Prize Fight Panic: Adderbury in 1837


Prize fights were enormously popular in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. The sport enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats and even of royalty, with enormous sums being gambled on the outcomes of matches. Nonetheless, local magistrates were determined to bring prize fighting under control. They had the power, they decided, to restrain fighting on the grounds of breach of the peace and unlawful assembly. After one such fight, held between Cassington and Eynsham in 1827, the magistrates effectively declared war, both on the fighters themselves and “against their backers and bottle-holders etc.”. In Jackson’s Oxford Journal of Saturday, July 28th 1827, it was announced that:

“The magistrates, as conservators of the peace of the county, at the last Quarter Sessions came to the resolution of prosecuting, by indictment, all who, for the sake of money, raise their arms against their fellow men in prize fights, and by such exhibitions bring riot and disorder into parishes; induce servants and labourers and apprentices to neglect and desert the business of their masters and employers, bring together the most abandoned characters from London, as well as the neighbourhood, who, in going or coming, commit robberies, and endanger the safety and disturb the peace of the county.”

The organisers of prize fights, on their side, reacted by trying to keep one step ahead of the authorities, not revealing the location of matches, other than in general terms, until the last moment and favouring places close to the limits of jurisdiction of different authorities so that they could move their operation across the border in case of trouble.

Ten years later, in 1837, it is reported (in Beesley’s History of Banbury) that the magistrates there had “driven two prize-fighters out of the borough”, so the promoters were no doubt looking for an alternative venue. On Saturday, April 15th, 1837 it was announced in Jackson’s Oxford Journal that:

“The village of Adderbury, which was for several years distinguished for the exemplary conduct of its curates and their zeal and usefulness in furthering the objects of every local and national institution calculated to promote the temporal and eternal welfare of mankind, has recently been fixed on for the scene of a prize fight; and, in order to bring about this brutal and inhuman show a man from Oxford is now training at one of the public houses in the place, to fight another man from Wroxton, we are informed, on the 25th inst. Where this barbarous exhibition, so disgraceful to a Christian country, will be allowed to take place, yet remains to be seen, as we are told that the agreement specifies the fight shall be between Banbury and Oxford.”

Faced with this impending scandal, some of the “peaceable inhabitants of the village”, led by the Church of England curates at the time, came to the view that their best course of action would be to try to limit the amount of drunkenness involved, especially as there were at the time 13 public houses or beer shops in the parish. They contacted the Banbury Temperance Society and set up a public meeting. This is what happened:

“John Hockings, the Birmingham blacksmith, who is well known for his ability in addressing the working classes of society on the evils resulting from drunkenness, having come to lecture in the neighbourhood, it was thought desirable that he should be engaged to come to Adderbury; and a member of the Society of Friends kindly offered to fit up one of his barns for the occasion. The evening of Saturday last was announced for the meeting to take place, and such was the desire to hear Mr Hockings that the barn, which was 44 feet long by 12 ½ wide, was crowded for some time before his arrival. Mr Faulkner was requested to take the chair, who, after having addressed the persons assembled, introduced the hero of the Temperance cause. Mr Hockings commenced his lecture with a most powerful appeal to the labourers and others on the evils and misery resulting from their frequenting the ale house; every word of which could not fail to carry conviction to every one disposed to hear him. For some time the greatest order was observed in the meeting, which, no doubt, would have continued till the close, had not some persons got a can of beer at the further end of the room, and made a disturbance, which prevented Mr. H. from being heard at that part of the room where it was most desirable that he should be. To request persons of this class, who had come to the meeting for the purpose of disturbing it, to observe order, was of course useless. Mr. H. therefore, having spoken for about an hour, concluded a lecture admirably adapted to do good to everyone present. A vote of thanks was given to Mr. H. for his kindness in coming to Adderbury. An attempt was made by some of the fellows, who had been partaking of the beer, to break some of the chairs and seats, but this was prevented by the praiseworthy conduct of many of the labourers.”

I haven’t  yet been able to discover where or, indeed, whether the prize fight took place. It seems likely that the prize fighter referred to as a “man from Wroxton” was Richard Palmer, who at the time was known as “The Banbury Pet”. But, whatever the outcome may have been, the story illustrates many of the divisions in nineteenth century Adderbury: between “rough” and “respectable” working men, between middle class and working class attitudes, and between traditional entertainment and organised religion.

Phil Mansell
June 2020


Three fights of Dick Palmer are recorded from around this time in Owen Swift’s The Handbook to Boxing, 1840:

On Feb 13th 1837 Palmer beat Crow Lockett over 30 rounds near Claydon, and in a rematch on April 25th 1837 again beat Lockett, this time over 65 rounds in Bedfordshire.

On May 4th 1838 Palmer was beaten by Jas Hart of Towcester over 73 rounds in a fight lasting 2 hours 10 minutes and held near Towcester.

Palmer survived at least until 1844 when he was part of a boxing ring side show at the Banbury Races (see E. Brown-Grant (1988): “The Banbury Horse Races Part IV” in Cake and Cock Horse Vol 10 No 8).

About the events at the 1844 Horse Races, the Oxford Chronicle had the following to say on August 8th that year:

“On Thursday, despite of the judge’s warning at Oxford, some gentlemen did their best to get up a fight between a country prize fighter, Richard Palmer, and a railwayman called Blackbird, and the parties went to the field, thus adding to the loss for hundreds of working men of a third day’s wages and a third day’s drunkenness.”

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