The Time Tunnel: Tom Spring

10.11.05 - By M.C. Southorn: In the spring of 1815, a local promoter invited Tom Cribb to the village of Mordiford in Herefordshire, England to conduct an exhibition of sparring. Also attending this exhibition was the local sensation Tom Winter, who had been beating all comers in the area under the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke had also imported fighters from as far away as Wales to be matched against the young man from Fownshope. Winter, born in 1795 and trained by his father in both butchery and boxing, impressed The Champion and he received a standing invitation to visit Cribb at The Union Arms once he had decided to take his boxing career to the next level. Winter was grateful for the invitation, but did not immediately accept it, preferring to fight locals for three pounds a fight and chop meat at the Fownhope butcher’s.

Winter did not look to new horizons until 1816 when he finally travelled by coach to the Union Arms in London. He was greeted warmly by The Champion and given a job at the pub. Cribb introduced him to his trainer, former Champion John Jackson, and Winter began training at Jackson’s rooms at 13 Bond Street. He had his first London fight September 9th, 1817 against Jack Stringer of Yorkshire.

As Tom stood on the scale in the ring prior to the fight, the Master of Ceremonies, “Paddington Jones” asked his name.

“Tom Winter, sir”, was the reply.

Jones cried: “Let it be Spring!”

From then on Tom Winter fought under the name Tom Spring. In this, his first fight, Spring revealed his superior boxing skill and vanquished Stringer to win a 40 guinea purse. He had also revealed his weakness; a lack of killer instinct that allowed the fight to drag out to 29 rounds. The characteristic of compassion is admirable at all times outside of the ring, but inside the ring a quick end is a merciful end.

Spring’s career would be filled with epic, marathon fights, which would take their toll on him and his hands in particular. His confidence boosted, and with both Tom Cribb and John Jackson urging him on, Spring found patronage in two London businessmen and challenged the highly regarded Ned Painter. Painter, 35 and a long-time member of Jackson’s Pugilistic Club, had participated in exhibitions for the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia. Spring, only 23 and with just one ‘big’ fight to his name was such a dark horse that it took several weeks to find anyone interested in putting up the 200 pounds prize money.

The fight was finally made for 1 April 1818 at Mickelham Downs near Leatherhead , Surrey and Spring got the action started by dropping his hands and inviting Painter in. He then struck the older man a punch to the throat which sent him reeling off a ring-post. The fight might have ended there, but somehow Painter’s seconds got him up to scratch and by the eighth round the fight was an evenly matched affair. From the tenth round on, Spring had several opportunities to finish the veteran fighter, but he hesitated and the bout dragged on for 29 rounds before an exhausted Painter failed to toe the line.

Painter’s backers wanted a rematch, and this was scheduled for 7 August that same year. Spring was not interested in the fight and he did not train properly. His mentor, Tom Cribb had misgivings about letting him fight and he should have heeded them – Spring received a drubbing after letting Painter off the hook in the 16th round. The fight ended in the 42nd, when Spring, badly cut over one eye and bleeding copiously, could not be revived for the 43rd. Once Spring had recovered his senses, he begged for a rubber-match, but Painter had decided that 71 rounds were enough. The two parted as friends.

Spring tried to rebound from his loss with a fight against Bill Neat that fall, but Neat didn’t show up on the day, and Spring was content to return to his jobs at the Union Arms, or as an artists model and sit out the winter.

Tom Spring next fought against Jack Carter on 4 May 1819 on Crawley Down, Sussex in front of a huge crowd of spectators. With the stakes at only 50 guineas each, few people though Spring would win; Carter was a huge man, and he had been active and winning, while Tom was on the comeback trail.

In typical Spring fashion the contest became an endurance marathon, and it was not until the 65th round that Carter fell under a light punch and was too spent to rise. The fight had lasted nearly 2 hours.

After a second attempt to arrange a fight with Bill Neat fell through, Spring fell ill and became dispirited and began to talk about retiring from the ring. While still ill, he was at the Castle Arms for a pint one December Evening when he was challenged by another patron, Ben Burns, whose brother Bob was a fighter of some repute. Spring accepted the challenge and a date was immediately agreed upon; the two would fight the following day!

The fight with Ben Burns took place on the frozen Wimbledon Common in front of a crowd of only 250. The small crowd was due in part to the cold, in part to the short notice of the fight and in part to the fact that Spring had not yet regained the status he enjoyed during his fights with Ned Painter. Spring knew he was weak and could not fight long so, uncharacteristically he pulled out all the stops and managed to batter Burns into submission in just 11 rounds.

Bob Burns, piqued by his brothers battering at the hands of the normally light-hitting Spring laid down the challenge, but Spring was still too sick to train and the fight fell through. Finally the fight with Bob Burns was made for 16 May 1820 on Epsom Downs. By now Spring was back in fighting form, and in spite of some mighty blows – including one that left Spring partially scalped – Burns was slowly overwhelmed by Spring’s fast pace and he was forced to retire in the 18th.

