A tale of 'Lion' hunting: Boxing Monthly turns pet detective
In a new in-depth feature, Gary Lucken delves into the history of bare-knuckle great Tom Sayers, his loyal dog named Lion and a grave in Highgate Cemetery - uncovering a touching tale of canine loyalty and devotion along the way...
Take a stroll through London’s historic Highgate Cemetery and eventually you’ll come across the famous grave of 19th century bare-knuckle king Tom Sayers.
The Victorian burial grounds boast some of the finest funerary architecture in Britain and the pugilist’s marble tomb in the West Cemetery is particularly memorable because of the huge dog that guards it.
It’s a moving vista – the faithful pet watching over his master for eternity.
The identity of the hound is no secret because boxing enthusiasts will be well aware the effigy depicts Sayers’ devoted mastiff called 'Lion', often described as the chief mourner at his chaotic funeral in 1865.
But what’s the story behind this touching Grade II listed memorial? And what happened to Lion after his owner’s death?
Sayers is remembered today as one of the great English champions, a tough and skilled prize-fighter who, despite being just 5ft 8in tall and never weighing much over 150lbs, often took on and beat much larger men.
Born in Brighton in 1826, he became a bricklayer before embarking on a ring career which saw him rise through the ranks of fistendom, losing just once (to Nat Langham), before capturing the Championship of England in 1857 by defeating the 'Tipton Slasher' William Perry.
Four successful title defences followed before Sayers famously took on American champion John C Heenan on April 17 1860 in arguably the first international world title fight.
The battle at Farnborough, interrupted in the later stages when the crowd invaded the ring, was declared a draw after 42 rounds of action lasting two hours and 20 minutes. Both men were awarded a championship belt and the bout cemented Sayers’ position as a national hero and secured him a place in boxing folklore.
The so-called 'Brighton Boy' subsequently quit the ring and was sent into retirement with a £3,000 financial cushion raised via a public subscription. The money was invested on his behalf by trustees.
Exactly how and when Lion came into his life is unclear but the mastiff was certainly on the scene by early 1861 because mentions of the pet began popping up in the press.
In March of that year, for example, the Sporting Life newspaper reported that Sayers had been seen near London’s Haymarket “accompanied by a noble mastiff dog which looks as formidable as his master has proved himself to be in the pugilistic arena”.
Two months later the Falkirk Herald commented that Sayers was being accompanied on a tour of the provinces “by a huge, brown-coloured English mastiff called Lion which appears to be much attached to his master”.
The apparently close bond between pug and pooch would soon however be put in jeopardy because of Sayers’ decision to become the proprietor of a huge travelling equestrian circus.
In October 1861 Sayers announced that he had purchased a number of existing circuses and was combining them to create a 'Champion Circus of the World' which would tour the country.
The show featured numerous horses and riders along with performing mules, clowns and trapeze artists plus Sayers himself giving demonstrations of “the manly art of self-defence”.
But within a year, apparently due to financial pressures, the former champion decided to sell off the entire circus in an auction to be held at the Welsh Harp pub and pleasure grounds in Hendon.
The lots up for grabs on November 6 1862 included more than 30 horses, “the celebrated performing mules Pete and Barney”, a mammoth tent capable of holding 2,500 people plus other paraphernalia – and “the grand mastiff dog” Lion.
Several hundred people attended despite pouring rain and bids flooded in when Lion went under the hammer. But Sayers, who was present, had a sudden change of heart. He ordered his secretary and treasurer, a man named Reeves, to step in and buy Lion and the mastiff was secured for 21 guineas.
According to the Enniskillen Chronicle the dog “was heavily bid for, but it soon became evident that Master Tom did not mean parting with him, and after the price had been run up to 20 guineas the biddings stopped”.
Safely reunited, Sayers and Lion became a familiar sight to Londoners over the next couple of years as they travelled around together in Sayers’ mail phaeton, a sporty horse-drawn open carriage on four large wheels.
By now however Sayers had developed a drinking problem and was suffering from tuberculosis and diabetes. On 8 November 1865 he died at the age of 39 while staying at a friend’s residence in Camden Town.
His funeral took place a week later, on the afternoon of 15 November, and was the largest in the history of Highgate Cemetery. It was, to say the least, an extraordinary affair.
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets and watched from windows and rooftops as the cortege made its way from Camden Town to the gravesite.
At the head of the procession was a brass band playing a rendition of the 'Dead March in Saul', the funeral anthem from Handel’s 1738 oratorio.
Next came a plumed hearse, drawn by four horses and carrying the coffin, and behind that was the champion’s phaeton with Lion the sole occupant, followed by six black coaches containing, among others, Sayers’ two teenage children Thomas and Sarah, his father, sister, and brothers Charles and Richard.
