No Man’s Heath: Aggressive Sport in the 1830s

No Man’s Heath gained a reputation for fighting. Land disputes shook it in the 1790s. Later it hosted bare knuckle boxing. And people linked it with law breaking. In 1828, for example, labourers uncovered a woman’s skeleton in a shallow grave. The farmer learnt nothing more.

Early enclosures shrunk the area of heather and bracken known as No Man’s Heath. Yet late eighteenth-century landowners found new Enclosure Acts hard to enforce. Local communities maintained grazing rights with an annual ritual, and refused to give them up. They met, by custom, to renew a cross dug in the turf where Leicestershire met Derbyshire and Warwickshire. As the Napoleonic wars drew to an end, the landlords won. The heath vanished. Farmers burned the heather, spread lime on the soil, and fenced their new fields.

The pattern of settlement shifted too. In the 1770s a few squatters built cottages on the Derbyshire side of the Tamworth to Measham Road. By 1824, the Chilcote estate replaced these with a belt of trees. Cottages now appeared on the Warwickshire part of the site. An 1835 map shows these houses, and the 1841 Census records thirty people in five dwellings. People called this settlement No Man’s Heath. In spite of the later Four Counties Inn, the Staffordshire boundary was a country mile away.

Ancient trackway at No Man's Heath
A view of Salt Street to the south east of No Man’s Heath, where it forms the boundary between Leicestershire and Warwickshire. Locally,
this ancient trackway or trade route extended westward from No Man’s Heath to Alrewas, via Clifton Campville. From the view in the photo,
it passes in a south easterly direction to Twycross.

No Man’s Heath as a Venue for Fighting

During the 1830s, at least five prize fights took place near No Man’s Heath. Organisers used this name, not of the settlement, but in its older sense of a particular heathland. The hub of their activity was the Red Lion Inn at Appleby Magna. 

Magistrates viewed bare knuckle boxing as a breach of the peace. When roused to action, they deployed constables to stop fights and make arrests. In addition, if a fighter died of his wounds, a jury often convicted the winner of manslaughter. Thus, prize fighting communities favoured sites for matches which were close to county boundaries. If necessary, they could change a match’s venue to where the force moving towards them had no authority.

Each fight affected the people in its area. Thus, in 1831, the Appleby farmer who provided the field gained financially, as did his labourers who prepared the ground. A London reporter mocked their slowness. In his view, they were typical clodhoppers.

Large numbers walked from county towns to play their part in a performance. Matches on the former heath took place between Derby and Coventry, Nottingham and Birmingham. In 1830, five thousand came, including women and probably children. From early morning, trippers stormed Appleby’s Red Lion for food and drink. On a later occasion, Samuel Cotton and his twelve waiters toiled non-stop all day.

Map of No Mans Heath area
A map of the area in which prize fights took place during the 1830s, based on the 1835 Ordnance Survey. The name No Man’s Heath predated the hamlet and referred to an area that extended east towards Appleby Magna. Heathland, as suggested by names
on the 1835 map, covered much of this area before the enclosure of commons. It was used for low-intensity grazing of livestock.

A Heavyweight Match at No Man’s Heath

In 1839, James Burke fought William Thompson to decide England’s prize-fighting champion. ‘Big Ben’ Caunt challenged their ambition. He was six foot two inches high and weighed over fifteen stone. He offered to fight the winner for £200 a side.

Burke and his party spent the night before the match at Appleby’s Red Lion Inn. Available beds in the area grew scarce.

At 9.00am Burke’s aristocratic supporters arrived. Only now did Burke reveal the location of the ring, saying the match would start at 10.00 am. The site was over five miles away. 

Most fans had arrived before dawn and gathered outside the Red Lion. Many had walked. Others had scoured the locality for transport, harnessing any horse they could hire to carts, post-chaises, even funeral coaches.

This crowd now converged on a hilltop meadow near the Leicestershire village of Heather. A reporter with experience of writing up sporting events, guessed the mob numbered 15,000. The parish constable protested against this invasion but didn’t attempt to enforce his authority.

The prize-fighting community gathered around the ring, close to the action. Gentry positioned themselves at the rear of the crowd. Men armed with bludgeons pushed their way into the dense mass. They then created a gap by forcing some to move backwards and others forwards. The gang sold tickets to their area for one shilling. No one dared challenge them.

At midday, the two contestants fixed their colours to the stakes. Burke, alias the Deaf-un, had fought fourteen previous battles and won them all. His manner was playful and confident. Thompson, known as Bendigo because of the way he curved his body when fighting, had won a similar number of matches. The betting odds were 6 to 4 on Burke, with plenty of takers.  

