Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting, Masculinity and Nineteenth Century Australian Culture

Article excerpt

The precise origins of English pugilism are unclear, although it was not a commonplace pastime until the restoration, and not until the late eighteenth century was it acclaimed as the national sport. Prize fighting began to take on a more `refined' form in 1743 when Jack Broughton, himself a fighter, promulgated the first set of rules. These prohibited strangling and hitting below the belt, provided that a round ended when one of the contestants was knocked down and ruled that a bout terminated when, at the beginning of the next round, one of the boxers was unable to come up to a scratch mark drawn across the middle of the ring. In 1838 a new code (the London prize ring rules) was introduced with the specific intent of preventing certain practices that were often tolerated under the older regulations, such as eye-gouging, head-butting and neck-throttling. (1)

Prize fighting was perhaps England's most popular sport from the late eighteenth century through to the middle of the 1820s. A violent recreation that affirmed traditional masculine values, the sport attracted spectator and participant support from male plebeians and sponsorship from the gentry and aristocracy. Associated with courage, risk taking and pageantry, it embodied a set of traditional values and practices that were under attack from an emerging middle class committed to self control, thrift, humanitarianism and domestic rather than public recreation. The sport declined after 1825 as the values associated with evangelicalism and respectability became increasingly ascendant and, in response to this cultural onslaught, the old elite abandoned protective policies towards prize fighting and retreated into their own exclusive circles. (2)

Later, in the 1850s, prize fighting enjoyed a period of enormous popularity in the United States. For immigrant, mainly Irish, urban working class males it was seen as a sport that embodied conviviality and a sense of masculine honour. For them it also stood as one of the last bastions against a new set of values associated with respectability and evangelical reform. (3)

Historians of nineteenth century English and American society have acknowledged the sport's significance and popularity. They have agreed that it stood as an embodiment of pre-industrial masculine culture and that it was inevitably succeeded by commercialised and compliant sporting activities whose values were more closely attuned to modern industrial society. Those who have written about both early Australian society and its sports have noted that the bare-knuckle art was a popular, albeit illicit, pastime. They have tended to view it either as an oddity, an accidental import or as a primitive predecessor of (gloved) boxing.iv In this article I propose to examine the sport on its own terms and in its own context, not simply as a prelude to boxing. My aims include providing a brief history, determining the social composition of the sport's supporters and explaining its enormous popularity over a period that extended into the 1880s.


The first recorded bare-knuckle fight to be described as conducted in accord with English prize fighting rules, or Broughton's rules, was held in Sydney in January 1814. The contestants, John Parton, also known as Bellinger, and Charles Sefton, were both convicts. (5) However, this was not the first pugilistic contest to be held in the colony. Although earlier attempts to hold formal bouts, fought in accord with the prescribed rules, were stopped by the authorities, informal `pugilistic contests' were occasionally held in defiance of the magistrates. (6)

During and after the 1820s, prize fighting became both more common and more organised. The fighters consisted of English and Irish immigrants: men like Aby Davis, Joseph Dargin, John Horrigan (`Bungarrabbee Jack'), Isaac `Ikey' Reid and Paddy Sinclair and the native born Henry Kable, Ned Chaulker, George Hough, and William and Tom Sparkes. …