A ‘young hero’ engages in an ‘attaque à outrance’ near Battersea Bridge

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On Sunday afternoon, the 7 October 1860 PC John McGuire of V Division was called to attend an incident in Lindsay Place close to Battersea Bridge.  When he got there he saw a huge crowd of youths, possibly as many as 200, which formed a ring. As he forced his way through the throng he found two young lads, aged about 10, slugging it out in the centre.

He stopped the fight and soon discovered that the boys had been at it for ages, being dragged apart on no less that six occasions already. They seemed very determined to fight and it took all of PC McGuire’s physical and persuasive abilities to get them to stand down and to take them into custody.

Both lads were bailed to appear the following morning at Westminster Police court but only one of them, James Wood, turned up.    The court heard that ‘the mantles of Sayers and Heenan’ had ‘descended upon their shoulders’ and that they had ‘made up their minds to do battle à l’outrance’ (or attack to excess as the expression translates).

The reference to Sayers and Heenan was to what has been termed the world’s first title fight which took place in April 1860. The American champion John Carmel Heenan came to England to fight the British boxer Tom ‘Brighton Titch’ Sayers. Thousands flocked to Farnborough to see the fight that ended in a bloody draw as the police raided the venue. The fight was illegal and no rules on the length of ‘rounds’ applied then. However, the fight prompted questions in Parliament and led to the formation of the ‘Dozen Rules’ by the London Amateur Athletic Club in 1865. These were approved in parliament and were sponsored by John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury.

As for James Wood the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Paynter, asked why the fight had occurred. James explained that he had caught his opponent trying to drown a dog and when he had tried to stop him the pair had agreed to settle it with their fists. It was a noble gesture in the eyes of the press who described him as a ‘young hero’ (perhaps a little tongue in cheek), and Mr Paynter perhaps agreed. However, fighting on a Sunday was against the law and the justice warned him not to engage in it again, and then let him go, his reputation significantly enhanced by his day in court.

The other lad (who remained unnamed) suffered by comparison. The papers suggested that ‘the long arm of the law [was possibly] too strong for his juvenile constitution’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 09, 1860]

Like this? You might enjoy these other posts that involve boxing:

Illegal boxing in North East London

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

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Today’s story picks up on where we left it yesterday, with a young lad of 12 being committed for trial for killing another youth in a fist fight at Rotherhithe. A police inspector from the Thames office was also charged with being an accessory, as he was seen to encourage the boy to strike down his opponent. The trial took place on 10 May 1858 in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.

Martha Warren was the first witness to take the stand. She swore that she saw the fight taking place in Cross Street, Rotherhithe at 1 in the afternoon. There was a ring of boys surrounding the pair, but only three adults were present, one of whom was Henry Hambrook a police inspector although at the time he was on sick leave and was quite close to retiring from the force.

Martha testified that she had heard the policeman utter the words ‘Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again’, and soon afterwards saw the victim, Thomas Boulton, fall down after William Selless landed just such a blow under his ear. It was clearly a shock to William to see what effect his assault had had on the other boy, and as we saw yesterday he ran all the way home to his mother scared of what would happen next.

Martha was able to identify one of the three men gathered at the scene, his name was John Ventham, and she must have known him as a local man. Under cross examination she was clear that none of the men had tried to separate the lads, instead they watched and encouraged the fight. She heard Hambrook tell Sellers:

‘Keep up to him, young one, and give him right and left’ before whispering something else in his ear. 

When Boulton fell to the floor with a scream Hambrook did nothing to help she added, but simply ‘put up his hand and went away’. Others did come to help, including a woman who rushed over to fetch some water in a tub. The stricken lad was carried off by one of the bystanders, a Mr. Kitchen, but died of his injury.

James Francis also witnessed the fight and heard the policeman offer his advice to Selless. He gave some background to the fight as well, telling the court that the two lads were actually friends and that the quarrel between them had arisen over ‘three buttons’ and an accusation that Selless had failed to look after the other boy’s goat. Boulton had started it and he was, as others had noted, the taller and slightly older of the pair (Boulton was 13, Selless just 12).

