protected, I think it is captivating.
There has been boxing in the East End for centuries, with pugilists drawn from all communities. In the late 1700s for example Daniel Mendoza (or ‘Mendoza the Jew’) held the English heavyweight title. He lived in Bethnal Green for over 30 years. Another son of Bethnal Green was Joe Anderson who rose to be ‘All England’ champion in 1897.
However, while boxing had emerged from bare-knuckle fights there was increasing concern to minimize the violence and reduce the risk to fighters. in 1866 bare-knuckle prize fights were made illegal and the police tasked with closing them down.
In October 1888, when you might have thought the police would have other, more important things, to concern themselves with, Inspector Joseph Capp was on watch outside number 30 East Road (on the City Road) with a number of uniformed constables. He was acting on information that the address, home to a German club called ‘The Morning Star’ was hosting an illegal prize fight.
Capp and his men knocked on the door of the club but no one answered. He tried again, with no more success and so decided to try and gain access to the roof. Inspector Capp managed to climb up onto the roof of the club, via an adjoining house, and tried to peer into the club through a skylight. The glass was cloudy however, and he couldn’t see what was going on below.
He could hear however and he heard the sounds of a crowd, of someone shouting ‘time!’ and then the sounds of blows. These were hard blows, not he thought, ones muffled by the use of gloves. This then was a bare-knuckle prizefight and he instructed his men to surround the club and move in to arrest those involved.
As his officers clambered over walls and forced their way inside there was a rush of people as the audience tried to escape. The police managed to get in however, and found 200-300 people inside. There was a ‘ring made of ropes and stakes in the centre of the hall’, and two boxers squaring up to each other. They were quickly arrested and carted off to the local nick.
At Worship Street Police court Mr Monatgu Williams (the presiding magistrate) was told that the police had found lots of tickets on the floor of the hall. These were for a dancing ball, the ruse that the organizers had chosen to cover their illegal event. A poster outside promised that dancing would start at 8.30 but the only dancing would be around the ring.
The police also seized ‘gloves, towels, ropes, etc’, all evidence that a fight was underway there. Both the men in the dock were bruised and bloodied so by the time the raid had stopped the fight it was clear it had been going on for some time.
One of the pair they’d arrested – Charles Smith, a 20 year-old bookmaker from Whitechapel – was bleeding from his ear and vomiting when he’d been arrested. He had been treated by the divisional surgeon so that he was fit to attend court. Both he and the other fighter, Arthur Wilkinson (a fish fryer from King’s Cross, also 20) were bailed to appear at a later date. A week later both were fully committed for trial.
On 22 November Smith and Wilkinson appeared before a jury at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, charged with ‘inflicting grievous bodily harm and conspiring together to commit a breach of the peace by engaging in a prize fight’. The defence was that this was ‘nothing but a glove fight’ but Inspector Capp was sure the noise of blows he’d heard (he had not been able to see the fight of course) were not, he thought, muffled by gloves. Gloves were found but they were still tied to the ring posts, perhaps to be quickly put on had the police not been able to gain access so quickly. A man named Marks, who was described as a ‘commission agent’ claimed he had tied the gloves on the hands of the fighters, so the men’s defense rested on whom the jury believed.
The pair were convicted and initially fined £10 each plus costs but the case was also adjourned for a month while the organization of the fight was investigated. It was estimated that the event had generated taxable profits, which also required an additional fine to be paid. However, there was a desire that neither of the men should be sent to gaol and that the persons responsible for organising the fight (and probably those who profited most from it) should be forced to pay the bulk of the £36 17s that was deemed to be owed in tax.
As a result the enquiries continued, Smith and Wilkinson’s fines were reduced to just £2 each and they were given more time to pay. Wilkinson was still in prison in early January 1889 which suggests he was unable to pay his reduced fine and costs. He was also instructed to keep the peace for six months, which presumably entailed refraining from bare knuckle fighting in the near future.
In 1897 the Queensbury Rules were instigated in an attempt to clean up the sport and bring it respectability. There are still issues with boxing today and boxers are still injured and die, but medical support is much better than it has ever been. Do go to York hall and take in a bout or two, it is a very friendly place and a connection to a long standing local heritage.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 22, 1888; Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 28, 1888; The Standard, Friday, November 23, 1888]