Colney Heath and St Albans - Victorian Fight Clubs

Ruth Herman

“The place named for the meeting was Colney Heath, which, being a wild and desolate spot at a distance from all respectable habitations, was considered less objectionable for the decision of such affairs than many other place might have been mentioned.”[1]

Do you recognise the quiet and uneventful village that sits just on the A414 from the above description?  Probably not, but if you lived here in the 1820s it might have been different.  Back 150 years ago it was a centre for a violent and sometimes lethal sport: bare knuckle prize fighting which attracted the young bloods from London to witness a contest that ran largely without rules.  For the working classes the combatants were popular heroes, and perhaps there was an element of aspiration in the admiration.  Certainly, the successful fighters could earn as much as much as £15,000 (in today’s money) for one fight and when retired many went on to buy a public house.

The aristocracy, in pursuit of excitement would turn out in good numbers. One contemporary journalist wrote approvingly that ‘As early as eight o’clock’ the road to Colney Heath ‘displayed a lively sprinkle of the “gemmen wot lov a fight” among whom might be noted many swells of the first water.” There was also, not surprisingly, a great deal of drinking.

“Fencibles” were … on duty … with their long whips to keep order and regularity; as for sobriety …  the raw blast afforded an excellent apology for taking a drain more than Is consistent with the laws of  Mehamet or Parson Smith.[2]

But despite this well-heeled audience, the sport was not only irregular and bloody it was also illegal.[3] This was more from a fear by the authorities of disturbances of the peace rather than humanitarian considerations. They were quick to intervene:

It appears, however, that on the Monday night, Savage, with great imprudence, pitched his carcase at the Cock public-house, on the borders of the Heath, and thus made pubic the intended exhibition of the next day. The news, of course, was conveyed to a neighbouring Magistrate, who, consistently with his former declaration, was on the alert to prevent hostilities and when the commissar arrived with the material of war, he received notice to mizzle out of the county of Herts.

As they came out of the capital in their carriages the followers, and the fighters, were always on the lookout for out of the way places for the ring to be set up, and clearly Colney Heath fitted the bill.  So when a victor was asked to suggest a venue for the return match it was first choice.  It was also a popular choice as according to the newspaper report “an unusually strong muster of the Fancy proceeded at an unearthly hour and by one o’clock the ring was formed.” Unfortunately they were just about to get going when ‘a worthy beak poked his ill-omened mug among the busy throng and intimated his intention to prevent all hostilities within his bailiwick.’ They failed to persuade him and decamped across country to Bedfordshire.

The fights were beyond savage.  One, for instance, began with one of the two combatants already suffering from a damaged eye which had only just been saved by the surgeons at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.  At the end of the gruelling thirty-four rounds which lasted an hour and a half the poor man was fighting blind and although he was still standing he was finally deemed unfit to continue. In another fight the newspaper report declares with misplaced admiration that one of the boxers ‘did not leave off till he was beaten to a jelly – almost blind in both eyes’.

For some fighters a tragic end was inevitable, and although one ‘pugilist’ a man called Deaf Burke, did not kill his opponent in Colney Heath [4] it was on a return match in nearby St Albans that the tragedy occurred almost exactly one year later.  It meant the untimely end to  the popular Irishman Simon Byrne.

As it progressed the fight was chaotic and brutal.  But it was after a gruelling thrity seven rounds that it descended into real brutality.  Burke began vomiting after multiple blows to the stomach At this point the seconds weighed in and leapt into the ring and taking the fight into their own hands initiated a free for all. The actual contenders began to slug into each other outside the ropes. At this point Byrne began to display ‘signs of distress’, although he insisted on carrying on ‘although he was ‘frightfully punished’. The seconds brought the men ’to the scratch although they were past fighting and suffered terribly from the severe punishment they had received’.  The sponge was thrown in at the ninetieth round and Deaf Burke lay in a stupor.  Astonishingly, one of the seconds bit his fighter’s ear to bring him round. The fight proceeded as follows in a way that is horrifying to modern sensibilities:

Byrne’s hands were puffed his knuckles knocked up and they were next to useless, so severe had ben he force of the blows he delivered; and he was therefore unable to administer  the finishing blow, which would have settled of the deaf ‘un’s  prospects of winning. In the ninety-first round Byrne gave Burke a terrible cross-buttock, threw him and fell on top of him.’

Eventually the exhausted Byrne ‘fell like a log senseless in the ring battered out of all semblance of humanity’.  He was unable even to hold his head up. He.died a few days later.  Burke was declared champion but oould barely walk while Byrne had to be carried out.  The fight had lasted well over three hours and ninety-six rounds.  Burke and the seconds were brought to trial for manslaughter but although found guilty were discharged.

It was a sad end.











[1] “THE RING”  Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 8 Mar. 1829

[2] Pierce Egan’s Weekly Courier, to the Sporting, Theatrical, Literary, and Fashionable World, 18 Jan. 1829, p. 12

[3] Morning Chronicle 17th September 1828

[4] 24th May 1831

This page was added on 09/12/2017.

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