Tom Sayers, early hand-tinted photograph, circa 1860
|Born||25 May 1826|
|Died||8 November 1865 (aged 39)|
Camden Town, London, England
Buried Highgate Cemetery West Section; London, England
|Height||5 ft 8 in (173 cm)|
|Weight||150 lb (68 kg; 10 st 10 lb)|
|Professional boxing record|
Tom Sayers (15 or 25 May 1826 – 8 November 1865) was an English bare-knuckle prize fighter. There were no formal weight divisions at the time, and although Sayers was only five feet eight inches tall and never weighed much more than 150 pounds, he frequently fought much bigger men. In a career which lasted from 1849 until 1860, he lost only one of sixteen bouts. He was recognized as heavyweight champion of England between 1857, when he defeated William Perry (the "Tipton Slasher") and his retirement in 1860.
His lasting fame depends exclusively on his final contest, when he faced American champion John Camel Heenan in a battle which was widely considered to be boxing's first world championship. It ended in chaos when the spectators invaded the ring, and the referee finally declared a draw.
Regarded as a national hero, Sayers, for whom the considerable sum of £3,000 was raised by public subscription, then retired from the ring. After his death five years later at the age of 39, a huge crowd watched his cortège on its journey to London's Highgate Cemetery.
Tom Sayers was born in May 1826 in a slum in the Brighton alley of Pimlico (now Tichborne Street) not far from the Royal Pavilion. He was the youngest of the five children of William Sayers (33), a shoemaker, and his wife Maria, ten years her husband's senior. At the age of six, Tom became a Jack in the Water, earning a few coppers performing small duties for holidaymakers and fishermen on Brighton beach. Claims that he attended school in 1836 may be unfounded, and he was barely literate.
At the age of thirteen, he went to London, where he stayed with his sister Eliza and her husband Robert King, a builder. Sayers became a bricklayer, and for the next seven years shuttled between his home town and the capital. He is known to have worked on the London Road viaduct outside Brighton, and may well have taken part in the construction of London's King's Cross Station. In 1846, he finally settled in the capital, taking up residence in the notorious slum of Agar Town, just north of where St Pancras Station now stands.
It was around 1847 that he set up home in a more salubrious part of Camden Town with Sarah Henderson. Only fifteen years old, Sarah was unable to marry without her father's permission, and her daughter Sarah (1850–1891), and son Tom (1852–1936) by Sayers were consequently illegitimate.
Prize ring career
Although the prize ring had long been illegal, it continued as an underground activity, and Sayers, having earned a considerable reputation from a number of informal fights, decided to try to make a living with his fists. His first contest as a professional was on 19 March 1849 near Greenhithe when he defeated Abe Couch (or Crouch). His next contest was with Dan Collins on 22 October 1850 at Edenbridge, Kent. The fight was interrupted after 9 rounds by the local constabulary. The fight recommenced at Red Hill but was abandoned in a draw as darkness descended. The two fighters met again on 29 April 1851 at Long Reach, the result being victory to Sayers.
Sayers next took on Jack Grant for £100 a side, the fight taking place at Mildenhall, Suffolk on 29 June 1852. For this fight, Grant had Harry Orme in his corner whilst Sayers was attended by Nat Adams and Bob Fuller. The fight lasted 64 rounds, Sayers ending up as victor.
Loss to Nat Langham
In 1853, Sayers challenged Nat Langham, who, despite the absence of formal weight divisions, was widely accepted as England's middleweight champion. The fight took place on 18 October 1853 at Lakenheath, Suffolk. This was Sayers's toughest fight so far, and a combination of illness and inexperience contributed to his first and only defeat. The wily Langham gained the upper hand by temporarily blinding his opponent with frequent blows to the eyes. The end came in the 61st round with Sayers unable to see his opponent, who could therefore strike him at will. Sayers was still reluctant to quit, however, and one of his seconds, Alec Keene was forced to "throw up the sponge" to signify the end of the contest. Once his eyes were healed, Sayers requested a re-match but Langham announced his retirement from the prize-ring.
