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They made the history


Prize Fighters
Female Pugilists
Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes

Bare-Knuckled fighter
This is how Elizabeth Wilkinson and other 18th century British female prize fighters
are presented by the History Channel in the documentary "Fight Club: A History of Violence" (2010).
Telegraph




James Figg, founder and promoter of boxing.
Wikipedia
Fist
The fist is the natural weapon of "unarmed" individuals. People have been using fists in fights and sport competitions from the ancient times. Bare-knuckle boxing (also known as bare-knuckle, prizefighting, or fisticuffs) is the original form of boxing, closely related to ancient combat sports, which was one of the first sports in the Ancient Olympics.
Million years of the fisticuffs tradition
From the artwork by Tatyana Of Sagittarius

Bare-knuckle boxing (also known as bare-knuckle, prizefighting, fist fight or fisticuffs) is the original form of boxing, closely related to ancient combat sports. It involves two individuals fighting without boxing gloves or other padding on their hands. The difference between a streetfight and a bare-knuckle boxing match is that the latter has an accepted set of rules, for exaple, not striking a downed opponent. In fact, in the past, whatever reason was to get into a fistfight - an impromptu spontaneous fight or orderly one - fighters followed some traditional rules. Prizefighting and betting was another old tradition.

Interestingly, two University of Utah researchers proposed that the face of the ancestors of modern humans evolved millions of years ago in a way that would limit injuries from punches during fist fights. "Studies of injuries resulting from fights show that when modern humans fight, the face is the primary target," biologist David Carrier said. "The bones of the face that suffer the highest rates of fracture from fights are the bones that show the greatest increase in robusticity during the evolution of early bipedal apes, the australopiths."

So, bare-knuckle encounters were the ancient tradition which even affected the development of the human race.

Hand-to-hand fighting is one of the oldest entertainments of both genders in Britain it is popular to this very day.
Prize fighting face to face is a truly folk sport and entertainment in Britain.

By tradition, female fistfighting was considered as disgraceful and notorious; thats why women bouts usually were not advertized. However, female fights usually were a settled disputes rather than impulsive brawls; participants usually trained in weeks; otherwise they didnt have chances to win. Although women usually fought for money, a quarrel could cause the fight.

When the German traveler Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach visited London in 1710, he attended a boxing match and was told by a rowdy female spectator that she herself "had fought another female in the place without stays and in nothing but a shift. They had both fought stoutly and drawn blood". This story was told nine years earlier than Figg started his championships.

While low-class men and women fought, nobody paid attention but in the early 18th century it became known in media thanks to the interest to the sport from higher classes. The sport of bare knuckle boxing was born in the early 18th century from prize fighting famous boxing promoter James Figg is considered as its founding father.

Boxing began one of several periods of growth and transformation in the early 1700s when James Figg opened the School of Arms and Self Defense in London. Figg is considered as a great boxer, even though he actually was a boxing promoter and a great fencer engaging in sword duels and matches with quarterstaves and cudgels*. Figg changed the sport of boxing from one which used punching, wrestling and kicking (known as purring) to one which relied solely on punching skill. At the time, there were no weight restrictions or divisions, no gloves, no set number of rounds, no specified length to the rounds and no rest periods.

Although James Figg is considered as the first boxing champion, he rarely fought with fist (if ever), but mostly with weapon. However, fistfights were often held on his arena under his guidance, so he is justly regarded as the father of boxing. But there definitely was a questionless mother of boxing and hereinafter, her story will be told...

Fistfight
Women fistfight in the street
Fragment of a 18th century engraving.

In 1743 Jack Broughton, a student of James Figg and known as the the father of English boxing, implemented the use of his Broughton Rules which soon caught on and became the standard for all bouts. Each round would end when a fighter was knocked down or out of the ring and a fight ended when one combatant was unable to rise from a knockdown within 30 seconds. Fights could end by knockout, capitulation or police intervention. These rules remained in play until 1839 when the London Prize Ring Rules introduced the use of a 24 square-foot boxing ring with ropes surrounding it.

As soon as the general public gets familiar with the sport of bare-knuckle fighting, it turned out that not only men had already been in the sport.


"Role of women in boxing".
Two ladies at right
supporting different boxers
at a boxing match
fistfight each other
in their undercard match
Fragment of the print
by Thomas Rowlandson, 1811

Martin Nogues "Voyages et Avantures", published in 1728, reported matches between girls and grown women "stripped to the waist." James Peller Malcolms "Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London" collected numerous references to female pugilists at Hockey in the Hole (a traditional venue for combat sports) and at James Figgs famed "Amphitheatre".

In the 18th century, boxing became very popular in Britain men and women of low classes often fought for prize (and sometimes for spirit). But boxing was especially popular among male noble Britons (noble ladies of course didn't fistfight it was commoners' business; nevertheless, as you can see at the fragment of the engraving (right below), two ladies supporting different boxers fight each other as an undercard of a boxing match in a noble house).

In fact, this old sport of prize-fighting (especially when women participated in it) more resembled kickboxing with elements of wrestling, rather than boxing. According to the rules women would punch, use their feet and knees kicking to all parts of their opponents body. They also could maul, scratch and throw. This resulted in serious injury for either or both fighters. Boxing fights at that time were bloody and bare-knuckled contests fought to the end among working class women, thought to be "naturally" tougher and more brutish than the delicate and docile Victorian ladies. Sometimes female boxers were stripped to the waist. The sight of a vampish, aggressive woman, sweaty, bloody and often bare breasted, provided an exciting display of animality and passion rarely seen in the sexually repressed Victorian woman. While this undoubtedly provided sexual titillation for the male audience, it also powerfully denies popularly held beliefs about the natural passivity, gentleness or weakness of the female sex.

Fistfight
Bare knuckle fight in London

Because there were relatively few women capable to fight, matches were often against men and sometimes women were the victors. More usually, women were seriously injured. On-the-spot stitching of large cuts was sometimes carried out so that a bout could continue, and women fought on with broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth and swollen eyes.

