Archaeologists in Central London are involved in a massive undertaking excavating St James’s Gardens, a graveyard close to Euston Station, before a terminus for the controversial High Speed 2 (HS2) railway project is built on the site. Among the 45,000 skeletons due to be dug up it is hoped that the remains of Bill Richmond will be identified.
By the end of the eighteenth century boxing was England’s dominant sport. Confirmation of its repute occurred at the coronation of George IV on 19 July 1821 when eighteen pugilists were invited to guard the entrance to Westminster Abbey. One of the ushers selected for the grand occasion was Bill Richmond, a formerly enslaved man who descended from Richmondtown, a colonial outpost on Staten Island, New York.
The guinea was a British gold coin minted between 1663 and 1814. It was named after the West African region from where ships of the Royal African Company transported indigenous African people across the Atlantic. Slaves were a unit of currency. Small numbers of them were not send to plantations, but ferried into English ports where they were traded in taverns and coffee houses.
To recruit black servants became a status symbol. Any well-decorated stately home would employ them as “human furnishing.” Flamboyant page-boys were particularly fashionable. Dressed in brightly striped uniforms they were given the name “tigers.”
Most of those who managed to escape from domestic service fell into urban poverty. London’s Lord Mayor, responding in 1731 to complaints about the number of black residents, barred them from holding apprenticeships. Lodging in destitute East London, they shared the same overcrowded spaces with the locals, drank gin at the same taverns, and got involved in the same brawls. There was shared poverty, no segregation.
Church records at the time refer to the baptism of black people and notices of mixed marriages increased. In 1773, a correspondent of the London Chronicle begged the public to save the “natural beauty of Britons” from (racial) contamination. Maria Edgeworth’s second novel Belinda (1801) caused controversy because it featured the union between an Englishwoman and a former Jamaican slave.
Simultaneously, the brutal slave trade gave rise to the abolitionist movement. The first protests were uttered by members of the Society of Friends. They also challenged stereotypes that portrayed black people on the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder. In 1783, a number of Quakers established the London Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade. That same year, the independence of the United States was formally recognized.
In the autumn of 1775 Virginia’s last British Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, enlisted hundreds of escaped slaves as he set out to organize an army of loyalists and British soldiers on the coast near Norfolk.
In November, he published a proclamation in which he promised land and freedom to black loyalists. A month later nearly three hundred men were clad in uniforms embroidered with the words “Liberty to Slaves.” The regiment was defeated and disbanded on Staten Island in August 1776, although many of its survivors served as black pioneers during the occupation of the city of New York.
At the end of war in 1783, loyalists were condemned as traitors and often deprived of their property. Between April and November of that year, over 3,000 of them left the country for Nova Scotia, the West Indies, or England. A considerable number settled in London.
Poverty in the capital became starker with the arrival of these former soldiers. They had been guaranteed compensation for their losses, but promises were not kept. Deprived of pensions, they were duped into begging. In politics, pledge and betrayal are never far apart. In 1786 there were over 1,000 black loyalists living in London, the majority of them plunged into the torment of privation. In penury, freedom is less meaningful.
That year, natural historian Henry Smeathman proposed a plan to remove the burden of the “Blacks from the public forever.” Supported by the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, the government adopted his Sierra Leone Scheme. Candidates who signed a “repatriation” agreement were entitled to found a colony (the “Province of Freedom”) where members of the African Diaspora could re-settle. At the same time, the slave trade in West Africa continued unabated.
On April 9th, 1787 three vessels left London with 331 freed slaves on board (forty-one of them women). They were joined by sixty white prostitutes. During the voyage thirty-five passengers died, many others succumbed in the colony’s hostile environment. By 1791, there were only sixty survivors. Far from being a humanitarian undertaking, the political move was propelled by hypocrisy.
The objective was to rid London of two social “evils” by clearing black males and white prostitutes from the streets. Both groups were considered a threat to Caucasian purity. Repatriation was (and remains) a metaphor for the deportation of “troublesome” foreigners and refugees to remote parts of the world. In most cases, the word is a misnomer.
From Staten Island to York
Although most exiled former soldiers lived in abject destitution, there were exceptions. Bill Richmond was born into slavery on 8 August 1763, enslaved by Richard Charlton, rector of St Andrew’s Church in Staten Island. The chasm between gospel and slavery did not seem to trouble the preacher.