Still, Sayers had fought well, and defeat did not damage his career. But his marriage that same year to Sarah Henderson, by now old enough to marry without her father's permission, was soon in ruins as she left to live with another man. To make matters worse, on top of an expensive failure to set himself up as a publican, he had great difficulty arranging another payday in the ring. He had one further victory against a fighter near his own weight before taking on much heavier men. The fighter was George Sims, described by the boxing chronicle Pugilistica as " a civil, well-behaved, courageous fellow, ridiculously over-estimated by his friends". The one-sided contest took place at Longreach on 2 February 1854, Sayers knocking his opponent out after 4 rounds of fighting, taking just 5 minutes.
Challenges heavyweight fighters
At this stage of his career, men of his own size considered Sayers just too dangerous to fight.
Finally and in desperation, he took the bold step of challenging a leading heavyweight. According to Alan Lloyd in "The Great Prize Fight" and Alan Wright in "Tom Sayers: the last great bare-knuckle champion", this decision was driven by John Gideon. John Gideon was a gentleman 'bookie' with influential and wealthy connections. He took a liking to Sayers after watching him fight Langham and stepped forward to become Sayers' manager. He would guide Sayers through the most successful part of his career as the two men became firm friends.
In convincing Sayers to challenge the heavyweights, Gideon was breaking convention. The convention – though it was never a formal rule – was that men fought others of their own size, and few gave him much chance against the highly regarded Harry Paulson. Paulson was shorter than Sayers by an inch but was described as "a perfect Hercules in the torso, weighing 12st. 7lb. in hard condition. Sayers, however, was undaunted, and in January 1856, a convincing victory raised him to a new level.
Sayers next two fights were with Aaron Jones in the early months of 1857. The first contest ended in a draw after 62 rounds of fighting but Sayers won the subsequent bout on 10 February 1857. According to the boxing chronicler, Fred Henning: "this battle brought the plucky Brighton Boy still nearer to the coveted title, and it was evident that giving away weight made very little matter to him and he proved by his conquering of the two heavy weights that he must have some chance for the Championship, so his friends were determined that he should have a try when the opportunity offered itself"
Fights for the championship
At this time, there was no undisputed champion of England amongst the heavier fighters. Harry Broome, who had won the title in 1851 against William Perry (known as the "Tipton Slasher") and defended it against Harry Orme in 1853, had forfeited an arranged re-match with William Perry and had written to the editor of the sporting paper Bell's Life in London in August 1853, when he "intimated his intention of retiring from the Prize Ring".
In early 1855, fight supporters commissioned a new championship belt, the previous one "having gone astray". The subscription raised £100 and a Bond Street jeweller was asked to make the new belt. At this date there were thought to be 5 possible contenders for the Championship: William Perry, Harry Broome, Harry Orme, Tom Paddock and Aaron Jones.
William Perry claimed the title for himself and attempted to set up fights with Aaron Jones and Tom Paddock in 1856, however both forfeited to him rather than fight, which gave the opportunity for Sayers to fight for the championship.
On 3 March 1857, the articles for a fight between Sayers and the Tipton Slasher were signed. The fight was to be for £100 per side plus the new Championship belt. According to one of the chroniclers of the Prize Ring, many thought it was "a wild, mad, revolutionary idea to match a 10st. 10lb. man of 5ft. 8in. against a 14 stunner of over 6ft., and the latter, mind you, no duffer, but the Champion of England, who had won his title by hard fighting".  Perry was so confident of winning that he sold his pub in Spon Lane, West Bromwich, and staked the proceeds on himself at 6 to 4 on odds. However, although confident of winning, he did not underestimate Sayers and he trained hard for the fight. This fight, Perry's final one, took place on 16 June 1857 on the Isle of Grain. Although written off by most of the experts, Sayers won comfortably in 10 rounds.
Sayers first fight as champion was with Bill Benjamin on the Isle of Grain on 5 January 1858. According to the sporting paper, Bell's Life in London, Benjamin's real name was William Bainge, and he was a complete novice at prizefighting. Sayers won easily after 3 rounds of fighting, which took just 6 and a half minutes.
On 16 June 1858, Sayers took on and beat the experienced fighter Tom Paddock on Canvey Island. In the 21st round, Sayers, noting that exhausted Paddock could hardly see and was incapable of defending himself, shook his opponent by the hand and led him back to his corner, prompting Paddock's seconds to "throw up the sponge".
On 5 April 1859, Sayers fought a rematch with a much improved Bill Benjamin. Sayers came out on top, defeating his opponent in 11 rounds.