The first recorded modern female boxing fight with the bare hands took place in London in 1722 at the Boarded House, near what is now Oxford Circus, when Elizabeth Wilkinson, 'the Cockney Championess', beat Martha Jones. Elizabeth Wilkinson is considered as the first recorded champion female pugilist.

Later, Elizabeth married Stokes who owned a rival booth to James Figg on Islington Road in London. Elizabeth Stokes successfully fought in the husband's booth and called herself "European Championess". Actually she fought not only with her fists but mostly with weapons, such as dagger, cudgel, sword and quarterstaff.

It was time when bare knuckled prize fighting became legal on the London stage and there was a definite distinction between trials of skills which involved weapons, usually swords and/or quarter-staffs and trials of manhood involving fists. Tony Gee in his research into the early history of prize fighting has revealed that in 1720s Elizabeth Stokes was one on the rare examples of a fighter who was equally proficient in both arenas and would engage in combat both with weapons and fists. He explains that: "Contrary to popular belief, no performer was required to engage in the two disciplines during the same contest, although boxing matches were often on the undercard of weapons confrontations. Elizabeth Stokes was primarily involved in trials of skill, in which she occasionally fought with her husband against other couples. However, in these mixed paired trials the women always appear to have competed only against each other and were never matched against the men. At no time, though, did pugilistic contests feature mixed pairs and in her fistic encounters Elizabeth Stokes was always billed individually." There is little doubt that women were involved in the prize ring during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, their fights are rarely recorded or taken seriously by the commentators writing at the time or by later historians.


Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes presented
in the documentary "History of Violence".
UK TV Play
Challenge
Challenge by Elizabeth Wilkinson

Unfortunately, quite little is known about Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes, an incredible outstanding athlete, founder and inventor some special female forms of combat sports. She is the first known female boxer and mixed martial arts fighter in the history, circa 1720. In that time, fighting with various weapons was called mixed martial arts; and interestingly, female bare knuckle prize fighting then was closer to the contemporary MMA than to the contemporary boxing. She fought in the streets, sports arenas and theaters of England, against women and men, with fists and weapons such as swords, quarterstaves, cudgels, and daggers.

Surviving documents provide few details about Wilkinsons life. The exact details of her childhood and family remain a mystery, but she appears to have come from a working class English household, which was the background common of eighteenth century English boxers.

She was born in London around 1700 and proclaimed herself as being of the famous city of London." Her birth name, however, remains a mystery. The 1735 work, "Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals", describes the life and crimes of Robert Wilkinson, a notorious prize fighter, thief, and murderer, executed for his crimes in 1722. The section on Robert Wilkinson ends with a reprint of the newspaper advertisement, printed just days after Wilkinson's execution, in which Elizabeth Wilkinson makes her first appearance in the documentary record. The document, in which Elizabeth Wilkinson challenged Hannah Hyfield to meet her in the ring, appears without commentary, leaving the reader to assume a connection between the executed criminal and the woman who shared his last name. Evening Post (April 9th, 1928)" suggested that Robert Wilkinson was Elizabeth's first husband: "Elizabeth Wilkinson does not appear to have been happily mated in her first matrimonial venture, as she was married to Robert Wilkinson, who was a stage fighter at Hockley-In-The-Hole". However, columnist and boxing historian, Christopher James speculated that Wilkinson was not her legal name, but that she adopted it as a stage name, calculated to strike fear into the hearts of would be opponents by suggesting a connection to the infamous Robert Wilkinson. After her first documented fight in June 1722, her prizefighting career lasted until roughly 1728.

Challenge
"Duel of prostitutes" by Paul Ballurian.
"The Female Regency in the History of Humanity"
Reprinted from MorphoGallery

James Peller Malcolm (1810), refers to the London Journal" for June 23, 1722 which reported a battle between two women: "Boxing in public at the Bear-Garden is what has lately obtained very much among the men; but till last week we never heard of women being engaged that way, when two of the feminine gender appeared for the first time on the Theatre of War at Huxley in the Hole, and maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators." After this description the advertisement appeared: I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, who had earlier had some words with Hannah Hyfield, challenged and invited her adversary to meet her on the stage for three guineas. Each fighter would hold half-a-crown in each hand and the first to drop the money would lose the battle. Elizabeth Wilkinson won on that day. Shortly after this she beat another lady pugilist from Billingsgate Martha Jones. The only details of this contest are that it lasted 22 minutes."

Marylebone and St. Pancras: Their History, Celebrities, Buildings and Institutions, by George Clinch (1890), broadside: "At the boarded house in Marylebone Fields, to-morrow being Thursday, the 8th day of August (1723), will be performed an extraordinary Match at Boxing, between Joanna Heyfield, of Newgate Market, basket-woman, and the City Championess, for Ten Pounds Note. There has not been such a battle for these 20 years past, and as these two Heroines are as brave and as bold as the ancient Amazons, the spectators may expect abundance of Diversion and Satisfaction from these Female Combatants. They will mount at the usual hour, and the Company will be diverted with Cudgel-playing till they mount. Note a scholar of Mister Figg, that challenged Mister Stokes last summer, fights Mister Stokes scholar 6 bouts at Staff, for three Guineas; the first blood wins. The weather stopped the Battle last Wednesday." As a matter of fact, it could be concluded from this advertisement that 20 years prior that event (1703?), women also fought each other.

According to James Peller Malcolm (1810), bare-knuckle prize fighting as well as bear baiting were illegal activities at least until 1724 even though police rarely interfered to stop it.


British prize fighter.
Illustration by Mike Fyles
From the book
"Fight Card: Blood to the Bone".

