The bloody world of Georgian female boxing

Women in 18th-century Britain are often assumed to have been forced into a passive and feminine role, expected to demonstrate at all times prudence and propriety. But while many did indeed find themselves at the mercy of their husbands, others stepped inside the boxing ring to go head-to-head with female opponents in front of crowds that cheered the sight of their spilled blood...

The Boxing Baroness, etching dated 1819. (British Museum)
The Boxing Baroness, etching dated 1819. (British Museum)

In her historical novel set in Bristol, Bath and London, Anna Freeman follows the story of a young prostitute plucked from the brothel and trained as a female boxer.

Based on real women who boxed in Georgian England, The Fair Fight reveals how females across the social divide challenged one other to vicious clashes in which they spat, punched and drew blood.

Here, writing for History Extra, Freeman recalls how she uncovered the tale of female boxers in 18th-century Britain, and explains how boxing was for many women a ladder out of poverty...

The idea for The Fair Fight was sparked by reading one of the Horrible Histories books by Terry Deary. I’d bought it to give to my niece and was using it as a bit of enjoyable procrastination from my work. It ended up making me write a novel, which was a lot more work. There’s a lesson there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.

The section that caught my imagination was a paragraph about 18th-century female prize-fighters. The book reproduced an advert from 1728 that a woman by the name of Ann Field had placed in The Daily Post, challenging Elizabeth Stokes to fight her:

“I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington, ass driver, well-known for my abilities in my own defence... having been affronted by Mrs Stokes, styled the European Championess, do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing, for 10 pounds...”

And then the reply:

“I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, have not fought this way since I fought the famous Boxing Woman of Billingsgate 29 minutes and gained a complete victory… but as the famous ass-woman of Stowe Newington dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I... doubt not that the blows I shall present her with will be more difficult to digest than any she ever gave her asses.”

Isn’t that great? They are the real words of real women who punched and spat and sagged to their knees in the sawdust while people around them cheered the sight of their spilled blood. They were doing this while other ladies were trapped in drawing rooms, endlessly embroidering cushion covers. It’s a fascinating thought.

This particular fight took place at ‘Mr Stokes’ amphitheatre’, which was owned by Elizabeth’s husband, James. It was a place in which all kinds of brutal entertainments could be seen. An advert for the amphitheatre from 1735 promises:

“...fine diversion of bulls, bear and ass-baiting, and dog fighting, particularly, and a dog will be dressed up with fireworks to augment the diversion of the spectators.”

A dog dressed up with fireworks. Ouch.

Female boxing fell into this category – a bloody novelty act, as opposed to a serious sport. Often, in the records I found, there was no mention of which woman won, although there would be a description of what they had been wearing – or not wearing, as they sometimes fought stripped to the waist. The winner was often irrelevant, except to those with money on the outcome. 

Elizabeth Stokes fought alongside her husband against other couples, in much the way you might play tennis doubles today. Elsewhere, there are records of women fighting against men, and even several women fighting one man.

What particularly gripped me was the thought of the lives these women must have led to bring them to the boxing ring. These were fights in which you could be very seriously injured or die. But then, of course, Elizabeth Stokes fought Ann Field for a purse of 10 pounds, at a time when a maid might earn six pounds a year. It was a ladder out of poverty, and if you fell, well, wasn’t it worth the risk?

Of course, 10 pounds was what a ‘championess of the ring’ might expect. We have observational records of street fights fought between prostitutes for a cup of gin or a petticoat. One account I found described two ‘low’ ladies, who, having argued publicly, decided to settle their differences with their fists:

“Then the two Amazons stripped to the waist, tied up their hair... For 20 minutes they fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on... 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.”

It isn’t clear whether they had any financial reward.

I was also inspired by Lady Barrymore, ‘The Boxing Baroness’, who dressed up in boxing costumes and gave displays of sparring for the amusement of her husband. There are some wonderful illustrations of her, determined and ladylike, fists raised.

Her husband, the Earl of Barrymore, was nicknamed ‘Hellgate’, and was an inveterate gambler. He’s reputed to have lost £300,000 over the course of his gambling career, an almost unimaginable sum for the times. He once bet the Duke of Bedford that he could eat a live cat. In the event he couldn’t face it, you’ll be glad to hear. Aspects of both Hellgate and his boxing wife have coloured some of the characters in The Fair Fight.

The book is a work of imagination, but it is grounded in real history. It’s an adventure story, but it’s also a look at gender, class and what it means to strive for personal freedom. All of the characters in The Fair Fight are struggling to transcend the circumstances into which they were born, in different ways. It’s only partly about boxing; there is more than one way to fight.

Anna Freeman is the author of the 2014 bookThe Fair Fight (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). 

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