A Brief History of Bare-knuckle Prize Fights in Leeds

After boxing became regulated by the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867, unregulated bare-knuckle prize fighting was driven underground and then effectively criminalised by the judgment in R v Coney in 1882. In that case, the fighters were found guilty of causing actual bodily harm, despite being consensual participants, and the spectators guilty of aiding and abetting the offence.

Despite this, prize fighting continued to be popular, with large sums wagered, and thrived well into the twentieth century but all involved had to stay one step ahead of the Police.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Leeds developed a reputation as a hotbed of the illegal sport and staged several notable bouts (some of which are described below). Places like Wass’s Farm near Beeston and an area of land at Rothwell known as Fifty Acres were popular venues.

23 May 1861 Police broke up a fight at Fifty Acres between Thomas Kelvey and Samuel Webster. The fight then resumed near Beeston and Samuel Webster was rendered insensible before being transported to his mother’s house “in a grave state”.

5 April 1886 Jack Madden and Tom Coyne fought 16 rounds at Wass’s Farm in front of 100 spectators. Coyne was practically out on his feet from the 13th round until the fight was finally stopped.

27 December 1889 A fight at Osmondthorpe was interrupted by the Police who were threatened by one man with a revolver and pelted by others with stones. They managed to apprehend one of the contestants but the other got away.

The same day, Harry Thompson and Tom Molloy fought at Whinmoor in a contest which was won by Thompson but not before both men had been severely injured.

17 December 1890 Two unnamed men fought each other at Fifty Acres in what the Yorkshire Evening Post described as the “fiercest fight witnessed in Leeds since a long time past”. The contest lasted an incredible 116 rounds in more than two hours, leaving both men “badly mauled”.

9 April 1891 Another marathon bout took place in secluded woodland in Horsforth early in the morning in front of just 20 spectators. Tom Smith beat John Moran over a gruelling 32 rounds, during which Smith dished out a terrible beating to his opponent. Moran was floored several times until finally his brother “threw up the sponge”.

12 April 1891 Three days later, Police broke up a fight within 100 yards of Millgarth Police Station. The bout, between Simon Hughes and Cam Haley, was in its eighth round when it was stopped. Despite having been knocked down in the fourth round, Haley had recovered and was generally regarded as drawing with Hughes when the contest was prematurely ended.

28 August 1892 In a particularly brutal contest at Temple Newsam, Robert “Bonny” Rothery killed William Asquith. The latter was being badly beaten but ignored pleas from his supporters to throw in the towel. Eventually, Rothery knocked him unconscious and hit him again as fell. The impact of his head on the ground was thought to be the final, fatal blow. Rothery was subsequently convicted of Asquith’s manslaughter.

16 April 1899 Sixteen spectators at a fight in a field off Dewsbury Road were found guilty of causing a disturbance by shouting and yelling encouragement from the street.

Click here to read my other stories from Leeds’s history.

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