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Bare Knuckle Boxer (Channel 4 1 May 2003)



AIRDATE: Thursday 1 May 2003 at 9.00pm on Channel 4 | 60 minutes

On the 8th October 1805, only a fortnight before the battle of Trafalgar, another battle gripped the imagination of England. 10,000 people from all walks of life came to a secret location just outside London to see the English champion and national hero, Tom Cribb, take on the “Black Terror”, ex-slave Bill Richmond. Boxing was illegal but these were the glory years of bare-knuckled fighting. England’s prize fighters symbolised the country’s greatness and gave expression to the British bulldog mentality of national pride.

This programme tells the colourful and remarkable story of the black challenger, Bill Richmond, whose rags-to-riches story is told within a Hogarthian demi-world of gambling, womanising, and drinking. It was a world where young men would seek their fortune by “throwing their hat into the ring” and the rich would enjoy gambling their money away in a sport that, for a few decades, defined its time. In the prize-ring anyone could achieve national fame whether they were poor, Jewish, Irish or black. But by taking on Tom Cribb, Bill Richmond would discover that there was a limit to how far an outsider could go in British sport.

Black men were a familiar sight in Georgian London and by the early 18th century there were more than 15,000 in the capital from all corners of the globe. Many were sailors, travelling musicians or runaway slaves. Most of them lived in poverty surviving on whatever charity they could find. Bill Richmond was very different. By the time he retired from the prize ring, he was a rich London celebrity. Lord Byron wrote about Bill and even the King wanted to meet him. Pierce Egan, publisher of the underground prize-fighting magazine Boxiana and Bill’s number one fan wrote, “This pugilistic hero of colour stands nearly unrivalled in the prize-ring. The right hand is truly dreadful. Two hits from it well applied can produce the severity to decide a contest. Yet, however engaged in the art of milling, he is not so absorbed in fighting as to be incapable of discourse in the other subjects. He is intelligent, communicative‚Ķ He is an extraordinary man.”

However, Bill Richmond was born a slave. He and his mother lived on Staten Island, New York where they were the sole property of a parson, Richard Charlton. When he was 13, an English aristocrat called Lord Percy came to dine at the parsonage. For the English aristocracy at the time, a black servant was a must-have accessory and Lord Percy took an instant shine to the bright young boy. Percy brought Bill to England to work as a servant in his castle in Northumberland and Bill took full advantage of this cultured and learned environment. He taught himself to read and Percy even sent him to school and eventually set Bill up as an apprentice cabinet-maker in York.

David Dabydeen, author of Hogarth’s Blacks , says, “The 1780s were probably the best time to be alive in Britain as a black person. You have a major abolition movement starting – the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Hundreds of thousands of people from all social classes went on the streets to protest on the behalf of black people. It’s a massive social movement that meant that there was a great deal of sympathy in this country for the ideals of justice and decency and fairness and freedom.” But these ideals weren’t always prevalent on the back streets of York. One evening, Bill was walking with a white woman and was accosted by a white man. In return, Bill handed out a complete ‘milling’; that is, to thrash, beat, or to box.

Bare knuckle boxing was a shady world operating on the every edge of the law. It had its own unofficial championship contested only by Britain’s toughest men; men who fought for honour and big money. It was a violent and gruesome sport where almost anything was allowed. Fights could go on for hours and men had to be made of stern stuff to contemplate making a living out of it. Peter Radford, sports historian, comments, “The boxing stars took on enormous status. All young boys wanted to be like the great fighters. They knew them by name. Their vital statistics, their height, their weight, their reach was in every paper.”

Boxing matches sprung up in travelling shows and fairs and these events would develop into great community events. Anyone could try their hand in the ring and it was at such an event in 1796 that Bill Richmond entered the records of boxing history when he fought George ‘Docky’ York, a renowned Yorkshire fighter. Boxiana reported that despite weighing only 10 stone, 12 pounds, “In the course of some twenty minutes, our hero punished Docky so completely that he gave in and was taken away totally blind.” So began the story of a legend and the world’s first black superstar.

Director and Producer: Rob Coldstream
Executive Producer: Samir Shah
Production Company: Juniper