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Kickass Women in History: Regency Era Boxers

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This month’s Kickass Women column is inspired by The Boxing Baroness by Minerva Spencer, which features a female boxer in Regency England. This was not as unusual in the Regency period as one might think. Literal kickass women entertained crowds and gained Regency fame and fortune in the golden days of bare knuckle boxing.

Bare-knuckle boxing was wildly popular in England during the 18th Century, with the peak of its popularity falling during the Regency Era. Upper Class people learned to box for exercise, a practice that was thought to keep Englishmen tough and patriotic in the face of Napoleon. Boxing had a way of involving people from many class, racial, and religious identities. Most boxers were members from the lower classes that were financed by members of the upper class, all of whom were brought together by their appreciation of and participation in the sport.

Elizabeth wipes some blood off her mouth with expression of satisfaction
Drawing of Elizabeth from the historical fiction graphic novel Championness, by Kelly Zekas and Tarun Shanker, with art by Amanda Perez Puentes

Boxing was a brutal financial opportunity for anyone who could stand it. Some boxers were Black men who had been freed from slavery in America and brought to England by rich backers to box, including the famous Bill Richmond. The character Will Mondrich in the Bridgerton TV series is based on Richmond.

Daniel Mendoza, one of several Jewish boxers, introduced some of the fast footwork that is popular today and gave lessons to Lord Byron. He also taught and mentored a boxer known only as “A Jewess of Wentworth Street.” Irish boxers were cast as villains against the English favorites, playing out national rivalries in the boxing ring.

painting of a crowd watching two women square off in what may be an impromptu brawl
The Female Bruisers, a painting by John Collett

In these early days of boxing, there were few rules, and matches included features such as eye-gouging, kicking, and throws. In 1743, the first rules were drawn up. They stated that “grasping below the waist” and “hitting a downed man” were impermissible. A round only ended when a combatant was knocked down, and the game only ended when one combatant was knocked down and unable to stand up and square off against their opponent within thirty seconds. Matches could last for a few minutes or a few hours. Gloves were not required in the ring until the Marquess of Queensbury drew up his set of rules in 1867, rules that are still in use today. It was not unusual for these matches to include crowds throwing things or storming the ring.

Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes got involved in boxing through her friendship with James Figg, the most famous English boxer of the day. She was known for her “trash talk” and bore the nickname “Invincible City Championess.” She used weapons in fights with men (she was proficient in the use of swords, daggers, and quarterstaffs) but only used her fists in matches with women. Her career lasted from around 1722 – 1728 and she was quite famous, claiming to have never lost a match. Many female pugilists fought topless in the same style as men, but Elizabeth and her peers dressed clothed, intentionally branding themselves as serious, professional athletes.

News announcement reads: Challenge: I Elizabeth Wilkinson, Having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage and box me for three guineas, each woman holding a half crown in each hand, and the first woman to drop the money loses the battle. Answers: I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate Market, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words, desiring home blows, and from her no favor; she should expect a good thumping!
Holding a half crown was meant to prevent scratching and gouging.

Mary Ann Welch was an Irish woman who was a boxer along with her husband, Robert Baker. They challenged Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes and Elizabeth’s boxing husband, James, to a double match. Tensions between Ireland and England made boxing matches between Irish and English opponents especially heated and popular. Later on Elizabeth and James fought a double match against Irish boxers Felix and Letitia MacGuire.

Ann Field was another boxer who challenged Elizabeth. She was a drover and Elizabeth responded to Mary’s public challenge with a public acceptance announcement, in which she said, “I… doubt not that the blows I shall present her with will be more difficult to digest than any she ever gave her asses.”

Drawing of The Boxing Baroness wearing her chemise and petticoats and an ornate bonnet
Contemporary drawing of The Boxing Baroness

On a less official and more tragic note, Mary Ann Pierce (sometimes spelled ‘Pearce’), The Boxing Baroness, was the beautiful and wild mistress of Richard Barrymore, the Earl of Barrymore.

You know how in historical romance series there are brothers or sets of friends with on-the-nose nicknames? Well, this guy was known as ‘Hellgate’ and he had a brother called ‘Newgate’ after the prison and a sister called ‘Billingsgate’ because she “swore like a fishwife.” Hellgate accidentally shot himself when he was 23, which is why, if you are driving a gig full of French prisoners in a war, and you are armed, you should keep the safety on. This was a feature that muskets sadly lacked, and his death propelled Mary Ann into a downward spiral of alcoholism.

There was a Lady Barrymore – Richard’s wife, Charlotte. But Mary Ann continued to refer to herself as ‘Lady Barrymore’ after Richard’s death despite having no legal claim to the title. We don’t know if she boxed competitively, but she earned her nickname and great notoriety by “boxing the watch,” which is to say, fighting with the police, whenever they came to arrest her, which was often. Sadly, she sank into poverty and died of alcoholism.

The stricter gender roles of the Victorian Age left most female boxers in obscurity. Most of what we know about them comes from announcements and coverage of matches. No one knows what became of Elizabeth, the Invincible City Championess, after retirement. One can only hope she spent her latter years napping on a mattress filled with prize money.


Irish times, “Irish vs English Prize Fighters”

Caroline Warfield, “Female Pugilism in the Regency Era”

History Extra, “The Bloody World of Georgian Female Boxing”

Georgian Era, “The Truth About Lady Barrymore, the Boxing Baroness”

Julia Herdman, “Women Boxing: A Georgian Novelty Act

VICE, “Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes”

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