Henry Smith, Esq. was appointed Coroner for South Staffordshire in 1800. Based in Wolverhampton, he presided at literally thousands of Inquests into the deaths of Black Country folk – who departed this life in strange or controversial circumstances. This case is from Coroner Smith’s Casebook for January 1829. Will you agree with the inquest jury’s verdict? You must examine the evidence and decide for yourself.
An Indulgence of Vice
At 4 o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, 28 December 1829, James Butler – a twenty-four-year-old gun-lock forger – died from serious head injuries at Tipton. However, his death was not the result of an industrial accident in one of the nearby coal mines. Butler’s demise was due to a knock-out blow sustained in a bare-knuckle boxing match – one of many such ‘prize-fights’ that occurred in the Black Country in the early nineteenth century. Sadly, his death happened despite an on-going – but controversial – campaign to ban such ‘battles’ in the 1820s.
Four years earlier, in January 1825, one of Britain’s senior Judges – Sir James Burrough – launched a widely-publicised attack on ‘prize-fights’. Speaking to the Grand Jury in Surrey he referred to a recent case of manslaughter when a man was killed in a “pugilistic encounter.” He asked the Jury: “Is this to be endured? Is such conduct to be tolerated?” Burrough said ‘prize-fights’ were contrary to the laws of the land and demanded they be banned. He argued they existed solely for the purpose of “indulging the propensities of the vicious, and encouraging the betting of gamblers,” especially “the rabble of London.” The Judge reserved special criticism for participants who should have known better – namely those with “pretentions to the rank of gentlemen.” Burrough called on county magistrates to use their powers to “stop these disgraceful scenes and inquire into all unlawful assemblies.” He was particularly incensed that many fights took place on a Sunday. Instead of worshipping God, the common folk “assembled on a day devoted to holiness for the indulgence of vice and the subversion of order.”
A Two-Pronged Assault
Judge Burrough outlined his two-pronged strategy for banning prize-fights to the Surrey Grand Jury. Firstly, he explained “it is notorious that those pitched battles are generally, if not always, made up at public houses.” Publicans, he argued were always ready to encourage and promote such unlawful assemblies in order to increase sales of beer and other alcoholic drinks. So, Burrough advised magistrates not to renew the license of any publican who had allowed prize-fights to take place at their pub. His second strategy related to assault. Burrough said, “The combatants commit assault; you have the power of indicting each of them for such assault upon each other!” And, he recommended extending the assault charge to include “indictments against the seconds, or any other parties of whom it may be ascertained were aiding and assisting in the breach of the peace.” Burrough concluded his speech to the Surrey Grand Jury with several critical observations about the immoral effect of boxing matches on the lower orders and urged magistrates to implement his proposals and ban prize-fights in their areas.
Unsurprisingly, the Judge’s widely publicised exhortations against boxing prompted an immediate response from supporters of the “noble art”. Under the headline: ‘Pugilism and Mr. Justice Burrough’, Bell’s Life in London & Sporting Chronicle countered his efforts to “discourage and beat down the manly amusements of the Prize-ring” by arguing his views were “not founded in a sound moral feeling, or in a correct view of the national character.” This journal drew attention to the apparent hypocrisy of those who condemned the “heroes of the pugilistic art” but happily endorsed “slaughter in the fields of war!” Bell’s Life also highlighted the legal inconsistency in outlawing boxing matches whilst permitting “the mortal encounter of duellists, who avenge private quarrels by an appeal to the instruments of death.” This was a fair point because the last recorded duel in England did not take place until 1852. Bell’s editorial pondered, “Is there something more moral as well as dignified in destruction by the bayonet and in desolation by the cannon, than in the broken heads and sore bones that pugilists give each other?”
Turning the Tide?
At first, it appeared Judge Burrough’s pronouncements were effective. Three months later the legal authorities intervened to prevent a prize-fight between ‘Lenny’ and ‘Young Dutch Sam’ at the Barge House, near Woolwich. When the Chief Constable discovered a fight was planned, he obtained a ‘peace’ warrant for the purpose of restraining ‘Lenny’ from fighting in the counties of Surrey, Kent, or Essex. ‘Lenny’, whose previous fighting name was ‘The Cowboy,’ was secretly apprehended on Streatham Common whilst training on the morning of the fight. He was taken into custody and eventually baled for £20, but only after the time of the proposed match. The press in 1825 reported the “terror among pugilists, in consequence of the late anathemas against prize-fighting” and how the public started to believe “the days of pugilism were at an end.” However, despite Judge Burrough’s best endeavours, bare knuckle boxing continued, especially in the Black Country – hence the sad fate of James Butler.
