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11:18 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

Huge crowds for bare-knuckle bout

Bare knuckle boxing

In 1824, more than 30,000 people turned up in Worcester to watch local hero, Tom Spring, in a bare-knuckle fight for the "Championship of all England".

The fight went on for more than 70 rounds, and two-and-a-half hours.

Tom Spring beat the challenger, Jack Langan.

The fight was such a big event that people climbed the masts of sailing ships in the nearby River Severn to watch, and two of the stands collapsed, injuring many of the spectators.

Local hero

Tom Spring was born at Woolhope in Herefordshire on 22 February 1795 - he was born Thomas Winter, but changed his name to Spring when he took up professional boxing.

His mentor was the heavyweight champion of England, Tom Cribb, who took him under his wing, and eventually passed on his title.

Then, as now, top boxers were famous (and in some cases infamous) figures, and, as this description in the Worcester Journal in 1824 reveals, Tom Spring was a popular figure:

Black and white cottage

"He is… respected for the amenity of his manners, the quietness of his disposition, his courage, his coolness, in fact, all those good qualities and good points which stamp him, in the whole, a real John Bull, and such a one as any Englishman in any quarter of the Universe, would be proud indeed to show as a specimen of the natives of the country he came from."

He managed the rare trick of retiring from the ring at his peak, and of keeping both his wits and his money when his fighting days were over.

Pitching for Pitchcroft

Tom Spring had already been heavyweight champion of England for three years when he faced his Irish challenger on Worcester racecourse.

The city had faced some stiff competition to get the title fight, with Lichfield, Birmingham and, most particularly Warwick, all being keen to stage the contest, as the Worcester Journal recorded at the time:

"The Warwick folk were most anxious it should be there, and they bid 150 guineas; the Worcesterites (sic) topped this considerably… The stakes were 300 sovereigns a side, and all money matters."

The purse of 300 sovereigns was a considerable one - the equivalent of more than £25,000 in today's money.

The promoters, though, would have no worries about making their money back, for, as Worcester Journal recorded, the fight drew huge crowds to the city:

"On no occasion, within the memory of the oldest inhabitant, has our city exhibited such bustle and confusion… From dawn of the morning until eleven o'clock the throng of persons, both plebeian and noble, on horseback, on foot, and in carriages of every description, which poured in aft every avenue, was immense, and we are confident we do not exaggerate when we state the number was 40,000."

Bare knuckle boxer

The Berrows Journal, who were altogether less enamoured with the idea of fight, put the crowd at 30,000, and were quick to point out to their readers that "we would not have our friends think we are admirers of such spectacle, or advocate of the Science of Boxing."

Conditions on that January day in 1824 were hardly ideal, and as the Worcester Journal wryly recorded "a trifling obstacle presented itself - the ground was covered in water."

Frantic attempts were made to drain the notoriously flood-prone racecourse, and temporary wooden stands were put up to give a view of the 24 feet square ring, which had been raised two feet off the ground, in the vain hope that more people would be able to see.

The temporary stands, and the grandstand were packed, and, according to the Worcester Journal, many people resorted to more unorthodox way's of seeing the fight:

"The craft in the river was moored opposite the spot, and, from its rigging, a great many obtained an excellent sight; the trees in the distance were also peopled."

One reason for this could have been the ten shilling admission price - £40 in today's money.

If the Worcester Journal's estimate of the crowd is right, this means the promoters would have taken more than a million pounds, in today's money.

Betting was keen at ringside, with Tom Spring, at 3-1, being the clear favourite.

Disaster at the start

Tom Spring, being a local boy, was the first to arrive, formally throwing his hat into the ring at 12.30.

For an hour or more after that there was no sign of the challenger, and, according to the Journal's man at the fight, the crowd began to get restless, anxious, no doubt, to get their 'ten bob's worth.":

"Hudson (his second), began to enquire anxiously after his man. The multitude also began to show symptoms of impatience, and apprehension of disappointment."

According to the Berrow's man one wag in the crowd offered odds of 10-1 on a 'no show'.

