Two Black Boxers born into Slavery!

Two black men, born as slaves in north America, went on to become high-profile boxers and celebrities in Georgian England winning big cash prizes. But the fights were racially charged despite their popularity. And both men would die penniless. These are the forgotten black boxers who struggled but ultimately failed to become world champions.

It’s the heart wrenching story of how one of them, Tom Molineaux, very nearly became world boxing champion in 1810 but lost out in a controversial fight. A shameful episode in British boxing that would reverberate for over a century. And Bill Richmond who tried to reinvent himself as a London gentleman after retiring but instead was plunged into poverty.

Lord Byron – major boxing fan!

So how did I discover the tales of these two intrepid fighters?

Visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London today, I was astounded to chance upon a ‘decoupage‘ screen made for Lord Byron. Like a scrap book pasted to a six-foot folding screen behind which the party-loving, aristocratic poet got changed for a night on the town. On one side – newspaper cuttings and images related to the theatre. And on the other – boxing articles and images of famous pugilists of the day stripped to the waist and fists raised.

Like a character out of a Guy Ritchie movie – Byron frequented posh drawing rooms and seedy fight pits (blog post continues after image below).

The screen was made in the year 1814. Much of the information and imagery comes from a contemporary guide to boxing, Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, by the Irish journalist Pierce Egan. Like Byron, Egan had a taste for the sordid side of life. Very prominent on the screen is a cut-out of the black boxer Tom Molineaux (1784-1818) born in Virginia, United States who enjoyed huge success and recognition in the British Isles.

Tom Molineaux was born a slave and his surname was that of his owner. His fighting prowess was recognised and he boxed for the amusement of local slaveholders. A nearby plantation owner, Squire Randolph Peyton, boasted that no boxer could beat a slave he owned called Abe. Tom suggested to Squire Molineaux he could prove Peyton wrong.

The ambitious Tom was manipulating the competitive streak among the slaveholders to his own advantage. His owner promised Tom if he destroyed Abe in the ring, he’d get his freedom and a hundred dollars. Massively incentivised, Tom duly won. In the year 1809, the now emancipated Tom Molineaux was on a ship to Liverpool.

Britain offered boxers top earnings. On arrival, Tom wasted no time and walked from the docks at Liverpool to London, capital of the British Empire. Once set up there, he challenged the world’s greatest boxer Tom Cribb to a fight. This was a very bold move. The semi-retired Cribb felt insulted by this “upstart” and assigned a couple of other fighters to put Tom Molineaux in his place. After they were floored, Cribb realised he would have to do his own dirty work.

In no time at all, this stranger who had suddenly shown up in London brimming with confidence was headline news. Boxing commentators were aghast at the thought of Tom Molineaux becoming champion. As Jackson’s Oxford Journal states on August 25, 1810: “The Black, who is 26 years of age, threatens to beat the whole race of fighters of the day, and as he has entered the list with a determination to do so, he is a man not unlikely to succeed.”

No other fighter wanted to take on the imposing ex-slave – so Cribb reluctantly stepped forward. But he wasn’t on top form. Overweight, pot-bellied, “full of gross humours”, and short of breath. The prospect of a black boxing champion was very real. “The Moor”, as Tom Molineaux was dubbed, was about to steal Tom Cribb’s crown!

The two Toms were now set for the ring and a Georgian gambling frenzy got underway!

DISCOVER: Black British Georgian rebel William Davidson

Two American-born black British boxers meet

British boxing was surprisingly diverse in the early 19th century. The sport featured black and Jewish fighters who gave gentile, white boxers a run for their money in the ring. And the white boxers didn’t like it. Whitechapel born Dutch Sam, “The Terrible Jew” (no, really, that was his nickname), had trained under Daniel Mendoza – a legendary Jewish boxer of the 1790s.

In 1805, Cribb had seen off a serious challenge from the Jewish boxer Ikey Pig (sic) and then beat the black boxer, Bill Richmond (1763-1829) – who was much lighter in weight. This was reassuring to many fans of the sport who were resigned to the presence of Jewish and black boxers but expected champions to be white and Christian.