Although James Figg is currently listed as the Champion of English Boxing" from 1719-30, it would be a surprise to Figg himself. He was famed as a fencer and MMA fighter with a quarterstaff or dagger (at that time, mixed martial arts was a term for fighting with weapons). Boxing had been a novelty sport of minor standing at the theater named after him. Figg had organized occasional boxing matches, which made money and were crowd pleasers, but he was not offering himself to fight. Every participant of a boxing or fencing match was called a champion." A person who fought with their bare fists was a pugilist." James Figg stood above all as an MMA fighter but he did not fight with fists. It is inaccurate to state that this was a bare-knuckle fighter champion" from 1719-1730. The most famous bare-knuckle fighting male fighters of approximately 1725-26 were The Venetian Gondolier," and an Englishman named, Whittaker. James Figg helped bring them together to fight at his amphitheater. Figg had promised fair fighting" and the bout made a great deal of money.

Malcolms Anecdotes Of The Manners and Customs of London During the Eighteenth Century (1811)": August, 1725, produced a conflict for the entertainment of the visitors of Mister Figgs amphitheater, Oxford-road, which is characteristic of savage ferocity indeed. Sutton, the champion of Kent, and a courageous female heroine of that County fought Stokes and his much admired consort of London; 40 Pounds was to be given to the male or female who gave most cuts with the sword, and 20 (pounds) for the most blows at quarter-staff, besides the collection in the box." It is reasonable to believe that this is Elizabeth Wilkinson as the much admired consort." She would partner with Stokes and advance her professional fighting beyond bare-knuckle to include fencing and other mixed-martial arts. An Irish female MMA fighter, who does not appear to fight bare-knuckle, would become her #1 rival. On October 3rd, 1726, The Weekly Journal/British Gazetteer announced the Irish equivalent of Elizabeth Wilkinson (for the first time suggested as married): Whereas I, Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught, and knowing the noble science of defense, and thought to be the only female of this kind in Europe, understanding there is one in this Kingdom, who has exercised on the public stage several times, which is Missus Stokes, who is stilled the famous Championess of England; I do hereby invite her to meet me, and exercise the usual weapons practiced on the stage, at her own amphitheater, doubting not, but to let her and the worthy spectators see, that my judgment and courage is beyond hers."

The Daily Post, 1728, via New York Times (7/23/1882): Whereas I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington ass driver, well known for my abilities in boxing in my own defense wherever it happened in my way, having been affronted by Missus Stokes styled the European Championess do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing for 10 pounds fair rise and fall; and question not but to give her such proofs of my judgment that shall oblige her to acknowledge me Championess of the Stage."


Bare knuckle prize fight
Artwork by Kirby

The reply: I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, have not fought in this way since I fought the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate 29 minutes, and gained a complete victory, (which is six years ago); but as the famous Stoke ass-woman dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses." Boxing had undergone an enormous popularity shift within England from 1722 to 1728. So, Elizabeth Stokes didnt quit prize ring even at the end of her fighting career. The Venetian Gondolier/Whittaker bout had proved its enormous popularity and financial profits. The Elizabeth Stokes and Ann Field bare-knuckle fight was the main bout for this October 7th, 1728 event. Men would be fighting as the under card. There would be cudgel fighting of some sort as an opening act. It would be followed by a male bare-knuckle bout, not for ten pounds, but a single guinea.

Lets return to the fight between two great female athletes, Elizabeth Stokes and Mary Welsh. Much of the earliest female bare-knuckle fighting were Irish women, mostly referred as street women" or prostitutes, without names preserved. Mary Welch must have been a special athlete worthy of her own recognition. She had built some sort of fame as an MMA fighter before she had heard the name, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes. Mary Welch was an experienced swordswoman, along with quarter-staff and daggers. Welch would have had to surrender home stage advantage to Stokes, and it appears that she was likely defeated. It appears that Elizabeth Wilkinson married James Stokes, but Christopher James Shelton could not locate a London marriage certificate for the 1720?s. If she had been married prior, especially to a talented fencer, it would explain how she could have learned MMA technique. There must be some explanation as to how Wilkinson developed these skills. She would have been assisted by her husband, also an MMA athlete, but fencing is not the sort of sport that you suddenly develop. In fact, female bouts with weapons were quite fierce and bloody, especially with money on the line, she would be repeatedly slashed and profusely bleed. This is how Elizabeth answered Mary Welshs challenge: "I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, being well known by the name of the Invincible City Championess for my abilities and judgment in the above said science; having never engaged with any of my own sex but I always come off with victory and applause, shall make no apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the reputation I have hitherto, established, and shew my country, that the contest of its honor, is not ill entrusted in the present battle with their Championess." So, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes claims to have never fought MMA against anyone except men. Perhaps some would think it unlikely that a gentleman" would engage in fencing with a woman. We know, however, that in 1725 Ned Sutton participated in MMA mixed-gender fights. So it is not completely far-fetched to suggest that men and women could MMA dual against one another.

Prize fighting
"A prize fight between women in Middlesborough."
"The Police Gazette," 1882.
Strange Company

James Peter Malcolm, 1810 quoted the following newspaper ad: "In Islington Road, on Monday, being the 17th of July, 1727, will be performed a trial of skill by the two combative pairs which have exchange with messages: We, Robert Barker and Mary (Welch), from Ireland, having often contaminated our swords in the abdominous corporations of such antagonists as have had the insolence to dispute our skill, do find ourselves once more necessitated to challenge, defy, and invite Mister Stokes, and his bold Amazonian virago, to meet us on stage; where we hope to give a satisfaction to the honorable Lord of our nation, who has laid a wager of twenty guineas on our heads. They that give the most cuts to have the whole money, and the benefit of the house. And if swords, daggers, quarter-staff, fury, rage, and resolution will prevail, our friends shall not meet with a disappointment."
The reply: "We, James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the city of London, having already gained an universal approbation by our ability of body, dexterous hands, and courageous hearts, need not perambulate on this occasion, but rather choose to exercise the sword to their sorrow, and corroborate the general opinion of the town, than to follow the custom of our repartee antagonists. This will be the last time of (Elizabeth) Stokes performing on the stage..." Then the announcement said: "Attendance will be given at three, and the combatants mount at six. They all fight in the same dresses as before."

