Picture the scene. It is the spring of 1822 and on the Isle of Wight the rumour is spreading among the lads of the fancy that a boxing match has been arranged. The thing is, to keep it quiet so that the local justices don’t get wind of it and make it their business to intervene.
The contestants in question are to be the local darling of the boxing fraternity, Tom “Isle of Wight” Hall, and a gypsy called Sutton, said to be an itinerant skirmisher. Apparently he is not much of a specimen but known to have courage.
Everything is set for Monday April 8 and before daylight the ring is marked out at the Horseshoe Inn at Northwood. People travel from all corners of the Island to set up booths and stalls or simply to watch. Carts and traps crowd onto the field. The fans are not only from the Island. Travellers from Southampton, Portsmouth and the New Forest also make the crossing to see the spectacle. In the words of the reporter from the Hampshire Chronicle,’ neither Crawley, Sir John Sebright’s Park, nor Moulsey Hurst (all famous fight venues) ever presented in the best annals of pugilism, a more animated or diversified multitude.
At the appointed time, the contestants make a show of getting ready and the crowd jostles to make sure of a good view. Then, just as they prepare to step into the ring, a constable appears, followed by another and despite the protest from the crowd, they declare the match to be cancelled.
If the authorities thought that that was the end of the matter, they were wrong. A very efficien
t network soon spread the news that the fight was to be re-located, not on the Island but across the water. Within an hour, some 500 erstwhile spectators were on board specially summoned boats and speeding across to Lepe on the Hampshire coast, where a ring was once again formed.
Tom Hall arrived with two well-known seconds named Price and Mills, both from Portsmouth. Sutton’s attendants were unknown and dismissed by the reporter as being of humble pretension. The gypsy had other disadvantages, being at least 1½ stone lighter and “slender of build.” When he disrobed ready to enter the ring it was agreed that he exhibited “nothing inviting when unadorned.” Tom on the other hand, was a handsome chap, standing about 5’9” and weighing about twelve stone. He had proved himself on several occasions, had trained in the famous Tom Belcher school of fighting and was known to be a “scientific” boxer – a recent innovation in that modern fighters had moved on from simply standing their ground and slogging it out. There was little doubt as to the outcome of the bout.
Tom obliged by giving a text book display of his skills and the aficionados agreed that he displayed his art to perfection. However, the contest lasted only three rounds and although Hall did receive a scratch on the nose, he had no difficulty in delivering a devastating punch behind Sutton’s left ear, described in pugilists’ terms as planting “a quilter under the left listener.” The smaller man was felled and to the disappointment of the crowd, the fight was over.
Tom was born in Newport on December 9 1791 into a family described as “notorious provincial boxers”. In his teens he set his sights wider than his native island and left to seek his fortune with his fists. The first mention of him is at the age of 18, when on November 17 1810 the Oxford Journal reported on a fight at Old Oak Common near Uxbridge. Hall’s opponent was George Cribb well-known in boxing circles as the brother of Tom Cribb, the English champion. Several thousand people turned up to watch. The Journal reported that Hall had been several months in town and that the two men were equal in weight. The betting was 6-4 in favour of Cribb.
At one o’clock the combatants set-to and the battle lasted for one hour and nine minutes. The Journal wrote that Hall was half blind of both eyes, which he got in the first twenty minutes, and although such was his state, his courage led him to victory.
The following year there was heightened interest when it was revealed that Dan Dogherty, the famous Irish boxer was to come down to Portsmouth to fight him. The fight was widely reported in the press and the Star of London gave a detailed account of how the men fought seventeen desperate rounds in fifty minutes and that Portsmouth had emptied its population onto the Common to witness the event. Picking up on the Star’s report, both the Hampshire Chronicle and the Morning Post stated that some 5,000 people had witnessed the event – except that as it turned out, the match had never taken place. At the appointed time, both Tom Hall and Dan Dogherty were giving a sparring exhibition at the Fountain Inn in Chichester, underlining the frailties of reportage during the early 19th century.
By 1814 Tom was travelling the country giving boxing exhibitions. In that year he crossed the Irish Sea and by September he had the opportunity to take on the pride of the Irish, Dan Donnelly. Dan’s early life was typical of many of his countrymen, poverty stricken, struggling to survive and the match took on a political dimension, Hall representing the English oppressors. The match did little to improve Anglo-Irish relations. 20,000 people crowded into a natural arena known as Belcher’s Hollow and things began well for the Isle of Wight man, drawing first blood. Before long however his stamina failed and he went down on one knee signalling the end of the round and giving him 30 seconds respite. It was disputed that he hadn’t actually been hit at all and had gone down to give himself an advantage, a state of affairs that was repeated several times during the match. Donnelly grew increasingly frustrated and lashed out at Hall as he slid again to the ground, catching him behind the ear and drawing blood, or as the press described it “dripped claret profusely.” Tom now claimed that he had been fouled and that Donnelly had forfeited the match. The fight was however awarded to Donnelly who was feted as champion. Reports on the English side of the Irish Sea referred to it as a drawn match.
In 1818 Tom took part in a particularly brutal match against a bruiser called Eales. By round 11 his head was a ‘contused mass of blood,’ but the fight continued until round 15 when Tom fell like a stone. Such punishment inevitably took its toll.
He continued to fight but the glory days were over. On June 21 1830 he married Anne Bizzell, a widow of forty. Her charms were no doubt enhanced by the fact that she was the landlady of the Five Bells Inn at Shorwell. The following year a son, Thomas was born followed by Sarah Anne and then Mary. Aged only two months, Mary died and things started to go wrong.
Ex-boxers and booze are a dangerous combination. Misdeeds at the Five Bells regularly appeared in the press and in 1836 the licence passed to James Coombs. Tom’s family left the village and by 1847 they were living in Cosham Street, the poorest part of Newport. Tom was working as a labourer and in that year went on trial for stealing chickens. Thereafter there were no more mentions and Tom’s died in 1869 at the age if seventy-four.