Monday April 22nd 1901, Inspector Alfred Boxall is notified about a contest scheduled to take place at the National Sporting Club (NSC), a private gentlemen’s club in Covent Garden, London. At 8:45pm the Inspector visits the establishment and confirms it’s been prepared for such a contest:
“There was an arrangement called the ring, consisting of a platform raised 2ft. or 3ft. above the floor. Round it were arranged a number of seats. On the platform were posts with ropes hanging between them. The posts were padded. The floor was also padded and covered with stretched canvas”.
Before the contest commences a routine caution is issued by Inspector Boxall to the principals (Jack Roberts and Billy Smith), as well as to the management of the NSC, that they will be held responsible if the contest results in serious injury. Three days later the Inspector issues multiple arrest warrants.
In the 7th round of the 15 round contest Smith, ahead on points, fell and apparently struck his head against part of the ring during the fall. He got up before the count of 10, time was called on the round, he made his way to the corner and emerged for the start of the 8th round. Shortly afterwards, possibly as the result of a blow, he fell down and lost consciousness. He was attended to by his seconds and eventually taken to Charing Cross Hospital where he died two days later.
10 people in total were charged with the manslaughter of Billy Smith, real name Murray Livingstone; Roberts, the referee, timekeeper, manager of the NSC, Roberts’ seconds and Smith’s own seconds. A trial took place the following month but the jury, unable to agree, were discharged and the trial was postponed.
THE STATE OF BOXING
In mid-late 18th century England, organised bare-knuckle fights were illegal and held surreptitiously in venues such as pub gardens and secluded countryside fields. Fights were not limited by a specific number of rounds (rounds ended when someone was knocked down) and fights continued as long as both men could meet in the centre of the ring at the start of the next round. The amount of time in between rounds wasn’t limited either so a man could continue to fight, even if he’d been knocked out, provided he regained consciousness and could make his way to the centre of the ring by himself. When one man wouldn’t or couldn’t make that journey, the other would be declared the winner. These were fights to the finish.
As a spectator of such fights you had about as much chance of seeing a winner declared as seeing the fight brought to an abrupt halt by rioting crowds, interfering police or by the whole thing getting called off because it was simply too bloody dark to see what was going on.
Towards the end of the 18th century this disorganised and barely regulated mess of a sport was superseded by a tidier version. Conducted under an updated set of rules the brutishness was curbed and the sportsmanship was elevated. As a result, it became more agreeable to the upper classes and less disagreeable to the law.
Under this new set of rules contestants had to wear gloves, rounds lasted three minutes and if a fighter was knocked down they had to the count of 10 to get up or else be declared unfit to continue. We know these as the Queensbury rules and they were the ring walk music for what would be boxing’s entrance to its fight against social acceptability.
This iteration of the sport remained in a brittle legal limbo but, prepared as this more palatable dish, was brought in from the gardens and fields and served up at more gentlemanly establishments for the appetite of a more affluent clientele. It was a scientific affair, don’t you know, not just a punch up the bracket. As John Chambers, the writer of the Queensbury rules, once put it “you must not fight simply to win, no holds barred is not the way, you must win by the rules.”
Adherence to these rules, by the start of the 20th century, was overseen by an organised body and the National Sporting Club’s board of directors acted as the de facto national supervisory agency for this iteration of the fight game. To put their role into perspective, the NSC were eventually succeeded by the BBBofC which remains the governing body for the sport in Britain today.
The NSC was founded in 1891 by John Fleming and Arthur Bettinson (a defendant at the trial). They based their rules on the Queensbury rules and built up a tradition of sportsmanship and fair play. With this increased level of governance over the sport the behaviour of boxers was held to a higher standard but so too was the behaviour of spectators. Among other expectations contests were to be watched in silence and smoking was not allowed at ringside.
The NSC, because of its status as a private club, was allowed to host boxing contests (in a tenuously-tolerated by the bothering-bobbies kind of way) as long as they could be categorised as ‘scientific exhibitions’ distinct from the earlier, more brutal, bareknuckle prize fights. To ensure their contests fit that category the NSC were obligated to inform the police that they were being scheduled. The police, in turn, would visit the club to make sure nothing untoward was being organised and to issue routine cautions as our friend Inspector Boxall did on April 22nd 1901.
To put this entire period into some context, newspaper headlines in 1901 were covering Queen Victoria’s death and the assassination of America’s 25th President, William McKinley. That same year Walt Disney and Clark Gable were born. 1901 saw the literal death of the Victorian era and the literal birth of the Kings of Hollywood. Jack the Ripper’s exploits had ceased only around 13 years earlier and will have been as fresh in the public’s memory as the election of America’s 44th President, Barack Obama, is in ours.
