The Life and Times of The Great Tom Sayers
Just to establish a couple of facts, I myself was heavily involved and instigated actually getting this particular piece of Brighton’s History established. The Sussex Ex-Boxers Association, of which I was a member, had been trying for years to raise the funds to get such an esteemed plaque erected for this true gentleman of pugilism. They continuously mentioned the fact at our monthly meetings and we regularly donated to the fund. The fund, however, never seemed to increase, despite the regular meetings and discussions under way by those in office. This was akin to the ‘Save The West Pier’ farce that went on for years to no avail.
I decided that enough was enough, so volunteered my services to the charity and took over the reigns as Secretary, Editor of the Newsletter and Events Manager.
That would have been in November 2009. I took it upon myself and decreed that there was no need for all those out of hours Dinners or Luncheons at the expense of the Ex-Boxers Association, and lo and behold by April 2010, this plaque was erected in style and aplomb, befitting the person to whom it is dedicated. Exactly 150 years to the day of one of his biggest fights, the very first Heavyweight International fight on record. We had a great day with many celebrities and ex-boxers, and I even managed to get Tom’s great great grandson Nigel to attend.
There was a centre page spread in a leading daily newspaper, I did an interview on Radio five live sports channel and it was covered on ITV National News channel.
There would be no more free lunches for the committee members involved, and so I was subsequently relieved of my position as Secretary. “Sod the lot of ‘em”, I declared, but to my credit I hope Tom Sayers looks down and recognises my efforts with humble gratitude. I reckon he does anyway. The main perpetrator of these shenanigans, Timmy Missin, still won’t talk to me anymore, but I really couldn’t give a toss.
So-oo, here we go, that’s enough of my own personal feelings and involvement, let’s crack on with the story at hand. Born just across the road over there in Orange Row in 1827, in a one-bed-roomed cottage, in an area that was then known as Pimlico, he was the youngest of 5, to James and Maria Sayers. He went to school locally till he was 9. Then he ventured up to London aged 13 in 1840 where he began a bricklaying apprenticeship, working on both St Pancras and King’s Cross stations.
As a jovial chap he managed to upset his fellow workers with his practical jokes and sharp wit, which led to his first staged fight. He had been challenged by a 6’ 3” Irishman, who was carted off unconscious after 2 hours 20 minutes. The fight occurred on Wandsworth Common where Tom not only fought bare-fisted but also bare-footed due to the muddy conditions. The Doctor alerted the police, or should I say ‘The Peelers’ as they were then known, so Tom scarpered back to Brighton with his reputation soundly established.
His next few fights attracted some large wagers, yet he still kept his day job. Then along came Sarah Powell, a 21 year old divorcee, with whom he had children Thomas and Sarah, he was loyal and devoted but his ruthless and soon to be, untrustworthy wife was to prove a different cup of tea altogether. The serious prize fighting dates from 1849, but he never lost a fight till 1853. This was to the giant fists of Nat Langham, a Heavyweight Championship of England fight over 61 rounds. He never lost again.
He then ventured afar and began seeking opponents on the road, travelling from town to town. It was at this precarious time that the missus began an illicit affair with a shifty character by the name of Alfie Aldridge. She continued this tryst quite blatantly, even going so far as to blackmailing Tom with the threat of revealing all; this would include the brazenness of the children being born out of wedlock.
Let’s remember that during those Victorian times, such stigma was very unsuitable to a person of his now growing reputation. Desiring due diligence and respect for his children he kept schtum and allowed their liaison to continue.
1857 saw Tom crowned Heavyweight Champ by beating William ‘Tipton Slasher’ Perry, on the Thames Estuary and he retained the title till 1867, this was when the Queensbury Rules were founded. Back in 1860, on 17th April, after 37 rounds he fought a draw with American John C. Heenan at Farnborough Hampshire, which brought forth many differing reports of what actually occurred. Undoubtedly Tom suffered a broken arm, during the fight, yet in his memoirs, Lord Redesdale, who attended the affair personally, fancied that 5 more minutes and Tom would have recorded another famous victory.
The pair, however, after this momentous occasion, became friends, as is many the case in the art of pugilism, still to this day. I myself have never felt anything other than respect and admiration for any opponents I faced between the ropes, win or lose.
It appertained that Tom and John re-enacted their famous fight on numerous occasions at various theatres across the country, but to all intents and purpose it was to be Sayers last serious match.
Such was his popularity though, a benefit was staged in his honour, raising the princely sum of £3,000, a tidy amount considering, one could say that this was in fact the first sports testimonial, how many retired footballers owe Tom Sayers a bloody big thank-you!
1861 however, saw the Anti Prize-fight Act, which criminalised those not only taking part but even anyone who even conveyed a member of the public to a bare-knuckle fight. Upon retirement, he bought a house in Camden Town, where he settled down with his sister. One of his known supporters and a great fan of the sport was the Earl of Derby, who presented Tom with a huge dog that he named ‘Lion’, and he took pride in parading around town with him in his carriage, they would also both be seen at the Races which was now his chosen sport.
Not being one of the most well educated blokes you ever came across; he fell foul of the temptations of folk from his kind of roots and died of diabetes and TB at the age of 39. Let’s be fair, lead piping wasn’t just invented for the game of Cluedo, water still ran through it in those days, and this led to poisoning, a great pun fully intended.
Other unhygienic traits cannot be fully clarified; they certainly didn’t have access to condoms back then, so any manner of transmitted bacteria could be responsible for his eventual downfall. Such was his fame the ceremony at Highgate drew a crowd of 10,000 people from all walks of life. His estranged and faithless wife, whom he had never repudiated, now had another 3 kids by her lover, was the sole beneficiary in his will. But my friends, I’ll bet my bottom dollar though, that he looked after his sister well enough too.
Now to my personal tribute to the great man, and it goes something like this;
“For all the rights and wrongs of two men fighting with their fists (gloved or ungloved) for apparently no reason, other than that they can, one thing for sure can be said about us fighters. We are honourable, and one of our very first, the late and great Tom Sayers, most certainly set a fine standard for us all to follow!”
Words by Stevie Martin