"THE BLACK DIAMOND". The life and times of TOM CRIBB, 1781~1848. By Alan Bartlett. 2001.
Thomas Cribb was born 2nd (not the 8th as is so often written) July 1781 in Lawrence Hill,Bristol and was christened on the 8th of July in Lawrence Hill Church (see his christening entry on photo page 2). Son of Thomas (a labourer) & Hannah (nee Rodgers) Cribb. He lived his early life in the village of Hanham,Gloucester, along with his brothers & sisters,these being Ester (b1775),Issac (b1777), Daniel (b1783), George (b1785),Elizabeth (b1785), Abraham (b1789), Ann (b1792) and Harriet (b1794).
He went to London at the age of 13 to seek his fortune. Here he became apprenticed to a bellhanger who was possibly a relative of Cribbs in the Kingswood area, but decided this profession was not for him as he did not like the dusty interiors of churches. Instead he became a stevedore on the London docks but changed his profession again becoming a coal heaver at Wapping docks. It was during this time that he got his nickname "the Black Diamond" from the filthy work. It was also here that he narrowly escaped being crushed to death when he fell between two barges on the river Thames.
This was not his only escape from death. On one occasion when he was a porter he was carrying a 500 lb box of oranges, slipped and fell on his back with the full weight of the load upon his chest. The effect of this was to cause him to spit blood for several days afterwards. It was only due to his excellent constitution that he was able to recover from these severe accidents.
He may of enlisted at some time to serve his country in the Royal Navy for a time during the Napoleonic Wars, leaving circa 1804.
These manual occupations soon developed his strength and he became a boxer during his late teens. His heritage was great as the Bristol area was well known for producing many great fighters, such as John Jackson, Jem and Tom Belcher, Henry Pearce, John Gully and Tom Spring.
Cribb was a pretty callow youth who didn't know much about the science of boxing so he learnt as he went along. He started out fighting some of the old champions and he beat them all. Cribb was soon to be noticed as a 'coming man' in the ring.
He occasionally sparred with his brother George with whom he shared a fighting style i.e. slow footwork with each man hardly seeming to move and frequently 'milling on the retreat' as back pedalling whilst counter-punching was then termed. But his brother never won any of his fights with the other boxers and always being beaten very quickly.
On Monday 7th January, 1805, at Wood Green near Highgate Tom Cribb was to win his first major fight. He beat George Maddox in a massive 76 rounds taking a total of 2 hours and 10 minutes for a total purse of 25 guineas, Cribb won 20 and Maddox 5. The seconds were Samuel Elias (otherwise known as 'Dutch Sam because of his liking of dutch gin) for Cribb and Tom "Paddington" Jones for Maddox. The outcome may not seem surprising when you consider that Maddox was 50 years old whilst Cribb was just 23.
On the 21st May, 1805, Cribb defeated Jewish boxer Ikey Pig in Blackheath. The fight lasted 30 minutes and was for a total purse of 40 guineas. Seconds in this contest were Paddington Jones for Cribb and Bill Wood for Ikey Pig.
Cribb's next fight was to end in his one and only defeat, this was against fellow Bristolian George Nicholls at Blackwater on Saturday 29th July, 1805. The purse was 25 guineas and the seconds were Tom Jones for Nicholls and Dick Hall for Cribb. At the set to Cribb was the favourite but Nicholls knew of Cribb's style of fighting and clearly outboxed the then noviciate Cribb in 52 rounds.
Then on 7th October 1805, two weeks before the battle of Trafalgar, he met the black American boxer Bill Richmond at Hailsham, Sussex. The purse at stake was 25 guineas. Cribb went on to beat Richmond in 90 minutes but made him look foolish being by far the younger and stronger man. Thereafter meetings between the two were likely to flare up into disputes of some sort or another. Although animosity was set aside when Richmond seconded for Cribb his fight against Jem Belcher in 1807.