Billy Smith, although born in England, had lived in the US for so long that he was looked upon as an American and was known to have a technical style. According to Boxrec, his career was 1-0-0 at the time of the fight but this doesn’t include his stateside punch ups. The sporting newspaper Famous Fights described Smith’s career as having started with a string of impressive wins followed by a step up against Iky Ryan:
“They went the whole 20 rounds and for the greater part of the journey a very even fight was put up. After the 15th round, however, Smith’s splendid two-handed work began to tell and Ryan began to go weak. Getting close to his man, Iky tried hard to save himself by clinching but at this stage of the fight nothing but a brick wall would have stopped Smith, who used both hands with murderous effect on his opponent’s ribs. Great lumps of bruised flesh were visible on either side but do as he would Billy could not put an end to his brave antagonist who was still on his feet at the end of the 20th round. The points, however, were so overwhelmingly in favour of Smith that the referee had no difficulty whatever in pronouncing in his favour.”
Smith came to England in the summer of 1900 and in his first fight in the country stopped Bill Fielder in 2 rounds. His next fight was against Jack Roberts for the 9st Championship. Going into the fight the American was the bookies favourite and he lived up to his odds until the 7th round when he collapsed in an unusual way.
Roberts from Drury Lane (a 5-minute walk from the NSC) was, in contrast to Smith, your rough and ready type and a regular at the NSC. Famous Fights described him in the most back-handed compliment packed paragraph I’ve ever seen:
“ ‘Fighter’ was writ large all over him, from the top of his battle-scarred head to the soles of his feet. A few minutes conversation with him would make assurance doubly sure as to his occupation. Amongst a profession the members of which usually should carry a trade-mark of some kind Jack Roberts is especially well favoured. His ears are thickened, as is his mouth, while all over his face he carries the scars inflicted by his brother professionals. In all his glove encounters he depends far more on his strength and power of giving and enduring punishment than his scientific attainments. He was not particular about taking a hiding so long as he can get close and administer some of those rib-benders and jaw-breakers for which he is so famous. A tricky, clever boxer puzzles and annoys him, but an opponent who will stand up, foot to foot, and exchange blow for blow is a joy for the youth from Drury.”
By 1901 Roberts had been fighting for around a decade and had established a decent record by giving a good account of himself against some of England’s best featherweights. In Roberts’ own words “what I like is to have a bally good fight”. These words were never truer than in his fight against the Geordie Will Curley in what was described as “one of the most sensational contests ever held at the National Sporting Club”. Roberts stopped Curley in the second half of the fight, an outcome that had seemed impossible during the first half. Famous Fights captured the spectators’ astonishment at the upset:
“Old frequenters of the club, men who have witnessed every battle that has ever taken place there, say that they never saw so much punishment taken by any one man as Jack Roberts took that night. From the start it was manifest that he was outclassed by the northern lad in everything but gameness and stamina.”
One observer exclaimed “See here! He’s no man! He’s not human! Nothing human could have stood what he has”. Another said “His head was always in the way but that head seems to have been made of cast iron.”
In their feature on Roberts, Famous Fights described his upset against Curley as the “event with which his name will always be associated in the future”. There’s an irony then that it would be his very next fight, against Billy Smith, that would see his name historically tied to the sport.
To say this fight put boxing on trial isn’t hyperbole. After the jury were unable to agree during the first session of the trial, the Prosecution made it clear, in the next session, that the importance of the verdict had less to do with convicting the defendants and more to do with deciding whether such contests should be allowed to continue in future.
The lead prosecuting lawyer was Richard David Muir widely regarded as one of the greatest lawyers of his time. He played a prominent role in many of the most sensational trials of the early 20th century, most notably that of Hawley Harvey Crippen (an American homeopath hanged for the murder of his wife and the first suspect to ever be captured with the aid of wireless telegraphy). Muir was known to be hard working with little need for conviviality. His cross examination of Crippen became standard reading material for legal students in England.
The lead defence lawyer was Charles Frederick Gill. Gill was famous for having been the prosecuting lawyer at the three trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and was known as a hard-headed Ulsterman who probably had the largest practice of any man at the time at the criminal bar.
The New York Tribune covered the trial by describing the “astonishing turnout of aristocratic witnesses”. Among them were 4 Captains, 3 Earls, 2 Lords, an Admiral, a Colonel and a Lieutenant. Also present was one Sir Oswald Mosley, father of the future leader of the British Union of Fascists (Ozzy Jr. would have been 4 years old at the time of the trial).
A statement from one of the less aristocratic witnesses, gun-maker Edwin Churchill, paints a picture of how the contest came to an end:
“Up to the 7th round I thought Smith was ahead. In the 7th round Smith invited Roberts to get in a blow. He avoided the blow and came back on to the ropes. His head struck the ropes, and he doubled up on to the floor. As he got up time was called, he went to his corner a little bit groggy, but nothing unusual. After the usual minute interval, the men stood up again. I did not notice anything about Smith till he turned round to face Roberts then I saw he was dragging his right foot after him. Smith’s back was to the referee; he went down on his knee. I cannot exactly say what caused that. I saw Roberts strike a blow, but whether Smith was struck or not I do not know.”
