KEVIN GORDON: When blood spilled at Hailsham

Hailsham boxer Pearce
Hailsham boxer Pearce

A short announcement appeared in the Morning Chronicle on 2nd October 1805.

“The long pending match between the Chicken and the Gulley is fixed for Tuesday next. The combatants are now in training in Sussex in which the battle is to be fought. Most of the amateurs of pugilism have departed for Brighton in the last two or three days.’

In 1804 the recognised bare-knuckle boxing champion of England was 27 year old Henry Pearce. As he signed his name ‘Hen Pearce’ he attracted the nickname ‘Chicken.’

He was a fast boxer who used both fists. He was 5’9” and nearly 13 stone. Pearce was born in Bristol, as was his friend John Gully. Gully was a butcher in Bath but when his business failed in spring 1805 he was sent to a debtors prison. He was visited in prison by Pearce and, as they were both keen boxers, a fight was arranged. The proceeds of the fight secured Gully his release.

Over the next few months the boxing world was buzzing with talk of a public re-match.

Although they were friends the press manufactured a keen rivalry between the two men (always good for business). One newspaper said: “No Christian knight ever panted with more ardour to encounter a pagan than did Gully to meet Pearce.”

The boxing match was set to take place on Tuesday 8th October 1805 just a few days before another famous fight - the Battle of Trafalgar. The venue for this nationally advertised fight was strange; Hailsham! At 10am a 24ft ring on the village green was roped off and the two men began to prepare for the fight of their lives. The boxers wore gloves (called mufflers) to protect their hands during sparring but the actual fight was bare. A vast crowd gathered. Amongst the spectators was The Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, who watched on horseback. The winner was to receive £600, a staggeringly huge sum in those days. The two men entered the ring with their seconds at 1pm and the fight started.

In the first round Gully hit out at the Chicken but fell short. Chicken hit him and he was knocked down. Chicken knocked his man down at almost every round but by the 17th round Gully rallied. He struck the champion two blows to the left eye, which was cut open.

Chicken started to bleed copiously but the fight continued and the 19th round was also good for Gully who struck two more blows to the eye. In the next round it was clear the champion was blind in one eye and he was knocked to the floor. Chicken, now badly injured, danced around the ring avoiding Gully and in the 22nd round no blow was struck. Gully knocked his opponent to the ground in the next round. Whilst he was on his knees Chicken hit out and struck Gully in the knees. The crowd roared ‘foul’!

It was now Chicken’s time to rally and in the 31st round he cut Gully above the eye and his blood made him blind in that eye. In the 33rd round Chicken struck Gully a blow so hard he was nearly knocked out but his seconds managed to get him to his feet to continue. In the 37th round Gully started bleeding from the ear. Chicken was on top between rounds 38 and 43. By the 44th round both Gully’s eyes were nearly closed and his head had swelled to a ‘hideous size’. In the next round he fell to the ground exhausted.

Amazingly that was not the end of the fight. Too much money was riding on Gully and he was not permitted to throw in the towel. In the end the fight went to the 64th round - nearly an hour and a half of almost continuous fighting.

The good people of Hailsham witnessed a hideous blood-fest. The Morning Post said reporting on rounds 45 to 64 could give no gratification to the reader. By the end of the match both men were nearly blinded in each eye but the Chicken just about managed a win. Gully had lost but a collection was made generously supported by the watching noblemen and gentlemen.

A short time later, Henry Pearce (The Chicken) had been challenged again - this time for a stake of £500. The challenger was Gem Belcher who had just one eye which he had lost whilst playing tennis!

There was a second boxing match at Hailsham that day between Tom Cribb and Richman the Black. Cribb, another fighter from Bristol, eventually beat Richman who had ‘tiresomely danced around the ring’ to avoid being hit, indeed not one single blow was landed by either men in a 20 minute period. The days sport ended at 5 o’clock.

Pearce retired after beating Belcher and bought a pub in Bristol. Shortly afterwards he came to notice again after clambering onto the roof of a burning building to rescue a trapped servant girl. Sadly he died of consumption in 1809.

Gully also took a pub and became a famous racehorse breeder; his horses winning the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby. He bought land in Pontefract, Yorkshire, and between 1832 and 1837 was Member of Parliament. Tom Cribb became one of the first world boxing champions when he beat an American in 1810.