While boxing today is a lucrative, codified sport, it was not always so. While boxing was popular in ancient times, it then faded away before re-emerging back to popularity in 18thcentury England. Here, Henry Esterson tells us about boxing in 18thcentury England and the establishment of the rules of the sport in the wider social context.

A boxing match between John Broughton and Jack Slack in the mid-18th century.

A boxing match between John Broughton and Jack Slack in the mid-18th century.

Boxing is an amorphous activity, one that occupies the space between primal instinct, violent expression and organized sport. As such, it has experienced a long and complex history. Boxing scenes are found in archaeological evidence throughout the ancient world: Egypt, Samaria, Greece and Rome. By later medieval periods, organized boxing had fallen back into anonymity (in Western Europe at least) only to re-emerge at a very specific time and location in early modern England when Jack Broughton created the “first rules for the sport of boxing”, published in London in 1743.[1]Broughton’s creation has been given a weighty historical significance. Robert Crego has described how “boxing didn’t begin to take the form of organized sport until the early 18thcentury, when the first rules of prizefighting were set forth. Jack Broughton… first introduced these rules… Prior to this time, a fighter would often clasp or wrestle an opponent, and there was no provision against hitting after he went down.”[2]

This transition from lawlessness to regulation has received a multiplicity of historical interpretations. Most famously, Norbert Elias and his disciples used boxing as a poster-child for the ‘civilizing process’, where this formerly erratic and dangerous act of folk-play became subject to laws and regulations governing its performance. In doing this, boxing became civilized, and as such could be consumed by the upper classes –individuals like the Duke of Cumberland and George II, who would become patrons of boxers in the mid-century. This interpretation gives way to a clear and well-defined narrative: boxing, formerly an unruly and unregulated activity associated specifically with the working classes, became a legitimate and well-organized sport that was consumed by “prince and ploughman alike” following the creation of a distinct rule set in 1743. 

Such an idea is predicated on the assumption that boxing carried no legitimacy prior to this point. In the words of the 19thcentury boxing historian Pierce Egan: “previous to the days of Broughton, it was downright slaughtering”. There are, however, a range of contemporary written accounts that indicate that this was not the case, and instead point to the existence of an implicit and unwritten set of rules predating those introduced in 1743. In order to properly understand the significance of this, and the change (or lack thereof) that occurred at mid-century, it is worth exploring exactly what regulations were prescribed by Broughton’s original 1743 rule set.


Broughton’s rules

These were set out in a pamphlet entitled Rules to Be Observed in All Battles on the Stage. There were seven rules that regulated various aspects of the boxing match. The first three rules governed the beginnings of a fight; how boxers should enter the ring, the duties of seconds, and covered certain formalities. For example, it was decreed that “no person whatever shall be upon the Stage, except the Principals and their Seconds”. The fourth rule is as follows:

“That no Champion be deemed beaten, unless he fails coming up to the line in the limited time, or that himself declares him beaten.”[3]


The fifth rule covered the distribution of prize money while the sixth prescribed the use of three umpires, who would resolve any dispute that arose during the match. The seventh and final rule was that:

“No person is to hit his Adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist.[4]


From Rules to Be Observedwe can distil a set of regulations that essentially governed the fundamental performance of the 18thcentury boxing match. They are as follows: a match would finish when a fighter was rendered incapable of continuing or capitulated to his opponent, a fight would be refereed by a group of three umpires, and that a fighter could not hit his opponent when he was down or attack him below the waist. 


Unwritten Rules

Despite the perceived originality of these rules, evidence indicates that similar regulations were in place prior to 1743. The law that forbade striking a downed opponent can be found in a range of contemporary accounts. For instance, in a 1710 issue of Review of the State of the British Nation, the writer claimed that, “from a Boxing young English Boy I learnt this early piece of generosity, Not to strike my enemy when he was down”.[5]When Richard Norris was killed in a boxing match in 1740, a witness reported that he had told his opponent: “You don’t do fair for you Strike me where I am down.”[6]The Swiss traveller Béat Louis de Muralt observed a similar custom when he visited London in 1726, describing how “by the laws of the play (as they call it) a man is not to strike his adversary on the ground” and “a man… must give his adversary to time to rise…”[7]The law that governed the ending of a match through defeat or capitulation is also present in pre-Broughton boxing matches. For instance, in 1719 the Original Weekly Journalreported: “Sometime last week two boys boxing for half a crown near Red-Lyon Square; after they had fought about a quarter of an hour, gave it over, one of them yielding, as they call it.”[8]