Muir’s prosecuting argument rested on convincing the jury that this contest, as with all others conducted at the NSC, was carried out under an inadequate set of rules which elevated it no higher than illegal bareknuckle fighting. To emphasise this point, Muir drew the jury’s attention to the previous deaths of three other fighters who had fought at the NSC. The defence countered this point by saying that more fights were happening at the NSC than at all other such venues combined and that, while tragic, a total of four deaths wasn’t statistically peculiar.
Muir saw an opening and attempted to highlight the insufficiency of the NSC’s rules by comparing them unfavourably to other sets of rules being used by other organisations at the time (those of amateur societies and school competitions whose contests had resulted in no deaths). In a heated exchange with one of the defendants, referee John Herbert Douglas, Muir stated that The Scottish Amateur Boxing Association had a rule that actively discouraged contestants from seeking a knockout blow. He argued that the NSC’s rules encouraged no such restraint but, in the course of doing so, inadvertently revealed himself to be what we might refer to today as a filthy casual when it became clear that he’d misunderstood the rule and that he didn’t understand the difference between the end of a round and the end of a competition.
After Douglas’ visit to the box it was the defence’s turn to call witnesses. Their roster included a multitude of dignitaries all paying tribute to the sport and to the care with which the NSC conducted their affairs. One Admiral Victor Montague, one Earl of Kingston and one Hugh Lowther (Lord Lonsdale), were all called to the box in succession. Each of them said they had witnessed many contests at the NSC and observed that those contests had been carried out with the upmost care for the contestant’s wellbeing.
The key question in the trial, however, was what had been the cause of death. Was it a blow to the head delivered by Roberts in the 8th round, as the prosecution argued, or was it a blow to the head caused by falling against the ropes or canvas in the 7th round as the defence argued?
William Dodd, the House Surgeon at Charing Cross Hospital, where Smith was taken after the fight, said of the fighter’s injuries:
“There was a clot on the brain that caused his death. A slight laceration on the lower and right side of the brain, which caused the bleeding. The original cause of the bleeding was the rupture of some vessels on the surface of the brain caused by some blow on the head. That might happen from a blow from the fist or a fall on the ropes or on the floor but it must have been a padded object. There was no external mark corresponding with the cause of death.”
Dodd posited that a man will make a natural effort to stop himself when falling and, if he hits his head against something during a fall, that he’ll hit it with more force than he would the floor because he would not expect it. Critically, he made the claim that Smith’s injury would be more consistent with him falling and hitting his head on a rope, in an attempt to avoid a blow, than it would with receiving either a blow to the head from Roberts or a blow to the head from the canvas.
In his closing speech Mr Gill, for the defence, said:
Gentlemen of the Jury, I tell you that this Sport of Boxing as carried on at the National Sporting Club is legitimate. Whether you individually approve of it or not is not the point but if you don’t approve of it or believe in it, don’t interfere with it. Believe me it is in safe hands. I wish to put one final question to you. I ask you this. Because there is an inseparable element of risk in this noble English Art of Boxing is it to be stopped? Is it to be stopped by the judicial interference of well-meaning Busybodies, or by a set of alternative rules more applicable to children at a Dame’s School than to British Manhood holding World Wide Empire?
The Judge, before asking the jury to make their decision, gave the following summing up:
Gentlemen of the Jury, this is undoubtedly a very important case, and one in which it is very desirable you should be able to give your verdict so as to avoid any uncertainty in the future with regard to boxing. If you believe that this contest was carried on with the intention that the parties should fight to a finish then your verdict should be “Guilty”. But if on the other hand you think it was simply a case of boxing or sparring, with rules proper for the purpose of preventing men going on or until exhaustion ensued or injury resulted, then your verdict will be “Not Guilty”. Consider your verdict, please.
When the jury returned, they informed the clerk of the court that they had found the defendants not guilty. The defendants were free men, the sport of boxing was free to continue as a legal activity and the NSC was free to continue hosting contests.
On April 11th 1923, almost 22 years to the day after this fight, Roberts had his last professional fight ending an illustrious 32-year career.
Lord Lonsdale, aside from being a witness at the trial was the NSC’s first president. 8 years after the featherweight contest between Roberts vs. Smith took place, Lord Lonsdale would introduce the eponymously named belt, now the oldest and most prestigious belt in British boxing. The first fighter to ever be awarded the featherweight Lonsdale belt was Jim Driscoll in 1910. Between 1906 and 1908 Driscoll and Roberts would fight three times.
During the 1920’s, boxing attracted mass appeal and boxers could appear at larger venues and expect larger purses than at the NSC. Consequently, in 1928, the NSC decided to open itself up to the public. Shortly after, in 1929, it relocated to a larger premises to accommodate its increased spectatorship. The same year saw a new organisation, the British Boxing Board of Control, formed to control the sport (most of the board of the BBBofC were senior members of the NSC).
The fight between Roberts and Smith and the resulting trial proved to be a remarkable cross-roads in the history of the sport. It was a moment which, had the jury’s decision gone the other way, makes the subsequent popularisation of the sport a certain impossibility and renders the sport, as we know it today, unrecognisable.