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Women fought for a pint of gin

Women’s boxing probably enjoyed more publicity in 2012 than in any year, thanks to the Olympic Games in London.

Some sports enthusiasts still do not like women punching each other in a boxing ring but many have changed their mind after watching television coverage of skilled amateurs fighting for medals, and for their countries.

Indeed, it has taken a long time for female boxers to gain acceptance, let alone admiration.

Few people realise that women were already boxing in the early part of the 18th century. Those were the days when public executions, dog fighting and bull and bear baiting were popular pastimes.

The London Journal reported in June 1722: “Boxing in public at the Bear-garden is what has lately obtained very much amongst the men; but till last week we never heard of women being engaged that way, when two of the feminine gender appeared for the first time on the theatre of war at Hockley-in-the-Hole, and maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators.”

Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, who had earlier had some words with Hannah Hyfield, “challenged and invited” her adversary to meet her on the stage for three guineas.

Each fighter would hold half-a-crown in each hand and the first to drop the money would lose the battle.

Wilkinson won, but it was never reported how she did it. In 1722 she also beat a female fighter from Billingsgate in a bout that lasted 22 minutes.

Wilkinson later married a Mr Stokes and continued fighting under her married name. It seems she was recognised as the first female boxing champion in England.

Several other women competed in boxing those days. One newspaper reported: “On Saturday, 5th June 1795, a well fought pugilistic contest took place in a field near the New road, between two heroic females for two guineas a side, Mary Ann Fielding, of Whitechapel, and a noted Jewess of Wentworth Street, two of their own sex being bottle holders.

“Everything having been properly arranged, the combatants set-to, and for some time each displayed great intrepidity and astonishingly well conducted manoeuvres in the art of boxing.

“Fielding fought with great coolness and singularity of temper, and, by well directed hits, knocked down her adversary upwards of 70 times. After the battle had lasted an hour and 20 minutes, Fielding was declared the conqueror.”

There was also a report in the Sporting Magazine of December 1811 of a contest to be held on Wormwood Scrubbs for a pint of gin and a new shawl, between Molly Flower and Nanny Gent.

These exhibitions were considered scandalous and the upperclass members of the community demanded – and obtained – their suppression.

In recent years the daughters of several famous former fighters, including Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, earned good money in the ring, even though boxing is still generally seen as a man’s sport.

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