On 20 September 1859 a fight took place with the Birmingham-based Bob Brettle, The contest differed from Sayers' recent fights in that Brettle was slightly the lighter man. In the 7th round, Brettle dislocated his shoulder and so was unable to continue, giving victory and the £600 stake money to Sayers.
The fight with John C. Heenan
By this time the prize ring was in utter disrepute – and virtually ignored by everyone outside the ranks of the Fancy, as the followers of boxing were known – yet the Sayers–Heenan fight caught the public imagination on both sides of the Atlantic. In the words of The Times, "this challenge has led to an amount of attention being bestowed on the prize ring which it has never received before", while in America, the New York Clipper observed that "‘Whate’er we do, where’er we be,’ fight, fight, fight is the topic that engrosses all attention".
Efforts of a number of concerned citizens to have the illegal event prevented came to nothing, and the battle took place at Farnborough in Hampshire on the morning of Tuesday, 17 April 1860. Transport from London to the venue was provided by South Western Railways. According to one eyewitness: "Several members of Parliament were present, and among the "nobility and gentry," besides the noble owner of the property, we were shown the Duke of Sutherland, the Marquis of Stafford, and Colonel Peel. There were about two thousand persons, and in the crowd were very many of the London celebrities in the literary, artistic, and sporting world."
It was on the face of it an unequal contest: Sayers was conceding forty pounds in weight, five inches in height and eight years in age.
To make matters worse, his right arm was damaged in the 6th round, and he had to fight one-handed for most of a ferocious contest which went on for more than two hours. Heenan, however, was also handicapped, Sayers having succeeded in closing his right eye, and making of his whole face a bloody mess.
After more than forty rounds, the fight ended in chaos when Heenan illegally tried to strangle Sayers, the ropes were cut, the crowd invaded the ring, and police moved in to put a stop to proceedings. The referee finally declared a draw, but hostilities continued for some weeks outside the ring, with the American camp claiming that Heenan had been cheated of victory, and the British insisting that Sayers had been on top.
According to Iain Manson, a careful study of newspaper reports of the fight and the subsequent controversy leaves little doubt that Heenan was on the verge of victory when the action was stopped. Others say the match was a draw. However, according to Alan Wright's book "Tom Sayers: the last great bareknuckle champion", Heenan's attempted strangling of Sayers did not stop the fight, nor did the subsequent invasion of the ring by Sayers' supporters. This account says that order was nearly restored and the ring re-pitched yards away. The fight continued for four or five rounds with neither man able to box proficiently. When the Police were spotted at the edge of the field, the entire throng, including the fighters, made a bolt for it and the fight ended there.
The fight stirred up considerable public interest. According to one source: "newspapers were filled with frenzied denunciations, Parliament angrily discussed the question, Palmerston quoted, with every sign of satisfaction, a French journalist who saw in the contest a type of the national character for indomitable perseverance in determined effort".
Differences between the two men were finally patched up, and both were awarded a specially made championship belt at the Alhambra Theatre, London on 30 May 1860. The tour of England, Ireland and Scotland which they then undertook together was, however, only a partial success.
At ringside with Heenan
The two men had become firm friends and when Heenan returned to England in 1863 to fight the then champion Tom King, he ensured that Tom Sayers was in his corner. It seemed a wise decision at the time as Sayers had been a meticulous and dedicated trainer all his career, unusual for the time. Sayers was also considered a first class ring-tactician. Jem Mace would often cite Sayers' ring methods when he turned to coaching. However, the move turned out to be a disaster. Tom Sayers offered no help at all to Heenan during his fight with King. One journalist claimed that Tom just stood looking at Heenan with a vacant, wide-eyed look as if he didn't quite know where he was. It is likely that this torpor was the result of untreated diabetes. Heenan fell mysteriously ill during the fight and conceded to King. Heenan felt he had been drugged and blamed Sayers for his lack of diligence and contribution. The two men never spoke again.
Retirement and death
After the Heenan fight of 1860, Tom Sayers never fought again. A public subscription was raised for him after the fight, and he received the sum of £3,000, enough to fund a comfortable retirement. It was fortunate for him that this money was safely invested thanks to the advice of John Gideon, or he might have been ruined by his unwise decision to go into the circus business.
