1799 – The Bristol Invasion

25.10.05 – By M.C. (Mike) Southorn: As the turn of the century approached, The Championship was again vacant. Gentleman John Jackson had taken The Title from Daniel Mendoza in perhaps the biggest fight in boxing history to date, and then he had cast it aside in favour of boxing administration. No-one knew it at the time, but the immediate future of The Championship lay in the hands of three teenaged friends from Bristol, Jem Belcher, Henry Pearce and John Gully.

Jem Belcher was the first to box: Born 15 April 1781, Belcher was the grandson of the notorious Jack Slack, and the great, great grandson of James Figg, the Father of British boxing. Belcher felt that it was his destiny to be Champion. He was right. He began his career at 17 at Lansdown Fair near Bath, and by 1799 he was fighting in London.

His first big fight was against Jack Bartholomew that same year. The result was a draw, and the rematch was fought and won by Belcher the following year, just a month after Jem’s 19th birthday. Following this win, Belcher claimed The Title that had laid vacant for the last five years. He was universally accepted as Champion on the strength of his lineage, as much as on that of his wins.

His first challenger was Andrew Gamble, an Irish stonemason. The fight was to take place at Wimbledon, and interest in it was soaring; there were an estimated 20 000 pounds riding on the outcome. For his part, Belcher would collect 200 pounds, plus whatever he had bet on himself, should he win. The fight nearly didn’t happen – Belcher was attacked by a small gang of thugs four days before the fight.

This was likely a bid by Gamble to ensure The Champion didn’t show up at his best on the day. Belcher proved his mettle, and despatched all four of his attackers without coming to any harm. He next despatched Gamble in the ring in 9 minutes. Stories of the fight paint the crowd as being massively pro-Belcher: It is said the roar that went up when Gamble went down could be heard 10 miles away. When news of the victory arrived by pigeon in Bristol, church bells rang in celebration. The win over Gamble was significant for another reason; Gamble had Daniel Mendoza working his corner. Mendoza had been one of the most popular fighters in modern history. Now, Belcher was more so.

The following year Jem Belcher was invited back to Wimbledon, this time as a spectator; he was the invited special guest appearing ringside at another match, with the notion that the winner of said match would challenge him next. Events took a strange turn however as Belcher was confronted by a mouthy drunken Butcher from Shropshire named Joe Berks. Words were exchanged, and matters reached a climax when Berks struck the surprised Champion. Outraged, Belcher climbed into the ring and Berks did likewise. It took the Champion nearly 20 minutes to deal with the intoxicated butcher, and at least one observer liked Berks’ chances should he try again in a sober state: Lord Camelford considered this a worthy proposition and negotiated the rematch on the spot, laying down 100 pounds to seal the deal. He brought in Daniel Mendoza to train Berks. The outcome of the rematch was the same, and a sober Berks lasted only five minutes longer than had a drunken one. When it was over, the Champion challenged Mendoza. The former Champion refused, saying he would only come out of retirement to fight John Jackson, the inference being that Belcher was simply holding Jackson’s Title and was not the true Champion. Insulted and unable to get Mendoza into the ring, Belcher instead launched a smear campaign in the media against the former Champion, and the mud-slinging continued back and forth for years. Belcher, meanwhile, took to training under John Jackson.

This was not the least of Belcher’s problems: In spite of its popularity among the blueblood set, boxing was still illegal in England and the law had gotten wind of the Berks rematch and the principals were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and public fighting. Belcher had already blown his 300 pound purse and couldn’t make bail so he spent three months in Reading Jail awaiting trial. When he finally got his day in court, both he and Berks were discharged with a warning to curtail their fistic activities. A month later the rubber-match was set.

Joe Berks had not yet had his fill of beatings from The Champion, and the third fight was scheduled for August 1802 near Hyde Park. The day prior both men appeared at a publicity event at Camberwell Fair and the event turned into a melee, which resulted in Berks losing a front tooth. The fight itself was especially savage, with Berks preferring to wrestle rather than box. At first this tactic was so effective that at the end of round one it was feared The Champion’s neck had been broken. Belcher kept his cool and drove stinging punches into Berks’ face, and it was soon a bloody mess. By the 14th round Berks was such a bloody mess that he could barely see and he was reduced to spitting blood at The Champion. Defeat was conceded soon thereafter.

