Search the internet for “Victorian boxers”, “British boxers 1800s”, or any of the related phrases comprising 90 per cent of my Googling history, and you will probably – hopefully – come across this photograph:
It is held by the UK National Archives alongside pictures of boxers Toff Wall and Bill Hook (no relation), with all three striking the same pose. Our guy is captioned with the following information:
Ching Hook in fighting attitude. 1888. One of three photographs of boxers registered in April 1888 by East End photographer Harry Carpenter (1860-1906).
Search the internet again for “Ching Hook” and you will be disappointed. The same photograph appears on numerous Flickr and Pinterest accounts, sometimes with a ‘historical hotties’ comment (where’s the lie) or accompanied by an ode to the flattering nature of gents’ high-waisted trousers (See Spandau Ballet in 1982 for further evidence). Ditto with books (Victorian and modern) and academic journal articles. He’s almost nowhere to be found.
So last month I did what any sane person would do while off sick from work with the suitably Victorian malady of bronchitis-so-bad-I-thought-I’d-die: coughed my guts up over a laptop and spent four million hours in the British Newspaper Archives.
And what a story I have for you! It’s got quite a bit of mystery and drama, bear abuse at an aquarium, the accidental death of a teenager in a boxing ring AND a dirty murder.
This post is Part I, split into three chapters, the first on Hook’s name and early boxing career, the second on the death of his friend and fellow Caribbean boxer Alec Munroe, and the third is back to Hook again, covering 1885-7.
I got to 3,000+ words and figured I better break this bad boy up. There will be plenty more to come in Part II.
Mr Ching Hook, this is your life:
Chapter I: Ching Hook is a racist nickname
The first thing I will tell you is that Ching Hook’s name is not Ching Hook.
My first port of call was, naturally, birth, baptism, death, marriage, migration and criminal records, and not only was this guy not called Ching Hook, but no one ever in the history of the world has ever been called Ching Hook.
Then we turned to the fun part, newspapers. And here we find him dozens of times across the 1880s and ’90s, occasionally as Ching Hook, very rarely as Ching Chook, but more often as Ching Ghook. None of these names exist in official records.
Unless there were two black boxers in Shoreditch at the same time, who knew and fought all the same people in the same places, and both had almost exactly the same made up name, it is fairly safe to say that Ghook and Hook are the same man. The ‘G’ may have been dropped accidentally (inconsistencies in names and ages in newspapers and official records are extremely common), or perhaps it was changed deliberately to a boxing-themed wordplay on ‘right hook’ or similar: there are at least three pugilist Hooks, including Ching and Bill, fighting in the East End during this era. Research suggests that the ethnic slur similar in sound and appearance to the surname with a ‘G’ was not in common use during the 1880s but I have reason to query this…
A 1904 historic fights article in the Illustrated Police News starts with a little scene-setting about the East End boxing world of the 1870s and ’80s and continues with a very random and extremely racist anecdote about a rowdy night down the Blue Coat Boy in Spitalfields. I am taking this anecdote as fact but it could, of course, be a blurred recollection more than 20 years on. However, I am yet to find anything further that contradicts (or, indeed, corroborates) it.
Records show there were two pubs name the Blue Coat Boy in the area, one on Norton Folgate and one on Duvall Street, later renamed Dorset Street. The former was demolished in the 1960s, the latter in the 1920s. The Illustrated Police News report refers to the pub run by ‘Punch’ Lewis, and pub history records compiled via the Post Office Directory show a William Lewis and Nathaniel White at Dorset Street in 1882 while the other was run by the Crellin family.
At some point in 1882 we can therefore assume – as Lewis only appears to have briefly run the Blue Coat – the Illustrated Police News writer was at the pub for a night of boxing, when a young black man was pushed forward by some of “the boys” and “asked to give an account of himself”. Being scared and “unable or unwilling” to do so, he supposedly muttered something about the “big ship” but could not or would not tell them his name. So the mob decided to furnish him with one. One sports journalist shouted out that he looked a bit Chinese (“beer being the fluid employed”) and subsequently christened him Ching Ghook.
And, for some reason, it stuck.
Note, however, that Chinese migrant workers – indentured – begun to arrive in Jamaica in 1854 and Hook was born in the late 1860s, making it possible that he was in fact, mixed race.
On Friday 6th January 1888, The Sporting Life published an article advertising Ching’s forthcoming appearance at the Sebright Music Hall – which survives as the Sebright Arms on Coate Street off Hackney Road. It was a cracking week for boxing, particularly if you were Welsh, with John L. Sullivan visiting the UK, fighting Jack Ashton at a packed out Cardiff Philharmonic Hall while Jake Kilrain and Charley Mitchell still allegedly managed to attract a capacity crowd at the same time to the nearby Cardiff Circus.
