Putting Tom Molineaux on the stage
Tom Green, writer of a new play about the life of bareknuckle legend Tom Molineaux, delves into the fascinating history of a man who shook the Regency boxing world to its very foundations...
Tom Molineaux might be the most famous boxer you’ve never heard of. At the peak of his career in 1810 he was among the best known people in England. Yet today he is mostly forgotten.
I hope my new play, which opens in London this month, will help to rectify that.
Molineaux was a black American slave who boxed for his freedom and then came to London to fight against the best. He was charismatic, explosive and had a chance to be the first unofficial world champion.
My interest in his story sprang from reading accounts of his fights by Pierce Egan, the great nineteenth century sportswriter. Author of the celebrated Boxiana collection, Egan gives brilliantly vivid accounts that take you right into the action. And no prizefighter catches his imagination more than “the black”, "the Moor”, Tom Molineaux.
As soon as I read Egan’s reports I knew that Tom Molineaux’s life needed to be staged. It’s an archetypal boxing story of rags to riches against the odds at a time when interest in boxing was growing rapidly.
It’s a shame that sports history is so rarely widely known. On TV there can be entire series dedicated to the story of opera or porcelain or hats but when it comes to the social history of football, cricket or boxing - nothing.
Yet we all know that sport is full of fascinating characters and dramatic narrative twists. Plus, for hundreds of years, it has been the main recreation for the vast mass of the population, both as participants and spectators.
Boxing history has very obvious relevance today. Not just because the sport continues to be popular but because the history of boxing is the history of migration - and no subject is more contemporary than that.
Molineaux himself writes about “seeking protection” in England, presumably in relation to having been a slave in the US. Pierce Egan is mostly very fair towards him, but the crowds who watched Molineaux fight were not always so gracious. Twice large numbers of people invaded the ring at crucial moments to try and prevent him winning. And at least once he was forced to fight in the street when someone challenged him “on account of his race” (he won).
Boxing in 1810 was a sport that just about anyone could access — as it is today. Equipment is minimal. You need the physical attributes, the mental resolve, the willingness to learn and the heart. And if you have an edge of desperation, if boxing is the only route to a better life for you and your family, then so much the better.
In my play I imagine a friendship between Egan (of Irish descent) and Molineaux. They are outsiders united in seeking to better themselves and take on the establishment. Along the way Molineaux must overcome the prejudice of the crowds and the prospect of fighting the great Tom Cribb. While Egan must find ways to get his work in print, and to stay afloat as an addicted gambler.
Along the way we come to learn more about the world they inhabit. A key figure is Bill Richmond, the first black boxer to fight at a high level in England. Also a freed slave he became one of the most important people in the fight world as a coach and a mentor. Having lost to Cribb himself he took Molineaux under his wing and coached him for the title fight.
Fighting of course, was different in those pre-Queensbury days. Boxers didn’t wear gloves, so there were fewer headshots. Since the days of Dan Mendoza skill and movement had played a growing role but essentially these fights were about strength, power and what they called “bottom” - the ability to soak up punishment and keep going for twenty, thirty, forty rounds or more.
Bringing this physicality to life is central to the play. We’ve been in boxing clubs, we’ve worked with a brilliant fight director, and we know that it has to be convincing.
I’ve also been working with young boxers around the country where the play will be staged, sharing the history and hearing about what boxing means to them. Theatre and boxing don’t often mix, so making these connections feels important. As a writer I want people who know about the subject to see the show, and I hope they will be interested to find out about the long history of boxing in this country.
At a time when we the subject of race and migration has become divisive again, boxing clubs are powerful examples of people getting on together regardless of background. Their work, often volunteer-led, deserves much wider recognition.
Ultimately, my play about Tom Molineaux will succeed only if we are able to bring the man to life, alongside his “sparring partner” Pierce Egan. They are larger-than-life characters whose stories still resonate strongly today who deserve a prominent place the history of boxing and in the wider history of this country.
If you are able to come and see the play, please let me know what you think.
Tom Molineaux by Tom Green is playing in London, Gravesend and Darwen from 17 May. See www.tom-molineaux.uk for details.
Special ticket offer in association with Boxing Monthly:
Tickets to see Tom Molineaux at Jack Studio London SE4 for £11 / £9 when you enter to code "1810" (performances on 31st May & 1st June only) http://www.brockleyjack.co.uk/ portfolio/tom-molineaux/