This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
On 19 July 1821, King George IV was crowned at Westminster Abbey in a lavish ceremony. Among the 18 ushers – all of whom were bare-knuckle boxers dressed as pages – was a 57-year-old man with frizzy white hair and dark skin. His name was Bill Richmond, and he was one of London’s best-known sportsmen.
It wasn’t just the colour of Bill’s skin that made him stand out from the dignitaries crammed into the abbey that day. Certainly, there can’t have been many others among the audience who had been born a slave in the American colonies and seen action in the War of Independence before going on to become one of Britain’s most celebrated boxers, called upon to spar for princes and kings.
Bill’s unlikely journey from slavery to stardom began with his birth in Richmondtown, Staten Island in 1763. His daily labours were probably household chores and – though he was brought up away from America’s notorious plantations – life was tough and unlikely ever to improve. But then, from the blue, an army arrived on Bill’s doorstep, and changed everything.
When the American War of Independence ignited, Staten Island remained loyal and became a staging post for British soldiers. By August 1776, there were around 20,000 Redcoats and Hessians (German auxiliaries) billeted in Bill’s backyard, from where General Howe, commander-in-chief of British forces, launched an audacious assault upon American-held New York.
Amid the chaos that followed, the British captured and executed an American spy, Nathan Hale, famous for his alleged final words as he stepped towards the hangman’s noose: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Hale’s exact phraseology remains a mystery, as does the identity of the black slave who assisted the executioner. But, for well over 150 years, it has been claimed that the slave’s name was Bill Richmond. If true, Bill would have been barely 13.
Yet, Bill’s wartime activities were just beginning. In November 1776, he was ostling horses outside the Red Lion tavern when three drunken Hessians began racially abusing him. To everyone’s astonishment, Bill retaliated by punching the trio into bloodied submission, and in the process impressed none other than Earl Hugh Percy, colonel of the 5th Regiment of Foot. In fact, so taken was Percy with Bill that, in February 1777, he’d seen to it that the pint-sized pugilist had enlisted into the 1st Light Battalion.
The teenager was not the only black man to find himself in King George III’s employ. The British Army – particularly Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment – had promised runaway slaves their freedom if they were willing to fight for king and country, and many accepted the offer.
Bill fought on the frontlines for 18 months at Philadelphia, and at the celebrated British victory at Brandywine Creek, before being re-posted to the safety of Staten Island. Despite escaping injury, his fate might still have been grim, as many of those black soldiers were abandoned by their British commanders once the war was lost. However, Bill had a profoundly loyal patron. In May 1778, Earl Percy argued with General Howe, resigned his command, and returned home to Yorkshire. Though Bill remained with his regiment for another year, records show that by July 1778 he had crossed the Atlantic to live under Percy’s roof. He would never see his family or home town again.
Why the illustrious earl brought the teenager to Britain is unclear, but while his aristocratic peers would probably have pressed the former slave into service as an exotically liveried footman, Percy chose instead to generously pay for the boy’s education and then fund his apprenticeship to a cabinet-maker in York.
Bill emerged from his training as a skilled craftsman with a penchant for brightly coloured clothes. These inevitably drew the attention of York’s racists, and he was often forced to defend his honour with his fists. Despite being a placid character, Bill was capable of tremendous violence once sufficiently provoked.
Bill’s ability with his fists, and his eye-catching appearance, impressed a young aristocrat with a passion for gambling and blood-sports. Lord Camelford had a reputation for punching prospective job applicants in the face, just to see how they reacted, and Bill’s response clearly impressed, as he was soon accompanying the young buck around the country as a bodyguard.
Through escorting his sports-obsessed patron to regular boxing matches, Bill was thrust into the world of the ‘fighting fancy’, initially to watch, but soon after to take part himself. Lord Camelford funded his early fights, but then got himself killed in a duel with a friend. Despite this – and the fact that he was 41 – Bill decided to continue with his nascent boxing career. He suffered a humiliating early beating but quickly adapted his style – to such effect that his victories had soon earned him the soubriquet ‘the Black Terror’.
Bare-knuckle boxing involved standing upright and trading blows with burly men, but Bill was too small to absorb such incessant punishment. Instead, he developed pioneering footwork, dancing around the ring and delivering sharp, swift counter-strikes.