He had by this time begun living with another woman, but the relationship broke up in acrimony, and his final years were marred by diabetes, tuberculosis and heavy drinking. As with all those who suffer from years of untreated diabetes, his personality changed dramatically. Graham Gordon, in his book "Jem Mace: master if the ring", Tom Sayers became loudly bitter and abusive as well as surly and confrontational, alienating those that had been loyal to him. This was contrary to his character at the peak of his career, when he was respectful, loyal and generous to friends and professional colleagues.
His last permanent address (1860-64) was at 51 Camden Street in Camden Town.
He died at No. 257 Camden High Street on 8 November 1865, and his funeral a week later attracted some 100,000 people to Camden Town. According to the Spectator magazine, the crowd that accompanied the coffin, stretched for more than two miles in length and the bier was drawn by four sable-plumed horses, Sayer's dog sitting alone in a pony cart.
Misfortune pursued him beyond the grave. His estranged (but not divorced) wife, who now had three sons by the man for whom she had left him, went to court to disinherit her two children by Sayers. The parents’ subsequent marriage had not changed their legal status, and a judge ruled that, while they were certainly illegitimate, it could not be proved that Sayers was not the father of his wife's other three children. These must therefore be regarded as legitimate, and entitled to inherit his estate.
Tom Sayers is buried in Highgate Cemetery, his marble tomb, the work of the sculptor Morton Edwards, guarded by the stone image of his mastiff, Lion, who was chief mourner at his funeral. The house in Camden where he died now has an English Heritage blue plaque.
|12 Wins, 1 Loss, 3 Draws|
|Win||Abe Couch||1849-03-19||Greenhithe, Kent||13 minutes (6 rounds)|
|Draw||Dan Collins||1850-10-22||Edenbridge, Kent||1 hour 52 minutes (39 rounds)|
|Win||Dan Collins||1851-04-29||Long Reach, Kent||1 hour 24 minutes (44 rounds)|
|Win||Jack Grant||1852-06-29||Mildenhall, Suffolk||2 hours 30 minutes (64 rounds)|
|Win||Jack Martin||1853-01-26||Long Reach, Kent||55 minutes (23 rounds)|
|Loss||Nat Langham||1853-10-18||Lakenheath, Suffolk||2 hours 2 minutes (60 rounds)|
|Win||George Sims||1854-02-28||Long Reach, Kent||5 minutes (4 rounds)|
|Win||Harry Paulson||1856-01-29||Appledore, Kent||3 hours, 8 minutes (109 rounds)|
|Draw||Aaron Jones||1857-01-06||Canvey Island, Essex||3 hours (62 rounds)|
|Win||Aaron Jones||1857-02-10||Canvey Island, Essex||2 hours (85 rounds)|
|Win||Bill Perry||1857-06-16||Isle of Grain, Kent||1 hour 15 minutes (10 rounds)|
|Win||Bill Benjamin||1858-01-05||Isle of Grain, Kent||7 minutes (3 rounds)|
|Win||Tom Paddock||1858-06-15||Canvey Island, Essex||1 hour 20 minutes (21 rounds)|
|Win||Bill Benjamin||1859-04-05||Isle of Grain, Kent||22 minutes (11 rounds)|
|Win||Bob Brettle||1859-09-20||Ashford, Kent||15 minutes (7 rounds)|
|Draw||John C. Heenan||1860-04-17||Farnborough, Hampshire||2 hours 10 minutes (42 rounds)|
A fictionalised Tom Sayers appeared in a series of weekly adventures penned for the story paper The Marvel by Amalgamated Press writer Arthur S. Hardy (real name Arthur Joseph Steffens, b. 28 September 1873) in the first decade of the twentieth century. Hardy's version of Sayers was an Edwardian actor-manager, touring Britain's theatres and music halls with staged recreations of his boxing triumphs in a career move very loosely based on the real Sayers's circus venture. This romanticised figure was revived and further developed as a central character in The Kingdom of Bones, a 2007 novel by Stephen Gallagher.
Sayers appears in George du Maurier's first novel Peter Ibbetson (Part Two).
A detailed account of the Sayers-Heenan fight appears in Hugh Walpole's The Fortress.
- Both dates have been suggested, but there is no firm evidence either way.
- The Times, 6 January 1864. "Carmel" is an erroneous spelling of Heenan’s middle name.
- Marriage certificate of Thomas Sayers and Sarah Henderson, St Peter’s Church, Islington, Middlesex, dated 8 March 1853. This ends the uncertainty regarding the first name of Sayers senior.