The fight was conducted like a boxing match – the pair traded blows and they fought in rounds. Selless had been knocked down early in the conflict, but regained his feet. Perhaps the crucialy part of Francis’ testimony was when he said that ‘they fought very severely for little boys, [but] not so violently as they did when Hambrook came’.

This suggested that the police inspector, who should surely have put a stop to the fight actually chose to escalate it and his actions had a direct impact on the tragedy that happened that day.

The fight seems to have been quite well balanced for the most part, Selless went down twice, his opponent three times, as they squared up to each other. It must have gone on for 15 minutes or more before Selless landed his fatal blow. Thomas Simpson, a local surgeon, who testified that the cause of death was a ruptured blood vessel close to the lad’s ear, examined Boulton. He suspected that the injury was caused by the fall however, not the blow itself. It was an accident born out of the fight, nothing deliberate or malicious.

‘The sudden fall would be quite sufficient to rupture the blood vessel’ he said, ‘considering the excited state the vessels were in—it was what would be called an apoplectic fit—there was not the slightest mark under the ear’.

Simpson then offered Hambrook a character witness saying he was ‘a kindly disposed, humane person’. Several others stepped up to give similar testimonials for the policeman including the officer that arrested him, who added that he was about to be pensioned out of the force on account of his failing health.

The jury were directed to convict both defendants on the strength of the facts given in court and they duly did. Both were recommend to mercy however, and the judge took this into account in sentencing.

He sent Sellers to prison for just three days, accepting that he had no intention to cause the death of his friend. As for Hambrook he also accepted that the man had no desire to encourage the boy to kill and that if he had ‘he should pass a very different sentence’ upon him. However, he was a police officer and his had a duty to uphold the law and keep the peace.

Instead ‘he had incited the boy Sellers [sic] to continue the contest; and there was no doubt that owing to his suggestion the fatal result had taken place’.  He would therefore go to prison with hard labour for three months.

At this Hambrook pleaded for mercy. He was ill, suffering he said from heart disease and wouldn’t cope with hard labour. The judge, Baron Martin, was implacable, there was no way he could reduce the sentence he said and the policeman was taken down.  Hambrook was 52 in 1858 so while not old, he was not young either and he might have expected a hard time in prison (as all coppers can). Moreover his disgrace would have meant the loss of his pension along with his liberty and livelihood. As for William Selless he seems to have stayed out of trouble after this but didn’t live a long life. Records suggest he died in March 1892 at the age of just 46.

This fight between two friends who fell out over something ill defined and certainly trivial ended in tragedy. Thomas Boulton lost his life and a police inspector with many years of good service lost his reputation and his future economic security. As for William Selless we should remember he too was just a child and he would have to live his life forever haunted by the sound of his friend screaming as his blow sent him crashing to the floor.

What a senseless waste of three lives.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 13, 1858]

‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ Manslaughter as two boys go toe-to-toe.

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Greenwich Pier, c.1850

Today’s story will unfold in two parts and starts at the Greenwich Police court in April 1858.

William Sellis, aged just 12, was brought up before Mr Traill charged with causing the death of another boy in a fight. John Thomas Bolton (who was 13) had died following a clash in Wellington Street. What made this tragedy all the more interesting (from a newspaper’s point of view) was that Sellis was not some street urchin but the son of ‘respectable parents’ from Rotherhithe and that a police inspector was also charged as an accessory.

It was not the first hearing in the case and so some of the details were already in the public domain. Inspector Henry Hambrook of the Thames Police was accused of egging Sellis on, and urging him to target his victim:

“Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again” he was alleged to have told the youngster.

The boys were fighting toe-to-toe as in a prizefight and Bolton was slightly taller. Two more rounds elapsed before Sellis applied the advice the inspector had given him and connected with his opponent just below the ear. According to witnesses Bolton fell to the ground, screamed and curled himself into a defensive ball. Sellis was horrified at what he’d done running home and yelling ‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ before going on to the doctors to see how his victim was.