19th century American diplomat George Perkins Marsh during his lectures on the English language in 1861 (in context of bombastic language) mentioned a pugilistic challenge of 1720s, in the New York Tribune as of October 1858. It is said to have been taken from an old newspaper: "I, Felix Maguire, first master on the Kingdom of Ireland, tutor to the noted Mister Holmes, who has fought the celebrated Mister Figg this season to general applause, the last of which battles I was engaged with him myself, whereas I hit the said Mister Figg on the belly and gave him other convincing proof of my judgment therein, on Wednesday, the 11th instant, when, contrary to all expectations, Missus Stokes, styled the invincible, matchless, unconquerable city championess, took on her to condemn the method of Mister Holmes; displaying his skill before a grand appearance assembled, which, with regret, I was obliged to hear, and in regard, though said gentleman was my pupil, I so far resent it that I hereby invite Mister James Stokes, together with his said Elizabeth, his wife, at their own seat of valor, and at the time appointed, to face and fight me and a woman I have trained up to the science from her infancy, one of my own country, and who I doubt not will as far exceed Missus Stokes as she is said to have done those she has hitherto been concerned with."

In fact, success of Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes along with James Figg, gave them a reputation that encouraged challenges. It is unclear in what fighting style Felix Maguire managed to hit his opponent on the belly - it could be a bare-knuckle punch but more likely a weapon landed against Mr./ Figg given that he was the champion swordsman rather than a boxer as many think. The above mentioned challenge is another example of mixed-team gender MMA fighting.


A Husband and Wife Fight as Gladiators in 1727 London

While most people have heard of the gladiators of ancient Rome, far fewer know of those who fought in London and other places in the British Isles and British colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although these highly ritualized combats took place in locations as remote as Jamaica, Barbados, and rural Ireland, during the seventeenth century the most popular setting for such fights was undoubtedly the infamous Bear Garden in Southwark, London. In 1672, a Frenchman named Josevin de Rocheford visited the Bear Garden and observed:

We went to the Bergiardin, where combats are fought by all sorts of animals, and sometimes men, as we once saw. Commonly, when any fencing-masters are desirous of showing their courage and great skill, they issue mutual challenges, and before they engage parade the town with drums and trumpets sounding, to inform the public there is a challenge between two brave masters of the science of defence, and that the battle will be fought on such a day.

What followed these processions was violent and often gruesome. On the appointed day, to the sound of trumpets and beating drums, the two combatants would ascend the stage, strip to their chests, and, on a signal from the drum, draw their weapons and commence fighting. The combat would continue until one man conceded, or was unable to continue. In de Rochefords account, the combatants continue fighting while enduring horrific wounds, including severed ears, sliced-off scalps and half-severed wrists. Bouts occurred with different types of weapons, including longsword, backsword, cudgel *, foil, single rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and gauntlet, falchion, flail, pike, halberd, and quarterstaff. Although such fights were not intended to end in death, the wounds received were often serious enough to incur it.

During the 18th century, the ampitheatre of renowned fencer and pugilist James Figg became the resort of all the most celebrated masters and mistresses of the art. On Nov. 20, 1725, Guests Journal announced the imminent arrangement of a gladiatorial fight involving females:

We hear that the gentlemen of Ireland have been long picking out an Hibernian heroine to match Mrs. Stokes, the bold and famous city championess. There is now one arrived in London, who by her make and stature seems likely enough to eat her up. However, Mrs. Stokes being true English blood (and remembering some of the late reflections that were cast upon her husband by some of the country folk) is resolved to see out vi et armis. This being likely to prove a notable and diverting entertainment, it is not at all doubted but that there will be abundance of gentlemen crowding to Mr. Figgs ampitheatre to see this uncommon performance.

*) Cudgel or singlestick - a slender, round wooden rod, traditionally of ash, with a basket hilt (a hand protecting guard). Popular fencing weapon in the 18th century Britain.



She Made the History

English Historical Boxing Championship Timeline says: Male: 1725/26, Whittaker, Peartree, Gritton. 1727, John Gritton. Female: 1720?s, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes." Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes was an important bare-knuckle pugilist, irrespective of gender. There is little reason for James Figgs inclusion in the International Boxing Hall of Fame other than as a businessman or promoter. Historical proof concurs that Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes fought bare-knuckle during the 1720?s, but not James Figg. Despite handling a dagger, fighting with a quarter-staff, wielding a fencing sword against men, while landing and receiving punches, the 1720?s Invincible English Championess" has not been included in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Lady boxer Barrimore
The Boxing Baroness
Lady Barrymore

Sometimes, when experiencing the human history, it is tempting to view someone as an innovative link to the future. In fact, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes was a forerunner in the area female combat sports, at that not in several of them at once in boxing, kickboxing (remember, prize fighters used not only their fists), stickfighting, fencing with variety of weapons. Although no female fighters of her level are known since her time until the modern era, her followers are traced throughout 18th and 19th centuries and various cases of female combat activities have been recorded.

Throughout the 18th century, women's boxing was practiced and promoted alongside that of their male compatriots. In 1795, the legendary champions Daniel Mendoza and 'Gentleman" John Jackson even acted as seconds in a fight for a prize of 11 guineas, between Mrs. Mary Ann Fielding and a woman known only as the "Jewess of Wentworth Street". For that sum, the two fought for 80 minutes during which there were over 70 knockdowns between them.

Fistfight in a fish market
Fistfighting in a fish market
in Billinsgate
Sketch by Henry Thomas Alken. 1820
From PastPages

Another testimony about the attire of female fighters: "In 1768 at the Amphitheatre, the 'Bruising Peg', dressed in white stockings and Holland drawers, outclassed her opponent to the delight of several hundred spectators."

In 1776, famous American boxer George Maddox and his sister Grace travelled throughout the country and challenged men and women. Pierce Egan writing in 1812 recalls Grace Maddox who boxed women and offered to fight any man present after her brother won a routine bout.