The funeral train was completed by a motley assortment of vehicles transporting friends and well-wishers.
Amid the pandemonium one figure stood out for his calm and dignified demeanour - Lion.
The Manchester Times was among the many newspapers struck by the animal’s behaviour and the almost unbearably poignant image he presented.
Quoting an unnamed London paper, the Times reported: “After the hearse came a rather well-known vehicle, in which poor Tom Sayers, accompanied by a noble dog of the mastiff breed, used to spin about town, drawn by a light dun pony, and embellished with a profusion of silver-plating and a rug of imitation leopard-skin.
“The rather well-known vehicle – a slender four-wheeled species of phaeton, with the two seats placed dos-a-dos – had a black velvet pall thrown over the dividing rail; and the dog, lying at full length on the hinder seat, rested his grand head and broad ears and drooping dewlap on the soft sable drapery, furnishing forth a picture that Sir Edwin [Landseer] might make a pilgrimage to paint.
“The sight of the familiar pony phaeton in mourning, and with its driving seat empty, may be pronounced the great effect and concentrated point of interest in the funeral procession…and to the appearance of the magnificent dog, riding in melancholy loneliness behind the body of his master, may perhaps be attributed a goodly share of the tears which were shed by the servant girls, and by their mistresses too, at the windows and on the balconies and doorsteps, as the slow black train passed by.”
London’s Pall Mall Gazette, in its coverage, said that immediately following the hearse “came the chief mourner”.
It explained: “Not Mr Sayers’ wife, not his father, nor his children (though his son and daughter were said to be somewhere in the procession) but a great brown dog!
“The bereaved animal occupied a mail-phaeton alone – a man leading the horse – and was attired in as deep mourning as the breadth of his collar, which was bound in black crape, would permit.”
The Sporting Life said the event was the biggest public funeral since that of the Duke of Wellington in 1852 and described Lion as “stretched on the back seat (of the phaeton) he was wont to occupy behind his master”.
It added: “Had the dog been actually instructed in the part he was destined to act he could not have performed the melancholy office with greater picturesqueness, and when he laid his great head between his paws he became a study of canine dignity that would have delighted the heart of Sir Edwin Landseer.”
Accounts vary dramatically as to what happened when the cortege reached the cemetery gates, with some papers reporting violent clashes between police and the crowd.
The Daily News spoke of a “surging, disorderly mob” and “hand to hand combat” between officers and drunken “roughs” and “vagabonds” who succeeded in forcing their way inside before clambering onto tombs to get a good view of proceedings.
The Sporting Life, on the other hand, accused rival papers of publishing “a farrago of rubbish” and said that the “many hundreds” who swarmed into the cemetery “behaved themselves with marked decorum”.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Lion continued to behave impeccably with the Daily News commenting: “All this time the noble brute in the dog cart looked on with stern composure, as if to prove his superiority to the degraded wretches around him.”
Finally, after a short service in the cemetery chapel, Sayers’ plain black coffin with brass nameplate was lowered into a deep grave at the head of which was “a wide-spread holly tree, with its ruddy berries just appearing”.
In the aftermath of the funeral Lion, despite his high public profile, found himself in legal limbo and facing an uncertain future.
Under the terms of a will made two years earlier Sayers’ investments and money, worth a total of around £3,700, were left to his children but he seems to have made no specific arrangements for his canine companion.
It might perhaps have been expected that the animal would have been taken in by family members - but for whatever reason that didn’t happen.
The Sporting Life soon gave an inkling of what lay in store for Lion when it reported: “The personal effects of poor Tom will be sold, probably within a few days, and there can be no question, from the interest now attaching to the name of the dead Champion, that the property, if sold at once, will secure prices far beyond their intrinsic value.”
Notices soon appeared in the press announcing that Sayers’ trophies, belts and other boxing memorabilia were to be sold at the rooms of one Mr Shakell in Camden Town, along with, among other items, “the well-known English mastiff Lion”, described as “a magnificent specimen of his breed”.
Once again Lion was at the mercy of a public auction.
The sale duly went ahead on the afternoon of 1 December and there, listed in the catalogue as “Lot 103”, was Lion.
It’s a sad image – the devoted sidekick, a living creature, reduced to a piece of property, a mere number on a page. What makes it even sadder is the presence of another personal item in the auction which indicates the affection Sayers had for his dog, namely a crystal portrait of Lion “set in a fine gold-mounted scarf-pin”.
The Sporting Life reported that 'The Fancy' attended the auction “in great numbers” and that Lion was among the most eagerly anticipated lots.
When his turn came, the mastiff sold for “the handsome price” of 39 guineas to William Perkins Warner, landlord of the Welsh Harp pub where Lion had almost been sold three years earlier.
As it happened this was probably the best possible outcome for the hound because Warner, a popular 6ft tall former soldier who served in the Crimean War, was certainly no stranger.
