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Thomas cribb

Bare fist prize fighter

Buried in St Mary Magdalene Churchyard, Woolwich is the famous bare fist prize fighter Tom Cribb. Cribb is recognised as one of Britain’s great heavyweight champions. He was born in Hanham, Gloucestershire, in July 1781, but left for London when he was 13. He worked as a bell hanger and a bargeman on the Thames before doing a stint in the Royal Navy. Cribb left the Navy in 1804 and won his first public prize fight against George Maddox at Wood Green near Highgate in January 1805. The following month he beat Tom Blake to win 40 guineas, a large purse at that time, but he lost for the first time against George Nicholls later that year. Despite this setback, Cribb became known as a skilful and popular boxer and in 1807 he won the British championship by defeating Jim Blecher in 41 rounds. He repeated the victory over Blecher two years later, this time in 31 rounds, and he was awarded a championship belt.

Cribb’s two most famous fights, in 1810 and 1811, were against the black American Tom Molineaux, a former slave and a formidable fighter, who weighed in at 185lbs. Molineaux, the first American to challenge for the British title, lost the fight after 32 rounds, retiring with exhaustion. The return bout was another victory for Cribb. He broke Molineaux’s jaw, and finished off the American in the 19th round.

On July 19th 1821, George IV was crowned at Westminster Abbey and Cribb was one of the country’s 18 leading boxers chosen by the King to be ushers and pages.

After retiring, Cribb became the landlord of a pub near Piccadilly and spent his old age living with his son and daughter-in-law above a baker’s shop in Woolwich High Street. He died on May 11th 1848, aged 66, and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Woolwich, where a large stone lion monument, paid for by public subscription, was erected in his honour. The  lion with a paw on the urn, is sacred to the memory of Thomas Cribb.  On the urn are the words, 'Respect the ashes of the dead'. The monument is still there today. A fictionalised but fascinating account of Cribb’s great title fights with Molineaux can be found in the book Black Ajax written by George MacDonald Fraser.

Based on an article written by Graham Harvey,

published in the Sunday Times on August 29th 2004