An Essex local report said: "In August 1793, a pitched battle was fought in Elmstead, near Chelmsford, Essex, by two LADIES of pugilistic spirit. Being stripped, without caps, and their hair closely tied up, they set to, and for 45 minutes supported a most desperate conflict; when, although one of them was so dreadfully beat as to excite apprehension for her life, her husband possessed brutality enough still to prompt her to fight; but, through the interference separated."

A brutal bout between two women in 1794 was described as follows: "Great intensity between them was maintained for about two hours (!), whereupon the elder fell into great difficulty through the closure of her left eye from the extent of swelling above and below it which rendered her blind through having the sight of the other considerably obscured by a flux of blood which had then continued greatly for over forty minutes... not more than a place even as large as a penny-piece remained upon their bodies which was free of the most evident signs of the harshness of the struggle. Their bosoms were much enlarged but yet they each continued to rain blows upon this most feeling of tissue without regard to the pitiful cries issuing forth at each success which was evidently to the delight of the spectators since many a shout was raised causing each female to mightily increase her effort."

In April 1795 the most famous pugilists of the epoch, Mendoza and Jackson acted as seconds in a fight near the New Road in London between Mrs. Mary Ann Fielding and "a Jewess of Wentworth Street", won by the former in 80 (!) minutes. There were 70 knockdowns - and a prize of 11 guineas.

Not just working class women participated in bare-knuckle boxing. The etching "The Boxing Baroness" represents one of the most remarkable early works of art dealing with the sport of boxing. Fashionably dressed in the mode of 1819, the etching depicts a woman in full pugilistic stance. Even more remarkable is that this etching portrays an actual boxer. Lady Barrymore, who was married to the Seventh Earl Barrymore. Both the Earl and his wife were amateur boxers.

An account of women boxers appears in "Famous Fights", published in 1803. In this the writer described an incident from the first half of the 19th Century which occurred outside "The Crown" in Cranbourne Alley, in London. "The Crown" was owned by Stunning Joe Banks, a well-known publican at the time and a close friend of the pugilist fraternity. The protagonists, Amy Russell and Julie Pyne, are described as ladies both well-known to the residents of St Giles and the police. During an argument, the ladies decided to settle their differences according to the rules of the prize ring, with Stunning Joe acting as the referee. "Then the two Amazons stripped to the waist, tied up their hair, chose seconds of their own sex, and then set-to stunning Joe himself being referee. For 20 minutes they fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on. Once or twice, forgetful of the rules of the Prize Ring, they went for each other, literally with tooth and nail, but Joe interfered, and savage though they were, the two females (we cannot call them women) restrained their natural inclination to tear and claw, and standing up like men punched each other with their fists till the blood ran in streams down their faces and breasts."

Women's boxing continued into the early 19th century. The March 24, 1807 edition of the Morning Chronicle reported: "Several fights amongst the lower orders on Sunday morning near Hornsey Wood but the one which afforded the most diversion was between two women the opponents were Betty Dyson a vender of sprats and Mary Mahony a market woman. These Amazons fought in regular order upwards of forty minutes until they were both hideously disfigured by hard blows. Betty was once completely blind but the lancet restored her sight and Mary was at length obliged to resign to her the palm of victory. The contest was for five guineas."

Bare-knuckle fighting for women drew an ever-rougher crowd. Fights were often staged at dawn before everyone went to work, or as they were coming home.

In early 1790s, there lived The Boxing Baroness Lady Barrymore, who used boxing to amuse her sport-mad husband. The story of the boxing baroness is quite interesting. Boxing, or pugilism as it was then frequently called, was one of the Earl of Barrymore's particular pleasures. It was fashionable for aristocratic young men to exercise themselves at a sport that even the Prince of Wales had enjoyed in his younger and slimmer days, so the Earl kept a pugilist as his constant companion. He also boxed with his mistress, Miss Charlotte Goulding. The lady - hardly the right word, in this case--was neither rich nor well-born, being the daughter of a sedan chairman. It must have been true love for in June, 1792, the couple claimed to have eloped to Gretna Green. Seems they may never have reached Scotland but perhaps they were married soon after. The new Lady Barrymore enjoyed sparring with her husband---bare-fisted, as was the practice in those days. Their pleasure was short-lived. In 1793, the Earle's musket accidentally discharged and killed him at the age of 24. He was on the verge of financial ruin. After that, she seemed to live long among low class artisans and prostitutes where her pugilistic skills were very helpful.

Fistfight

Satirical sketch
by Thomas Rowlandson
(see the full version below)
From HistoricEngland
Fistfight
From the serie "Miseries of London" by Thomas Rowlandson
Resource MagnoliaBox

William Hickey, a Hogarthian rake fond of eighteen-century low life, wrote memoirs that include a vivid account of a ferocious fight at Wetherbys in Drury Lane: "The whole room was in an uproar, men and women promiscuously mounted upon chairs, tables and benches, in order to see a sort of general conflict carrying on upon the floor. Two she-devils, for they scarce had a human appearance, were engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their backs. For several minutes, not a creature interfered between them, or seemed to care a straw what mishap they might do each other, and the contest went on with unabated fury." The fight may have been simply a bar-room brawl, but the "London Times" continued to publish accounts on regular matches conducted under the same rules as mens fights. The tone of the reports changed, however, early in the nineteen century when pugilism began to seem intolerable to middle-class sensibilities. When Betty Dyson, a vendor of sprats, met Mary Mahoney, a market woman, "The Times" (March 24, 1807) commented that "the Amazons fought for over forty minutes and were both hideously disfigured by hard blows. It was a sight that "afforded the most disgust." The "Sporting Magazine" of December 1811 had also carried a report of what it declared to be "Amazonian boxing". Two women, Molly Flower and Nanny Gent, fought to settle a family dispute for the price of a pint of gin and a new shawl. Flower won after a 20-minute struggle, and the writer was impressed: "Both were good hitters, and they were worse hit the head than is witnessed amongst many second-rate pugilists. Nanny jibbed a bit in the twelfth round and gave in from a dexterous hit down in the following round." Another match, which took place in 1822, fifteen years before Victorias ascent to the throne, signaled a sea-changed in British manners. It pitted Martha Flaherty against Peg Carey. As was often the case, the promoters of the bout counted on English-Irish antagonisms to increase the crowds excitement. The social class of the two participants was obvious: they fought for a prize of nearly £17, 10s; they began at 5:30 am, before the fighters and the spectators had to be at work; and Flaharty consumed half a pint of gin before she stepped into the ring. Perhaps the gin deadened the pain of the blows she received. She won despite severe injuries.