He was actually a close friend of Sayers, so much so that he had been in the fourth of the six black coaches in the funeral cortege. The Sporting Life even described him as “one of his (Sayers') foremost supporters”.
As Lion settled into his new life at the hostelry, which according to contemporary accounts boasted beautiful adjoining gardens planted by Warner, plans were already being drawn up by Sayers’ admirers for a permanent memorial at his grave, to be funded by public donations.
By September 1866 the monument, complete with a recumbent Lion, was in place.
Media reports at the time in papers such as the Cardiff Times reveal that the “worthy memento” was made from Sicilian marble by sculptor Morton Edwards and weighed a total of eight tons.
The main structure, featuring a medallion of Sayers’ face, is seven feet long by four feet wide and about four feet high, resting on a solid base nine feet long by five feet wide and two feet six inches high.
There the immortalised Lion has lain faithfully next to his master for more than 150 years.
The flesh and blood Lion, however, was to experience a final twist to his life – he was not destined to live out his days at the Welsh Harp.
For reasons unknown his new owner, Warner, announced that the “magnificent mastiff” would be auctioned off at Harrow race course during a meet held on 22 February 1867.
Accounts differ as to what happened next with some papers saying Lion failed to sell and others reporting that he had been purchased for 46 guineas, a discrepancy which may be explained by the buyer stepping in immediately after the auction and negotiating a private transaction.
The identity of the new owner appears to have been deliberately, and somewhat mysteriously, kept under wraps.
The only clue as to Lion’s new home came in the publication Bell’s Life in London which revealed he had been sold “to a nobleman, for a large sum, and the dog goes into Lancashire”.
At that juncture the famed pet would have vanished into history, the trail gone cold, were it not for a curious article the following year hidden away in the pages of Lancashire’s Preston Chronicle.
On 25 July 1868 the paper announced the “Death of a noted member of the canine species” and in doing so revealed the solution to a mystery which had been puzzling residents of Walton-le-Dale, a village on the south bank of the River Ribble.
For several months locals appear to have been intrigued by the unexplained presence of, and lavish attention paid to, a huge hound on the country estate of Sir Henry de Hoghton.
The Chronicle said: “For some time, a large old dog has been kept by Sir Henry de Hoghton’s gamekeeper at Walton.
“The great care and consideration shown him – his keep being estimated by the villagers at about £40 a year – made it apparent to the observing eyes of the gossips that the dog was in some way eminent, and various were the conjectures hazarded by them as to his antecedents.
“This week, however, their curiosity has been gratified. Increasing age and infirmity have necessitated the destruction of the dog, and accordingly on Monday last he was shot.
“It has been allowed to transpire that he was formerly the property of Tom Sayers, of prize-ring celebrity.”
The paper added that the animal was Sayers’ “constant companion for a number of years” and concluded: “He was buried with some ceremony near the large cedar tree at Walton-le-Dale.”
Although the piece does not mention Lion by name there seems little doubt it was him and that he had acquired an eminent benefactor late in life.
Sir Henry was the 9th Baronet of a family which was one of the oldest and most distinguished in Lancashire, having owned lands in the county since the reign of King Stephen in the 12th century.
His ancestral home, Hoghton Tower, was a fortified hilltop manor house located east of Preston and a little over four miles from Walton-le-Dale. During the 1860s he was in the process of restoring the property, which had fallen into disrepair after sustaining major damage during the English Civil War.
The extent of the de Hoghton estate meant that Sir Henry, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, was landlord to numerous tenants in the area. He was also, at various times, a deputy lieutenant and a magistrate for Lancashire and Cardiganshire, a lay rector of the Parish of Preston and from 1861 to 1867 the honorary colonel of the Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers.
In short, he was a pillar of society.
He was also known to spend much of his time in London, which explains why Lion was placed in the care of his gamekeeper and why he began to be spotted roaming the countryside at his side.
The pet can now be added to an impressive roll call of historical figures with links to Hoghton Tower, including Charles Dickens, who incorporated an exaggerated version of the property in his short story “George Silverman’s Explanation” after visiting before restoration work had been completed.
Most famously, King James I was a guest in 1617 and legend has it, albeit probably falsely, that he was so impressed by a piece of beef he was served there that he knighted it “Sir Loin”, giving rise to the term sirloin steak.
What prompted Sir Henry to buy Lion will probably never be known. Perhaps it was a simple act of kindness on the part of a man who happened to be at the races and found it distasteful to see the dog essentially being touted for sale to the highest bidder as a piece of memorabilia.
Whatever his motives, it’s nice to imagine the loyal mastiff gambolling happily around his estate in the final months of his life.
One of the most famous pets in boxing history, synonymous with a great champion’s life, death and tomb, had earned his peaceful rural retirement.