A Punch-up Behind The Bell

Daniel Mendoza vs Richard Humphreys:
The Prestige Contest of Pugilism and Identity

By Roberto Nigro

The bare-knuckle boxer Richard Humphreys
Richard Humphreys, from a painting by Hoppner 1788

1789 was a significant year in our history. George the Prince of Wales became Regent just while France was in a revolutionary turmoil that threatened to spill over into Britain. And the nation was in the grip of virulent antisemitism, with Jews subject to widespread intimidation and violence.

Bare-knuckle boxing was a hugely popular spectator sport, so when the two leading pugilists of the day, Richard Humphreys and the Jewish Daniel Mendoza, squared up for a prize fight in Stilton on the 6th of May it was bound to draw a crowd.

A controversial Humphreys victory at Odiham on the 9th of January 1788 pumped up a war of words that boosted both the sales of newspapers and anti-Jewish sentiment across the country. A rematch was soon arranged.

So why Stilton?

Three main reasons:

  • It was easy to get to, being a major stop-over on the Great North Road
  • It offered a large number of inns for accommodation and refreshment
  • The fight promoter Henry Thornton lived here.

With huge popular interest in this grudge match, Thornton cashed in. On his land behind the Bell Inn, he had a 3000-seat grandstand built surrounding a twelve-foot square boxing ring. Tickets sold at half a guinea each. (In today’s money that’s about £80, so a gross of nearly £¼m!) With every inn between Stamford and Huntingdon booked solid for the occasion and hosting a large contingent of Britain’s aristocracy, including Lord Delaware and the Earl of Tyrconnell, Thornton wasn’t the only one cashing in!

As with today’s high-profile bouts, mutual rivalry was pumped up by the fighters themselves, their promoters and the highly partisan spectators, so when they entered the ring at around one o’clock the atmosphere was electric. Mendoza was accompanied by his close friend, trainer and umpire Sir Thomas Apreece of nearby Washingley Hall, along with another famous pugilist Michael Ryan as his second and a Captain Brown as his bottle holder. Humphries arrived with the future Lord Mayor of London, Harvey Christian Coombe, as his umpire, a Mr Ford as his second, together with his bottle holder Tom Johnson, another legendary pugilist and the current champion.

Foul! Foul!

The fight commenced, unleashing all the built-up rivalry. Both fighters demonstrated mercurial skill in combat but it became clear that Mendoza’s superior technical skill was giving him the edge over his opponent. In the 22nd round the contest descended into chaos after Humphreys appeared to fall without receiving a blow, which would have lost him the match. Humphreys’ corner and supporters declared that he had parried the blow and fallen, whilst Mendoza’s supporters cried ‘Foul! Foul!’. Tom Johnson and Captain Brown almost came to blows themselves after Brown had called Johnson ‘a liar and a blackguard’.

After nearly an hour of argument, the action was declared fair and the fight re-started. Mendoza continued to wear down Humphreys, not only with his excellent speed, agility and precision but, as noted in Woodfalls Register, also by mocking his opponent. Shades of Muhammad Ali! It was inevitable that Humphreys would go down, and he did in the 65th round having once again fallen without a blow, this time in an insensible state.

Mendoza forever!
The bare-knuckle boxer Daniel Mendoza
Daniel Mendoza, from a painting by Gilray 1788

Mendoza was celebrated as a hero and carried on the shoulders of his friends towards The Bell to celebrate, working his way through the massed crowd that had gathered to shout ‘Mendoza forever’ while his Jewish supporters, who were there in droves, called ‘Mendoza vekhayam’ (is alive and well).

Mendoza’s victory was more than just personal; it was a symbolic victory for the nation’s beleaguered Jewish community, striking a blow against antisemitic opinion and sparking a change in Jewish identity in Britain. It was a small watershed moment in our social history and it happened in Stilton.

Read a contemporary report