In court the inspector’s lawyer pleaded on behalf of his client, emphasising his long service and the effect that any stain on his character would have on his pension and retirement. He’d served at Thames for 15 or 16 years and was currently off work on sick leave.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate. Mr Traill said that someone with Hambrook’s knowledge of the law and position in the community should have known better than to encourage such violence.

‘It was a most abominable act’ he said adding that ‘it was the duty of every person to prevent a breach of the peace; and when an officer of the peace, who had been connect with the police’ for such a long time ‘took no steps to prevent such an act, but assisted, he thought it a most shameful proceeding’.

However, Traill didn’t seem inclined to formally commit the policeman as an accessory as he wasn’t sure the evidence of intent was there. Mr Solomon, Hambrook’s lawyer, wanted his client to speak in his own defence but the justice was not inclined to hear him. Solomon pressed his case saying that if only Handbrook could explain he was sure he would be exonerated. Finally Mr Traill agreed, and it proved to be a mistake on the defence’s part.

Hambrook chose to challenge the various witnesses that had already testified to his involvement but each one stuck to their evidence and left the inspector high and dry. The magistrate now committed both the lad and the police inspector to trial for the killing of John Bolton. Hambrook was bailed but Sellis, despite the coroner being happy to allow, was refused bail and taken away to a cell to await his transfer to trial later in the year.

I will look at that trial and its aftermath in tomorrow’s blog.

[from The Standard , Monday, April 26, 1858]

A ‘friendly quarrel’ ends in a broken leg and a prosecution for assault

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A Drummond Street grocer 

Assault was one of the most common charges to be heard before the Police Courts of nineteenth-century London. Assaults varied however, and the definition in the police handbook allowed for a considerable amount of discretion on the part of the victim, police or the courts. Assault could mean something as minor as a shove or a threat, but it could also involve a real attempt to harm.

Definitions were tightened during the later 1800s and the Offences Against the Person Act (1861) enshrined in law the modern forms of violence that are prosecuted today, such as grievous bodily harm (GBH), actual bodily harm (ABH) and wounding. All of these could be prosecuted at a higher jury court while common assault was routinely dealt with my the magistracy.

A dispute ‘over shillings’ had broken out between Daniel Skelton and Frederick Flint and the pair squared up to each other in Drummond Street. It was about 11 o’clock at night and so perhaps alcohol was involved. Both men divested themselves of their jackets and a so-caleld ‘fair fight’ began.

So far, so good – there was no need for the police or the law to get involved.

‘They had several rounds’ before ‘both men fell’. Flint got up to continue the fight but Skelton was unable to – he had broken his leg in the fall.

The injured man was carried to the nearby University College Hospital while Flint was arrested and taken into custody. The next day Flint was hauled before the magistrate at Marylebone Police Court and charged with the assault.

Flint explained that Skelton was his friend and they had both been ‘the worse for drink’ which had contributed to the squabble. He’d intended no harm however and he’d spoken to Skelton who had accepted that he was as much to blame for his own injury as Flint was. Nevertheless, the court was told that Skelton’s broken leg was serious and he would be laid up for five or six weeks as a result.

If Flint was hoping he would walk away from court without sanction he was to be disappointed. The policeman that arrested him was determined he should face some punishment and told the magistrate that the 25 year-old was not telling the truth and requested a remand until his victim could appear in court to testify. The magistrate agreed but said he was prepared to release Flint if he could find ‘substantial bail’.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 08, 1883]

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

In the 1840s the biggest name in English boxing was Benjamin Caunt. Ben Caunt (pictured below) was one of the first English prize-fighters to seek international acclaim. In 1841 he traveled to the USA to look for rivals to fight for a world title but ended up bringing an American boxer home with him to manage instead. Caunt was so famous that some have suggested the bell within the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster was named after him, which seems unlikely.

