Thursday, May 12, 2022

A Brief and Abridged Overview of Boxing History in England | On Williams from Sherlock Holmes The Sign of the Four

A Brief & Abridged Overview of Boxing History in England | On Williams from Sherlock Holmes The Sign of the Four

"Williams, who drove you to-night, was one of them. He was once light-weight champion of England." - The Sign of the Four [SIGN], Thaddeus Sholto. The tale was published in 1890 and set in 1888. It is Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel and was first published in Philadelphia's Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. That publication would later move to New York and become known as McBride's Magazine before eventually merging with Scribner's Magazine in 1916.

Much of that previous paragraph is neither here nor there but one must admit that both Philly and NY(C, I'd imagine) are a decent pair of fighting towns. Perhaps even fighting towns that a pugilist of the time might hop the pond in order to ply his wares in. I spent a fair amount of time, a fair amount of time back, attempting to link this Williams character to a historical prize-fighter. I mean the light-weight champ of England should leave an albeit diminutive foot-print.

So, the game was afoot and I came up short of it. I'll explain why. It has to do with the dawning of boxing history in a legally sanctioned and documented sense. It's murky. Our man Williams is lost in that time, fallen between the cracks of change. Adrift in professional pugilism's primordial ooze. Or just a briefly mentioned fellow in a work of fiction. Regardless, maybe we can understand him a bit more by understanding the period in which he fictionally fought his way out of Arthur Conan Doyle's pen.

Now, I'll ask you to sit back, smoke 'em if you got 'em, and enjoy the jarring ride of my frustration-filled research.

The first British light-weight champ was coronated as such in April of 1908. His name was Jack Goldswain and he held the belt until November of the same year. Prior to that, he held the English & Imperial Ten Stone (140 pounds) Title in 1906. So immediately, it seems that Doyle took some liberty in his Williams character. The dates simply do not align. One might even begin to feel that ACD was as well-versed in boxing as Silver Blaze showed him to not be in horse racing. Nevertheless, we are not yet sunk.

To be done with the Londoner Goldswain, however, I'll say when he was done his record read 82 wins (34 by way of KO) 40 losses, and 12 draws. Was he always a participant in legally sanctioned and documented matches? I'd hazard the answer of maybe no. I'd guess that because I'd assume, like other fighters of the time, he didn't always fight under the auspices of the National Sporting Club (or under anything at all) although it was formed well before in 1891. I feel safe in assuming his official record, lengthy as it is, does not include all his fights. Accounts are muddied. But let's dwell a bit on the aforementioned club.

It was formed as a private club in London by John Fleming and AF 'Peggy' Bettinson, with Hugh Cecil Lowther, the 5th Earl of Lonsdale seated as its President. What Mahler did to enforce audience etiquette, so too did these gentlemen do for the sport of boxing. There was no talking allowed as the fights were fought, a lovely dinner was served prior, and the club quickly became renown for its fair-play, lifting the sport from its dirtier roots. The Lord Lonsdale Challenge Belt, awarded by the Earl, was given to the best at each weight, beginning in 1909. Still missing our man Williams by at the least some two decades.

The owner of the first Lightweight Lonsdale Belt was Freddy Welsh who defeated Johnny Summers in November of '09. The 'Welsh Wizard' turned pro in 1905 Philadelphia (see, I told you) and spent much of his career vying for championships with the likes of the Legendary "Battling Nelson," amongst other top-flite contenders. Down the road, he eventually lost a strap to another legend, Benny Leonard. In all his documented 160 professional bouts, he tasted defeat only five times. "A mere bag of shells." - Ralph Kramden.

But then what was happening prior to and even alongside the National Sporting Club? Oh, a wonderfully seedy mess, that's what. Before we go there, though, let's jump ahead a moment in history. The NSC stumbled through the late twenties and thirties, opened to the public in 1928, and was fully shut down in 1938 as WWII took hold. In 1929, the newly-formed (somewhat from the NSC) British Boxing Board of Control took, well, control, and has been there ever since up and till now. They are the governing body of professional boxing in the UK.

Just ask Tyson Fury about all that.

I know, I promised to travel the other way in time, back to a landscape more familiar to Thaddeus Sholto's former light-weight champ and then porter Williams. There were many illegal and/or unsanctioned varieties of underground fisticuffs around this time. Wrestling (what would become pro wrestling but was then catch-as-catch-can) was shown alongside gloved and (I believe) bare-knuckle fights. Sometimes the fighters, as well as the fights, overlapped in terms of participants and styles. It was a corrupt and bloody bit of a sordid business.

Also, however, there was England Boxing. Formed in 1880 under the then nom de ring of Amateur Boxing Association of England, the organization also continues through till this day. This is the first time our timeline favorably aligns with our Williams. That being outside of the darker more barbarous outlets I've just mentioned. I do see him as at least somewhat of a gentleman, so I believe him likely to have fought under the rules of this or some organization.

Perhaps he even contested within their 1881 inaugural England Boxing Amateur National Championships (AKA the ABA Championships). He simply would have had to have been a member of a boxing club and registered with England Boxing. Here, we again and more timely-so find a light-weight champion, a man named Fred M Hobday, representing the Clapton ABC club. I sadly can find no more in regards to him.

In regards to the Clapton ABC Boxing Club, however, well there ain't nothing there either. A better-remembered club active at that time went by the name of Polytechnic Boxing Club. It was formed in 1888 on the grounds of the Royal Polytechnic Institute, hence its name. The locale would later go on to host the University of Westminster. Poly Club went on to have three of their men boast of being ABA champs: Bert Brewer (1899), Harry Holmes (1908), and WJ Hunt (1929).

These boxing clubs seem to have popped up in and around London and acted anywhere from gnarly fight clubs to charitable type organizations to (as in the case of Polytechnic) running or being run by their own in-house magazines, education, and vocational training programs. It is more than a bit difficult to find precise information about these clubs. I grow ever-so weary. Let's now take it back a bit further to a better-documented time and matter. A time around when our Williams would have been a young lad...

1867 is where our bumpy ride sees its last stop. This is quite curious because it might also be the first call of all aboard if this article were to have been written in a clear or at least linear manner. The Marquess of Queensbury rules begins the modern boxing journey. The rules were penned then by John Graham Chambers under the sponsorship of one John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensbury. John Sholto, to be clear, was the name of Thaddeus Sholto's father who first employed Williams.

I went an awfully long way for that payoff and was as surprised as you are now to find this out. You've been reading my research in real-time if that hasn't been clear. What fun! What fun?

The real-life John Sholto brought upon the downfall of his son's purported lover, Oscar Wilde. I did not touch much at all on The Sign of the Four in this article. Not even enough to issue a SPOILERS AHEAD. 1890) warning atop it. But as with all my writings, Sherlockian in particular, I'd love if it acted as an impetus for you to read more. Start with reading or re-reading SIGN. Also please note that Doyle was commissioned to write this story over a dinner he shared with the editor and Oscar Wilde.

::: very :::

Online sources for this article include: Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia (The Sign of the Four, List of British Lightweight boxing champions, Jack Goldswain, Lonsdale Belt, Freddy Welsh, British Boxing Board of Control, England Boxing, Polytechnic Boxing Club, John Douglas 9th Marquess of Queensbury), Boxrec (Jack Goldswain), London Remembers (National Sporting Club), England Boxing (Our History), and Brittanica (Marquess of Queensbury rules).