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James Belcher, also known as Jem Belcher (15 April 1781 – 30 July 1811) was an English bare-knuckle prize-fighter and Champion of All England 1800-1805.
He was born at his father's house in St. James's churchyard, Bristol, on 15 April 1781. His mother was a daughter of Jack Slack (d. 1778), a noted pugilist, who defeated Jack Broughton in April 1750. 'Jem' Belcher followed the trade of a butcher, though he was never formally apprenticed, and signalised himself when a lad by pugilistic and other feats at Lansdown fair. He was a natural fighter, owing little to instruction in the art. His form is described as elegant; he was, at any rate, good-humoured, finely proportioned, and well-looking. He came to London in 1798 and sparred with Bill Warr, a veteran boxer, of Covent Garden. On 12 April 1799, after a fight of thirty-three minutes, he beat Tom Jones of Paddington at Wormwood Scrubbs in the Middleweight Championship of England.
He drew with champion Jack Bartholomew in a 51-round bout in 1799, but in the following year, on 18 May 1800, on Finchley Common, the 19-year-old Belcher, after seventeen rounds, knocked out the 37-year-old Bartholomew out with a 'terrific' body blow to win the rematch and become champion.
On 22 December 1800, near Abershaw's gibbet on Wimbledon Common, he fought Andrew Gamble, the Irish champion. Four days before the fight, Belcher said that he was attacked by four thugs in Chelsea, whom he proceeded to beat up without getting harmed himself. It was suspected that someone sent those men so he won't be able to fight the high stakes match, but since he couldn't provide evidence the fight still went underway. Belcher defeated Gamble shockingly in only five rounds, Gamble being utterly confounded by his opponent's quickness. On 25 November 1801 he met Joe Berks of Wem, and defeated him after sixteen rounds of desperate fighting. He fought him again on 20 August 1802, and Berks retired at the end of the 14th round, by which time he could scarcely stand and was shockingly cut about the face. In April 1803 he severely punished John Firby, 'the young ruffian,' in a hastily arranged encounter. Next month he had to appear before Lord Ellenborough in the court of king's bench for rioting and fighting, upon which occasion he was defended by Erskine and Francis Const.
In July 1803 Belcher lost an eye owing to an accident when playing at rackets. His high spirit and constitution subsequently declined, but placed by his friends in the 'snug tavern' of the Jolly Brewers in Wardour Street, evaded challenges to his title until 1805. Jealousy of a former pupil, Hen Pearce, the 'Bristol game-chicken,' led him once more to try his fortune in the ring. He had a terrible battle with Pearce on Barnby Moor, near Doncaster, on 6 December 1805. He displayed all his old courage but not his old skill or form, and was defeated in 18 rounds.
He fought yet again two heroic fights with Tom Cribb — the first on 8 April 1807 at Moulsey Hurst in forty-one rounds, when Belcher would have proved the winner but for his confused sight and sprained wrist — the second on 1 Feb. 1809, in answer to a challenge for the belt and two hundred guineas. Belcher was again defeated after a punishing fight in thirty-one rounds, though the best judges were of opinion that, had Belcher possessed his once excellent constitution and eyesight, Cribb must have been the loser. This was Belcher's last fight. Virtually ruined by the huge gambling losses he sustained at this fight, he caused a fracas after the bout, for which he spent four weeks in prison.
During his career, Belcher was known as "The Napoleon of the Ring" and the "Black Diamond." Belcher was one of the gamest fighters ever seen in the prize-ring, and probably the most rapid in his movements : 'you heard his blows, you did not see them.' A truly courageous man. Belcher was in private life good-humoured, modest, and unassuming ; but after his last fight he became taciturn and depressed. He was deserted by most of his old patrons : one of the best of these was Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, who at his death on 10 March 1804 left him his famous bulldog Trusty.
Belcher died on 30 July 1811 at the Coach and Horses, Frith Street, Soho, a property which he left to his widow ; he was interred in the Marylebone burial ground. By the consequence of his various battles, stated the Gentleman's Magazine, aided by great irregularity of living, he had reduced himself to a most pitiable situation for the last eighteen months, and died a broken man.
Portraits are given in 'Pugilistica' and Boxiana, in which Pierce Egan remarks upon his likeness to Napoleon. A link between the silver and golden ages of the prize-ring, Belcher was 'as well known to his own generation as Pitt or Wellington.' Like the latter he is commemorated by an article of attire, a 'belcher' or blue-and-white spotted neckerchief, though the term is applied loosely to any particoloured handkerchief tied round the neck. In 1805 a very brief but blood-thirsty 'Treatice (sic) on Boxing by Mr. J. Belcher' was appended to George Barrington's New London Spy for that year.
Jim's younger brother, Tom Belcher, was scarcely inferior as a pugilist. He won battles in succession with Dan Dogherty, the 'Young Ruffian' John Firby, and some fighters of less repute, but he was badly defeated by Dutch Sam (Samuel Elias). He was an accomplished boxer and sparrer, and at the Tennis Court, during Tom Cribb's proprietorship, he defeated with the gloves such experts as Shaw the lifeguardsman, John Gully, and the African-American Tom Molineaux.
When Tom travelled to face Dogherty at the Curragh of Kildare (23 April 1813), Pierce Egan’s commentary implies that the Irish fighter was outclassed by the London Fancy's hero: 'Twentieth. – Belcher now seemed perfectly at home, and felt convinced how things were going. The length of his arm, added to the advantage of superior science, enabled him to serve out Dogherty about the head with such severity of manner, as to occasion the latter to fall at his feet'.
Tom Belcher, who is described as 'gentlemanly and inoffensive,' died in London on 9 December 1854, aged 71, having earned a competence as tavern-keeper at the Castle, Holborn, subsequently kept by Tom Spring. He is buried in Nunhead Cemetery, London.
References in popular culture
- "Cyber Boxing Zone -- "Paddington" Tom Jones". cyberboxingzone.com.
- Jem Belcher from Bristol
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1901). "Belcher, James". Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- The Age. "More Prize Ring Personalities: 'The Napoleon of the Ring'". 18 April 1931, p. 8. Retrieved on 15 June 2013.
- MacCabe, Eddie. "Nothing has changed". Ottawa Citizen, 21 February 1978, p. 17. Retrieved on 15 June 2013.
- David Snowdon, 'Writing the Prizefight; Pierce Egan's Boxiana World' (Bern, 2013)
- Pierce Egan. Boxiana, or, Sketches of ancient and modern pugilism; from the days of the renowned Broughton and Slack, to the heroes of the present milling æra! (1812)
- William Oxberry, Pancratia, or a History of Pugilism (1812)