128: A prize fight in rural Suffolk, June 1856

Prize fighting – a form of boxing before it had been disciplined – was illegal in England in the nineteenth century. The bare-knuckle fights between two men attracted gamblers and those held responsible for putting on the matches could be imprisoned and fined. To make such actions less effective the fights were often mounted in rural locations or on the boundaries between jurisdictions, so local police and magistrates were both uncertain and unready.

A group of London promoters hired a train (for £100) and it took between 400 and 500 people to the Suffolk village of Bentley in mid-1856. The mainline from London to Ipswich went through the village’s station, but normally only local trains stopped. The arrival of this special train doubled the village’s population. The fight was to be between James Massey and William Hayes. A field was selected near the village – and then fourteen local police arrived. The pugilists and five ‘members of the prize-ring’ were able to elude the police for some days. When they were located they were charged with breach of the peace and assault. Two of the station staff including station master James Yarminski had been obstructive. The newspaper reports are unclear, but some of these men were gaoled until the assizes in Ipswich.

One of the five was 24 year old Robert Travers, ‘a man of colour’ (Essex Standard, 18 July 1856). The witnesses did not mention this apart from the police superintendent who referred to Travers as a ‘black man’ (Morning Chronicle, London, 17 July 1856). Travers was one of the seconds (their role was to tend to the boxers between rounds – a sponge and a bucket of cold water to hand). The assize hearing was more widely reported and both the Standard (31 July) and Morning Post (1 August 1856, p 7) of London noted Travers was black. The Ipswich Journal (2 August) said he was 24 years old. Its initial report (19 July 1856) had called him ‘a man of colour’.

The jury found them guilty but treatment was light. No doubt their names went into the record books so that future ventures would lead to more punishing treatment by the police. The two railwaymen faced a court again in March 1857, when the case was finally closed (Morning Chronicle, London, 2 April 1857; Ipswich Journal, 28 March 1857). By what route had Joseph Yarminski ended up in Suffolk?

Neither Massey or Hayes seem to have left much trace in the annals of English prize fighting. What was unexpected then and now, was as the Ipswich Journal (19 July 1856) noted: ‘The scene was rendered somewhat novel by a man of colour from London attending as a short-hand writer for a sporting paper’. Who was he?

Travers is thought to have been born in Virginia in 1832 and taken to Britain by his parents who raised him in Truro where his father sold crockery. He married a Manchester woman, had five children, ran the Sun and 13 Cantons pub (London’s Soho has this unusually-named pub, built in 1882) and seems to have been alive in 1904 (Kevin Smith, Black Genesis. The History of the Black Prizefighter 1760-1870, New York, 2003 pp 146-160). Travers is mentioned in Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984), pp 452-453.


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