- For the case that Sayers attended school, see Middle Street School.
- For the case against, see Manson, p. 28.
- Marriage certificate of Thomas Sayers and Sarah Henderson, St Peter’s Church, Islington, Middlesex, dated 8 March 1853. The claim that he married a widow named Sarah Powell is without foundation.
- Sarah Sayers birth certificate, registered 10 July 1850; Tom Sayers birth certificate, registered 7 October 1852. Sarah Mensley (married name) death certificate registered 6 March 1891; Tom Sayers death certificate registered 27 January 1936
- Miles, Henry Downes (1906). Pugilistica. 3. Edinburgh: J.Grant. pp. 359–443. Retrieved 24 May 2018.
- Miles, Henry Downes (1906). Pugilistica. 3. Edinburgh: J. Grant. pp. 234–252.
- Manson, p. ix. "Paulson" rather than "Poulson" was the version preferred by the man himself.
- Henning, Fred W.J. (1902). Fights for the championship : the men and their times. 2. London: Licensed victuallers' gazette. pp. 388–395.
- Dowling, Frank L. (1855). Fights for the Championship and Celebrated Prize Battles, Or, Accounts of All the Battles for the Championship. London: Bell's Life. p. 255. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
- "The Championship. Retirement of Harry Broome". Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. 14 August 1853. p. 8. Retrieved 15 February 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
- Henning, Fred (1902). Fights for the championship : the men and their times. 2. London: Licensed victuallers' gazette. pp. 329–395.
- Miles, Henry Downes (1906). Pugilistica. 3. Edinburgh: J. Grant. pp. 157–205.
- Thoramby (1900). Boxers and their Battles. London: R.A. Everett & Co. pp. 292–340.
- "Fight between Tom Sayers and Bill Bainge". Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. 10 January 1858. p. 6. Retrieved 16 February 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
- "Gallant fight between Tom Sayers and Tom Paddock". Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. 20 June 1858. p. 6. Retrieved 18 February 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
- "Fight for the championship". Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. 10 April 1859. p. 6. Retrieved 18 February 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
- "Fight between Tom Sayers and Bob Brettle, for £600". Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. 25 September 1859. p. 7. Retrieved 18 February 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
- The Times, 18 April 1860.
- New York Clipper, 31 March 1860.
- Johnston, William Edward (1907). Memoirs of "Malakoff". London: Hutchinson. pp. 291–317. Retrieved 30 May 2018.
- "The Fight". Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. 17 April 1860. p. 5. Retrieved 16 February 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
- Manson, pp. 222–223.
- Lynch, Bohun (1922). Knuckles and gloves. London: W. Collins. p. ix. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
- Newbold, George (1860). History of the great international contest between Heenan and Sayers at Farnborough on the 17th April, 1860. J. Miles.
- "SAYERS, Tom (1826-1865)". www.english-heritage.org.uk. English Heritage. Retrieved 4 June 2018.
- 257 High Street was the Mensley Boot and Shoe Manufacturers, owned by John Mensley, where Tom had his boots made. Tom's daughter, Sarah, married John's younger brother George Mensley
- Brooks, p. 5. The oft-quoted figure of 10,000 is wrong.
- "TOM SAYERS". The Spectator: 20–22. 10 February 1866. Retrieved 4 June 2018.
- reported in The Times, 21 April 1868 (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1868-04-21/10/6.html)
- "The Sayers Monument". Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. 8 September 1866. p. 6. Retrieved 18 February 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
- "Blue plaque - Tom Sayers". openplaques.org. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
- Sources frequently differ over the duration of a contest and the number of rounds. See Manson, pp. 275–276 (Endnote 17).
- The FictionMags Index, series list
- Brooks, Chris. Burying Tom Sayers. Annual of The Victorian Society, 1989.
- Gallagher, Stephen. The Kingdom of Bones. Random House/Shaye Areheart Books, 2007.
- Langley, Tom. The Life of Tom Sayers. Vance Harvey Publishing, 1973.
- Lloyd, Alan. The Great Prize Fight. Cassell, 1977.
- Manson, Iain. The Lion and the Eagle. SportsBooks, 2008.
- Miles, Henry Downes (editor). Tom Sayers, sometime champion of England, his life and pugilistic career. S.O Beeton, 1866.
- Wright, Alan. Tom Sayers: the last great bare-knuckle champion. The Book Guild, 1994.