Rex Needle: Tongue End was popular venue for illegal bare knuckle fights

Opinion.
Opinion.

Isolated hamlet attracted huge crowds clamouring to witness secret, brutal bouts that sometimes even ended in deaths

The hamlet we know as Tongue End is tucked away in the Fens, where the Bourne Eau meets the River Glen, an isolated, even desolate, place in past times, yet during the early and mid 19th century it became a popular venue for prize fighting.

This brutal sport dates from the early 18th century, the first known use of the phrase being in 1706 to describe an encounter between two professional boxers or fighters for a cash prize known as a purse.

These fights were with bare knuckles although there was an accepted set of rules, such as not striking an opponent when he was down.

Bouts often lasted several hours, with contestants seriously hurt, while deaths were not uncommon and some backers even prosecuted for manslaughter. Because of its brutality, prize fighting was an illegal and clandestine activity which was held at secret, out-of-the way locations such as Tongue End yet still commanded large crowds of spectators.

Many prize fighters had national reputations, such as Tom Cribb, Jem Mace, Ben Caunt and William “Bendigo” Thompson, but all needed opponents and so most towns and villages sported a contender, always known by their surname and place of origin, and in Bourne during the early 19th century the local hopeful was John Guttridge.

Although he never achieved great fame, Guttridge of Bourne enjoyed a popular reputation locally. He was always ready to fight a bout once the purse had been put up, usually by wealthy landowners and businessmen who enjoyed the spectacle.

The famous Bendigo visited Bourne in the spring of 1845 to meet Guttridge, although in the event, they were never matched professionally. He came after hearing of Guttridge’s victory over Tansley of Crowland, in a bout fought at Tongue End on Wednesday, January 29, 1845, for a purse of £10, about £1,000 at today’s value.

Although the time and place of the contest had been kept secret, more than 1,000 people turned up for what was to be a hard fought battle over 50 rounds which took 57 minutes. Guttridge was declared the winner and as a result was matched to fight Graham of Peterborough, better known as Potter George, later in the year.

A purse of £50 was agreed and the date fixed for Wednesday, April 16, at a place called Moonshine Gap, four miles from Gidding in Huntingdonshire, but the authorities got to hear of the bout and so it was switched to Wansford.

Guttridge arrived at noon as arranged, but Graham did not make an appearance until 6.30 pm, without the ropes and stakes for the ring which his backers had agreed to provide, and the bout was postponed.

A meeting was subsequently held at the New Inn, Bourne, to arrange a new date, which was set for Wednesday, April 30, on the banks of the River Welland, a mile from Crowland. Guttridge was then 22 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 12 stones. Graham was between 30 and 40 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 11 stones 10 lb.

The fight began at 9 am and lasted for 20 minutes over 23 rounds but in the final round there was a dispute when Guttridge took a glancing blow on the arm, slipped, and fell down. Graham’s seconds shouted “Foul!” and their man left the ring without saying a word, but the umpires disagreed and the referee ordered the fight to go on. Time having been called, Guttridge was ready but Graham was out of the ring and refused to fight again, and so the referee decided in favour of Guttridge.

Soon after this encounter Guttridge was badly injured – although the circumstances of the accident or how serious it was are unknown, other than a newspaper report on Friday January 16, 1846, which said: “Guttridge has since been injured and fallen a charge to his parish”, meaning that he could not pay for his treatment and had sought help from the union, or workhouse, which offered free medical care to deserving cases.

Despite this setback, Guttridge went on to fight the celebrated middleweight champion Nat Langham at Tongue End on September 23, 1846, for a purse of £50, a bruising contest that went on for 85 rounds over a period of 93 minutes, but he eventually suffered a defeat. In the first ten rounds, Langham had the advantage. For the next 40, Guttridge appeared to improve and from the 51st until the 93rd, Langham took control until Guttridge finally conceded.

A return match was arranged for the following February, at a venue halfway between London and Bourne with a purse of £50, but there is no record of it ever having taken place.

Guttridge may have continued fighting for a while and although the newspapers reported some bouts they were not enthusiastic about giving them coverage and were always critical and often condemnatory and so we do not have a complete record of his progress.

There was an exception with The Era, a weekly paper that appeared between 1838 and 1939, becoming noted for its sports coverage, particularly prize fighting which was featured in a regular column entitled The Ring.

Dates of forthcoming fights were published in each issue and even challenges between contestants, together with details of the purse required and possible venues.

From this we know that Guttridge was still trying to arrange bouts in the summer of 1847, but it is not known whether any firm dates materialised. Some prize fighters, such as Jem Mace, for instance, remained in the profession for many years but his less distinguished colleagues did not share this good fortune and despite his early successes, John Guttridge does not appear to have had a long career in the ring.

He died at King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, in July 1893, aged 70, without achieving lasting fame.

The notoriety of Tongue End for its prize fighting ended with the building of a Methodist chapel in 1865, introducing into the community a new spirituality which shunned such activities. Bare knuckle fighting continued until the late 19th century, eventually becoming respectable and governed by strict rules to form the basis of the sport we know today as boxing.