Despite his dexterity, Bill lacked the firepower to overcome England’s up-and-coming superstar, Tom Cribb. In October 1805, just days before the battle of Trafalgar, the two fought at Hailsham in Sussex before a crowd of thousands. Richmond was a bundle of energy, but Cribb was a relentless man-mountain who fought on the defensive, cleverly refusing to over-commit. After 90 minutes of cautious combat, Cribb’s superior stamina won out.
Acknowledging his age, Bill soon retired from the ring to become a trainer, promoter and publican. He ran a tavern, next door to a boxing gym, and invited pupils to study his celebrated ‘pugilistic science’. Bill trained various fighters, among them former plantation slave Tom Molineaux, who possessed a Herculean physique, but was lazy, hedonistic and arrogant.
In 1810, Molineaux stepped into the ring with Bill’s former nemesis, Tom Cribb. In freezing Oxfordshire rain, the ‘Tremendous Man of Colour’ relentlessly battered England’s sporting hero, causing the crowd of 10,000 to react with outrage at the prospect of this dark-skinned ‘invader’ humbling their champion. As the sports journalist, Piers Egan, wrote: “the honour of the country was at stake,” and the mob stormed the ring, breaking the American’s fingers in the process. This action ultimately cost Molineaux the fight, and an affronted Bill Richmond demanded a rematch. But Molineaux shunned preparation in favour of booze and brothels, allowing Cribb to triumph a second time. Bill cut all ties with his indolent pupil, who was to die of alcoholism in his mid-30s.
Undeterred, Bill opened new training rooms in Haymarket where he rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as Lord Byron, William Hazlitt and Piers Egan, from whose writings we’ve discovered most of what we know about the enigmatic former slave.
Their words paint a picture of a charming, witty, intelligent man – one who, despite his colour, was hugely popular in his adopted country. There were few derogatory mentions about his race, and those who overstepped the mark were jeered by the loyal regulars as Bill manhandled them out of his pub.
In the years following his retirement from the ring, Bill played a key role in the founding of the influential Pugilistic Club that shaped much of boxing’s formative development. It was Bill who had invented the raised boxing ring, so that the crowd could better see the fight. Some even claim that he was the first to fight shirtless.
His status as Britain’s first black sports star seems to be confirmed by the fact that, in 1814 at the age of 51, Bill sparred for the crowned heads of allied Europe, who were on a triumphal visit to London after evicting Napoleon Bonaparte from power. And, of course, in 1821 he enjoyed that momentous outing at George IV’s coronation.
Yet, despite fighting the odd bout until he was in his sixties, Bill’s story was never destined to climax with triumph. As his body weakened, and his knees gave out, the money began to dry up. He sold his tavern and became a poulterer, but there was little he could do to stave off the encroaching poverty. He saw out his final days in Tom Cribb’s pub in Haymarket, sat at the bar reminiscing with his old rival. On 28 December 1829, he returned home from the pub and died after a prolonged coughing fit. He was 66. Tragically his wife, Mary, with whom he had fathered four children, would die in the workhouse.
Though he had initially found fame because of the colour of his skin, Bill Richmond’s lasting legacy was that of a popular hero, praised for his skill in the ring, and his character outside of it. From such humble beginnings, his truly was an extraordinary life.
Why boxing was a hit in Georgian Britain
Georgian bare-knuckle fights could draw crowds of thousands, a mob dismissed by the commentator Dr Samuel Parr as “a vulgar and tumultuous rabble of vagrants, drunkards, ruffian brawlers, and gambling desperadoes”. However, boxing was beloved by the aristocratic and literary classes, most notably Lord Byron.
Boxing may have been violent, but the stoic courage and physical stamina on display perfectly reflected the ideal of British martial excellence, a stereotype sorely put to the test in the Napoleonic Wars. For poets and artists, there also seemed something classically Roman about these muscular titans – a return to gladiatorial duels in which even men of low birth could earn nobility through sporting brutality.
Greg Jenner, former historical consultant to CBBC’s Horrible Histories, is writing a novel about Bill Richmond. His first book, A Million Years in a Day (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is out in 2015.