We brush up against people every day of our lives, whether it be the man in bed with you or the chap behind the post office counter – although of course they could be the same person. If you are a writer and more specifically a history writer then you tend to bump into people not only who are alive and kicking but also those who were very much alive perhaps two hundred years ago. My recent encounter has been with Mr James Belcher. James (Jem to his friends and to a very wide audience) found fame as a bare knuckle boxer. At the age of twenty he became Champion of England. Here was not a big, beefy, lumbering individual but an elegant slender young man with dark wavy hair and a soft west country accent. Well, the public went wild for him. Posh toffs rushed to watch him fight and then sweep him away to show him off at some society event. Not surprisingly his sights were raised wider than the Bristol butcher’s shop where he had grown up. After winning the title he bought himself a London house and a carriage and as for clothes, he was definitely a man about town.
Life has a nasty habit of playing tricks on people and going out to play Fives with some of his sporting cronies, he was hit in the face by a ball and his eye had to be removed. He didn’t realise at the time but it spelt disaster for his fighting career. Concerned friends contributed towards purchasing a public house for him in London’s Wardour Street. It was not unusual for retired fighters to run a pub and regale customers with tales of their derring do. But Jem was only twenty-two years old and nowhere near ready to retire. For a while he gave exhibition and sparring demonstrations and then he was encouraged to promote young promising boxers. Here, fate again intervened. A young fellow Bristolian came to his notice, Henry Pearce, known as ‘Hen’ to his friends. Hen was an admirer of Jem’s boxing career and when invited to come to London his dreams seemed to be coming true. Jem’s motives weren’t entirely altruistic for he realised that for the moment Hen was a secret weapon and until his potential became widely known, Jem and his friends could make money by organising his fights. So far so good, but Hen had a dogged strength that soon made him the natural successor to Jem as English champion.
Unhappily, the thought of handing over his title to anyone was more than Jem could bear. He elected to fight his pupil himself to maintain his title. This was bad news for Hen. It was obvious to everyone except Jem that with one eye he could not fight at this level. Hen knew full well that he was capable of winning but the last thing he wanted was to humiliate the man he loved and admired as his mentor. The fight duly took place. At first it appeared that Jem might indeed hang on to his title but as round succeeded round his strength began to fail. Hen Pearce punched him again and again across the body and upper arms but was heard to say ‘I won’t hit thee in the face, Jem in case I damage your other eye.’ The battle reached the point when in order to finish this long drawn out contest, Hen did the only thing he could and battered his friend until at last, with his hands hanging to his side, Jem declared ‘I can’t fight thee no more, Hen,’ and the fight was over.
For Jem is was more than the loss of one contest. Thereafter he became moody, morose and sat for hours in silence in his pub, ignoring the customers who eventually drifted away. Hen, sickened by what he had done, never entered the boxing ring again. He returned to Bristol but could not settle, becoming a drifter. With the onset of TB, he succumbed quickly and died in 1809. With financial troubles, Jem moved to a smaller pub and again sat down to drink his life away. With an unhappy marriage and friends deserting him, he persisted in trying to win back his title but with no hope of success. Sick, a lonely alcoholic, he died on July 30 1811 aged thirty. His funeral had all the emotional drama of that of Princess Diana and the showbiz trappings of that of Ronnie Kray. Thousands turned out to watch. At the graveside a fellow boxer Bill Ward, flung himself into the grave on top of the coffin. The grave was dug twice as deep as normal to prevent the body from being stolen. With the passage of years, the cemetery at St George’s Marylebone was eventually razed, the headstones taken away and the ground turned into a park. Today, somewhere beneath the lawns of Marylebone Park, still lie Jem’s remains. If you happen to walk there, please give him a thought.
Jem.s life has passed beyond the past and into modern literature – see Alas Poor Jem, available to download.