Bill Richmond: ‘The pugilistic pioneer’

Luke G. Williams
08/07/2015 11:36am

Over 200 years ago, a former slave from America electrified the English prize ring and became one of the leading celebrities in Georgian England. Luke G. Williams traces the incredible life and times of Bill Richmond.

In most studies of 'black history', two boxers usually feature above all others: Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, great men who, through their forceful personalities and moral courage succeeded in obliging the world to re-evaluate its prejudices and preconceptions. Yet Johnson and Ali were far from the only black boxers of historical note in the 20th century - Joe Louis, by defeating Max Schmeling, struck a symbolic blow against fascism, while it is often forgotten that the first black world champion was the featherweight, George Dixon.

However, the undisputed founding father of black sporting endeavour is none of the above, but a man named Bill Richmond, whose name and career is all too infrequently referred to by historians.

Richmond was born in 1763 in America but lived for the majority of his life in England. In the days before Queensberry Rules, when bare-knuckle fighting operated in the shady margins of the law but also, paradoxically, in the full glare of public interest, Richmond was the first black sportsman to attain fame.

A frequent misassumption is that the history of multiculturalism in Britain 'began' after the Second World War. In fact, over a century earlier, there was a varied black community in Britain. Many black citizens had arrived after being promised freedom in return for fighting against the rebels in the American War of Independence. Yet life for many of these arrivals was characterised by poverty.

Richmond, who began life as a slave owned by the Reverend Richard Charlton in Staten Island, New York, was one of the glorious exceptions. Details of his parentage are unknown, although a suspicion persists, given some historians’ insistence that he was of mixed ethnicity, that Charlton may have been Richmond’s father and his mother one of Charlton’s slaves.

The arrival of the British military in Staten Island in 1776 proved pivotal for 13-year-old Bill, who caught the attention of one Brigadier General Hugh Percy, a military man famed for his humanity. For motives unknown but seemingly compassionate, Percy persuaded Charlton to release Richmond, brought him to England and installed him in his household - he even paid for the youngster to be educated, and apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in York.

The regularity of the racial abuse Richmond suffered while growing up was hinted at by Pierce Egan, the era’s most famed boxing writer, who recounted several occasions when Richmond became embroiled in street brawls, once after he was insulted for being in the company of a white woman - probably a reference to Mary, who later became his wife and bore him several children.

In the mid-1790s, Richmond moved to London and was employed by Lord Camelford - a man of quick temper who, nevertheless, possessed a streak of liberal-minded generosity. Significantly, Camelford was a passionate devotee of pugilism and Richmond frequently accompanied him to top fights, which were usually held outdoors and constantly in danger of being disrupted by disapproving magistrates.

After the Henry Pearce-Joe Berks contest in January 1804, Richmond issued an impromptu challenge to George Maddox. The seasoned Maddox was not the sort of boxer a novice should face in his first major contest though, and Richmond was defeated after nine close rounds, a clubbing blow from Maddox having opened a deep and dangerous cut over his left eye.

A less determined man might have quit boxing, but, after Camelford’s death in an ill-advised duel later that year, Richmond returned. Having discovered his aptitude for teaching, he began training and seconding other fighters, and became a regular attendee at the Fives Court, London’s leading pugilistic exhibition venue.

Richmond made a successful comeback in 1805. He defeated Youssop, a Jewish boxer who was left "totally disfigured" after six vicious rounds, and then repelled the challenge of respected contender Jack Holmes, who was “dreadfully punished, both his eyes being laid open,” after a one-sided beating more akin to a public slaughter than a sporting contest.

These victories secured a match-up against rising prospect Tom Cribb. Unfortunately, Cribb and Richmond’s mutually counter-punching styles resulted in a dull bout that Cribb won easily. The disappointing spectacle solidified a grudge between the men, which probably originated after Cribb dropped Richmond as his second after an earlier two-fight association; it was a rift that would last years.

Richmond didn’t box again competitively until 1808 when several quick wins helped him land a dream fight — a rematch with George Maddox. The contest took place in August 1809 and by “waiting, hitting and throwing his adversary, to the astonishment of the spectators”, Richmond succeeded in battering Maddox mercilessly for 52 minutes.

After the fight’s conclusion the bleeding Maddox was “led away a frightful spectacle” with his head “hideously disfigured”; among the awed spectators was William Windham, MP, who argued that the skill and bravery of both men was as impressive as that displayed by British troops in their recent triumph at the Battle of Talavera.

This victory boosted Richmond’s reputation, while the handsome purse enabled him to become landlord of the Horse and Dolphin pub near Leicester Square. It was here that he probably met Tom Molineaux, another former slave who had recently arrived in London from America. Richmond immediately discerned Molineaux’s vast pugilistic potential and put his own fighting career to one side to train him, with a view to a challenge against Cribb, who was now champion.

Thanks to Richmond’s tutelage, Molineaux demolished two contenders before squaring up to Cribb at Copthall Common in December 1810. Despite atrocious weather, it was an epic contest, and one of the most controversial bouts in boxing history - Cribb won, barely, amid the chaos of a ring invasion and whisperings of the equivalent at the time of a long count. (Cribb, it was suggested, had been given longer than the allowable 30 seconds to come out for one of the later rounds). Molineaux, many maintained, had been cheated out of a likely victory.