Hook was set for six nights of exhibition boxing with Sam Baxter “the 9 stone 4lb champion of the world”, both booked by proprietor Mr George E. Belmont as guaranteed crowd pleasers. In an advertorial we get an exciting clue: Baxter would be fighting “Hezekiah Moscow, better known as Ching Ghook.”
Hezekiah Moscow! In a world of Jems, Jacks, Johns, Charlies and Toms, THERE is a name that should be easy to trace. Yet official records show only three entries: an 1890 marriage in Whitechapel, an 1891 census listing, and a school enrolment document for a four-year-old daughter. We will explore all of those when we get to Part II of Hook’s story in the coming weeks.
Again, the newspapers provide. Going back to March 1884, Hezekiah Moscow, aged 24 or 25, a lion tamer and performer with the East London Aquarium, otherwise known as the Shoreditch Aquarium, Bishopsgate, was charged by the RSPCA with “cruelly ill-treating” four bears in his care.
The story made headlines across the UK and while no article mentions that he was also a boxer and also used the pseudonym Ching Ghook, I would say there is approximately a zero per cent chance, given the scarcity of the name in the records, that there were two Hezekiah Moscows around at the same time, in the exact same place, both Caribbean men, and both in their early 20s.
As an aside, that scarcity might also suggest that Hezekiah Moscow was not his ‘real’ name either but it is hard to tell. The 1891 census lists his birthplace as the West Indies and his occupation, enigmatically, as “traveller” but there are no immigration or travel records to be found for a Hezekiah Moscow. He would not have been on voting registers. There is no military, educational, criminal, institutional or organisational sign of him. I won’t spoil the ending of Part II by discussing death records here.
Anyway, back to the bears. Moscow denied the charges of cruelly whipping the animals and keeping them in poor conditions, stating that he did not use excessive force, nor did he strike them with a “crushing blow” with the “butt end” of his whip. A lawyer, Mr Blackwell, defending Moscow, argued that no marks could be found on the bears, and, by the way, Moscow couldn’t have made a bear “howl” in pain because bears actually growl. Great lawyering there.
The case drew the fabulous headline IS A BEAR A DOMESTIC ANIMAL? in the Tavistock Gazette, when the judge ruled in Moscow’s favour. He threw out the charge of “neglect of a domestic animal” because, to answer the question above, no. A bear is not a domestic animal even if it is confined to a small space. The judge did find it very hard to decide, however, and said he might have a think about this issue again sometime soon because he recognised that wild animals in captivity were worthy of protection, he just didn’t know if Parliament had given it to them yet.
Days later, aquarium proprietor Edward G. Sim wrote to the Editor of the Hackney Express and Shoreditch Observer in Moscow’s defence, noting that the RSPCA inspector, an Officer Utting, was now himself subject to a summons for perjury for fabricating evidence against Moscow and the aquarium. Sim not only had multiple witnesses to back up his charge that Utting was talking crap, he also states that Moscow’s whip was lightweight and “could not hurt a dog, much less a bear”.
It is, Sim argues, “always unpleasant to be aspersed, especially when calumnies cannot be refuted without delay, and when opponents and critics alike are dead to all ordinary sense of justice” before criticising the media for their garbled reports and unquestioned support for Utting’s testimony.
In other words: Fake news!
With Utting now hauled up in front of the judge, four witnesses who had either attended Moscow’s allegedly-abusive performance, or just knew their stuff regarding bears, came to his defence, with a naturalist named Joseph Abrahams declaring that yes, sure, one of the bears had lost quite a lot of its fur but bald bears are totally normal and nothing to worry about. Also, why would Moscow be really mean to a bear, when it would only encourage them to attack him? Utting was backed up by a vet. Unfortunately, I cannot find a record of the verdict but a few weeks later Utting was still working for the RSPCA and pursuing a pig cruelty case against someone else, so I’m assuming he was let off.
Moscow was living at Pope Head Court at the time, according to one newspaper report. The development was just off Quaker Street in Spitalfields, and you can see it marked on this sketch by Charles Booth in 1889. Booth’s judgements mark the area out as “disreputable”. He notes: “Pope’s Head Court, lately done up and repaired, and a new class in them since the repairs, poor not rough” indicating that Moscow may not have been living in the best of conditions five years earlier.
In his other life as the boxer Ching Hook or Ghook, Moscow started appearing regularly in the sports newspapers from May 1882. His first appearance is at The Metropolitan off Kingsland Road, in the final heat of a nine stone competition with G. Satchell and Beaky Smith. A few months later, he was back at the Blue Coat Boy. With The Sporting Life now referring to him as “the Sable Chinaman” he was one of six lads selected to fight for a prize cup and “sparred a very amusing bye” with Obe Attenbury. He reached the final but was beaten by R.Baxter a few weeks later.