In the 18th century, the popularisation of the sport of boxing coincided with a sudden shift in attitudes towards the playful transgression of gender roles which had characterised elite social activities. People began realizing that women were capable to inflict violence and to take the heat.
See the artwork by Thomas Rowlandson at right and explanation what was behind that in the illustrations below.

In Victorian Era, female prize fights went underground until the end of the 19th Century when the new era of emancipation of women came (especially in USA) and first "world boxing championesses" appeared (but it happened in America).

In the middle of XIX century, womens prize fighting was taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Because there were relatively few women competitors, exhibition matches were often against men and sometimes women were the victors. More usually, women were seriously injured; at least one may even have been killed. On-the-spot stitching of large cuts was sometimes carried out so that a bout could continue, and women fought on with broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth and swollen eyes. American women from Wild West (cowgirls) were especially brave and pugnacious. They wielded both guns and fists.

In 1856, this report was published in the [New York] Times: A female Prize fight. - An interesting place [in Chicago] is that called The Sands. On Sunday last a prize fight took place on the lake shore between a couple of whiskey-bloated female denizens of that locality, in presence of an audience of fifty of sixty people of both sexes. A ring was made, seconds were chosen and stripping themselves to the waist the two degraded creatures went at it. The fight lasted some twenty minutes, and the yells and curses of the combatants might have been heard a full quarter of a mile.

A local New Hampshire newspaper reported in 1860 about a planned fight occurred in Manchester, New Hampshire: Last evening, a disgraceful female prize fight came off in the vicinity of Rumford School House. Eighteen rounds were fought lasting twenty minutes, in the presence of a large number of roughs who reside in that section of the city. Our informant, who didnt arrive in season to witness the fight couldnt learn the name of the champion, as she had fled from the field. The name of the one left upon the field of battle was the notorious Mrs. Storin who had received severe punishment. One who was present reports that both the parties went in to win on the first heat and that Mrs. Storin was knocked completely off her pins in nearly every round. Mrs. Storin drew the first blood. Both parties have been training for the fight for several weeks past.

Such wild and brutal fights until submission became better regulated and organized after Marques of Queensberry in 1867 introduced new boxing rules based on the ideas of John Graham Chambers. The most important novelty was mandatory wearing boxing gloves. Many parameters of a boxing match were determined: sizes of the ring, weight of the gloves, introduction of the ten counts in the event of a knockdown, three minutes in duration followed by a one-minute interval. The Chambers-Queensberry regulations made boxing bouts shorter and more humane.

Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes provided a point of imperial pride for authors that pointed to her as proof that the British of both genders were strong and brave. This began to change at the end of the nineteenth century. As the British Empire seemed in danger of collapse and the American economy shifted unpredictably, men on both sides of the Atlantic basin began to redefine Their masculinity. They embraced a new form of passionate manhood that judged men as lovers, athletes, and for their ability to give and withstand pain in the boxing ring. Boxing, which had long been British regardless of gender, now became male, regardless of nationality. Men built a mythical past for boxing that ignored Wilkinson and crowned one of her contemporaries, James Figg, even though being a fighter and boxing promoter, he was not a great boxer and didnt pretend he was.

In fact, permanent British love of both genders to fistfighting (specifically existence such fighters as Elizabeth) reflects their national character including proud, persistency, toughness, and purposefulness, vigor, self-dependence. Not without reason the song is still popular: "Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves, Britons never will be slaves!" It might be rephrased referring to a female pugilist: "Rule, Britoness"


Fistfight
Prize fighting in a London's street, 18th century.
Sketch.

Since very little first-hand information is available about the first female prize fighters, we just can speculate.
We should try to answer the following questions:


- What social class they belonged to?
- How they looked like and what attire they wore when fought?
- How they fought (rules, terms, techniques)?

Fistfight
Prize fighting in a London's street, 18th century.
An old engraving.

"The ladies decided to settle their differences according to the rules of the prize ring, stripped to the waist, tied up their hair and fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on. Forgetful of the rules of the Prize Ring, they went for each other, literally with tooth and nail."
It seems to be the most valid depiction of topless female fighting which usually involved prostitutes.
(Illustrations - at right and at left - from the book "Womens Sports: A History" by Allen Guttman. Columbia University press, 1991.)

Unlike male fighters, female ones mostly belonged to the low class who had to put themselves into real danger in order to earn a few pence. Famous Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes started her prize fighting career as a low class woman who competed with market girls or ass drivers. However, she eventually grew up into a skillful performer who fought on stages against women and men not only with her fists but also with fencing weapons. Perhaps, in her late career period she moved socially, even though stage performing was still not considered as too respectful occupation.

By the way, the prize to the winner was not necessarily money; it might be a glass of gin, new clothes and even a man. So, any fight or brawl based on the principal "the winner takes all" might be considered as prizefighting.

The most if female prize-fighters were extremely poor, they might possess very few pieces of clothing; considering it was a pre-loom era. Since the prize fights were bloody, female fighters "tied up their hair and stripped to waist" in order to safe their clothing. The most of available reports testifies that the most of female fighters (particularly prostitutes) fought topless. It is unclear though whether they were able to strip down the upper parts of their costumes or put in separate skirts. It is also possible they fought in underwear breeches or even naked.

