Brighton's own boxing legend

Photo:Tom Sayers became a national hero

Tom Sayers became a national hero

Tom Sayers, 1826-1865

By Peter Crowhurst, North Laine resident

In recent years North Laine has seen several plaques commemorating the lives of those who lived in the area or contributed to the North Laine. 

Plaque for Tom Sayers

A plaque for Tom Sayers, North Laine's 'boxing legend', can be found on the wall of the Guitar & Amp shop opposite the northern end of Gardner Street. Sayers was born and bred in the North Laine and was known as the 'Brighton Boy'.

Buried in Highgate Cemetery

Such was his fame that when he died his burial at Highgate Cemetery was attended by 10,000 people.

Lived in the then Pimlico area of North Laine

Sayers was born in 1826 and brought up in the Pimlico area of North Laine. Pimlico was a notorious slum between what is now Tichborne Street and Gardner Street, where about 1,000 people lived. Tom may have earned pennies as a young boy on Brighton beach working for fishermen and holidaymakers. 

A slum area

Life for those in Pimlico was hard. A government report in 1849 described Pimlico as ‘“an area where diseases prevailed often the result of sulphurated oxygen which arises from the excrement retained in cesspools”. 

Became useful with his fists

Sayers became a bricklayer by the age of 13 and worked on the London Road Viaduct. By 1846 he was living in London and set up home with 15-year- old Sarah Henderson. He started to earn a reputation for being useful with his fists in informal fights and in 1849 turned professional, taking on Abe Crouch in his first fight. 

He fought men much larger

Sayers was not a big man. He was 5ft 8ins and weighed between 112 and 154 lbs. He had to fight men who were generally much larger. Although based in London, he often used the Plough Inn at Rottingdean as his training HQ in the 1850s when he was establishing himself as a national boxer. Tom fought in an age before Queensberry rules were introduced in 1867. Fights were typically contested with bare knuckles. The rules also allowed for a broad range of fighting, including holds and throws of the opponent. Spiked shoes, within limits, were also allowed. 

Round ended when a man was 'downed'

In contrast with modern boxing rules, a round ended with a man downed by punch or throw, when he was given 30 seconds to rest and eight additional seconds to "come to scratch" or return to the centre of the ring where a "scratch line" was drawn, and square off with his opponent once more.

No round limits at that time

So there were no round limits to fights. When a man could not come to scratch, he would be declared the loser and the fight would be halted. Fights could also end if broken up beforehand by crowd riot, police interference or chicanery, or if both men were willing to accept that the contest was a draw.

Boxing was illegal

While fights might have enormous numbers of rounds, the rounds could be quite short, with fighters pretending to go down from minor blows to take advantage of the 30-second rest. Boxing bouts at this time were illegal and had to be organised in secret. They were often last-minute affairs to avoid the attention of the police.

He tried for the English middleweight title

In 1853 Sayers challenged Nat Langham for the English middleweight title, although in those days there were no clear weight divisions. Sayers lost but his reputation was not damaged.

Then he challenged the leading heavyweight

However, Tom’s life was beginning to unravel as Sarah, whom he married, had left him and his attempts to set himself up as a publican failed. Desperate to earn a good pay day, in 1856 he challenged leading heavyweight Henry Paulson and won.

Accepted a challenge from the US champion

His reputation soared and he was offered a fight against William Perry for the national title. Tom cruised to victory and defeated more challengers to his title before he accepted one from the US champion John Heenan in 1859. Attempts were made to stop the contest but it eventually went ahead in Farnborough on 17th April 1860, with Sayers conceding 40 lbs.

Fight declared a draw

Sayers damaged his right arm early on. The fight lasted more than two hours. By this time Heenan was so hurt he could hardly see, but after 37 rounds the crowd broke into the ring and the fight was declared a draw.

He never fought again

Sayers never fought again. He retired from the ring and received £3,000 from a public subscription which allowed him to live in some comfort, although his final years were affected by heavy drinking and diabetes. 

Died aged only 39

He lived just five more years after his fight with John Heenan, dying in Camden on November 8, 1865. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery at only 39 years old. 

Elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame

In 1954 Sayers was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame. Then on 17th April 2010, with the pavement packed outside the Guitar & Amp shop in North Road, North Laine, Brighton, a plaque to Tom Sayers marking the 150th anniversary of his winning the first-ever heavyweight boxing title was unveiled to remind North Laine residents and visitors of one of its more famous sons. 


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 242, September/October 2016]


This page was added on 03/11/2016.

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