By November 1882, having won half a dozen competitions, Hook took his first benefit at W. Maydon’s establishment, the Old Mile End Gate on Whitechapel Road. The Sporting Life were pleased to report that his “brother pugs” (pugilists) mustered in force but unfortunately the audience turn-out was too low for the night to be a success thanks to three other similar events taking place at the same time. Poor Hook’s fundraiser was postponed, although he did fight the following week at a benefit for George Steadman (not, I think, the well known heavyweight wrestler, but an East End boxer of the same name) to support Steadman’s recovery from a broken leg.
By then referred to as a professional boxer, Hook’s bouts continued across 1883 and included regular exhibitions at the Goldsmiths Arms at 17 Little Sutton Street in Clerkenwell. He also helped open the 400-capacity saloon at the George IV in Walworth, which is now a load of new-build flats and a chicken shop.
In January 1884 the East London Observer’s columnist, ‘Wanderer’, published a glorious two-column sketch about the world of East End boxing clubs titled ‘Odd Hours in Odd Places’. It begins:
ODD HOURS IN ODD PLACES
No.1 Among the “Bruisers”
Bruising – otherwise, prize-fighting – has very much deteriorated in late years, so, at least, the proprietor of a well-known East End resort told me the other evening. He could recall the time when his room was crowded with professionals who had attained more of less celebrity in the ‘ring’ – men whom the proudest of our proud aristocracy had not disdained to invite to their costly dinners, and men, with the honour of whose acquaintance it was a sporting man’s most cherished ambition to post. But the ‘good old times’ when prize-fighting flourished almost-unchecked had, he added, like everything else, gone, and left only the memory behind.
But one or two noted men did still frequent those rooms. The proprietor entertained the Wanderer for the night, starting with an anecdote about a recent boxing match in a church (“Well you never heard so much swearing in all your born days. From swearing it came to blows, lemonade and beer bottles were thrown about all over the place, and there were just a few blackened heads and eyes that came out of that chapel afterward, I can tell you”) while name-dropping famous faces past and present, “Ching Hook, the black champion” and the delightfully named Sugar Goodson and Tarty Pats among them.
In January 1885, The Referee newspaper was present for a night of boxing at “Richardson’s old house near Shoreditch” (The Blue Anchor, headquarters of the Professional Boxing Association), noting the enormous number of extremely wealthy men present among the 300-strong audience. Funded by the London Stock Exchange, there were no “general public or rowdy fringe” present to watch eight selected men, including Hook, fight, but three or four gents present “were worth over £250,000 each”. The 9-stone-ish Hook was billed against an A. Roberts and won on the judge’s call, despite a significant weight disadvantage against his 10 stone 4lb opponent. Also fighting on the night was Bill Cheese, a man Hook went on to spar with on a regular basis. The Referee wittily declared:
Ching lost to Cheese in February, then Cheese to Ching, but by March 1885 Hook found himself in hospital for “severe illness”. What exactly it was, I’m not sure. Discharged at the end of the month, by early May the boys had rallied round and were supporting him with a benefit at the Anchor, with a wind-up between Hook and Harry Mead. Later in the month Hook entertained the crowd gathered at the Wheatsheaf in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in a very different way: with his accomplished singing skills.
Chapter II: The Tragic Death of Alec Munroe
The name Alec or Alick Munro, Monroe or Munroe appears beside Hook’s at almost every boxing match across the early 1880s. A fellow West Indian (most likely from Kingstown, capital of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, or Kingston, Jamaica) and Hook’s trainer and sparring partner, he was, according to one newspaper, “eccentric” and said by another to have been involved in exhibiting bears, and previously accused in court of cruelty toward them. Mistaken identity from the newspapers between the two boxers, perhaps? I’m not sure what else to make of this.
In 1885 Munroe was involved in a brawl at a Whitechapel “doss house” and The Penny Illustrated Paper of 12 September 1885 reported that the boxer, “known in almost every saloon in the metropolis” had died from injuries after being stabbed on Great Pearl Street, Spitalfields. His friends Knifton and Goode appealed to the Professional Boxing Association to ensure Munroe got the send-off he deserved. Ching Hook and Mr Stokes of the Gun and Tent pub in Shoreditch later called at The Sporting Life offices to declare their intention to have a monumental head and foot stone placed over Munroe’s grave.
Thomas M’Carthy, 17, was initially charged with Munroe’s murder at Worship Street Police Court on Tuesday 8 September. Munroe had allegedly been drunk and verbally abusive to some men gathered in the kitchen of a lodging house, “Tommy” among them. It was later reported that Munroe had stumbled in and declared “you Englishmen are dirty dogs.”