After another win against Josh Hudson that summer, Spring bought a London pub, The Catherine Wheel.

In February 1821, Spring entered the ring again to fight the highly touted Tom Oliver. Oliver, like Painter before him, was a fighter of great reputation and the fight drew much notoriety from the local magistrates who forced a change of venue more than once. Finally on 20 February, the match was made in Hayes, Middlesex. The crowd approaching the field of battle was so massive that locals who were not aware of the fight thought the French had invaded. The prize was 200 pounds per side. Oliver was 32; Spring was 26.

Spring took control early in the fight and could have finished it in the 6th, but as usual he hesitated and the otherwise one-sided match dragged on. Soon Oliver was cut and bloody over one eye. He was floored in the 10th and in the 19th one of his friends threw his hat into the ring in an attempt to stop the action, but it was kicked aside. Spring was himself convinced it was over by the 21st round; he had put on his coat and was preparing to leave and was stunned to see Oliver come up to scratch once more.

Finally in the 25th round, concerned spectators cut the ropes and removed a half-conscious Oliver from the ring before his seconds could prop him up yet again.

After this brutal display, Tom Spring’s reputation was greatly enhanced, so much so that it now became difficult for him to find an opponent willing to fight him, so he seconded other fighters in order to gain intelligence on their styles and those of their opponents. He often encountered Tom Oliver in the other corner.

Tom Spring was married in June, 1821 and the following month he served as one of 18 ushers, arranged by the Price Regent through John Jackson to provide security at the coronation. The ushers were primarily employed to keep the Queen away from the festivities, which cost over 50 000 pounds all told.

Later that year he bought a second pub, The Weymouth Arms in London. May 18th, 1822, The Champion Tom Cribb decided to make official what had been obvious for years – that he was going to retire from boxing. Following his farewell speech at the Fives Club, Cribb called Tom Spring to the podium. Spring addressed the packed house: “My Lords and Gentlemen; my old dad (Cribb), as I am proud to call him, has retired from the prize-ring altogether and as I have stood next to him for some time past, I mean to stand in his place until I am beaten out of it!” The crowd, consisting of the London boxing establishment, enthusiastically endorsed the claimant. His win over Tom Oliver, compounded with Tom Cribb’s endorsement justified his claim in the minds of many, but a win over the elusive Bill Neat would be required to seal the deal.

Spring had twice tried to secure a fight with Neat, and twice Neat had left him standing alone in the ring, waiting. Neat was clearly a highly rated boxer of his day; this is indicated by Spring’s eagerness to get him into the ring such that negotiations were entered into a third time to make the fight:

Apparently Spring thought that he could not call himself Champion until he had beaten Neat.

On 12 November 1822, Neat and his backers went to meet Spring and his backers for dinner at the Castle Tavern. Due to some confusion (probably as a slight for Neat’s past delinquency) the Spring camp did not show up. A second meeting was scheduled at the Old Tun four days later and both parties began negotiations. At this time Spring wanted to make the purse at 200 pounds per side. Neat’s people needed to consider this offer. A follow-up meeting at The Golden Cross in Longacre followed and the purse was agreed upon. At this meeting, which was not attended by Neat, his handlers revealed that he had taken to drinking and that he would need time to sober up and get in shape. At a meeting in Five’s Court two weeks later, Spring put his money on the table; the fight was officially made, but the date was still a bone of contention. Another meeting was held in Neat’s hometown of Bristol before the matter was finally decided on 12 March 1823 at The Castle Tavern. The fight was to take place in Andover on 20

May. Spring himself forswore drinking and went into training in Brighton.

Like all big fights of the time, this one reached the ears of the magistrates and it was necessary to move it to Hinkley Down, Hampshire, which was a sort of natural amphitheatre. The crowd was thought to approach 40 thousand with spectators coming from as far away as Ireland. Both men arrived in excellent shape.

Spring started unusually, by wrestling and he had Neat down in this manner to end the first round. In the second round he knocked Neat down with a punch that opened a cut over the eye. In the fourth, Spring dropped Neat again and then jumped on top of him with both knees, breaking the challenger’s arm. Neat gamely tried to fight on with one arm, but in the eighth he realised it was hopeless and retired from the match.

Tom Spring was now the Undisputed Champion. He received a hero’s welcome in London, and upon his return to Hereford he was presented with a silver trophy to commemorate his Championship win. It was inscribed “To Thomas Winter…”

Having beaten all the top English boxers, ‘Team Spring’ put out public advertisements again seeking opponents: His call was answered by the Irish Champion, John Langan. In October 1823, Langan’s backers travelled to London to commence a month and a half of negotiations. It was decided that the fight would be held in Worcester on 7 January 1824.