But why it was common for female boxers to fight bare-breasted in the ages when women wore strict clothing in public? To excite male spectators? An interesting explanation has been offered: "In fact, women did box and "free fight" in front of commoner crowds for money during the late 18th and 19th centuries and could make quite a bit of money doing it (compared with their less than subsistence wages). And yes, they did often fight bare-breasted. These fights were long and bloody and many of the blows were aimed at the upper torso. Given the scarcity of medication and the fact that any upper garment they would normally wear would be somewhat dirty, a skin-breaking blow with such a garment on could cause a life-threatening infection. So the 'healthy' alternative was topless boxing!"

Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes
Elizabeth Stokes
in her attire
for outdoor training.
Reconstruction
by Pauline Goodwyn

In fact, professional stage performers (like later Elizabeth) had special attire or uniform if performed in front of decent audience. According to the ads of the match between Mrs. Stokes and May Welch in October 1726, they fought in close jackets, short petticoats, coming just below the knee, Holland drawers, white stockings, and pumps. It is interesting and significant that the clothing of the combatants is described (nobody cared what men wore), and sounds very practical and modest. Female fighters probably set their hair into bins in order not to obstruct the view.

In the 2012 documentary Fight Club: a History of Violence, female fights in the 18th and 19th were illustrated as the no rules catfights of the stews rather than pugilism. Although the girls in the video footage were not topless and fought in typical underwear clothing of commoners of that time, in the program they said the girls would have worn considerably less than in the video footage. The historian from the British Library said they had no actual accounts of any fights for Elizabeth but that her public shows of martial arts skills were documented.

Referring to the documentary, Pauline Goodwyn, a professional in historical clothing, says Elizabeth Stokes would more likely have dressed in similar fashion but wearing a simple chemise top especially as her public displays had her demonstrating her skills with men. Tight breeches and what look like buckled dancing shoes rather than the boots. She depicted Elizabeth who she thinks as a big girl, in outdoor training.

No-holds barred
'No-holds barred' fight. 1897
Artwork by Jean Veber

According to available records about female prize fights, most of them were extremely brutal and bloody until one of two fighters is incapable to continue. However, more humane prizefighting terms were introduced specifically for women' contests. It is so-called "half-crown rule" (allegedly invented by Mrs. Stokes) - women fought with half a crown in each of their fists, and the first to drip a coin lost the bout. Elizabeth Stokes preferred to fight according to this rule.

The quality of English fighting women received patriotic endorsement in the anonymous print Sal Dab Giving Monsieur a Receipt in Full of 1766. Sal bloodies the nose of a dandyish Frenchman who, despite his general hopelessness, has managed to lay bare her bosoms; another woman, meanwhile, applies a lobster to his naked bottom. Her husband shakes his fist at him. Perhaps, Sal was confident in her boxing skills and preferred to punish the insolent French herself not relying on her husband.

Now, the last (but not least) question: what techniques female prizefighters used? Some records described some female fights as brutal no holds barred (closer to the mixed martial arts) - not only punches were used but also kicks, holds, throws as well as scratching and hairpulling. These matches actually were "no rules" and no time limits and it was thought particularly effective to punch and scratch an opponent on the face and breasts, this rough boxing was popular with the Irish, both as fighters and as spectators and as it was fought on such a low level, few records remain. However, under the half-crown rules, the contestants just punched each other (mostly in the face) holding a half a crown in each hand - until someone dropped it. (The half-crown had the diameter 1.3" or 32mm.) It was quite clever, as it stopped scratching and gouging, and put a time limit on the fight. It was really pure decent boxing in which women were pioneering (while men fights were bloody until the knockout).

In fact, old prize fights would involve wrestling techniques, so some such fights more look like as wrestling. Italian artist Luca Signorelli in 1794 drew his famous print "Two men fighting, two women fighting" ("Deux hommes nus luttant, et deux femmes nues luttant") exhibited in the Louvre museum. The artwork by French artist Amedee-Charles-Henri Cham "Female wrestling in Rouen before public in 1868" depicts two dressed women wrestling before male audience. We dont know from the drawing what was the fight rules and how a winner was determined. At the turn of the 19th century women's fighting for a prize and audience pleasure became popular in Europe, particularly in France which was reported by writers and artists. These reports also tell about brutal no-holds barred style of such fights - see the illustration by Jeane Veber (below left): he depicted a fierce fighting for prize between two nude legless women in front of blessing out spectators (mostly women) and a dish with a few coins. The victorious fighter holds her opponent by neck while punching her - quite similar to contemporary MMA.

As it was said, in the early 18th century Britain women began their prize fighting experience at the dogfight arenas; that's probably why womens fights were called catfights at that time. So, originally, the term catfight was related to real bloody and brutal fight for prize between women. In fact, since not only punches were allowed, those fights could be called no-hold barred or mixed martial arts (while then it was a term for multi-weapon martial arts). Other usual venues for female prize fights were barns and bars. As Elizabeth got married Mr. Stokes, a prize arena owner, she performed in his amphitheater and perhaps, she acted more as a fencer and stickfighter rather than a fistfighter.

Finaly, it is right to say that British women first began no-hold barred hand-to-hand contests for prize, in front of spectators. Moreover, they invented a decent term of a boxing match which allowed avoid brutality and made the bout as noble as a fistfight even can be. In this regard, Elizabeth Stokes is remembered not just as the first prize fighting championess but also as an inventor of a decent boxing style. Not to mention, she was also the best in fighting with the quarter-stuff, dagger, short sword and cudgel.


The Female Bruisers
By Isabella Bradford & Susan Holloway Scott. April 30, 2013

Female Bruisers
Click on the image

For some inexplicable reason, many men have a weird fascination with brawling women. I don't know if this has to do with unbridled animal passions, or the hope that clothes will be torn off, or the fact that ordinary women are too sane to engage in fisticuffs, but whether it's mud wrestling or Mob Wives, guys will watch. This is, of course, nothing new; this painting of "The Female Bruisers" (at right) by John Collett dates from 1768, and became one of his most popular prints, doubtless pinned to the walls of hundreds of taverns and alehouses for the edification of the male patrons. (As always, click the image to enlarge it.)

