Pugilism isn’t my sport but in my researches into the history of Frimley and its environs I came across a fascinating contest which as well as being a brutal affair had a transforming effect on what some call the noble art of boxing. It took place on 17th April 1860 in a field behind the Ship Inn in Farnborough in what is now known as the Hatches, close to the Frimley railway station and the bottom end of Frimley High Street.
Prize fighting was illegal in those days but there were many who were prepared to take the risk of arrest and severe physical injury for the money on offer and countless thousands anxious to watch and gamble on the outcome. The venue was specifically chosen because the field was adjacent to the river Blackwater which bisects the counties of Hampshire and Surrey so that if the old bill from Hampshire came to stop the fun the contestants could nip across the water to the safe pastures of Surrey.
The two contestants represented the might of the United States and England. The American, John Carmel Heenan was the younger – 25 – and the taller – six feet two – and the heavier – 195 lbs. The English pugilist, “Brighton Titch” Tom Sayers was 34 and five feet eight tall and weighed 149 lbs but, according to contemporary reports, was a “small, clever little ring general”. Special trains were run from Waterloo station to ferry the expectant crowd for this World Championship bout, paying three guineas each for a ticket stamped To Nowhere – I have been on one of those trains – and watched by the Metropolitan police to ensure they didn’t disgorge their passengers anywhere under their jurisdiction.
As the contestants got ready the fields adjacent to the ring were reported to be black with people. The bout started at 7.29 am and lasted 2 hours 27 minutes and 42 rounds in all. In the 37th round someone cut the ropes, the crowd invaded the fight area, the referee scarpered and according to reports Heenan tried to strangle Sayers. Surprisingly, order was restored and the bout continued for a further 5 rounds until the Aldershot police arrived, brandishing warrants for the arrest of all parties. By this time both men were battered and bloodied, Sayers sustaining a broken arm and Heenan blinded.
The bout was declared a draw, both men shared the £400 purse and all bets were declared null and void. Among the illuminati who were in the 12,000 crowd and had to beat a hasty retreat were the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, who was questioned about his attendance in parliament a few days later.
Strangely, the two men struck up a friendship and toured the country giving exhibition bout. Both, unsurprisingly, died tragically young – Heenan in poverty in Wyoming in 1873 aged 38 and Sayers in 1865 aged 39. Some 30,000 attended Sayers’ funeral and he is laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery.
Such was the public reaction to the brutal fight that there were calls for boxing to adopt a code of practice and be governed by some rules. By 1865 a dozen rules drawn up by the London Amateur Athletic Club and sponsored by the 9th Marquess of Queensbury were passed by parliament.
To my knowledge there is nothing in the Frimley or Farnborough area to mark the site of this landmark event, although there are streets named Heenan and Sayers Close off Henley Drive in Frimley Green.