If you want to be entombed in Westminster Abbey you need to be a king, a queen, a prince, a duke, a lord, a baronet, a famous musician, a distinguished soldier, a celebrated scientist or a world renowned poet. Or perhaps a bare-knuckle fighter – Jack Broughton, pugilist extraordinaire.
Broughton died in January, 1789, aged 86, and his body is buried in the west cloister next to that of his wife Elizabeth. When it was first laid down, Broughton’s stone had a gap after his name. It was intended to say “Champion of England” there, but the Abbey’s dean, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, apparently vetoed this, and it was not until almost 200 years later, in 1988, that the words were belatedly etched on the stone.
A champion Broughton certainly was. For almost 18 years he fought top boxers and was undefeated until lured back from retirement in 1750 to fight the unfancied Jack Slack, a Norwich butcher to whom he lost. This outcome had repercussions, not least because Broughton’s patron, the infamous Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, who had butchered the Scots during his victory at Culloden, had bet a small fortune on Broughton winning. He wrongly accused him afterwards of deliberately throwing the fight and had bare fisted fighting outlawed for a while as a result.
Broughton was the thinking man’s pugilist. He was the first to draw up comprehensive rules to make bare knuckle fighting less vicious. This initiative would eventually lead to the introduction of the Marquis of Queensberry rules in the 1860s. He built and ran a successful prize ring in Oxford Street near Hanway Street. He was also, in an earlier part of his life, a wherryman ferrying punters across the river. Broughton was the first person to win the Doggett’s Coat and Badge by winning the Doggett’s race, claimed to be the oldest boat race in the world, still held each year on the Thames in Central London.
Even so it is a big jump from those accomplishments to a burial place in Westminster Abbey. It happened partly because Broughton became one of the king’s Yeomen of the Guard after his retirement from boxing. He was also a verger in the Abbey, though that doesn’t normally confer burial rights. What is not in dispute is that he was surely the first and last bare knuckle fighter to be buried there.
Previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London are archived here.
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