Like Tom Molineaux, Bill Richmond had been born into slavery in New York in 1763 when America was still under British rule. As a teenager, owned by the Reverend Richard Charlton, he got involved in a tavern brawl with some British troops and fortunately for him, the Duke of Northumberland witnessed the altercation. He was so impressed by Bill’s fighting technique that he bought his freedom from his owner, shipped him to Yorkshire in northern England, paid for his education, and got him apprenticed as a cabinet maker.

Consequently, Bill was a well-spoken and very presentable black British boxer who could hold his own in society. But he was no match for Cribb who made swift work of him in the ring. Crushed by his defeat, Bill ploughed his earnings into a pub off what is now Trafalgar Square in central London. He named it The Horse and Dolphin and it became a bustling venue for boxers and their hangers-on from dawn till dusk.

Nearby, was a high-ceiling building, Fives Court, originally designed for a form of indoor handball popular at British public schools like Eton. The sport was called “Fives”. But the venue became more popular among all social classes as a boxing arena. Here, the boxing fraternity – collectively termed “the Fancy” – would gather to watch, participate, and bet on fights.

Bill Richmond basically shuttled between his pub and Fives Court plying the Fancy with drink and training talent. Then one day, his life would change – and not necessarily for the better – when a young, well-built American walked through the doors of the Horse and Dolphin and ordered a drink. Talking over a pint, Richmond realised that through Molineaux’s fists, he could exact a glorious revenge against Tom Cribb.

The two ex-slaves who had journeyed so far got down to business.

Cribb versus Molineaux – a racially charged fight

On December 18, 1810, the big day arrived: Cribb versus Molineaux.

To prepare for the rigours ahead, Molineaux wolfed down a boiled chicken, apple pie, and half a gallon of beer. Thousands of spectators gathered at Shenington Hollow in Oxfordshire to watch the fight of the century. And they were not to be disappointed.

It was a cold day with constant drizzle as the two men entered the ring. Molineaux was the more impressive figure. Frighteningly robust. While Cribb had experience and the crowd on his side. The location was open air and out of town because the law was not entirely favourable towards the sport. Magistrates turned a blind eye so long as it was out of view. So, fighters usually duked it out in a ring erected in a field.

The sport was brutal in Georgian England. Boxing gloves had been invented but weren’t mandatory until 1867 when the Marquis of Queensbury endorsed the rules that still bear his name. Getting fighters in a headlock or forcing a fighter back up on to his feet for yet more punishment was allowed in 1810. The only thing you couldn’t do was hit them while they were lying on the ground. Everything else though…

The two men set about each other with bare knuckles. In the second round, Molyneaux drew blood but then Cribb downed him in the third. The slugging carried on for a gruelling 28 rounds by the end of which, Cribb was on his knees. Both men were lumbering around by this stage, breathing heavily and weakening rapidly. Frantic betting continued throughout the fight with two to one in favour of the black boxer by round 30.

The crowd was convinced Molineaux was the clear winner. But it was not to be.

One of Cribb’s cornermen convinced the referee that the black boxer was holding pistol balls in his fists. It didn’t take much convincing as the referee was one of Cribb’s men. In some accounts, the crowd invaded the ring at this point and attacked Tom. One source claims they broke his fingers! The fight should have been stopped at round 28 but instead was allowed to continue for a staggering 44 rounds. By which time, Molineaux dropped from exhaustion.

Tom Molineaux gets a rematch

Seething at having been robbed of victory, Tom demanded a rematch. Cribb refused. But eventually relented in September 1811. But by then, Cribb had spent months at a Scottish hideaway losing three stone and getting into shape. Molineaux, in contrast, succumbed to the temptations of Georgian London. It was said he alternated between Venus and Bacchus – womanising and drink.

When the two men met again, Cribb was in peak condition. Tom Molineaux was not. Fifteen thousand people gathered at Thistleton Gap in Rutland for what they hoped would be another thrilling encounter. The prize money was an eye watering six hundred guineas.

At first, Molineaux battered Cribb, closing his eye early in the fight. But then the latter began working over Tom’s body and having weakened the American, set about his head. In round nine, he broke Tom’s jaw and two rounds later, Cribb was declared the winner.

One newspapers, The Morning Post, could barely contain its racist glee: “The opponent of Cribb received a marked shade of improvement in the late contest. Here entered the ring a mere black, but was carried out of it both black and blue.”