The arrival in 1776 of the British military in this loyalist stronghold offered the teenager a chance. He endeared himself to General Hugh Percy who, having seen Bill standing up to British soldiers in a tavern brawl, persuaded the Reverend to release him from bondage. Percy brought him to England, paid for his education, and apprenticed the young man to a cabinetmaker in York. This was not unusual. Enslaved people often accompanied planters or officials on their long journey back home.
At the time of Bill’s arrival in York, the cathedral city was booming and attracted wealthy residents who financed its famous Georgian architecture. The vogue for black servants was not restricted to London and had reached York as well, but Bill Richmond was one of the few free black men in town. As such he stood out and was the target of racial abuse.
A confident and literate character, Richmond let his fists do the talking. Always a gentleman, he challenged bigots to fight him in a makeshift ring. On one recorded occasion, he floored a local brothel-keeper who had shouted “black devil!” in front of him and his white female companion (probably his wife Mary Dunwick).
Richmond’s reputation for combining fine manners with brute physicality spread far and wide. London came calling.
Landlord & Legacy
In 1795, Richmond took his family to the capital where he was employed by twenty-year old Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, a Navy officer and first cousin of Prime Minister William Pitt. Bill joined his household in Oxford Street.
A hot-headed bachelor known as the Half-Mad Lord, Pitt received boxing lessons from Richmond and together they attended prize fights. Either his employer encouraged him to return to the ring or he made the choice himself, but in January 1804 Bill challenged the veteran fighter George Maddox. He was defeated in the ninth round. Later that year Pitt died, having been shot in a duel over a woman. Richmond decided to return to the ring.
Making a winning comeback in 1805, he challenged the celebrated Tom Cribb. In what was considered a “dull” contest, Cribb was declared the winner. It took Bill some time to regain his confidence. Having won several fights in 1808, he landed the bout he wanted – a rematch with George Maddox. In August 1809 he hammered his opponent.
Investing his winnings, Richmond became publican of the Horse and Dolphin on St Martin’s Street, Westminster, from which he dispensed drinks and advised aspiring amateur fighters, including Lord Byron and William Hazlitt.
When former slave Tom Molineaux arrived in London from New York in 1809, he was schooled by Richmond who recognized the youngster’s talent. Eventually, Tom challenged Cribb, Richmond’s old foe. He fought him twice and lost on both occasions. The result of the first contest was controversial and accusations of a fix have never been resolved.
Besides occasionally giving exhibition fights, Richmond still accepted professional challenges. At the age of fifty, before a crowd of 10,000 spectators at Moulsey Hurst, Surrey, he beat Tom Shelton who was half his age, after twenty-three exhausting rounds.
Plea for Tolerance
In later years, Richmond and Cribb made peace. The two men often shared memories at Cribb’s pub, the Union Arms on Panton Street, Westminster. It was here that Richmond spent his last evening before he died in December 1829. Cribb prepared a eulogy, but illness prevented him from attending the funeral.
A copy of the text has survived. Praising Richmond’s character, Cribb made a plea for racial tolerance. The choice of words may have been crude, but the condemnation of the nation’s prejudices was genuine and hard-hitting. Four years later the abolition of slave labor in the British Empire was enshrined into law.
Over time, British boxing has offered a route of escape from the East London ghettos of destitution that attracted members of ethnic or racial minorities. The Irish dominated the sport throughout the second half of the nineteenth century until competitive immigrant Jewish fighters took their place. The ring was a platform to pummel for freedom and batter stereotypes. In the long-running bout against racism, Staten Island’s Bill Richmond delivered the first punches.
Illustrations, from above: Taste in High Life, 1746 by William Hogarth (Victoria & Albert Museum, London); Lowest life in London amongst the unsophisticated sons & daughters of nature by George & Isaac Robert Cruikshank (Aquatint for Pierce Egan’s Tom & Jerry’s Life in London, 1821); a member of Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment; ‘Half-Mad’ Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford; Robert Dighton’s hand-coloured etching of Bill Richmond, March 1810. (National Portrait Gallery); and Robert Dighton’s hand-coloured etching of Tom Molineaux, January 1812. (National Portrait Gallery).