Cribb was also to fight against Jem's brother, Tom Belcher whom he beat when they met in 1806. Whilst later that same year he met and defeated his old rival Bill Richmond for a second time at Blackheath.
In 1807 he was introduced to Captain Robert Barclay, who was a noted long-distance walker and athelete who undertook the management of his training and organisation of further fights.
On 8th April 1807 Cribb came up against Jem Belcher for the first time, he was to beat him in a total of 41 rounds in a 20 foot roped ring for a massive purse of 200 guineas. The seconds were Bill Warr and Bill Richmond for Cribb, with John Gully and Bob Watson for Belcher. It is interesting to note that both Bill and Joe Warr were also known by the surname Ward and that both of them, like most of the second involved in prizefighting, were ex boxers. It was during this fight that Cribb was near to exhaustion and Gully offered odds of 5 to 1 that his man Belcher had won. Will Warr, who was Cribb's second, accepted and insisted the stake money be produced and by doing so gave his man time to recover. Eventually Cribb went on to win both the fight and the bet at handsome odds.
On 25th October, 1808 Cribb fought the British champion Bob Gregson. John Gully was Cribb's second and Bill Richmond as Gregson's. Fought at Molesey Hurst on the Thames, Cribb defeated Gregson in 23 rounds in a 30 foot roped ring to take the title of Champion of England, which he held for the next 14 years.
In December 1808, Cribb made a sparring appearance with John Gully at Will Warr's benefit . Gully became a life long friend with fellow west countryman Cribb, highlighted when the two of them danced a "Scottish Reel" together in the ring after the second Molyneaux fight. Their friendship endured strongly through the years even after Gully became wealthy and a member of Parliament and Cribb was a publican.
The Epsom Downs on 1st February, 1809 saw a second bout with Jem Belcher which Cribb again won. They met in a 30 foot roped ring and fought for a total of 31 rounds, Cribb taking 40 minutes to beat his opponent. The seconds for this contest were Joe Warr and Bill Gibbons for Cribb with Bob Clarke and the veteran Jewish prize-fighter Dan Mendoza in Belcher's corner.
After the Belcher fight Cribb went into retirement from the ring. Soon after this Cribb changed profession becoming the publican of various pubs over the years. Many prizefighters became publicans on retirement from the ring. 19th century gin palaces were a far cry from the discreet and orderly modern pub, and it helped to have a respected ex fighting man behind the bar. Since the upper levels of society did not patronize such places, the links between boxing and the underworld were strengthened. Pubs wrere gathering places for criminals and their associates, and even Tom Cribb, a figure of legendary propriety while a fighter set up his pub in Panton St in 1821 which cost £950, right in the heart of what was then the City's red light district, Tom married Elizabeth Warr ( daughter of the ex prizefighter Joe Warr/Ward) on 12th December 1809 at St Pancras Old Church. He and his wife Elizabeth eventually going on to have 8 children. These were Thomas Henry born 1815, George and Emily born 1817, William Frederick, 1820, Elizabeth Ann, 1822, Ellen, 1824 Ann born 1826 and Henry born in 1829.
What was once the Union Arms is still standing in 1999 and still a public house although now renamed "The Tom Cribb" and making some attempt to record the glories of the bareknuckle days in its prints and posters which now has a blue plaque on the wall to commerate the fact that it was owned by the prizefighter Tom Cribb.
1809 was to see a new black American fighter coming up through the ranks of boxers. His name was Tom Molyneaux, a protege of Bill Richmond. In that year he fought against a fighter named Burrows "The Bristol Unknown" who was a protege of Tom Cribb. Much to Cribb's annoyance his man was hopelessly outclassed by Molyneaux and Cribb determined to avenge this defeat. In fact, after the fight, Cribb and Richmond as the two seconds had a quarrel over a foul blow and had a turn up ( a casual or unscheduled fight) of their own which Richmond was bright enough to turn his back on after one round. It is interesting that Pierce Egan in his book "Boxiana" published in 1812 states that this incident occurred after Cribb's first bout with Jem Belcher in 1807.
