Heritage: Victioran bricklayer Tom Sayers became world’s first heavyweight boxing champion

Heavyweight boxing champion Tom Sayers

Heavyweight boxing champion Tom Sayers - Credit: Archant

Heavyweight boxing champion Tom Sayers was the last of the bare-knuckle fighters and the first of England’s champions, Adam Sonin discovers.

The famous Heenan verses Sayers bare knuckle fight

The famous Heenan verses Sayers bare knuckle fight - Credit: Archant

Illiterate Victorian bricklayer Tom Sayers fought his way to become the world’s “first heavyweight boxing champion”. His most notorious bout, which was an illegal contest, lasted two hours 27 minutes, and was dubbed “the fight of the century”.

Queen Victoria is believed to have taken an interest and spectators were rumoured to include literary luminaries Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, who penned it in parody for Punch magazine.

Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was also there and the fight sparked a debate on the sport in the House of Commons.

Short and stocky, Sayers’s strength and courage were so great that he became the most distinguished fighter of his day, and the unconquered champion of England. When he died thousands lined the streets to march with his body to Highgate Cemetery.

The procession was led by his pet mastiff, Lion, and a statue of the dog is above his grave.

He was the third sports personality to be awarded an English Heritage Blue Plaque.

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Tom Sayers (1826-1865) was born in Pimlico (later Tichborne Street), Brighton, on May 25.

Little is known of his early years but reports say he was unable to read and write and could not tell the time. His father was a shoemaker and he first came to London as an apprentice bricklayer having worked for the Brighton and Lewes Railway and the London and North Western Railway at Camden Town.

It is thought he worked as a labourer on the construction of the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm and King’s Cross railway station.

Sayers was shorter than most of his opponents, stood 5ft 8.5in tall and weighed a little under 11st. But he benefited from an “extremely muscular neck and shoulders combined with extraordinary quality of hands” which proved devastating.

In the 1840s he became a bare-knuckle fighter and appeared at clandestine contests, which had few rules or time constraints. Fights tended to last until one man gave up. By 1853 he made his first attempt at heavyweight champion of England. He met Nat Langham in a match lasting 61 rounds, over two hours. It was Sayers’s first and only defeat.

In 1857 Sayers became English champion, the last before the introduction of the Queensbury Rules, when he beat William Perry. He acquired the nicknames of the “Brighton Boy” and “Little Wonder” and his “good-humoured but determined face was so hard that after the severest punishment little trace was visible”.

Having defended his title four times, Sayers was set to be the first boxer to fight an international match, and one of the last battles without gloves. American champion, John Carmel Heenan, 25, who had made a name for himself as an “enforcer” in the San Francisco dockyards, challenged Sayers. An eager public awaited.

America was a new country and the “young giant” sought battle on “old England”.

On the morning of April 17, 1860, in a Hampshire field, history was about to be made. At 6ft 2in and 195lb, Heenan towered above Sayers’s 5ft 8.5in and 149lb as they were called to the “scratch” in the ground in the centre of the ring at 7.29am. Heenan won the toss and with it an advantage.

He was nearly a head taller than Sayers, and the ground was not level. Heenan chose the higher side of the ring. Just as the men took their places the sun began to rise. It glimmered in Sayers’ eyes and the fight was going one way as the Englishman seemed to be at the mercy of the giant. But Sayers luck changed as the sun moved out of his eyes and he began to impose himself. They fought for almost two-and-a-half hours.

Eyewitness Henry J. Coke later wrote: “Each time Sayers struck him and ducked, Heenan made a swoop with his long arms, and at last he caught his enemy... he forced Sayers’ neck on to the rope, and, with all his weight, leant upon the Englishman’s shoulders.

“In a few moments the face of the strangled man was black, his tongue was forced out of his mouth, and his eyes from their sockets. His arms fell powerless, and in a second or two more he would have been a corpse.

“With a wild yell the crowd rushed to the rescue. Warning cries of “the police, the police,” mingled with the shouts. The ropes were cut, and a scamper for the waiting train ended this last of the greatest prize-fights.”

Sayers was badly hurt and Heenan was in a critical condition for 48 hours. The fight was declared a draw with both men being awarded the prize. A public subscription raised £3,000 for Sayers, on condition he retire. He did.

He travelled the country as proprietor of a circus and spent happy days in Camden Town. By now a national hero he was often seen riding in his phaeton (carriage) with Lion sat at his side.

On November 8, 1865, Sayers died of consumption while staying with his friend, the boot maker, John Mensley.

An English Heritage Blue Plaque marks the spot at 257 Camden High Street, Camden Town, of Mensley’s shop and home.

Shortly before noon on Wednesday, November 15, shopkeepers in Camden Town closed. A crowd gathered and by 2pm there were tens of thousands of mourners.

The band which led the cortege struck up the Dead March from Saul and shuffled forward as the hearse, drawn by four black-plumed horses set off. It was led by Lion and followed by a train of coaches, carts and carriages bound for Highgate Cemetery.

The procession passed “one of the old-fashioned inns” on Highgate Hill. Across its front was a long, black banner with white letters, saying “Peace to England’s Champion”.