Eventually Jack Langan appeared and the two fighters stripped ready for the contest - Berrow's Journal had employed a specialist boxing writer to cover the fight, and he gave their readers a vivid description of the challenger:

"Langan's bust was fine, his arm excellent, but defective in his loins, his legs not good, and his knees not strong, not well rounded… and the judges thought he had 'done too much work'; i.e. his training was too severe."

Tom Spring memorial

The 'tale of the tape' reveals that Tom Spring was much the bigger man:

Tom Spring - also known as 'The Light Tapper' - weighed in at 13st 8lbs, and was 29 years old. He was famous for his "Harlequin step", the "Ali shuffle" of its day.

Jack Langan - weighed in at 12st 4lbs - and was known to be a durable fighter, and particularly good at wrestling.

In those days boxing was (superficially) a gentlemen's sport, and there was no 'trash talking' as the two fighters met and shook hands - the Berrow's Journal recording the following exchange:

"I hope you are well Langan." "Very well, my boy; and we'll soon talk to each other in another way."

The fight was about to start when one of the temporary stands collapsed, hurling spectators 20 feet or more to the ground - another stand collapsed during the second round and "the shock completely paralysed the ring.", according to the Worcester Journal.

Despite the numerous serious injuries to spectators the fight went on, though there would be recriminations afterwards about the construction of the stands.

The fight

Boxing in the 19th century was much closer to the mixed martial arts contests of today, than to modern day boxing.

Fighters could, and did, wrestle or throw each other to the ground, and the lack of gloves meant that flurries of punches were rare.

The fights were also very long - the first round at Pitchcroft lasted ten minutes - and there was no limit to the number of rounds.

There was also little crowd control, with the Worcester Journal reporting that by round 17 the ring had been "broken in at every side and was not 10 feet square."

By the time the fight was stopped, in either the 84th or the 77th round, depending on which paper you read, there were more than 200 people inside the ring.

At the end of the contest, according to Berrow's boxing specialist, "Langan was picked up groggy and stupid. 'Take him away' was the cry."

His second declared he should "fight no more" but Langan refused to leave the ring when he came around: "Clear the ring and let me fight - I have not given in, I can fight for an hour." were his words, reported in the Worcester Journal.

Berrow's Journal was also impressed with his courage: "He is most certainly one of the gamest men we ever witnessed."

There was supposed to be another fight afterwards, Neale v Belasco, but it was too dark.

Looking back after a week, the Worcester Journal declared that "There was not one real good hit in the fight - not one clean knock-out blow."

This didn't stop them selling a bound copy of their account of the fight for 3d.

Later, Springs' camp announced his left hand was "so much injured that he was not able to strike an efficient blow with that hand." - to explain why he hadn't knocked out his opponent sooner.

Incredibly the two men met again six months later at Warwick (they really did want the fight), on 8 June 1824, with Spring winning in 76 rounds.

Post fight recriminations

The scandal over the collapsing stands rumbled on for weeks after the fight.

"It is not in the power of language to give a picture of the scene of disorder and distress which ensued - the number of broken limbs was very great." said the Berrow's Journal - and the Gloucester journal was similarly stumped for words: "We really are at a loss for language of reproof sufficiently strong to characterize this highly culpable conduct."

In the case for the defence the shadowy figure of Chas Share was quick of the mark - he sent a letter to both local papers the day after the fight expressing his 'deep regret' and claiming he had told his builder to "spare no labour or expense, and the builder, who put them up, was most desirous to do so, although it has unfortunately proved otherwise."

William Wood, who supplied the timber was also quick to pass the buck, making it clear in another published letter that he had "nothing whatever to do with the erection of the building.", even though he supplied some of the labourers who did the work.

The papers cited hasty construction and the muddy state of the field for the collapse, and the Berrow's Journal recorded injuries including a fractured thigh and leg, fractured ribs, compound fractures and 'violent bruises'.

Then, as now, there was an anti-boxing lobby: one letter in Berrow's Journal condemned the whole spectacle - fearing it would bring down the British Empire.

The anonymous letter writer, under the pseudonym of M, predicted a time when "the prize fighters amongst us will be as numerous as the Roman gladiators were when Rome was declining in glory."

Tom Spring retired after the fight, and went on to be closely involved in the development of the sport, as well as keeping the Castle Inn at Holborn, in London.

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