Captain John Godfrey: Eyewitness to Boxing History

13.10.05 – By M.C. Southorn: After an appropriate period of mourning following James Figg’s death in 1734, The Championship of England was up for grabs. The logical contenders for The Title would have been either Ned Sutton (who once defeated Figg) or George Taylor, the supposed heir of Figg’s Amphitheatre. Other names such as Tom Pipes and George Gretting are also in the mix, depending who’s lineage you read.

The 2 big tomes of this era are Pierce Egan’s “Boxiana” (1st edition 1812) and H.D. Miles’ “Pugilistica” (1905). Neither of these editions were written by men who were around in 1734 and they contradict one another frequently.

Articles written based on research (like this one) must be considered academic; statements written by eyewitnesses can be thought of as forensic, because they present direct evidence and they speak first-hand of the era. Going by the academic evidence, we may never know precisely what was happening in the British boxing scene in the post-Figg era, but history has given us one forensic account of this era in the form of one eyewitness who was kind enough to write down his observations for academic review.

One of James Figg’s former students, a Captain John Godfrey recorded his recollections years later in his “Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence” in 1747. He has much to say on the subject of boxing during this time.

Let’s start with George Taylor: Most historians have Figg selling his amphitheatre to Taylor circa 1720. In his Treatise, Godfrey writes this about George “The Barber” Taylor:

“George Taylor, known by the name of George ‘The Barber’, spring up surprisingly. He has beat (sic) all the chief boxers, but Broughton. He (Taylor), I think, injudiciously fought him (Broughton) one of the first, and was obliged very soon to give out. Doubtless it was a wrong step in him to commence a boxer by fighting the standing Champion: for George was not then twenty, and Broughton was in the zenith of his age and art (around 1740). Since that, he (Taylor) has greatly distinguished himself with others; but has never engaged Broughton more.”

Given that Broughton was Champion from around 1736 to the time of Godfrey’s writing, it is unlikely that if James Figg sold his amphitheatre to a George Taylor in 1720, it was not George “The Barber” Taylor, of whom Godfrey writes, simply because if he was 20 years old circa 1740, he would have been an infant in 1720.

If there was an older George Taylor who was Champion, Godfrey doesn’t mention him. Why would he mention the younger Taylor (who was clearly never Champion) without mentioning his older, historic namesake? Simply put, he wouldn’t. Based on this account, the claim that George Taylor was James Figgs heir is not justified.

So who was Figg’s heir? What about Tom Pipes?

“Pipes was the neatest boxer I remember. He put in his blows about the face (which he fought at most) with surprising time and judgement. He maintained his battles for many years by his extraordinary skill, against men of far superior strength. Pipes was but weakly made; his appearance bespoke activity, but his hand, arm, and body were but small, though by that acquired spring of his arm he hit prodigious blows; and I really think, that at last, when he was beat out of his Championship, it was more owing to his debauchery than the merit of those who beat him.”

Godfrey confirms that Pipes was considered Champion in his day, but he does not say from whom Pipes won The Title. Nevertheless, according to Godfrey’s ‘Treatise’, Tom Pipes’ name belongs in the lineage.

Godfrey mentions George Gretting next:

“George Gretting was a strong antagonist to Pipes. They contended hard together for some time, and were almost alternate victors. Gretting had the nearest way of going to the stomach (which is what they call “The Mark”) of any man I knew. He was a most artful boxer, stronger made than Pipes, and dealt the straightest blows: But what made Pipes a match for him, was his rare bottom spirit, which would bear a deal of beating, but this, in my mind, Gretting was not sufficiently furnished with; for after he was beat twice together by Pipes, Hammersmith Jack, (a mere sloven of a Boxer) and everybody that fought him afterwards, beat him. I must, notwithstanding, do that justice to Gretting’s memory, as to own that his debauchery very much contributed to spoil a great boxer; but yet I think he had not the bottom of the other.”

Godfrey mentions that Pipes and Gretting fought a series of which Pipes was the eventual victor by securing two back-to-back wins, but whether or not The Championship was at stake during these fights, he does not say. According to the ‘Treatise’, we cannot with certainty say that Gretting was ever Champion, because Godfrey does not call him Champion, as he did with Pipes. More research is required here, but for the time being, we cannot consider George Gretting a linear champion without reservation.

Next, Godfrey turns his attention to the Champion of the time of the ‘Treatise’, Jack Broughton, whom Godfrey describes as “Captain of the Boxers” who “for Seventeen or Eighteen years (prior to 1747) has fought every able boxer that appeared against him and has never been beat (sic)”. This would place Broughtons beginnings as Championship material at about 1730. We can further deduce from this statement that Tom Pipes did not win his Title from Broughton, but Godfrey does not indicate from whom Broughton won The Title. He does however tell us this:

“About the time I first observed this promising Hero (Broughton) upon the Stage, his chief Competitors were Pipes and Gretting. He beat them both (and I thought with ease) as often as he fought them.”

If Pipes and Gretting were trading the title back and forth, with Pipes as the eventual victor, then it seems possible, if not likely, that Broughton won the title from Tom Pipes, most likely circa 1736. Many historians place Broughton’s Championship at 1738, but they also believe he won the title from George Taylor, which is herein cast in doubt. Others claim his reign started in 1729, just two years after James Figg’s series with Ned Sutton. Figg was still calling himself Champion in those days, and a fight between Broughton and Figg would certainly have merited some historical mention – but there is none.

Godfrey’s treatise does not offer an alternate lineage, but rather it debunks some of the commonly held beliefs about the lineage. I can find no other forensic account of this period (although I’d love to read the diaries of the Dukes of Cumberland and Peterborough) and given the contradictory nature of the purely academic evidence, I would argue that the lineage from this period should be provisionally revised to reflect what we know from a man who was there. As such, until better evidence than Captain John Godfrey’s ‘Treatise on the Useful Science of Defence’ comes to light, the lineage of The Championship of England should read:

1719-1729 James Figg

1729 Ned Sutton (who defeated Figg and lost 2 consecutive rematches)

1729-1734 James Figg

1734(?) – 1736(?) Tom Pipes

1736(?) – 1750 Jack Broughton

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