For the next eleven years, Cribb was world champion – only having to defend his title once. He then retired, opening a tavern around the corner from The Horse and Dolphin on Panton Street – calling it the Union Arms. In the 1960s, it was renamed the Tom Cribb and is still in business today.

Black British boxers set back for a century

In his 1814 book on British boxing, Pierce Egan remarked that after losing his two fights against Cribb, Tom Molineaux “became an object of attack by boxers of minor pretensions”. But to his credit, Egan recognised an incredible talent “with stamina sound and vigorous possessing almost Herculean strength”. However, the foremost boxing commentator realised that Tom was always doomed to hit a glass ceiling of prejudice.

“And although the sporting world preferred having a white to a black pugilistic champion, and that an Englishman’s wearing the cap was more congenial to their feelings than an American, still it was impossible that the courageous qualities of Molineaux could be passed over with indifference.”

No black boxer made a serious bid for the world boxing title until very late in the 19th century. The subsequent trajectories of both Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond were downwards. But Tom declined faster and died younger. He moved to Ireland, took to drink, contracted tuberculosis, spent time in a debtors prison, and died in 1818 in the Galway barracks of the 77th Regiment of the British Army – cared for by three black soldiers. At the end, his emaciated body was “an anatomy of bones scarcely covered by flesh”.

Bill Richmond had staked a considerable amount of money on the Cribb versus Molineaux rematch. It’s not surprising that he didn’t want to see Tom again after the defeat because it ruined him financially. He lost the pub in 1812 and his sparring pupils at Fives Court fell away. He tried his hand selling poultry in a new shop nearby but it failed as well. In 1826, Fives Court was demolished as Trafalgar Square began to be developed as a new landmark for the city.

One person stuck by him – maybe an unlikely ally: Tom Cribb. United as part of the old Fancy – the boxing fraternity of the Georgian era. But whereas Cribb kept his head above water in retirement, Richmond experienced what could best be described as genteel destitution. He did his best to keep up appearances and was complimented in the newspapers for his impeccable manners and dress. But Bill was falling to pieces.

He died in December 1829, having spent the evening at Cribb’s house, “leaving a wife and four children in a helpless state”. Readers were urged to contribute to a fund set up by Cribb to help Bill’s surviving family.

With genuine sadness, The Morning Chronicle, a leading London paper, editorialised:

“Richmond was 67 years of age, and was generally respected for his integrity and general good conduct, both as a teacher and a practiser of the science of the fist. He was never known to sully his character either in or out of the Ring.”

Victorian shun boxing, social mixing, and diversity

The boxing world of Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond died along with the Bridgerton-style madness of Regency England. The Victorians craved order and moral decency – well, at least on the surface. For them, the bawdy years of the early 19th century were best obliterated from the national memory.

Thirty years after the death of King George IV, a Victorian newspaper, the Cornhill Magazine, glanced back in horror at the reign of this dreadful louche. Thank heavens there had been a “silent revolution” transforming manners and attitudes since those days!

Distinguished old gentlemen in 1860, it noted, hugged their grandchildren and shuddered to remember the times of the Prince Regent, later to become King George IV. Those nights spent dining with the long dead drunk glutton of a monarch, slipping under the table drunk as they struggled to keep up with his gargantuan appetite. How different things were now under the sober and upright Queen Victoria!

The newspaper writer shuddered at the reality of boxing back in those days. An immoral sport that transgressed social and racial boundaries. In one sentence it expressed disgust at both the mixing of classes and the diversity:

“The gentleman would drive his friend Richmond, the black boxer, down to Moulsey, and hold his coat and shout and swear, and hurrah with delight, while the black man was beating Dutch Sam the Jew.”

And if a Victorian had to be reminded just how bad things were, they only had to consider the dreadful Lord Byron. A man who embodied the vices of the Regency era. Why that decoupage screen of his summed it all up! With the prominent figure of Tom Molineaux at its centre.

But you can’t keep a good thing down forever. It would take until the end of the century for black boxers to reassert their presence and by 1915, one exasperated boxing reporter in the United States wrote that so many black boxers had become world champions, the white fighter Jess Willard (1881-1968) had to be thanked for saving “the white race from pugilistic oblivion”.

By then, the trailblazers Molineaux and Richmond were utterly forgotten.

I co-authored the award short-listed biography of British black boxer Errol Christie – No Place To Hide – which you can buy on Amazon.

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