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.
The same year that Eliza de Feuillide‘s husband was guillotined in 1794 was the same year that 13-year-old Tom Cribb moved to London. Under the tutelage of a relative Cribb worked as a bell-hanger. However, he found the job boring and restrictive, “not exactly 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 the Staffordshire Advertiser:
“[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 40th 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. The Staffordshire Advertiser 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.”
Tom 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 Tom Cribb again. On 1 February 1809, the last ten rounds between Belcher and Cribb occurred. Of the fight it was claimed:
It was piteous to see this once renowned and brave champion [Belcher] 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. Tom 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, who stood 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall. “[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:
“[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.”
Betting was extremely heavy and “odds were laid that Molineaux would be defeated in fifteen minutes, and it was considered the excess of fool-hardiness in any one who better that he would stand more than half-an-hour.” The day of the fight the rain poured down, but 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 Tom 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. After the battle, Molineaux wanted another chance and reportedly sent the following letter to Cribb at Leicester Square dated 21 December 1810:
“My friend think that had the weather on last Tuesday, the day upon which I contended with you, not been so unfavourable, I should have won the battle; I therefore challenge you to a second meeting, at any time within two months, for such a sum as those gentlemen who place confidence in me, may be pleased to arrange.
As it is possible that this letter may meet the public eye, I cannot omit the opportunity expressing a confident hope that the circumstance of being of a different colour to that of the people amongst whom I have protection will not in any way operate my prejudice.”
Molineaux and Cribb met again in 1811 at Thistleton Gap in Rutland. There a 25-foot stage was erected. Several thousand collected with supposedly one-fourth of those in the crowd being nobility and gentry from the surrounding countryside. Moreover, it was reported that “not a bed could had within twenty miles of the seat of action on Friday night.” The fight resulted in Cribb retaining his title and beating Molineaux in 11 quick rounds. One summation of the fight stated that after a nineteen-minute bruising 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 67th birthday, he died. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s and St. Andrew’s in Woolwich. A visitor to the site reported:
“His grave is 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.”
*Controversy over the fight eventually resulted in various claims as to who was the true winner. An article in the Journal of Sport History written in 1982 by Carl B. Cone (a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, Kentucky) examines five eye-witness accounts by ringside reporters (Bell’s Weekly Messenger, The Salisbury and Winchester Journal, The London Times, The Sporting Magazine, and Pierce Egan’s Boxiana) to determine the truth. Cone states:
“Boxing literature presents two contrasting judgements of the fight. With the exceptions of one book in support of each judgement and each citing one piece of contemporary evidence neither judgement is shown to rest upon first hand evidence; both consist merely of unsubstantiated assertions sometimes referring to other secondary works. One judgement holds that during the fight nothing untoward occurred of sufficient impact upon the outcome to deny Cribb the victory. The other holds that certain occurrences unfairly deprived Molineaux of a victory properly belonging to him. … The summaries of the eyewitness accounts … indicate that while they disagreed with one another in some details, they do not support an allegation that Molineaux was cheated of victory. So far as we know from contemporary accounts he never asserted that he was cheated. If crowd preference is unfairness then both xenophobia and color preference operated in favor of Cribb. Molineaux and Cribb fought under the handicap of bad weather. Perhaps Cribb was a better mudder, as some horses are, but that was not unfairness imposed by human beings. Rather, nature was unkind to Molineaux. If Cribb had the advantages of patronage that his opponent had not yet won for himself, then that was unfortunate for Molineaux but can hardly be called unfair treatment. Molineaux had been in England only a year, fought only twice previously, and was not yet in a situation to attract patrons. Read in the light of subsequent loose talk about the fight, the eye witness accounts can be strained to suggest the occurrence of unusual incidents. Unless exaggerated in the telling, none were of such significance that ringside reporters thought they affected the outcome of the fight or cheated Molineaux of victory. My judgement is that Molineaux fought under unavoidable disadvantages but he ‘wuz not robbed’ and by a narrow margin Cribb properly retained his championship.”
-  Egan, Pierce, Boxiana: From the Days of the Renowned Broughton and Slack, to the Championship of Cribb, 1823, p. 388.
-  Ibid.
-  Pancratia, or the History of Pugilism, 1812, p. 217.
-  “Boxing,” in Staffordshire Advertiser, 12 January 1805, p. 2.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Pancratia, or the History of Pugilism, p. 251.
-  Ibid. p. 252.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid. p. 253.
-  Miles, Henry Downes, Puglisitica, 1906, p. 253.
-  Egan, Pierce, p. 402.
-  Pancratia, or the History of Pugilism, p. 350.
-  Annual Register, Volume 53, 1825, p. 110.
-  Egan, Pierce, p. 374.
-  Annual Register, p. 111.
-  Collins, Charles H., From Highland Hills to an Emperor’s Tomb, 1886, p. 278.
-  “Notes, Documents and Queries – The Molineaux-Cribb Fight, 1810: Wuz Tom Molineaux Robbed?” in Journal of Sport History, Vol 9, No. 3 (Winter, 1982), p. 83, 90.