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By 1846 ‘Big Ben’ was running a pub in St Martin’s Lane with his wife, although he continued to box well into the 1850s.

John Gill was a baker who lived in Cumming Street, Pentonville. On Saturday 19 December 1846 he had been drinking in the Caunts’ pub and got up to leave. Mrs Caunt asked him to settle his bill of 5s and at this point the baker made some wrong choices.

First, while he acknowledged the debt, he argued that since  her husband owed him 5 guineas it was a bit unfair of her to ask him to pay up in full when ‘Ben’ was already in his debt.

Such familiarity didn’t go down terribly well with Mrs Caunt. She came around from the other side of the bar and stood toe-to-toe with him.

‘Does Ben owe you anything?’ she asked, ‘Then I’ll pay you this way’, and punched him twice in the face.

Regaining his feet if not his composure, and finding his mouth full of blood, Gill staggered to the bar and launched a stream of abusive words at the landlady.

That was his second mistake.

Ben Caunt heard the foul language aimed at his wife and loomed into view, hauling the baker to his feet and throwing him out on to the street.

All of this of course landed Mrs Caunt in court before Hardwick at Marlborough Street. In her the dock Mrs Caunt didn’t deny the assault but said she had been provoked. She alleged that Gill had used bad language towards her before she had thrown any punches and was able to produce a witness to that effect.

The newspaper reporter for Lloyd’s Weekly clearly enjoyed the story and its associations with the English champion. Mrs Caunt had delivered a punch that ‘would have done no discredit to her husband’s powers’. The hapless baker was the butt of the story and that is how the magistrate saw it as well.  So Gill’s third mistake was in not simply putting the whole episode down to experience and going home quietly. Mr Hardwicke told him that he had ‘provoked the assault, by using language that was almost certain to cause a breach of the peace’, and he dismissed the summons.

Gill was beaten again, this time by a justice system and a magistrate that favoured the ‘weaker’ sex (who was clearly not the weaker one on this occasion).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, December 27, 1846]

Boxing twins at Westminster are thwarted by a new act to prevent cruelty to children

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When I think of boxing twins I always think of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the East End’s premier gangsters of the twentieth century. There was something about being twins and taking on all-comers in the post war clubs and fairgrounds that helped immortalise the pair. Their mother was not at all happy when they chose to fight each other though, but most of the rest of the audience were; seeing brothers, twins even, attempt to knock the living daylights out of each other was a proper spectacle.

Maybe this lay at the heart of William Gamgee’s desire to see his boys fight on stage at the the London Aquarium.  He’d brought them special costumes and gloves and they had already started to learn the skills they needed to become boxers.

There was a problem however, the boys were only 8 or 9 years old and so Gammage had to apply for a licence from a magistrate if he wanted them to appear on stage at the Aquarium. To this end he’d approached Mr Partridge at Westminster Police Court and applied for a license under the Better Protection of Children Act (1889) also better known as the Children’s Charter. The act had only just become law and reflected a growing feeling that children needed protection from adults. The NSPCC had adopted its name in that year, having previously been founded as the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1883. This organisation (inspired by an American equivalent) soon formed branches in London (founded by Lord Shaftesbury) and elsewhere. In 1895 it was granted a Royal charter.

The magistrate was amused by the application and perhaps it reminded him of a childhood desire to box at school. He quizzed the father, a hairdresser, and then called the boys to the stand. The father was asked what whether he was to receive any reward from the twins appearance on stage. No, he said, all they would get was a pair of gold medals if they won.

What about the gloves they were using? Gammage handed them over and the magistrate amused the watching court by making a fist with them as if he wanted to put them on. He agreed they seemed fit for purpose but were unlikely to hurt the children. Mr Gammage also produced a certificate from the boys’ schoolmaster to say they were good attendees at school and making progress with their lessons.