At Darlaston, on Wednesday 7 January 1829, Coroner Henry Smith convened the Inquest into Butler’s death and the following relevant details were ascertained. It appeared the fight, between Butler and John Farnoll, was arranged for Sunday 28 December. Farnoll was a miner from Wednesbury and his fighting name was ‘The Ostler.’ The prize purse was £5 and it was Butler who made the challenge. The terms of the agreement between both sides contained a provision that “if anything should occur, and either of the two should be taken off the ground by the order of any Court, he that is taken off shall lose the money.” This indicated to the Inquest jury that both parties were “shamelessly profaning the Sabbath and fully aware of the illegality of the proceedings they were engaging in.” The prize money was deposited in the hands of a trusted stakeholder and the combatants met on the Sunday morning in a field called the Bare Bones, in the parish of Tipton. News of the fight spread quickly throughout the district and hundreds of people assembled to watch the contest.
The Fight Report
Observers reported there were about thirty rounds in the match and both boxers had “pretty equal success.” Then, after about an hour, the left-handed Farnoll struck his opponent a blow on the right side of his neck below the ear. Butler instantly slumped to the ground; rendered “speechless and insensible.” Carried from the ring to a nearby house, he was attended by Mr Ladbury, the surgeon. He remained in this sorry condition until four o’clock that afternoon, when he died. Mr Ladbury, assisted by Mr. James, then carried out a post mortem on Butler’s body and dissected his head. Here they discovered “great effusion of blood under the duramaeter” – the membrane which covers the brain. Ladbury told the Inquest jury he believed this was the cause of Butler’s death, and was in no doubt it had been produced by a violent blow behind the boxer’s right ear.
The Verdict: Do You Agree?
After reviewing the evidence, the inquest jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against John Farnoll, as the principal in the case. However – acting on Judge Burrough’s well-known 1825 edict – the jury also charged his sidesmen with manslaughter: William Partridge (alias ‘Granby’), William Turley and Joseph Lowe from Wednesbury. James Butler’s assistants were likewise charged with manslaughter: John Hall (alias ‘Soldier’), Joseph Love, William Bewley, John Small, Moses Forster and Edward Martin (alias ‘Whiteheaded Bob’) from Darlaston. According to Judge Burrough’s pronouncements every man associated with a prize-fight had “involved himself in the most serious and awful responsibility.” Consequently, it was no surprise to find that all of these men had “absconded” since the fight and were being hunted by Mr Simeon Constable, the well-named Constable of Wednesbury.
A review of contemporary newspapers has not yet discovered the whereabouts of John Farnoll, or anyone else involved, in the immediate aftermath of his prize-fight with James Butler. Perhaps the local community turned a blind eye when it related to such ‘popular’ sporting events in the Black Country. However, newspaper accounts from March 1832 do record the activities of a certain Wednesbury miner called John Farnell. He was given a three-month gaol sentence for playing a prominent role in a riot at Hall End Colliery, West Bromwich. His involvement included a particularly violent assault on another miner called Edward Onions. That this John Farnell was the very same man who fought James Butler is confirmed by another brief reference in Bell’s Life, on 6 May 1838. This states “John Farnell, of Wednesbury, feels inclined to fight the ‘Tipton Slasher’ and will meet him at the Three Swans, Wednesbury, to enter into agreements.” Whether this prize-fight ever took place is unclear, but the story of John Farnell’s possible opponent – William Perry, the ‘Tipton Slasher’ – took the story of bare-knuckle boxing in the Black County in a new direction, despite the best efforts of Mr Justice Burrough.
- Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 2 January 1825, 6 May 1838
- Morning Advertiser, 29 March 1825
- Morning Post, 29 December 1824
- Police Gazette, 6 January 1829
- Staffordshire Advertiser, 10 January 1829, 3 March 1832
- The Star (London), 7 January 1829
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