Anticipation for Spring vs Langan was so intense that even the magistrates were loathe to interfere. Thousands came from miles around, many on foot in the January cold to sleep in frozen ditches around the field of battle until the day of the contest. Makeshift stands were built to accommodate the crowd. In all, some 50 000 spectators churned the field into mud.

Just before midday on the 7th, a huge cheer went up as Spring’s coach came into view. The Champion was saluted with a cacophony of rattles, bells and hunting horns. As the Champion stepped into the ring amid thunderous applause, one of the stands collapsed sending some 2000 spectators plummeting into the mud. Miraculously, no-one was killed.

Langan was late, and Spring had to bundle up to keep warm while he waited amongst the now restless crowd. When the Irishman finally arrived, he gingerly placed his hat in the ring, rather than flinging it. He was most likely cowed by the prospect of fighting Spring, and he was probably enthralled by the size of the gathered throng. The two men disrobed and the contest began. A second stand collapsed, but again, fortunately there were no fatalities.

The Champion drew first blood in the second and floored Langan, but the Irishman clutched and pulled Spring down with him. This sparked a terrific shootout between the two which first saw Langan down, then both down with Langan on top, then Spring was knocked out of the ring when a ropesnapped. By the ninth round, Langam had successfully turned it into a wrestling match, laughing off The Champions blows. In the 29th he threw Spring over his hip and clean out of the ring a second time, and in the 34th, the Irishman started throwing punches the moment he came up to scratch.

The scene outside the ring was pandemonium, with fistfights breaking out all over and the crowd steadily surging forward towards the ring. The seconds must have foreseen this, as they sought to lay the crowd back with the lash of whips.

At the start of the 38th, Langan came up grinning, and chided the champion, saying, “You’ve done nothing yet!”

Spring’s response: “All in good time…”

By the 56th round both fighters were wrestling and they were exhausted, as were the seconds, and the crowd had finally pressed in on the ring from all sides such that it was impossible to see the action from more than a few yards away. Tom Cribb, in Spring’s corner, advised him to finish it before the crowd took matters into their own hands, but the Champion could not. Finally, in the 62nd round, the Irishman seemed totally spent and Spring poured it on, in spite of his battered and bleeding hands, hoping that the contest would end. Langan held on for another 15 rounds, until, decked and exhausted, he failed to come up to scratch.

The victory was hailed throughout Hereford: Songs were written and sung in pubs and much commemorative pottery was kilned, from plates to toby mugs. A convict, one John Thurtell, condemned to death, broke off prayers to make a last request that he might read a newspaper account of the match.

The fight had taken a toll on Spring, however, especially his hands, and he wanted to retire but Langan was pressing for a rematch. Spring tried to make an issue of the ring’s size – a larger ring would suit his boxing style and confound the wrestler Langan – but he finally relented, stung by insinuations that he was afraid to fight Langan a second time. The fight was to take place 8 June 1824 at Warwick Racecourse.

This time, however, the magistrates stepped in at the last minute and the fight was moved to Birdham Bridge in Chichester. The sudden switch caused chaos and most travellers did not hear of the change of venue, or couldn’t make it in time. As a result the crowd was only 12 000. Why would the magistrates suddenly step in to stop the rematch when they had not done so in the first match? Perhaps the unruly crowd at Worcester had convinced them, or perhaps the magistrates hadn’t stepped in at all.

Perhaps the unruly crowd had convinced the fighters, and they had engineered the last minute change to keep the event down to a more manageable size.

The two men came up to scratch just after one in the afternoon. The fight was not a repeat of the last one: Spring was able to keep the Irishman off him with his precise punches. By the fifth round he had cut Langan’s face badly and the challenger was covered in blood, but The Champions brittle hands were already beginning to fail. It soon became apparent that this contest would be between the constitution of Spring’s hands and the stamina of Langan.

The fight was pressed at a very quick pace. By the 34th round sections of the audience were calling for it to stop and both men were so tired they were staggering around comically. In the 54th round, the Irishman finally got his hands on the elusive Spring and threw him to the ground, only to be dropped himself by a punch in the 55th. Spring’s hands were now swollen and mangled and his backers wanted to retire. In the corner, Tom Cribb urged him to finish it, but typically, Spring could not. Finally, in the 108th round, the umpire stopped the fight on the grounds that it would be too cruel to allow it to continue. Spring was declared the winner.

Immediately after the fight one of Spring’s backers approached him, “I have never seen such bad hands in any battle,” he said, “If you fight again I will never speak to you.”

Spring replied, “Sir, I will never fight again.”

Tom Spring kept his word and took the 1000 pounds (plus side money) that he had made from his last three fights and retired from boxing that very day. He bought his beloved Castle Tavern and died there in 1851 at age 56.

Article posted on 10.11.2005

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