Equality for Female Boxers in the Olympics

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Dr. Vanessa Toulmin, who contributed the following research originally wanted to write a book on the subject. She was interested in lady boxers because her research area is travelling fairs and showpeople and for her doctorate, she interviewed about a 100 showpeople from their 50's upwards. One of these was a lady called Annie Hickman, daughter of a well known boxing booth showman and sister to a boxing champion called Charlie HIckman. She herself used to box on the shows and gave Dr. Toulmin a picture from the 1930s with the gloves on, etc. Then she came across references in 19th century material on the booths to women boxers including Polly Fairclough and a troupe of lady boxers from 1890. So her research began to snowballed - She checked through her usual sources from boxing material as she was wanting to write something about boxing shows on the fair and came across earlier references to women boxers - some positive the majority negative. Dr. Toulmin's background is that she came from a fairground family and one that loves boxing.   

The 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 Maddox:

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 decency.

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 ring:

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 boxing gloves.

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 Academy.

Annie Hayes, ne 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. 

Extensive 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"

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