Molyneaux was an irresistible challenge for whom Cribb next selected Tom Blake to be an opponent. Blake was also defeated. Cribb's choice proved to be a disappointment and it was this defeat and Molyneaux's claim to the championship title that caused Cribb to come out of retirement and accept Molyneaux's personal challenge. He had been further persuaded by Molyneaux bragging about what he would do to 'Masa Cribb' - the challenge could not go unanswered.
Cribb and Molyneaux met at Copthall Common, nr East Grinstead, on Saturday 18th December, 1810. The 24 foot ring was surrounded by a crowd of 20,000 in attendance on a cold, wet and windy winters day. The cold weather was in fact to affect Molyneaux badly during the fight. Molyneaux was at the peak of his fitness, standing nearly six feet tall and weighing 15 stone. Cribb on the other hand was overweight and out of condition. This was to be a fight for the championship and it would be a personal triumph for Bill Richmond if his man could take the championship away from his old rival, Cribb.
As far as Cribb was concerned, Molyneaux was an upstart novice. But it was a hard bruising fight going first the one way and then the other. When it looked as though Molyneaux was winning the crowd, who was almost to a man behind Cribb - quickly made their passions felt and the ring was broken on at least one occasion to save Cribb from possible defeat.
In Molyneaux's corner were Bill Richmond and Paddington Jones acting as seconds, whilst Cribb had John Gully and Joe Warr and every device possible was used against Molyneaux. There were several interruptions apart from the occasion of the break in the ring, when Cribb was having difficulty in making the scratch for the 28th round Warr complained to Richmond and Jones that their man was carrying weights in his hands. This was a plausible allegation since Molyneaux was known to have trained with weights in his hands. The delay in settling the matter was enough to give the exhausted champion the respite he needed. In the end Molyneaux threw Cribb heavily but landed on his own head in doing so . Molyneaux felt that he could no longer go on, although Richmond urged him to the scratch one more time. But it was the last time ; during the 34th round he staggered and fell. He was accused of falling without a blow but no umpire's decision was called for as he declared that he could go on no longer, saying to Richmond, " Me can fight no more " and Cribb was triumphant.
Molyneaux challenged Cribb to a return fight in 1811, arousing much public interest. Especially after Warr accused Molyneaux of cheating in the Copthal Common fight the public were demanding a more resounding victory.
This time Cribb was prepared thanks to Captain Barclay, who was Cribbs main backer and trainer through most of Cribb's fight career. Although Barclay benefited from the partnership too, he was said to have won 10.000 pounds when Cribb beat Molyneaux at their second meeting, whilst Cribb came away from the fight with Cribb winning 400 pounds, a small fortune in those days.
Cribb had been training hard at Captain Barclays estate at Ury, near Aberdeen in Scotland for three months and had steeled his frame with muscle.It is said that one of Capt. Barclays more unusual training methods was to throw stones at Cribb to make him chase after him. This time it was Cribb who was fit and ready, reducing his weight from 16 stone to 13 1/2 stone. Standing 5 feet 10 inches tall and age 30 years old he was at the very peak of fitness. So at their next meeting it was to be Molyneaux who was out of condition and unprepared.
