recent victory by Jane Couch "The Fleetwood Assassin" over the British
Boxing Board of Control and the issue of professional licenses for female
boxers attracted a great deal of interest in the national press. However,
the idea of women boxers is not a new one and although not a recognised
aspect of the history of pugilism, women have been involved in various
aspects of the fight game, as far back as the 1800s. One of the earliest
recorded incidents of women involved in boxing can be traced back to 1776
when the exploits of George Maddox and his sister Grace were renowned
throughout the country. Pierce Egan writing in 1812 recalls George and Grace
In 1776, he was engaged in a most desperate conflict in Tothill-fields
and in the event Maddox proved the conqueror. To render this battle more
notoriety with the sporting world, it is necessary to state that George was
seconded by his sister Grace Maddox, and who, upon its conclusion, tossed up
her head in defiance and offered to fight any man present. George has often
declared since, that he never had a better second and Grace has been
frequently heard to exclaim, whenever her brother had been defeated, "that
she was certain sure, if she had had the handling of him, that it would
never have happened so unfortunate.
The exploits of George and his sister Grace gave rise to a popular ditty
at the time:
George the pride of the milling race,-
Secur'd his conquests with a Grace-
But once neglected, changed the case,
George ne'er had lost, had he said - Grace!
Throughout the 1800s the sport of pugilism underwent many changes and the
old days of bare knuckle boxing were in 1867 with the introduction of the
Marquis of Queensbury rules. By the 1880s boxing shows were flourishing on
the fairground and reports from The Era from this period onwards mention the
detail that the boxing academies included not only male pugilists but lady
boxers as well. One of the most famous women boxers of this time was Polly
Fairclough who was advertised as the Female Champion of the World. Polly
Fairclough and other women boxers was recalled by Harry Hiley in the World's
Fair in 1953:
I should like to say that I saw Polly Fairclough, a very clever boxer at
Burton Statute Fair many years ago, (about 1880). I remember also a lady
boxer who used to appear with her husband, they called him Mush Collings.
These women were not a unique, William Moore, who owned a boxing booth,
had his licence temporarily revoked in 1912 for allowing his daughters to
box in the family show. However, the account in the World's Fair indicates
that it was the fact that he had allowed his daughter to box with a bear
which resulted in the fine, not the boxing itself:
The Rev. Dr. Walsh was informed that this was the show in which two women
were engaged in boxing. Could that he asked, be conformed to morality or
The line of questioning continues with "Professor" William Moore
explaining that his daughters only boxed with their brother or themselves
and not with the bear:
The Committee wanted information regarding the lady boxers. Moore said
they were his daughters, but they never boxed with men. He added that they
might have an exhibition with their brother.
Many of the female boxers who performed during this time appear to have a
link to the sport through family connections. In the case of the Moore
girls, it was through their father William and their brother Albert that
they initially got involved in the fight game. This is also true of Ronnie
Taylor's family who when interviewed, related stories of his grandmother in
The women were used to draw the crowd but they were genuine fighters ...
My grandmother and grandfather used to fight each other in the ring. and my
grandmother told my dad that he used to take her on. My grandmother also
used to take on men out of the crowd, she would wear chest protectors but my
grandfather said that she was so fast that nobody could ever hit her.
Other boxers from that time included the Johnson sisters (also known as
the Matchetts) who would exhibit in red velvet dresses with boxing boots and
This association between women boxers and a family booth is also shown in
the case of Annie Hickman who fought on the front of her father's Boxing
Annie Hayes, née Hickman, was born into the famous Hickman boxing family
in 1913. Her brother was Charlie Hickman, the Lonsdale Champion, and her
family were related to Tom Hickman, a prominent prizefighter of the 1820s,
who was known as the Gaslight Champion. The family travelled with Pat
Collins in the Black Country, and Annie was taught how to box by the
fighters who toured with her family's boxing booths. When interviewed by Ned
Williams, author of Midland Fairground Families, Annie Hayes recalled her
first time on the boxing show:
I must have been about fourteen when I started to work on the front of
the show, but I looked older because I was quite big. I hit the punch bag
twice, and missed it three times but nobody seemed to care ... I was at
Worcester once and the show was full of Gypsies, and one of them said, "I'll
fight her." My Dad said no, but I protested that he used to tell people that
I was a champion lady boxer, so I thought he ought to let me fight. So I got
into the ring with this Gypsy and side-stepped him once or twice, I'd
watched my Dad and my brother, so I knew what to do. He was bevvied, so I
side-stepped him and then topped him - and he went right out the ring.
Some of these performances may have been in the form of parading and
exhibition boxing before the shows, but Annie claimed that she did fights
against male opponents. Women were also involved in other aspects of the
fight game and although Alf Stewart never had women boxers on his show his
six daughters were involved in other aspects of the booth including
time-keeping, parading and building up the show. However, his mother's
family the Gess's, used to exhibit lady boxers and Polly Wilson recalls
hearing stories of her grandmother's sister fighting on the show.
Another instance of women fighting on the boxing booths can be found in
Matt Moran's Shamrock Gardens in which he recalls Jem Lace and his two smart
daughter who would give exhibitions:
In between fights at Newcastle, Jack asked me if I would kindly give an
exhibition with one of the girls and I duly obliged. If there was a
challenge from outside, the girls knew how to handle themselves - they
trained for the job.
Other well known boxing booth proprietors who have exhibited women
fighters include Ron Taylor, Tommy Wood, Sam McKeowen and Professor Boscoe.
However, despite the long history of women boxing, it was very difficult for
serious women fighters to gain the respect and prize money that their male
contemporaries were given. This is reflected in the career of Barbara
Buttrick who hails from Cottingham, Yorkshire and was the undefeated Women's
Flyweight and Bantamweight Boxing Champion between 1950 and 1960. Although
Barbara started on the fairground booths and boxed with Professor Bosco and
Sam McKeowen, it was only when she fought in America that she achieved
respect and recognition from her fellow boxers.
This is just a summary of the history of lady boxers and further research
needs to be undertaken to fully assess their impact on the sport. However,
it appears that women were boxing in booths and in prize fights well before
the days of the British Boxing Board of Control, and hopefully now they will
be allowed to continue with the full backing of the sporting authorities.
Research on "Lady Boxers"
by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin Research Director, National
Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Dr. Toulmin
just recently wrote a book call "A Fair Fight"