Archaeologists on the trail of boxers' remains
Luke G. Williams
The likely burial places and remains of three giants of the bareknuckle boxing era could be uncovered as part of the HS2 high-speed rail link project. Luke G. Williams uncovers the full story …
Despite having researched the Georgian bare-knuckle boxing era for over a decade now, it was only comparatively recently that I discovered that the likely resting place of three leading pugilistic legends from this glorious period in sporting history are St James’s Gardens in Cardington Street, near Euston train station.
From 1788, the Gardens were an overspill cemetery for St James’s Church, Piccadilly, and it is thought that 40,000-50,000 people were buried there between then and the 1880s.
Burial records and other sources from the late 18th and early 19th century suggest that three titans of the early prize ring are buried at St James’s Gardens: Henry Pearce, Bill Richmond and William Warr.
At this time, boxing was the leading sport in the country and its stars were among the best known celebrities of the day.
Henry Pearce (1777-1809), popularly known by his nickname of the ‘Game Chicken’, was one of boxing’s earliest and most colourful figures.
Hailing from Bristol, ‘Hen’ was never defeated in the prize ring, and was recognised as English champion from 1804 until 1807, memorably defeating the great Jem Belcher and future champion and member of Parliament John Gully amongst others.
Handsome and hard-hitting, once he was champion, Pearce fell into ill health, largely due to a hard-living and hard-drinking lifestyle, and died in 1809.
William Warr (dates unknown) was a giant of the early ‘golden age’ of the prize ring. Although little is known of his background, he was renowned for his ‘scientific’ boxing and twice faced the legendary Jewish pugilist Daniel Mendoza. Warr was also a noted and much in demand trainer and ‘second’ for other boxers.
Pearce and Warr’s contemporary Bill Richmond (1763-1829) is widely regarded as the first black man to achieve major sporting stardom and was the subject of my 2015 book ‘Richmond Unchained: the biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar’.
Born a slave in Staten Island, America, Richmond won his freedom as a teenager and travelled to England. Initially a trained cabinetmaker, Richmond later became one of the country’s leading pugilists and trainers despite only seriously taking up the sport in his 40s.
Erudite and well educated, Richmond was only ever defeated twice in the prize ring and was also present at the coronation of George IV in 1821.
Since my book about Richmond has been released, there has been an explosion of interest in his career, with two tributes to him having now been unveiled at the Tom Cribb pub in London, while national newspapers such as 'The Independent' have featured Bill and my book in their pages, and television shows such as the BBC’s 'Black and British: A forgotten History' have also featured him prominently.
When I subsequently learnt that St James’s Gardens will be the focus for extensive archaeological work later this year and that the site would eventually become part of the entrance to the new HS2 station I began to get really excited.
Here was an opportunity, however small, for these great boxers’ remains to be discovered and perhaps re-interred, or for us to discover more about their backgrounds through DNA analysis.
In the case of Richmond, whose exact ethnic background and parentage is still the subject for debate, the possibility of DNA analysis of his remains might reveal vital historical information.
Work will begin at the gardens in the next few months and from June they will be cordoned off from the public. To their immense credit, HS2 have been taking news of the three boxers who may reside there extremely seriously.
Within days of me contacting them with this information, HS2 were in touch and they have remained so since, with my information being passed on to their archaeology team.
HS2 Lead Archaeologist Helen Glass told me: “If Bill Richmond was buried in St. James’s Gardens, this will be a unique opportunity for us to tell the story of a fascinating character. HS2’s archaeological investigation at St. James’s will shine a light on a crucial turning point in London’s history, when the city first started to expand and huge numbers of new people were moving to the city.
“It will be a challenge for us to discover his skeleton but we know he was a boxer. His skeleton might show certain physical traits from being a boxer, such as damaged knuckles or signs of fractures on his bones.
“We know there will be a lot of interest in the project and HS2 will be holding a series of community events to give the opportunity for local residents to discover more about Camden and London’s history.”
As someone who has spent the last 14 years of his life researching Richmond’s life, I will be waiting with bated breath to see what the next few months will bring. Already the quest to discover Richmond, Pearce and Warr’s remains has featured on ITV London News – let’s hope there will be further developments to report as the year progresses…