Once more the local magistrates caught wind of the fight, and once more, in May 1803, the principals were called before a judge and warned not to disturb the public peace. Belcher promptly hired Sadler Walters theatre for a boxing show. In response, the authorities had the building closed for the summer.

Belcher didn’t know it yet, but he had defended his title for the last time a month earlier against Jack Fearby in a 20 minute mis-match. Belcher, as part of his training regime was fond of racquets as a method of improving his agility, hand-eye co-ordination and reflexes. Racquets later evolved into tennis, squash, racquetball and handball (the latter of which was a favourite training method of Corbett, Jeffries and Burns at the turn of the 20th century). It seems that racquets, although not as dangerous as boxing, is still not without it’s risks: That summer Belcher was hit in the eye with a racquets ball and blinded. Surgeons were called and the eye had to be removed. Jem Belcher was only 22 years old.

Knowing that the game was up, Belcher retired The Championship and bought a pub but he was still driven to keep one foot in the boxing world: Jem sent for his old friend from Bristol, Henry Pearce. Under the tutelage of John Jackson and Jem Belcher, Hen Pearce took his first fight that year against one Jack Firley. He won, and by early 1805 he was widely recognised as the new Champion.

Early in 1805 Pierce returned to Bristol to visit the debtor’s prison. A mutual friend of both his and Belchers, one John Gully, had inherited his father’s butcher shop a year earlier. The enterprise had failed, and now he was a prisoner. Looking to help his friend, Pierce offered to box an exhibition fight with Gully inside the prison walls. The fight was close, but Gully looked to be the better fighter. Pearce left the prison with stories of the new prospect John Gully. It wasn’t long before he had secured a patron for his friend. Gully’s debts were paid and he was freed to a new life as a fighter. His first match as a free man would be a rematch against The Champion in October 1805. The fight was held at Hailsham Essex and it was attended by The Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV). After 64 hard fought rounds, Pierce was the victor, but Gully’s reputation as a new star on the boxing scene was cemented.

Jem Belcher, meanwhile, was watching from the sidelines, growing more and more jealous and frustrated, particularly with Pearce, who was generally accepted to be the new Champion. Belcher came out of retirement, reclaimed his Title and went into training at John Jackson’s place. The fight between Hen Pearce and Jem Belcher took place on 6 December, 1805 in front of a crowd of 25 000 onlookers. Pearce was reluctantly favoured by odds-makers, if only due to the fact that Belcher had just one eye.

The fight started with Belcher giving the larger, stronger Pearce a boxing lesson. Before too long Pearce was cut and bloody. In round seven a pounding right by Belcher rocked his old friend, but Pearce just kept throwing wild, looping punches back, battering Jem’s arms and body. At one point, he got Belcher in a headlock and hammered him with his free hand. By the 12th round, both men were bloody, but Belcher was tiring and his arms were dropping; it was clear that the fight would go to Pearce.

With the matter all but decided, Pearce looked upon his old friend with compassion, calling out, “I’ll take no advantage of ye, Jem. I’ll not strike ye lest I hurt thine other eye.” But Belcher would not relent, and so Pearce carried him, all the while trying to convince him to concede defeat. The end came in the 18th round when, at the scratch, Belcher admitted, “Hen Pearce, I can’t fight ye no more.” Hen Pearce was the Undisputed Champion. He would never fight again.

With The Championship again left vacant, John Gully stepped to the fore. Two wins against Bob Gregson in 1807 earned Gully the title, and no sooner had he earned it than he vacated it. Gully used his earnings to buy a racehorse, and he was soon a very wealthy man. While Belcher and Pearce slid into illness and poverty, Gully accumulated horses, lands and estates. In 1832 he won a seat in Parliament. As for hobbies, John Gully fathered 24 children. He died 9 March 1863, aged 79.

Hen Pearce contracted tuberculosis and died in 1809 at the age of 26. Belcher’s slide toward the grave was the most dramatic. He gambled away most of his possessions, and he was an occasional visitor to the local lock-up. On one of these occasions he came down with pneumonia. Ultimately though it was cirrhosis of the liver that killed him on 30 July 1811. He was 30 years old. Such a throng turned out for his funeral that the procession could not move for hours, and when his coffin was lowered into the grave, a young prizefighter jumped in after it, weeping uncontrollably.

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Boxing News 1799 – The Bristol Invasion