This meeting was to be the greatest fight in all the days of bare knuckle fighting. Taking place at Thistleton Cap near Leicester on Saturday 28th September 1811, it drew a crowd of 25,000 spectators.Among the luminaries present in the crowd were such persons as the Marquess of Queensbury, Lord Yarmouth, the Hon. Berkley Craven, Sir Henry Smyth, Major Mellish, General Grosvenor, Sir Francis Baynton, Sir Charles Alton, Lord Pomfret and of course Capt. Barclay. The stake was 300 pounds a side and it was to be a hard and brutal fight with the seconds being Joe Warr and Gully for Cribb, Richmond and Bill Gibbons for Molyneaux. The two opponents entered the 25ft ring a few minutes past midday. By the end of the second round Cribb's right eye was completely closed, but his second , John Gully, successfully lanced it enabling Cribb to carry on. In the ninth round Cribb broke Molyneaux's jaw. Though he didn't get to his feet for 30 seconds or more, Molyneaux boxed on for a further two rounds until after a total of 19 minutes 10 seconds he was knocked completely unconscious much to the delight of the rather partisan crowd. When Molyneaux was finally carried senseless from the ring an examination found that he had suffered not only a fractured jaw but two fractured ribs also. Whilst Cribb on the other hand had scarcely received a body blow but his head was terribly out of shape.
Cribbs return home was triumphant. Crowds mobbed his coach in every town and village. Soon after transfer images of the fight appeared on plates, beer jugs and mugs, as well as many Staffordshire figurines. Poems and plays were written about Cribb, plus prints and paintings by artists such as Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Sharples and Gericault, with a full length portrait by Douglas Guest. Cribb was at the height of his fame, his name known as a national hero throughout the land. From his humble beginnings as an illiterate Gloucester coal heaver turned publican he was now on nodding terms with poets and princes including Lord Byron and the Prince Regent.
To mark his victory over Molyneaux numerous gentlemen raised a subscription for an engraved silver trophy. This was a unique honour as Tom Cribb is the first boxer to be awarded a trophy in recognition of the English championship.
There was a dinner and the presentation to Cribb of the trophy by Mr Robert Emery of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on behalf of his fellow boxers. All of which took place at the Castle Tavern, Holborn on 2nd December, 1811 in his honour he was told,
"You are requested to accept this cup as a tribute of respect for the uniform valour and integrity you have shown in your several combats, but most particularly for the additional proofs of native skills and manly intrepidity displayed by you in your last memorable battle, when the cause rested not merely on individual fame, but for the pugilistic reputation of your native country, in contending with a formidable foreign antagonist".
After a total of 11 fights in seven years Tom Cribb finally retired from the ring.
Cribb now settled into a blissfully happy life as a well renowned innkeeper in the Union Arms. But he was still involved in the sport as a stake holder for matches, seconding various boxers as well as taking a major role in the "Fair Play Club" which like the Daffy Club was a less affluent version of the Pugilistic Club (boxing's ruling body) He also continued to attend fights as a well known and respected spectator up until his last years. Pierce Egan, the famous chronicler of the prize ring, produced his "Boxiana" largely as a celebration of Cribb's defeat of Molyneaux. On 17th September 1821 Cribb along with Tom Spring appeared together in Egan's play "Life in London".
When Cribb was in his 40th year in 1821 Bill Neat issued a challenge to Cribb for the championship, but Neats inability to raise the 100 pounds to back his challenge can be put down to sentiment as none of the sportsmen wanted to see the ageing fighter return to the ring again.
On July 19th 1821 George IV was crowned King at Westminster Abbey and 18 of the leading boxers of the time , including Cribb, Spring, Belcher, Richmond, Owen, Hudson, Gully and Oliver under the direction of "Gentleman" John Jackson, were chosen by the King to be ushers and pages at Westminster Abbey and also attend later in the day at the banquet in Westminster Hall.
When the royal diners had left the mass of onlookers from the galleries descended on the remnants of the feast eating leftover food and draining the wine goblets. Then in the melee well known to the fighting man they made off with the gold and silver knives, forks and spoons stuffed in their pockets and unwashed royal plate shoved under their coats.
Only a letter of thanks each from the Lord Great Chamberlain and a single gold coronation medal between them was the modest reward for the 18 boxers duties of the day. They were happy enough with this small token, which gave the men an excuse for a celebration dinner of their own afterwards where the medal was eventually raffled to Tom Belcher.