Like all of Collett's pictures, there's a great deal going on here. The two combatants are likely prostitutes, perhaps old rivals with a long-standing feud. This isn't the best of neighborhoods, with a house selling Neat Wine on the right and a likely brothel on the left, with an amorous couple kissing in the upstairs window. A pair of fighting cocks in the lower left squawk at one another. A tattered playbill on the wall advertises a performance of The Rival Queens.

The battling woman on the left is the more prosperous, with a sheer embroidered apron, an elegant bracelet, and a watch on a chatelaine at her waist. In the heat of battle, she has dropped her ermine-trimmed cape to the street, while a pair of barefoot, soot-covered chimney-sweeps have made a prize of her ermine muff. Damage has been done: her sleeve ruffles are tattered, her hat's been torn off, and her hair's been pulled.

Beside her, a butcher has left his shop in the background to dab something - I'm guessing a half-lemon?- at her battered nose, and to offer a go-get-'em pat on her back. He's protecting his striped jacket (similar to this one) from his trade with tie-on blue sleeve cuffs (disturbingly like the ones worn by Georgian surgeons!) and an apron tied around his waist.

The other combatant isn't as well-dressed, even before her clothes were torn. She's not wearing stays, the way a respectable woman would, which allows the man who's helping her back to her feet help himself to a squeeze of her breast. The woman seemed to have just been knocked down by her opponent. Another, older woman (perhaps the madame to one or both of the fighters) is charging forward; she's ready to jump into the fray, but is being held back by a laughing man.

In fact, while there are a couple of fascinated girls watching, most of the onlookers are male of every rank, from bemused gentlemen to the gawking country-man who is having his pocket picked. Some are astonished, but most seem to be enjoying the spectacle. You can almost hear the frat-boy chants of "cat fight!", can't you?


Two more sarcastic testimonies enabling to feel the flavor of women's fistfights which contemporaries conceived.

Women fighting
Bare knuckled and bare chested women fight. C.1870.
Unknown author

Letter to the editor of "The Times". September 1, 1852

Sir, - G.W. in to-days Times, expresses his surprise that no man was found who would assist in the capture of the brute who knocked a woman down. Your correspondent will probably cease to wonder when he reads the following:

- About a month ago I was at breakfast with my family at Kensal-green, when I perceived a number of persons passing through the field adjoining my house. I endeavoured to ascertain the cause. With much difficulty I did so.

The stream of men and women had come from Paddington to a prize-fight between two - no, not men - women! One of my family, being incredulous, contrived to look across the fields, and there saw the combatants stripped to the waist and fighting. Men took them there, men backed them, men were the bottle-holders and time-keepers.

Women fighting
Bare knuckle duel between
Mabel Herbett and Mamie Brown.

They fought for about half-an-hour, some say for 5s., some say for a sovereign, and some say they will do it again. I saw the winner led back in triumph by men. After the above, I think your correspondent will cease to wonder at the indifference of a Paddington mob.

You, Sir, have already drawn the moral from such things. Perhaps you will permit me to add my matured conviction that some vices and some crimes are too disgraceful for mere punishment of a clean, well-ordered, and well-fed prison. Let us have the whipping-post again, and at the flogging let the crime of unmanly brutes be written over their heads.


Incident in Pleasantville, New Jersey. The National Police Gazette - September 27, 1890
Source Night Stick

Mabel Herbett and Mamie Brown fight for George Woodward in Pleasantville, N.J.

Two lovely daughters of two prominent Pleasantville, N.J., families have created a sensation in that town. Mabel Herbett and Mamie Brown nearly scratched each other's eyes out one day recently. It is true that they didn't bark and bite, but they came as near as they could without actually doing the dawgie act. From what we can learn, Mamie and Mabel were enamored of George Woodward and determined to settle their difficulties according to pugilistic rules.

The two girls consulted with their nearest friends, and decided that nothing but a personal encounter could settle the question. A prize fight was arranged, the winner to have George.

The other girls went into it with a vim; that is, the lively girls did; and Pleasantville has a full quota of lively girls. They arranged to have the affair come off in an old barn on the edge of the village, and after studying up on the subject settled on a 16-foot ring. Three oclock one Sunday morning recently was the hour set. Of course, only girls were admitted, and they had to sneak out of their bedrooms to attend in regular elopement style.

The bevy of beauties repaired to the barn and there had it out in grand style. The two combatants, when they got through with each other, had neither one won the prize, but both were considerably damaged...


Original version: July 30, 2008
Last renewal: July 7, 2017

Exclusive of the Female Single Combat Club



References

A History of Women's Boxing by Malissa Smith

Womens Sports: A History" by Allen Guttman (Columbia University press, 1991)

Fair Fight: an illustrated review of boxing on British fairgrounds by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin (Worlds Fair Ltd, London, 1999)

"Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London during the Eighteen Century"

Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London from the Roman invasion to the year 1700 by James Peller Malcolm, 1811

"Bare Fists: The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting" by Bob Mee

Social Life & Customs in London. Book Reviews

Pierce Egan. Boxiana: sketches of ancient and modern pugilism, 1824

Eighteen Century boxing by Randy Roberts

'1720s English MMA Fighter: Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes' by Christopher James Shelton

The Martial Chronicles: Fighting Like a Girl by John S. Nash.

History Channel: 'Fight Club: A History of Violence'

The Boxing Baroness

Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals

'Disappearance: How Shifting Gendered Boundaries Motivated the Removal of Eighteenth Century Boxing Champion Elizabeth Wilkinson from Historical Memory' by Christopher Thrasher,

Fight Club: A History of Violence

The bloody world of Georgian female boxing


Prize fighting
"Georgian fighting women"
Fragment from the documentary
"Fight Club - A History of Violence"

Artistic glance at Elizabeth Wilkinson, her combative contemporaries
and other female pugilists


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