Gammage said they only fought for three rounds and he decided when they should stop. A police inspector said he’d witnessed the boys fighting and said it wasn’t ‘vicious’ and he didn’t believe anyone was getting hurt.

When the twins were questioned they said they enjoyed boxing very much. They didn’t get hurt and their father was always with them.

‘Would you rather be hairdressers, like your father, when you grow up, or fighters?’ he asked them.

‘Fighters’ was their emphatic reply, drawing laughter from the public gallery.

So now it came down to the magistrate’s opinion and his interpretation of the law. Dr Pearce, A Division’s police surgeon said he’d examined the boys and could see no ill-effects so far. A little exercise was fine he added, but ‘if it were continued night after night at their present age, he thought it would be injurious’.

That was enough for Mr Partridge. Whilst I suspect he secretly enjoyed seeing the two young pugilists in his court and fancied their sparring was perfectly safe and probably a ‘good thing’, his position as an interpreter of new laws made him err on the side of caution. He told the disappointed hairdresser and his sons that he would not be issuing a license to let them box anytime soon. They’d have to wait until they were a little bit older.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 05, 1889]

Police break up a ‘prize fight’ in Dalston as the Ripper case reaches its apogee.

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The Havelock Arms in Albion Drive, Dalston in the 20th century

On the morning of the 10 November 1888 the reports from the London Police Courts in The Standard made no mention of the latest ‘Ripper’ murder (that of Mary Kelly, who’s eviscerated body was discovered at her lodgings in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street). But then no one had been arrested, and no one charged for the killing and the court reports concerned appearances not general reports of criminality. There was plenty of  newspaper coverage of Mary’s murder of course, as the extensive links on the most useful ‘Ripper’ site (Casebook.org) testify.

One case that day did catch my eye because highlighted the existence of illegal prize fighting in late Victorian London. The Marquess of Queensbury had published his rules to govern boxing in 1867 (although previous attempts to regulate the sport had been tried in 1838 and even earlier, in the 18th century). But, as both Ripper Street, and Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes in recent years suggest, illegal prize fights, with the gambling that was associated with it, continued.

Like dog fighting (also the subject of attention from the writers of Ripper Street)  such illegal fights were hard to stop; they took place at night in out of the way places and news of them was spread by word of mouth to avoid police informers if possible. Despite this in November 1888 police inspector Alcock and his men successfully raided a premises in Dalston and arrested several of those taking part.

Thomas Avis and Thomas Porter, labourers at the small arms factory at Enfield (which made rifles) and John Hicks, a carriage builder from Mile End, were charged at Dalston Police Court with ‘being unlawfully concerned in a prize fight’.

The raid had taken place on the Havelock Gymnasium on Albion Road, attached to a pub that bore the same name. Avis and Porter had been the ring fighting while a crowd watched,Mr but the case turned on whether this was merely practice (sparring) or an actual fight. The men had excellent characters, the inspector admitted, and a future fight had been arranged and was waiting for official approval.

The police had a ‘spy’ in the gym; a former detective named Rolfe was embedded and keeping an eye on proceedings. The court was told he was ready to give evidence if required but wasn’t called. The Enfield pair were defended in court by Mr C. V. Young who explained that they headed up ‘rival gymnasiums, and were only trying conclusions in a friendly manner’.

The magistrate, Mr Bros, was content that nothing illegal had occurred, or at least nothing that could be conclusively proven.

‘The evidence shows’, he explained, ‘that the men were engaged with boxing gloves or the ordinary character and in an ordinary boxing match, which is no offence in law. The lowering of the gas, however, gave the affair a suspicious aspect, which was intensified by the rush of the people’.

In other words, whilst they had been doing nothing that was technically illegal they were sailing fairly close to the wind and ought, in future at least, to ensure they observed both the letter and spirit of the law. Damage had been caused to the property, which had been attributed to the large numbers who wanted to get into the see the fight, but this, it was accepted, had actually been the result of the police raid itself. All the defendants were dismissed to go back to their places of work and training for the main event.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 10, 1888]