The “noble art” of boxing has always held a special place in the history of sport. The sport today is linked to a set of rules, the Queensberry Rules introduced in 1867, that have come to stand for the ideal of fair play. Up to that time boxing was a much rougher business, often bare-knuckle fights with no limit to the number of rounds, not infrequently resulting in fatal injury. The law tried to distinguish between “sparring” which was thought “gentlemanly” and therefore lawful and “prizefighting” which was not, although much of the time the law turned a blind eye. Staging prizefights required careful organisation. They would be held well away from urban areas to avoid the police taking an interest. Special trains or Thames boats would be laid on to take punters – betting was the big attraction surrounding the sport – to some isolated field out of town.
It was an event that occurred in Herne Hill that marked the beginning of the end of prizefighting, the same year the Queensberry Rules were introduced. Jem Mace was a Norwich-born prizefighter who became the Champion of England in 1861 and was due to defend his title with a prize of £400 to the winner, a huge sum at the time. He was staying overnight in the house of the station-master at Herne Hill. The plan was for him to join a special train that would leave from Ludgate Hill at 5 a.m. the next day carrying the fight spectators. But the police got wind of the plan.
The stationmaster’s wife tried to slam the door in their face but they pushed their way into the house to find Mace in bed. He tried to resist arrest with the aid of a chair and a washstand basin and attempted to exit by a window but five officers eventually restrained him. He was duly brought before the Bow Street magistrate. On substantial sureties being provided and on his undertaking to abandon the fight, Mace was released on bail. His prizefighting days in England were over, though he later found success in America, where the sport was not yet outlawed. Mace, who started life as an itinerant violinist, was married three times, twice bigamously, and was the father of 14 children. He got through a substantial fortune during his life and died penniless in 1910.
As for those hoping see the fight, the train from Ludgate Hill duly left, but there were a lot of very angry punters once it became clear they had paid 3 guineas for a trip to leafy Beckenham and back for nothing.