Expectations of a Prize-fight

Matches often went to the limits of what fighters could endure. In 1831, for example, Bill Atkinson fought Joe Parkes at No Man’s Heath. Atkinson was five feet five inches tall, and nine stone four pounds in weight. Parkes, taller and a stone heavier, had lost an eye in a previous match.  

By the end of round five, the outcome was clear. Atkinson hit Parkes’ head repeatedly until he either fell to avoid punishment or Atkinson flattened him. In the rounds that followed, Atkinson landed blows on Parkes’ one good eye, which swelled and closed. Parkes refused to submit. Atkinson hit him right and left. In round thirty-seven he knocked Parkes unconscious. The fight lasted just 56 minutes.

Back to the Heavyweight Match

Two arguments delayed the Burke-Thompson fight. First, they struggled to find a referee because one side or the other rejected those willing. Second, when the contestants stripped to their drawers, Thompson objected to a belt Burke wore to support a truss protecting a rupture. After some squabbling, Burke removed it.

Initially, each gave as good as he got. Burke caught Thompson on the ear. After that, Thompson struck Burke on the ribs, leaving a visible impression of his knuckles. By the end of round three, bookies offered even bets on Thompson, whose right hand hit straight and quick.

Burke grew sluggish. So, a friend gave him brandy. Others shouted: Go in and fight! When he rallied, Thompson stepped back, punching on the retreat.

After an exchange of hits in round seven, Burke fell. When picked up, he cried: Foul! He claimed Thompson rammed into him. If true, this contravened the 1838 rules of the London Ring. However, the referee dismissed Burke’s claim. Burke seemed desperate to save himself from further punishment. In round ten he forced Thompson against the ropes and butted him twice. After 24 minutes only, Burke threw the match.

Both men received the prize for which they’d agreed to fight. Thompson got £100; Burke £120.

Ethical Perspectives on Prize-fighting

Bell’s Life, a London paper, saw bare-knuckle boxing as a manly sport. It agreed prize-fighting should move with the times; the 1838 rules were humane. However, honest fights promoted British fair play, ‘It should be the universal desire of all Englishmen, that the best man may win.’

The Leicester Chronicle and Nottingham Review took very different lines. Men who beat each other with their fists for money and in public degraded themselves. Their brutality offended human dignity. Behind this opinion lay fear of those attracted to prize fights. Thus, displays of violence encouraged waste, robbery and vulgarity. Their effect was dehumanizing. So, in the name of common sense and decency, magistrates needed to stop them.

Many magistrates revealed mixed feelings about prize fights. In January 1830, Dick Hill of Nottingham was charged with a breach of the peace. He pleaded guilty and said he’d never fight again. The magistrates commended him for not defending his actions. They said they might be removed from the bench if they failed to oppose displays of violence. But Hill’s character references showed him to be orderly and humane. Thus, they sentenced Hill to one month’s imprisonment in Southwell’s House of Correction. They did not add hard labour or class him as a felon. As for Hill, he agreed to keep the peace for two years. Yet six months later he fought at No Man’s Heath for £100.

Conclusion: Violence at No Man’s Heath

Thousands of city dwellers took time off work to attend prize fights. The crowd of 1839 was especially large, partly because those from remote towns travelled part of the way by train. These visitors brought business opportunities but created chaos and left a residue. In general, locals lacked power in the face of forces they couldn’t control. Some of the moral outrage expressed in county papers reflected this.

Newspapers did not describe the atmosphere of matches. To judge from the reports, early Victorian readers wanted facts presented in the dramatic language of the ring. For example, one fighter might punch another on his sneezer, listener or ogle. The papers leave us to imagine the noise and grit. Fan-bases, with money staked on their fighter, taunted each other in addition to cheering and booing the contestants. In the moment of the match, the crowd could forget their everyday concerns.

Did prize fighting encourage wider social violence, as some objectors claimed? The issue sounds similar to our contemporary debates about the effect of watching violent films. Psychological research suggests that exposure to media violence sometimes lies behind aggression. However, poverty and a sense of being pushed around are more powerful stimulants of violent behaviour.

In the early nineteenth century, violence erupted as a challenge to high food prices and poor working conditions. Certainly, cruel sports and fighting fostered tolerance of violence and reduced empathy for its victims. However, bare knuckle boxing had a minimal influence on those sections of the labouring poor who used physical force as an element of protest.

Next: You may enjoy a Four Shires History article about deception, the fasting woman of Tutbury.

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