BOOK REVIEW - Tracy CallisUP TO SCRATCH by Tony Gee
This book is an enlightening discourse on fistic-related activities (and various other events) in the Barnet area, just north of London, which was famous for its milling traditions during the days of the 18th and 19th century prize ring. And, it goes beyond that, revealing a deep love and interest in the sport by the author that historians sometimes lack. It was researched, in the main, from contemporary London newspapers and local sources, and contains a considerable amount of new material on English bareknuckle fighting.
The work is laid out in three major sections, Part I - The Early Days, Part II - The Middle Years, and Part III - The Latter Times. Also included are four appendices that contain details associated with training facilities, catering booths run by fighters, cognomens of various individuals, and a glossary of fighting terminology. A nice bibliography of sources and a detailed index is also included as well as 34 illustrations (photos and line drawings) throughout the book.
It is a well-researched, well-written, interesting and informative read as prize-ring historian Tony Gee, one of the foremost authorities on the bareknuckle period, takes us from the very early years of bare fist fighting up to roughly the end of the transitional era between knuckles and gloves. Contained within its covers is an abundance of facts about men and places, ranging from the well-known to the rarely (if ever) mentioned. Our knowledge of this time period will be enriched by words about the men, the fights, the facilities, and other happenings.
As one reads through the book, numerous anecdotes shed light on the various fistic goings-on during the period. Situations regarding talented men, many now forgotten, are presented to the reader, and names from the past, some rarely heard of today, come to life.
The author tells us that most of the fights in the area took place on Barnet Common, in fields near Whetstone (or on nearby Finchley Common). This area was famous due to the Battle of Barnet (1471) which was an engagement in the Wars of the Roses, a conflict of 15th-century England. The site was close to London and considered within walking distance by the hardy members of the Fancy. It was on a main road and there were a number of public houses for alcoholic drinking along the way. In addition, the area was on a geographic boundary so that moving a fight to another location in order to avoid the law was possible when necessary (and indeed the sport’s continuous struggle against the forces of law and order is one of the many aspects of the prize ring fully reflected in the book).
The public houses where training (and drinking) took place are frequently mentioned throughout the book. Especially popular was the Five Bells in Finchley, as well as the now long forgotten Little Tim’s at Kitts End, near Barnet. In addition, the Belgrave Tavern in North Finchley, was operated by William Springall, and later Bill Lee (actually William King), two former pugilists who had previously both promoted and backed fighters. Brief but informative sketches describe the careers of Springall and Lee. Nice images of the buildings are included.
Posthouses, such as the Green Man and the Red Lion, are also discussed briefly. These were inns where travelers could obtain horses. Rivalries existed between these establishments and violent outbreaks often occurred between them. The postboys who worked there were often able scrappers.
We are informed that written coverage was lacking for most of the early fights. Towards the latter 1780s, papers began increasingly to carry reports of the skirmishes. A monthly periodical, the Sporting Magazine, carried more detail on the sport during the 1790s. However, extensive, detailed and regular coverage of the prize-ring truly began in 1822, when Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle was first published.
Several pages are devoted to the more famous men who appeared in Barnet that we know today as champions from that period. Brief summary sketches of their ring careers and important ring battles are included. Only a few will be mentioned here.
For example, Tom Johnson (Thomas Jackling) was the first champion to fight in the Barnet area, this being in 1786. His opponent was Bill Love, whom he finished in five minutes. Shortly afterwards, within days, he defeated Jack Towers in forty-three minutes. Tom also seconded some other fighters who appeared in the area.
Daniel Mendoza attended the Johnson-Love fight and was disappointed that it ended so quickly. Mendoza, who was an exceptional fighter due to his agility and quickness, returned to the area in 1787, to engage Sam Martin with the fists. The fight was originally set to be held at Shepherd’s Bush but was prevented by order of a magistrate and the location was changed to the Barnet Race-course. The match had, in fact, been made at the instigation of the Prince of Wales and he, along with his brother, the Duke of York, was present when Mendoza defeated Martin.
Several battles of James “Deaf ‘Un” Burke are mentioned. After winning contests in the area during 1828, he lost in 1829 to Bill Cousens at Whetstone in what seemed to be a half-hearted effort. Burke, who appeared to be disinterested during the battle, had actually walked from London in oppressive weather earlier the same day to get to the location of the fight. Even so, Cousens was marked up worse than Burke. Other fights of Burke are also spoken about, including his loss to William “Bendigo” Thompson.
Tom Sayers is lauded as “… probably the most remarkable of the bareknuckle champions to visit the Barnet area.” In addition to a summary sketch of Tom’s ring career, information about the Great International Prize-Fight of 17 April 1860, at Farnborough is provided. In this encounter, Sayers tangled with the American, John C. Heenan. Later, a generous public provided Tom with money that he invested in a circus which featured boxing exhibitions. It flourished for a little while but then floundered financially. There are also words about Heenan.
Jem Mace trained very hard at Finchley in 1863 for his upcoming fight with Joe Goss on September 1. After changing locations during the fight to avoid police, Mace won that encounter. In the discussion of Mace, the man with a most admirable later reputation, the author tells us how badly he was viewed at one time in his career because he “bolted” before a proposed bout and suffered a dubious loss on another occasion.
Scattered throughout the pages are delicious little tidbits of information that add to the reading such as the few words included about Bob Webb, once a minor fighter, and then proprietor of a boxing booth that appeared at most fairs across Britain for years. As most followers of boxing know, the booths carried professional boxers who performed in exhibition bouts and especially took on “all-comers.” Originally, demonstrations of other means of combat were also presented, such as the foil, back-sword and cudgel. Webb's booth appeared at the Barnet Fair a number of times.
A brief description of Tom “Gasman” Hickman and his unfortunate death are included. He was interred in a grave more than fifteen feet deep to prevent the possibility of resurrectionists stealing his body. (Tony later tells us there was another man named Jonathan Bissel, who was known as “Young Gas” because of his resemblance to Tom in appearance and style of fighting.)
Ned Donnelly, the "Royal Professor", a different man than the famous Glasgow fighter, is mentioned. Not the tenacious fighter as was the famous Ned, this man wrote a popular manual on self-defense. This he accomplished despite the fact he could neither read nor write. Gee states that he was “considered the premier pugilistic ‘professor’ of his age.”
We are told that Charles Freeman, the well-known “American Giant,” who was reported by some contemporary sources as standing 7'3" actually turned out to stand just 6'9" when measured at Regent’s Park Barracks.
We also learn that talented Alec Roberts, a man who won several championship competitions in England, was reputed to be a skilled man with gloves or bare fists, and was even said by some to surpass Charlie Mitchell's capable skills at being able to compete at both types of fighting.
In summary, this book is a factual education into the fight game activities of that time. One comes away with the feeling that boxing is a sport, but prize-fighting is real life. We have gained a much better feel for the times and conditions, training facilities, bare fist confrontations, the fighters and other associated individuals during those years.
For those of us who love boxing history and especially those who delve way, way back, I recommend this book and believe you will enjoy reading it. I know I did.
The book is available in a paperback version (published in a Retro Classics series, a collection of facsimile reproductions of popular bestsellers) and in kindle, and can be obtained from leading bookshops and at www.Amazon.com.
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: G2 Entertainment (2014)
Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9.2 inches
Review courtesy of Tracy Callis, Historian, International Boxing Research Organization
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