Tom Cribb was born on a hot summer’s day on 8 July 1781 in the township of Hanham situated about five miles from Bristol. Whether Hanham belonged to Gloucestershire or Somersetshire was in dispute and may have been one reason why Cribb eventually chose a life of contention and became England’s first uncontested champion of bare-knuckle boxing.
When Cribb was 13, he moved to London, and under the tutelage of a relative he worked as a bell-hanger. However, he found the job boring and restrictive, “not exactly meeting his ideas, and being a strong athletic youth, he preferred an out-door calling.” This led him to the wharves in Wapping where twice he was nearly deprived of his life, as indicated by the following events:
“[The first time] in stepping from one coal barge to another, he fell between them, and got jammed in a dreadful manner; and … [the second time he was] carrying a heavy package of oranges, weighing nearly 500 lbs … He slipped down upon his back, and the load fell upon his chest, which occasioned him to spit blood for several days afterwards.”
Fortunately, Cribb was a strong youth and soon recovered.
Cribb’s first public battle was held near Highgate on 7 January 1805 when he was 23 years old. Cribb, who was known within his fight circle as “the Black Diamond,” stood two inches taller, at five feet ten inches, and was younger than his opponent, George Maddox. In fact, Maddox was more than double Cribb’s age, and, yet, despite that, Maddox was favored to win. “Maddox’s second was Tom Jones, and Black Sam sympathetically seconded the Black Diamond.”
The fight began promptly at noon. According to one source:
“[T]he first Round consisted more of sparring than fighting, the Diamond struck first, but no damage was done. The fourth Round was well contested, in which Maddox had considerably the advantage, and finished it with closing his antagonists right eye.”
Nothing else of consequence happened until the thirtieth round, Maddox realizing he could not beat Cribb because of fatigue. Maddox then employed “every effort to deprive him of his other eye, which he severely hurt in the fortieth Round.” The pugilist fought hard during the next 12 rounds and in round 53 it was reported that Maddox hit Cribb “a severe blow a little below his left eye, which nearly deprived him of his sight altogether.” But Cribb would not quit and the fight continued.
Things changed in the sixtieth round when Maddox lost ground and some of Maddox’s “colleagues … led him off, declaring it to be a drawn battle.” Cribb and Cribb’s people thought otherwise, and Cribb demanded the purse:
“[B]eing refused, a general engagement instantly ensued in which Caleb Baldwin, Tom Jones, Black Sam, Dutch Sam, and several other gemmen of the first, took a very active share, and in which some one treacherously cut the Black Diamond on the head with a stick.”
When order was restored, Cribb demanded Maddox return or forfeit the purse, and, so another 16 rounds ensued, making the fight 76 rounds and lasting a total of 2 hours and 12 minutes.
“The last sixteen rounds the old man fought hard; and … [there was] some slight hopes … of his winning; but the strength and vigour of youth prevailed.”
Black Diamond won. The total purse was 25 guineas, with 20 guineas for winner and 5 for the loser. A newspaper summed up the event stating:
“The Black Diamond having only just entered the list, has yet but few friends in it; in consequence of which he experienced much unfair play; he is an excellent sparer, but fights rather round.”
Cribb went on to experience other victories. A month later at Blackheath he won again against Tom Blake (Tom Tough), which spurred Cribb to become a professional pugilist, and he began fighting under the supervision of Captain Robert Barclay. More victories followed. Eventually, Cribb beat Jem Belcher (Champion of All England 1800-1805). The fight occurred in 1807, and it was a fight that Belcher lost and maintained “was the result of an accident to his wrist.”
Belcher wanted a chance to get even and challenged Cribb again. On 1 February 1809, the last ten rounds between Belcher and Cribb occurred. It was reported as being
“piteous to see. [Belcher was] … contending against nature … Cribb, slow and sure, never threw away a chance. Belcher’s knuckles of his right hand … swelled immensely, and his right forearm [was] covered with bruises from stopping Cribb’s left hand … [Belcher] was unable to make but very few hits … and after a contest of half an hour nature deserted him … [and] at the urgent request of his backers and friends, Belcher gave in, never again to enter the field of honor.”
Another challenge arrived in 1810. Cribb was to fight Tom Molineaux, a former American slave who had suddenly rose to prominence and was considered a formidable opponent. Two hundred guineas were posted on behalf of Molineaux. “[A] further purse of 100 guineas was subscribed by patrons of the ring to be presented personally to the conqueror after the combat.” The fight greatly excited the public and one person wrote that
“[Englishmen are] alarmed at the bare idea that a black man and a foreigner should seize the championship of England, and [that he might] decorate his sable brow with the hard earned laurels of Cribb.” Cribb thought Molineaux “a beginner” and claimed the fight “child’s play.”
The day of the fight the rain poured down. It did not stop a huge crowd of spectators from attending, as described:
“[Spectators] waded thougha [sic] clayey [sic] road, nearly knee-deep for five miles, with alacrity and cheerfulness … so great was the curiosity and interest manifested upon this battle.”
In the thirty-third round an exhausted Molineaux fell on his own with a blow from Cribb. This collapse was noted by Cribb’s party who stated, “a squabble would have ensued, had not Molineaux exclaimed, ‘I can fight no more.'” Cribb’s battle to become World Champion had lasted 55 minutes.
Molineaux and Cribb met again in 1811 at Thistleton Gap in Rutland. Cribb retained his title beating Molineaux in 11 quick rounds. One summation of the fight stated that after a nineteen minute battle
“Molineaux was carried out of the ring senseless and speechless, and the victor Cribb, who was a little hurt, was received by his honourable friends and patrons like a Nelson returning from a naval victory.”
At the age of 31, Cribb retired from boxing, but he continued to work part-time as a boxing trainer. A myth existed after his retirement that he was unbeaten, but it was untrue as Cribb suffered a defeated by George Nicholls on 20 July 1805. After Cribb retired, he also worked as a publican running the Union Arms located on Panton Street close to Haymarket in London.
In 1839, Cribb moved to Woolwich in south-east London where he worked as baker. During the last few years of his life his health declined. In 1848, just shy of his 67 birthday, he died. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s and St. Andrew’s in Woolwich, and his grave was “surmounted by a ferocious looking stone lion, as emblematic of the courage of Tom and at the same time as an emblem of British pluck.”
- “Boxing,” in Staffordshire Advertiser, 12 January 1805
- Burke, Edmund, The Annual Register of World Events, Vol. 53, 1812
- Collins, Charles H., From Highland Hills to an Emperor’s Tomb, 1886
- Egan, Pierce, Boxiana: From the Days of the Renowned Broughton and Slack, to the Championship of Cribb, 1823
- Miles, Henry Downes, Pugilistica, 1906