After a knife was plunged into his stomach, Munroe went upstairs, got into bed, and fell asleep, waking only when the blood pouring from his wound covered the bed and floor left him so weak he fell off it. Stumbling downstairs, Munroe half-walked, and was-half dragged by two men, half a mile to the London Hospital where he died a couple of days later.
No one at the hospital engaged the authorities to take a statement from the dying man about who might have stabbed him and why.
On Wednesday 9 September, a labourer named Thomas Hewington, 26, was brought in by police and charged with manslaughter, with the police admitting they had originally arrested the wrong “Tommy”. With great remorse and apologies, Hewington told detectives that when Munroe entered the kitchen drunk and called the men gathered there bad names, Hewington lost his temper and used the knife he had been using to cut tobacco to strike Munroe. He felt so awful about it that he even went to visit Munroe in hospital before he expired.
Hewington told the Old Bailey that he was on the best of terms with the victim, and the stabbing was an accident. He had been cutting tobacco, stood up, and the drunk Munroe tumbled against the knife. He was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter and released, dying 15 years later in the same hospital as Munroe.
Alexander Hayes Munroe arrived in England in about 1870. He was buried in Ilford Cemetery on Sunday 13 September 1885, aged 36.
In an event that somehow seems to sum up the strange and tragic world of our Victorian pugilists, Some 20,000 people reportedly lined Bethnal Green Road to say goodbye to a man stabbed to death in a grotty den of thieves.
Chapter III: Back to Ching Hook
Two days after Munroe’s burial, Hook stepped into the ring at the Blue Anchor, Shoreditch (now demolished, but it would have been roughly opposite today’s Box Park) and was met with a “tumultuous” round of applause from the gathered men in honour of his friend. In the intense heat of the packed house he began his match slowly and cautiously at first, allowing his opponent to get in several shots to the face without responding.
Gradually warming up, he made more than ample amends in the next round. Before leaving the ring, an emotional Hook paused and gave a “characteristic speech”, thanking his friends for their sympathy, and assuring them he had carried out Munroe’s funeral arrangements to the best of his ability.
The Referee was down in Brighton in November ‘85, and so was Hook, opening a show to a rowdy audience against a one-eyed lad by the name of Dunbar. “Not as spry as he used to be,” concluded the newspaper of Hook, but “the cyclopean one did much better than expected”. Six months later, and a benefit in Hook’s honour was held in Nottingham, with the Nottingham Evening Post suggesting that Hook had been resident there for some time, acting as a boxing instructor in the area. But he was back in Shoreditch by June, returned to the Blue Coat Boy as one of the best black boxers “seen in the metropolis for many years”, according to The Sporting Life.
In August 1886 East London lost one of its most dedicated patrons of the boxing art, when Bill Richardson of the Blue Anchor died at the age of 63. Watched by many thousands of spectators, Richardson was interred at Abney Park, Stoke Newington. His coffin driven on a four-horse carriage, an endless string of vehicles had followed carrying almost every boxer left alive, it seems, Hook among them. Book binder William Newton, 32, and two teenagers from Mile End and Bethnal Green were arrested for picking the pockets of those in attendance.
Our pal Jack Wannop made one of many appearances with Hook on the same bill at The Oriental Hotel, Blackfriars, in December 1886, their boxing and wrestling exhibitions opening a grand assault-at-arms attended by multiple celebrities. By April ’87 at a “gay and festive” event for the Honourable Artillery Company, Hook found a new niche novelty for himself in ‘black v white’ matches with painted gloves – the black boxer using polish to darken his gloves, the white boxer (one-eyed Bob Dunbar, Welsh champion) covering his in chalk. “Whether their painting would pass the hanging committee for the next Royal Academy is another question,” concluded The Sporting Life. Indeed.
Hook and Dunbar – who lost one of his eyes after an accident with a gun – formed something of a double act for the next few months, and in May 1887, Wannop et al gathered to hold a benefit in both boxers’ honour at the Blue Anchor, which was now in the care of a Mr Symonds. Hook later repeated the paint stunt with Bill Cheese to “roars of laughter” in “the best comic bout” the East London Advertiser had ever seen, then again with Ted Burchell in a skit which became known as The Miller and The Sweep.
Hook was among boxers at St James’s Hall, Piccadilly opening the programme for Jake Kilrain on Kilrain’s English tour in October 1887, and appeared again at the venue one month later when John L. Sullivan made his first appearance on our fine island. The night opened with singing and banjo performances and several rounds of high class boxing from, among others, Hook Vs Ted Burchell, with Sullivan winding up against fellow American Jack Ashton with four short and heavy rounds.
<<READ PART II>>