On 18th May Cribb received another trophy to mark the occasion of his retirement from the championship This took the form of a lion skin belt adorned with a pair of silver plaques engraved with a list of his hard fought contests and a silver clasp in the form of a pair of lions paws. To further mark the occasion a benefit boxing display was held at the 'Fives Court' in St. Martins Lane , London in May 1822 with appearances by Gully and Richmond.Cribb finally acknowledged his advancing years and handed over his title to Tom Spring.
In December 1822, Cribb survived a terrible accident near Stockwell, when he was
thrown by a horse and was knocked unconscious for half an hour when the animal fell on him. Doctors bled him at the scene and he was carried back to recover. It was because of this incedent, that Cribb was unable to attend the funeral of Tom Hickman.
On 5th February 1823 there was a display of boxing at the Five's Court by Cribb, Spring, Belcher and others in aid of the widow and children of Tom Hickman who had been killed in a drag-cart accident.
Unable to keep out of the boxing world Cribb's activities led to a quarrel between Cribb and Tom Belcher over stake money . The money had been held by Cribb for a fight held on 21st October 1824, Cribb struck Belcher who brought charges of assault. This case was heard in December and a jury awarded Belcher 100 pounds in damages.
In 1839 Cribb finally had to give up the Union Arms because of debts, he had loaned money
which was not repaid, and also had to look after a sick relative as well as his own family. It must have been quite a great sadness to him that it was necessary for his friends at the Pugilistic Club to stage a benefit at the National Baths in Westminster Road on the 12th November 1840. At this time he was living at the house of his son William (a baker) situated in Woolwich High Street. Nevertheless, as sorry as his circumstances became, Cribb was one of the few prizefighters to die of old age. He was 67 years old when he finally died after a long lingering illness.
Finally at 111 High Street in Woolwich (the building is still standing, these days it is now a cafe), in the bakery of his son William Frederick Cribb, on 11th May 1848 Cribb died at the age of 67, Tom Spring visited Cribb on his deathbed ; Cribb suddenly sat up and punching the air uttered his last words,
"The actions still there but the steams all gone".
Tom Cribb's death certificate states that cause of death as a result of a diseased pylorus and marasmus (exhaustion). The next day a ten line obituary appeared in The Times.
It is interesting that on Tom Cribb's death certificate it states that his given occupation at the time of his death was confectioner !
Cribb was buried at St. Mary Magdelane Church Woolwich.. On 1st May 1854 a monument of a lion was placed on his grave. This monument overlooking the Woolwich ferry is the only one left still standing in the churchyard.
There was to be the following inscription on the tomb,but was finally omitted from it:
"When some proud Earl or rich patrician dies,
Unmoved we mark the storied marble rise,
Unmoved we read the praises blazoned forth,
And doubt the meed if giv'n to wealth or worth
But truth shall guide this record, and proclaim
Who raised himself without a crime to fame;
Whose heart was tender as his arm was strong;
Who still upheld the right, abbhorred the wrong;
Who stood unconquered Champion in that field,
Where hardy heroes nature's weapons wield-
'Twas poor Tom Cribb- beneath his ashes lie;
Peace to his spirit's immortallity".
The epitath that took it's place is the simple words
"Resect the ashes of the dead"
Tom Cribb's sons were all to marry as follows; William Frederick to Sophia Hall on 7th January 1843 at St Martin in the Field, Westminster ; George was married to Sarah Ann Maier on 9th May 1848, just two days before the death of his father, in the same church as William and Sophia ; and finally Henry.
In 1865 the champion Tom Sayers died. To pay off his debts his belongings were sold off, amongst these affects were Tom Cribb's silver trophy and his lion skin belt, They made 35 pounds and 18 pounds 10 shillings respectively.
Sources & bibliography
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Cribb and the Black
Radio 4 Play
Word of Mouth
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Mullan Harry. The World Encyclopedia of Boxing