Although the introduction of umpires was new, these also had an earlier equivalent: before 1743, onlookers regulated boxing matches. Muralt described in 1726 how “the standers-by take care to see these laws strictly observed”. If an individual were to transgress the laws of boxing, for example by striking a downed opponent, he ran the risk of being “knock’d down by the mob”.[9]Another foreign traveller (this time a Frenchman), César De Saussure, observed a similar phenomenon in 1727, describing how onlookers gather around boxing-matches “not in order to separate them, but on the contrary to enjoy the fight, for it is a great sport and they judge the blows and also help to enforce certain rules in use for this mode of warfare”.[10]Prior to the governance of Broughton’s rule-set, boxing matches were socially regulated; while there was no explicit referee in the bouts, the public were expected to enforce a set of implicit and unwritten rules. 

It seems then that although Broughton did introduce certain formalities, the rules that governed the essential performance of the boxing match itself were unchanged. Throughout the 18thcentury, boxers had been expected not to strike a downed opponent, and the end of a fight had always been governed by the yielding system; Broughton had simply put these common practices into writing. The functional aspects of Broughton’s rule-set were, then, articulations of pre-existing socially enforced laws. It is not only the originality of Broughton’s rules that has been over-emphasized; the historical narrative that has been built up around these rules should also be questioned. It did not move, as historians have previously held, from an era of chaos and lawlessness to one of legitimacy and order by the mid-century. Rather, where the rules of boxing were once based on popular regulation, they became codified, systemized and delegated to specific individuals.


Part of a larger cultural movement?

Parallels can be drawn here with the enforcement of English law in general. At the beginning of the 18thcentury, the ‘common people’ took an active role in maintaining public order. Private citizens were expected to assist an officer of the peace in arresting criminals, or apprehend a suspected criminal independently and bring them before a constable. Popular morality was enforced in a similar way, and riots designed to ‘disturb or defame’ those individuals accused of sexual misconduct become popular in the Quarter Sessions in the 1690s and 1700s.[11]By the 1720s, the individual responsibility of law enforcement was beginning to erode. The emergence of thief-takers such as the notorious Jonathan Wild meant that the catching of criminals was often charged to specific individuals. By 1748, John and Henry Fielding had taken over the rotation offices in Bow Street; they systemized the apprehension of criminals, hired a network of thief-takers, and organized foot patrols on major roads. By this point, the popular justice of the early 18thcentury had been all but forgotten. This pattern follows almost the exact chronology of boxing regulation, which moved from a system of popular law enforcement in the first decades of the 18thcentury to one that was codified and devolved by the 1740s. Indeed, it is not insignificant that Broughton’s rules were written only five years before the Bow Street Runners were officially established. Like many things in the 18thcentury, boxing became part of that great age of English jurisprudence. It is important that we understand the development of boxing in this way; a set of rules did not simply materialize in 1743 but rather grew out of the popular regulation that was endemic to English society in the early 18thcentury.


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[1]Broughton's Rules: Rules to be Observed in All Battles on the Stage: as Agreed by Several Gentlemen at Broughton's Amphitheatre, Tottenham Court Road, August 16, (1743)

[2]Crego, R, Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries, Greenwood Publishing Group, (2003), pp.51

[3]Broughton's Rules: Rules to be Observed in All Battles on the Stage: as Agreed by Several Gentlemen at Broughton's Amphitheatre, Tottenham Court Road, August 16, (1743)

[4]Broughton's Rules: Rules to be Observed in All Battles on the Stage: as Agreed by Several Gentlemen at Broughton's Amphitheatre, Tottenham Court Road, August 16, (1743)

[5]Review of the State of the British Nation(London, England), Thursday, March 9, 1710; Issue 144. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Gale Document Number: Z2000102198, pp.1

[6]Middlesex Sessions: Sessions Papers - Justices' Working Documents, September 1749, London Metropolitan Archives, LL ref: LMSMPS503970163

[7]Muralt, B, Letters Describing the Character and Customs of the English and French Nations, London, (1726), Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale Document Number: CW3304026130, pp.2

[8]Original Weekly Journal (London, England), Saturday, August 8, 1719. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers, Gale Document Number: Z2000086751, pp.2

[9]Muralt, B, Letters Describing the Character and Customs of the English and French Nations, London, (1726), pp.42

[10]Letters of de Saussure, pp.180, quoted in Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, Cambridge University Press, (1973), pp.42

[11]Shoemaker, Robert, The London ‘Mob’ in the Early Eighteenth Century,Journal of British Studies, vol. 26, no. 3, 1987, pp. 278

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post