Historians disagree about whether the alleged bias shown to Cribb was motivated by racism, nationalism or fears on the part of gamblers that a loss for the champion would see them lose money. Certainly before the fight there was nervousness about the prospect of a Molineaux victory, with the Chester Chronicle newspaper claiming that “many of the noble patronizers [sic.] of this accomplished art, begin to be alarmed, lest, to the eternal dishonour of our country, a negro should become the Champion of England!

Accusations of foul play made a rematch inevitable, but by the time it happened, in September 1811, constant touring had blunted Molineaux’s edge, as had his love of drinking and womanising. After Cribb won with relative ease, Richmond and Molineaux’s relationship severed and they never worked together again; indeed, Richmond would second two fighters against Molineaux before the latter’s death in 1818.

Having lost money backing Molineaux, Richmond had to give up the Horse and Dolphin and rebuild. He became a member of the Pugilistic Club, boxing’s first governing body, and returned to the ring against Jack Davis in May 1814, the first contest brokered by the organisation. A handsome victory encouraged Richmond to accept his riskiest challenge yet - a contest against Tom Shelton, a fancied contender around half his age.

Bernard Hopkins attracted much interest when he defended a world title at the age of 49, but Richmond was a scarcely believable 51 when he faced Shelton in August 1815. He looked nearer 30, though, largely due to his abstemious personality, which meant he was always in fantastic physical condition.

It was an epic battle: in the very first round Shelton landed a sledgehammer of a left hand which occasioned severe damage to one of Richmond’s eyes. Richmond rallied in the second with typical bravery, however, a huge right-handed punch to Shelton’s mouth making the “claret fly copiously”.

Thereafter, with one of Richmond’s eyes “completely in darkness”, the fight became a bitter war of attrition. Richmond’s skilful counter-punching and “terrible right-handed hits” gradually enabled him to gain the upper hand, though, and by the 21st round Shelton had become desperate, smashing Richmond in the face when he was already on the ground - an illegal move that he was fortunate didn’t result in disqualification.

Richmond kept his cool, levelled Shelton in the 22nd round and closed out the win in the following stanza, Pierce Egan describing the final rites in typically vivid prose:

“Richmond now had it all his own way, and, with the utmost sang froid, planted so tremendous a hit upon Shelton’s temple, that the claret instantly followed, and he went down. The effects of which were so severe that he appeared quite stunned and when ‘time’ was announced, he could not quit the knees of his second.”

An exultant Richmond leapt five feet over the ring ropes at the fight’s conclusion to celebrate an eighth successive victory and arguably the defining moment of his career. “Impetuous men must not fight Richmond,” declared Egan, “as in his hands they become victims of their own temerity … The older he grows, the better pugilist he proves himself.”

Richmond’s achievements warranted a title shot but, with Cribb inactive, he retired instead. His position among England’s top pugilists was assured; he exhibited his skills in front of visiting European royalty in 1814 and 1819, and he was one of the boxers selected to act as an usher at the coronation celebrations of George IV in 1821.

For a black man to be given such a role at an event symbolic of white privilege was astonishing, particularly considering slavery wasn’t outlawed in the British Empire until 1833. Richmond performed his duties with distinction, earning a letter of thanks from Lord Gwydyr and the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth.

As he grew older, Richmond’s pugilistic acumen remained unquestionable. In 1818 he easily disposed of the dangerous Jack Carter - regarded by some, chiefly himself, as the “champion” - in a street fight after Carter had made a nuisance of himself and been thrown out of a pub. Richmond settled matters in just three rounds, landing a jackhammer of a right hand upon “Carter’s upper works” that floored him “like a shot”.

When Carter recovered he admitted: “I’ve been finely served out this evening,” before slinking away “weeping over the stupidity of his fracas”. As for Richmond, with typical nonchalance, he returned to the tavern to toast his success. Had the contest been conducted under official circumstances there would have been a case for arguing that Richmond’s victory should have seen him recognised as champion, given a now-unbeaten streak of 10 years.

Touchingly, Richmond’s former rival Tom Cribb became one of his closest friends in the last years of his life, the two men often conversing late into the night. It was at Cribb’s pub on Panton Street that Richmond spent his last evening, before he died, at the age of 66, in December 1829.

Cribb planned to deliver a eulogy at Richmond’s funeral, but he was prevented from attending due to illness. Nevertheless, a copy of the words he wrote has survived. In wording that is painfully embarrassing to modern sensibilities, Cribb made a clumsy plea for racial tolerance, which, in its way, reinforces the remarkable nature of Richmond’s achievement in earning fame and respect during an era when understanding of non-white cultures was a largely alien concept.

One of the reasons Richmond was able to command such respect was his gentlemanly demeanour and determination that boxing be seen as a ‘noble art’, a philosophy he once expounded to one of his many eager pupils, explaining: “A gentleman, sir, only uses his hands to defend himself, and not to attack; we call the pugilistic art, for that reason, the noble science of defence.”

For this reason, as well as for his impressive feats both in and out of the ring, Richmond was not only the first black sportsman of significance but also, arguably, one of the greatest.

Luke G. Williams is the author of Richmond Unchained: the biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar, to be published by Amberley in August 2015. More information at www.billrichmond.blogspot.co.uk