Great Black Britons: Richmond and Molyneux

Patrick Vernon & Dr Angelina Osborne

Bill Richmond was a trailblazer, Thomas Molyneux a fighter who came agonisingly close to becoming national champion.
Bill Richmond (1763–1829) and Thomas Molyneux (1784–1818)
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Richmond and Molyneux

Prizefighting began as a sport in Britain in 1719, when James Figg (1684–1734) became widely recognised as the first English bare-knuckle boxing champion. A cruel and unforgiving sport, a test of mental and physical endurance, fights would not end until one of the boxers could no longer stand or continue, and fights could last for hours. It was not until the late 18th century that the first Black prizefighter was recorded as participating in a fight. Joe Lashley, described as an ‘African’, fought and beat Tom Treadway at Marylebone Fields, London, on 13 June 1791. According to the 19th century sportswriter Pierce Egan, Lashley ‘evinced great activity, skill and games, portraying knowledge of the art superior to most amateurs. Treadway never properly recovered from the effects of this severe contest.’ Up until this fight, Treadway had not been defeated, which suggests that Lashley was a skilled fighter; nothing more, unfortunately, is known about him or any subsequent fights he may have had.

The lives and careers of Bill Richmond and Thomas Molyneux are more extensively documented, giving an insight into the world of 19th century pugilism and the Black men who succeeded in transcending the prejudices of the crowd and established successful careers. Richmond is considered the first Black fighter to have made a mark on the sport of prizefighting, and was one of the most prominent Black men in the Georgian period. His achievements were almost impeccable, having only lost two fights in his career. Many of the Black fighters who came after him, including Molyneux, benefitted from his guidance and mentorship.

Tom Molyneaux etching, published January 1812

Richmond’s remarkable life story begins with him being born enslaved, in 1763, in Richmond Town, Staten Island, New York, in the possession of one Revd Richard Charlton. An encounter with Brigadier General Hugh Percy, a commander in the British army during the American War of Independence, changed Richmond’s fate. There are two conflicting accounts of how the two met: one account says Percy was invited to dine at Revd Charlton’s home and was impressed by Richmond’s manners and conduct. Another account claims that Richmond beat up three soldiers who were harassing him while he was tending to their horses; it was, apparently, his fighting ability that impressed Percy. The first appears to be the more convincing account; for motives that remain unclear, Richmond was permitted by Charlton, a loyalist during the conflict, to enter into Percy’s service. Richmond accompanied Percy back to England in May 1777, where he arranged for him to receive an education in Yorkshire and an apprenticeship in cabinet making. By the mid-1790s, Richmond is documented as working as a cabinet maker in London, married and with a family.

The basis for Richmond’s early fights appears to have been responses to racial abuse. Luke Williams, who has written an excellent biography of Richmond, writes that his unusual position as an educated Black man in the white-dominated society of the late 18th century meant he was probably racially abused often, the effects of which may have drawn him towards pugilism as a profession. His first fight was with George Moore, known as ‘Docky’ Moore, a fearsome fighter who insulted Richmond at the York racecourse; when the fight took place is not known, possibly in the late 1780s. Williams writes that the fight lasted twenty-five minutes, during which Richmond ‘punished Docky so completely that he gave in, and was taken out of the ring totally blind’. A pattern of fights followed in which Richmond, often accosted and abused, used his fists to assert himself against racial insults from his tormentors, which, like other Black people living in England in this period, he faced daily.

Prizefighting as a profession drew Richmond to London – and into an association with Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, a member of the Pitt political family, for whom he possibly worked as a servant or bodyguard. Lord Camelford was a huge supporter and lover of prize-fighting, and he and Richmond attended many fights. However, it wasn’t until 1804 that Richmond, who was at least forty-one, fought his first prizefight, a decision that Williams argues was because of the fortune that he could make – boxing was the biggest and most popular sport in England, and drew supporters from all social classes. Richmond was the first Black bare-knuckle boxer to achieve fame and recognition. Although he did not win the national boxing championship, he nevertheless enjoyed a remarkably successful career, winning 17 matches and losing only two. Money earned from fights allowed him to become landlord of the Horse and Dolphin public house in Leicester Square, London, and to hire rooms where fighters could train.

Pierce Egan has credited Richmond with being the first pugilist who fought stripped to the waist, and suggested he was responsible for placing the boxing ring on a raised platform so spectators could have a better view of fights. He was known as one of the most skilled trainers in the country and acted as trainer and mentor to Thomas Molyneux.

Bill Richmond

Molyneux’s origins are ambiguous. Various accounts claim he was born enslaved, possibly in Virginia in the USA, and that he won his freedom through fighting after defeating his enslaved opponent from another plantation, thus winning his master a considerable amount of money. It is believed that Molyneux either used his winnings to travel to England, having been told about the money pugilists could earn there, or he ended up in New York, where he fought several contests before travelling to England in 1809. Again, though, it is unclear how he made his way to England; signing on with a crew ship and earning his passage is a possible explanation. It has also been suggested he was either born free or enslaved in a northern state. In any case, Molyneux may have wanted to create an air of mystery around his early life as part of his narrative and introduction into the world of English prizefighting. Whatever the truth, Molyneux and Richmond overcame the lives they were born into, ones of incredible disadvantage that were not structured to be without bondage.

How Richmond met Molyneux is not known, but he did arrange and manage his first fight, with a boxer called Jack Burrows, in July 1810, with Burrows conceding defeat after an hour of fighting. Molyneux’s style was described as unconventional but effective. In December of that year, he was matched with Tom Cribb, the current English champion, and who had beaten Richmond. Molyneux fought Cribb twice and lost on both occasions; that said, Molyneux exhibited great strength and endurance in those encounters. These fights were significant in that there was a possibility that a Black man could be crowned English boxing champion in 1810, which would have undermined the intensely negative ways Africans had been represented over time. The country’s honour was literally at stake. Although Molyneux did not win either of his matches with Cribb, he demonstrated he was Cribb’s equal in terms of skill, strength and endurance, and in many of the rounds was superior to Cribb. Their first match lasted 39 rounds, with both men sustaining terrible injuries. Cribb was knocked out in the 29th round and did not regain consciousness for 30 seconds: the fight should have ended, but it was not stopped. Years after the fight, Pierce Egan wrote that ‘[Molyneux’s] first contest with Cribb will be long remembered by the sporting world. It will also not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, that his colour alone prevented him from becoming hero of that fight.’

Both Molyneux and Richmond became wealthy and successful boxers in Georgian England, and Richmond, who made money from and for Molyneux, was probably the first Black boxing promoter in England. Richmond helped turn Molyneux into one of the best fighters of his time, and Richmond himself was regarded as one of the leading pugilists; he was invited to serve as usher at the coronation of George IV, himself a fan of the fights.

Patrick Vernon OBE is a Clore and Winston Churchill Fellow, a fellow at the Imperial War Museum, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a former associate fellow for the Department of the History of Medicine at Warwick University.

Dr Angelina Osborne is an independent researcher and heritage consultant. She received her PhD in History from the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull in 2014.

They are both the authors of 100 Great Black Britons.

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