Growing up, “that’s not cricket” – as in to break the rules – was a familiar phrase. Another less familiar phrase even then but with a similar meaning, referred to the Queensberry Rules.
When “prize fighting”, what we now call boxing, began in England, there were no written rules; there were no weight divisions or round limits; and there was no referee. Those fights were brutal and chaotic.
By the early 1880s, boxing in England had become quite fashionable. You can see this in some of the books set during the period. However, it was still illegal in England and in the new colony of NSW.
The first boxing rules – the Broughton rules – were introduced by heavyweight champion Jack Broughton in 1743 to protect fighters. In 1838, the London Prize Rules were introduced and then modified in 1853.
The first recorded fight took place in Australia on January 7, 1814. The first Australian born fighter to become popular was the Windsor fighter Young Kable who in 1824 knocked out Sam Clark, an English boxer. By the 1840s, boxing had become popular, if still frowned upon.
The London Prize Rules introduced into Australia some time after 1838 were still quite brutal. Under the rules, opponents were often thrown to the ground and police were called.
The longest recorded Australian bare-knuckle bout took place at Fiery Creek near Daylesford (Victoria) on December 3, 1855. There Irishman James Kelly fought English soldier Jonathon Smith for a purse of 400 pounds. The fight lasted six hours and 15 minutes before Kelly finally won.
In 1867, the Marquis of Queensberry introduced new rules intended to overcome the problems associated with the Prize Rules and to make boxing respectable.
These rules set the form for modern boxing, including the use of gloves.
Even then, bare-knuckle fights continued.
It was not until the 1882 English court case of R. v Coney that widespread public bare-knuckle contests ended. The case found that bare-knuckle fighting was an assault occasioning actually bodily harm even with the consent of participants.
The Queensberry rules were slow to reach Australia. Boxing gloves were not introduced into the Australian colonies until 1884.
With the Queensberry rules, the stage was set for boxing to gain respectability as well as popularity. It remained heavily a working class sport, a way of advancement, but it was also taken up by society’s elites.
Jim Belshaw’s email is email@example.com. He blogs at http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au/ (New England life) and = (New England history)
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