Elizabeth Stokes, Lady Bare-Knuckles
It wasn’t only men who fought for money In Georgian London, the ladies liked a shot at the title too. Of course, women have fought in staged competitions since ancient times, but lady bare-knuckle fighters became very popular in London in the early 18thC. I imagine this was in no small part due to the rise of boxing as a spectator sport, and the high probability of seeing two athletic women stripped to the waist.
The most famous of all the early lady fighters is Elizabeth Stokes. Born Elizabeth Wilkinson, date unknown, by 1722, she was advertising in the newspapers of her upcoming fights and that same year she met Hannah Hyfield, ‘the Newgate Market basket-woman’ for a prize of 3 guineas. They fought with half a crown in each of their fists, and the first to drop a coin lost. Elizabeth won, despite ‘the good thumping’ Hannah had promised her in the paper. From then on, she began fighting in James Figg’s venue, the ’Boarded-House’ in Marylebone, or his Amphitheatre ’where cocks and bulls and Irish women fight’ as a contemporary poem went (although as far as I know, Stokes was born and bred a Londoner). By 1728, she had married Figg’s rival, James Stokes, who fought as the Citizen of London, and had been beaten by Figg on at least one occasion. From then on, she fought at Stokes’s own Amphitheatre, near Sadler’s Wells. The following advertisement appeared in the Weekly Journal on the 1st of October 1726:
At Mr. STOKES’s Amphitheatre,
in Islington Road, near Sadler’s Wells, on Monday next, being the 3d of October, will be perform’d a trial of skill by the following Championesses. Whereas I Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught, and knowing the noble science of defence, and thought to be the only female of this kind in Europe, understanding there is one in this Kingdom, who has exercised on the publick stage several times, which is Mrs. Stokes, who is stiled the famous Championess of England; I do hereby invite her to meet me, and exercise the usual weapons practis’d on the stage, at her own amphitheatre, doubting not, but to let her and the worthy spectators see, that my judgment and courage is beyond hers. I Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, being well known by the name of the Invincible City Championess for my abilities and judgment in the abovesaid science; having never engaged with any of my own sex but I always came off with victory and applause, shall make no apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the reputation I have hitherto establish’d, and shew my country, that the contest of it’s honour, is not ill entrusted in the present battle with their Championess, Elizabeth Stokes.
Note, The doors will be open’d at two, and the Championesses mount at four.
N.B. They fight in close jackets, short petticoats, coming just below the knee, Holland drawers, white stockings, and pumps.
It is interesting and significant that the clothing of the combatants is described (nobody cares what the men wore), and sounds very practical and modest. Low and extremely rough prize fights were fought for gin, new clothes, men and such all over the City. The women ‘tied up their hair and stripped to the waist’. Many of these fights were between street prostitutes and added a little to their income, or perhaps a lot, depending on how many spectators and how successful they were. Elizabeth Stokes maintained the ‘half-crown rule’ in her fights, which is quite clever, as it stops scratching and gouging, and puts a time limit on the fight. The rougher matches were without rules and it was thought particularly effective to punch and scratch an opponent on the face and breasts. Once again, this rough boxing was popular with the Irish, both as fighters and as spectators and as it was fought on such a low level, few records remain.
In contrast, Elizabeth Stokes’s career was well-publicized. In 1728, the Daily Post carried the following:
At Mr Stokes’s Amphitheatre in Islington Road, this present Monday, being the 7th of October, will be a complete Boxing Match, by the two following Championesses: Whereas I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington, ass driver, well-known for my abilities in my own defence, whenever it happened in my way, having been affronted by Mrs Stokes, styled the European Championess, do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing, for 10 pounds; fair rise and fall…I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, have not fought this way since I fought the famous Boxing Woman of Billingsgate 29 minutes and gained a complete victory….but as the famous ass-woman of Stowe Newington dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I do assure her I shall not tail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows I shall present her with will be more difficult to digest than any she ever gave her asses.
N.B Attendance will be given at one, and the encounter is to begin at four precisely. There will be the diversion of cudgel playing as usual.
The cudgel display was not only a diversion: Elizabeth Stokes was also known to fight with weapons, including the short sword and the cudgel, and apparently she was very skilled. It should be noted that although Stokes and her husband took on other couples in mixed fights, men and woman never fought each other. Stokes is perhaps the most famous female fighter of the Georgian period, but there were others, including the famous ‘Bruising Peg’ who was of Amazonian proportions and quite terrifying (also very rough), and in 1795 two famous male boxers Mendoza and ‘Gentleman Jackson’ acted as seconds in a fight between Mrs Mary Ann Fielding and a ‘Jewess of Wentworth Street’. The fight lasted 80 minutes and there were over 70 knockdowns between them for a prize of 11 guineas.
Bare-knuckle fighting for women continued into the 19thC, drawing an ever-rougher crowd. Fights were often staged at dawn before everyone went to work, or as they were coming home. An exception was ‘The Boxing Baroness’ Lady Barrymore, who used boxing to keep fit and amuse her sport-mad husband in the early 1820s. The Victorian period drove bare-knuckle fighting underground, and in 1867, the Marquess of Queensberry made boxing a sport for gentlemen.
(The illustration used here is a bit of fun. It’s completely spurious.)