Elizabeth Wilkinson

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Elizabeth Wilkinson
Born
ResidenceClerkenwell
NationalityBritish
Other namesElizabeth Stokes
OccupationBoxer
Years active1722 to 1728
EraGeorgian era
Spouse(s)James Stokes

Elizabeth Wilkinson (alternatively referred to Elizabeth Stokes) was an English bare-knuckle boxing champion from Clerkenwell, considered by many to be the first female boxer.

Personal life[edit]

Little evidence survives detailing Wilkinson’s life. She was born in London, referring to herself as being 'of the famous city of London' in proclamations. She appears to have come from a working class English background, typical of English boxers of the time.[1]

It is unclear whether Elizabeth Wilkinson was her birth or legal name. There has been speculation that she was either married or related to Robert Wilkinson, a prize fighter, thief and murderer executed on 24 September 1722. Christopher James Shelton has suggested that she may have adopted a stage name that would imply a connection with the notorious criminal.[2]

Wilkinson probably married the pugilist James Stokes. A 1725 report describes her as his ‘much admired consort'.[1] Sometime between 1722 and 1726, she became known as Elizabeth Stokes.[2]

After her last documented fight in 1728, no further information about her life can be found in the historical record.[1]

Boxing career[edit]

In June 1722 Wilkinson challenged Hannah Hyfield of Newgate Market to what may have been the first female prizefight in London.[3] Her advertisement in a London newspaper declared ”I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring Satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the Stage and Box me.” They went on to specify that each woman would grasp half a crown in each hand, a rule that prevented the gouging and scratching common in eighteenth-century boxing.[1][2]

She then went on that year to fight a fish-woman named Martha Jones, who she reportedly beat after twenty-two minutes.[3][4]

Wilkinson became a fixture in the boxing venues of James Figg. Though Figg was the most prominent promoter and male boxer of the early eighteenth century, Elizabeth was the more popular and famous boxer at the time.[2]

In October 1726 a fight was announced between Wilkinson and the Irish Mary Welch, to take place at James Stokes’ amphitheatre. A note at the bottom of the advert states “They fight in cloth Jackets, short Petticoats, coming just below the Knee, Holland Drawers, white Stockings, and pumps.”[2] At the time it was more common for women, sometimes prostitutes, to fight topless. By competing fully clothed Wilkinson and her opponents defined themselves as serious athletes.[1] In the newspaper featuring the advert, Welch describes Elizabeth as “the famous Championess of England”. In her response Elizabeth claims to be undefeated, “having never engaged with any of my own Sex but I always came off with Victory and Applause”.[2]

Wilkinson and her husband James Stokes were often challenged as a pair, with her fighting the woman and him the man. The first of these were from her former opponent Mary Welch and her trainer Robert Baker to challenge “Mr. Stokes and his bold Amazonian Virago” in July 1727. Thomas and Sarah Barret gave a similar challenge in December 1728, calling Wilkinson ‘this European Championess”. In their response James Stokes notes that Elizabeth was “thought not to fight in Publick anymore” but “my spouse not doubting but to do the fame and hopes to give a general Satisfaction to all Spectators.”[2]

In addition to being a boxing champion, Wilkinson acted as an instructor.[2]

Wilkinson was a keen self-promoter, and famous for her entertaining trash-talk.[1] In a published acceptance of a challenge from Ann Field, an ass-driver from Stoke Newington, she told readers that “the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses.”[2]

Legacy[edit]

Although she defied eighteenth century gender roles, Wilkinson was celebrated and not condemned by English society.[2]

150 years after her career ended, writers praised Wilkinson more than any of her boxing contemporaries. This only changed at the end of the nineteenth century. Whilst references to her became increasingly rare and generally negative, greater prominence began to be given to James Figg. Sports historian and author Christopher David Thrasher argues that society purposely ignored Wilkinson’s story when her narrative no longer supported new gendered vision of society.[1]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Thrasher, Christopher. Disappearance: How Shifting Gendered Boundaries Motivated the Removal of Eighteenth Century Boxing Champion Elizabeth Wilkinson from Historical Memory. New Mexico Military Institute.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jennings, L. A. (2014). She's a Knockout!: A History of Women in Fighting Sports. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781442236448.
  3. ^ a b Smith, Malissa (2014). A History of Women's Boxing. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781442229952.
  4. ^ Miller, Ben. "A Husband and Wife Fight as Gladiators in 1727 London", Out Of This Century, 1 February 2010. Retrieved on 14 July 2016.

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