The Short Life and Long Death of Jem Haines (Part I)

From Tuesday 30th July to Thursday 1st August 1889 a Grand Assault-at-Arms was held at the Corn Exchange in Chichester, with boxing, wrestling, Indian clubs and fencing on the bill. An advert in the Chichester Observer encouraged ladies to show up, and admission was charged at between two and 10 shillings depending on your spot. Under the management of Professor Bill Natty and W. Blackman, the event showcased an array of London’s finest pugilistic talent in every weight category.

What made this display at the not-insignificant, gleaming white, Greek revivalist style, building (pictured below) rather unique is the appearance of two black heavyweights in the ‘main event’. This was a time when the black population of Britain, certainly outside London, was relatively small and London’s circle of pugilists weighing 12-and-a-half stone upward still rather tiny. The superstar ‘Black Prince’ Peter Jackson was yet to make his presence felt on these shores.

Jem Haines, who was advertised as the black ‘champion’, and Jack Davenport (advertised as just a black boxer), I suggest, were kind of a big deal.

It’s an unscientific experiment, but Google ‘black British Victorian boxers’ or words to that effect and you will find pictures and articles about Jackson (an Australian of West Indian origin who only fought in Britain for two months at the end of 1889), Tom Molineaux (not a Victorian, he died in 1818), Bill Richmond (also not a Victorian, he died in 1829) and Jack Johnson (an American, who debuted in 1898 but didn’t visit Britain until 1911). A 2019 blog about Bob Travers on the British Library’s website names a few other black fighters based in 19th century Britain but adds: “we sometimes know little more than a name or a nickname.”

That sentence has been bugging me for two years. You can read my six lengthy blogs about Jack Davenport, Ching Hook and Alec Munroe here. And just to warn you, what follows on Jem Haines runs to over 5,500 words across two posts. Chapters I and II can be found below. Chapter III and IV can be read here.

It did take months and months, and three of us, to research and piece together the story of Mr Haines – he was a tough one to crack.

This article has been written with the help of the enormously talented Jess Carter (creator of my favourite cold case murder podcast series, The Outlines Podcast), who located numerous previously unfound newspaper reports about the most troublesome aspects of Jem’s life. My unofficial official research assistant Dr Ben Swift has also been extraordinarily helpful in, among other things, finding the documents required to understand Jem’s final months and interpreting the doctors’ handwriting.

A content warning – this story (specifically Chapter III) includes mentions of male-on-female violence.

Chapter I

Jem Haines was in his early 20s, stood 5ft 9, and weighed around 12 stone 8lbs (176lbs) in January 1889 when he met Mike Moore at Lambeth. It has been difficult to find anything of him before this date – no newspaper mentions, and no birth, immigration, census or marriage records. A report in the Sporting Life the same year says that he had lived in Britain for around eight years, had been boxing for a year, and that he was born on the 1st March 1865 in Flemington, South Carolina.

Being named variously Jim Haines, Jem Haines, James Haynes and James Haines depending on the newspaper and subject of the report, adds to the problem. I do know that he was not Jem Hayes, who is a different boxer around at the same time, and also not the landlord Jim Haynes who had a boxing gym at a pub called the Spread Eagle. That Haynes was still running watering holes years after our one’s death. There was a boxer named Jack Haines around at the same time as Jem Haines who is not Jem Haines, except that in a few news clippings Jem Haines is called Jack Haines, and both men died in different months in the same year. Sports papers’ habit of crediting white fighters with their home borough or town and black fighters simply as ‘black’ doesn’t help.

One later article suggest Haines might have been in Bristol before a move to London around 1888, when he joined up with Alf Ball’s boxing booth at the fairground in Deptford and turned out to be an “apt pupil”. At 21, Moore was the younger but better known man at the Lambeth School of Arms and had scored recent success in numerous south and central London contests and catch-weight tournaments. He weighed in at 12 stone at 5ft 7 and a half, and according to the Sporting Life was “carrying more flesh than was any good to him.”

The 23-year-old Haines received no real introduction in the Life’s coverage beyond his height and weight, and the fact he was a man of colour. Deptford’s Alf Ball, who had been training with Haines in recent weeks, was in his corner. Early crowd speculation saw Moore come out the favourite but within seconds of the first round, many who were quick to back him were reconsidering in silence, as a powerful Haines forced his opponent across the ring. A vicious blow from Moore was followed by a head-butt from Haines, prompting cries of “foul!” from Moore. They were ordered to box on. The same “rapid and scrambling” style of fighting began the second round, and while Haines had the best of exchanges in the first minute, seconds later he was knocked clean through the ropes by Moore and slumped to the floor, out for the count. “Amidst the frantic shouts of friends” Moore was declared the winner.

According to his BoxRec page, Haines’ professional boxing debut came at the end of March 1889 against Elijah Ball, Mike Moore and Jack Wellend in a catch-weight competition of three round matches at the home of ‘the fastest set in London’ – the Pelican Club in Soho. A £12 prize was up for grabs. Davenport also entered, alongside a Jack Partridge, Pinfold and Stewart.

Described by The Sportsman as a “well proportioned and muscular man and a determined fighter”, Haines scored an easy win over Ball in the first bout, while Davenport was narrowly defeated by Partridge in a three round fight so close to call the judges insisted on a fourth. Partridge lost his next match while Haines got his revenge for the January knock-out and “established the right to be in the final without much difficulty” against Moore.

Poor Moore was observed to be out of condition and also bothered quite significantly by the fact his drawers kept falling down. He was permitted a 30 second rest in the first round to put things in order. The Sportsman’s reports are certainly detailed!

With Haines proving both “too clever and too powerful” Wellend’s night was over in just one round of one minute 20 seconds. A couple of days later, Haines, hearing that Partridge was dissatisfied with his performance for the Pelicans, placed a notice in the Sporting Life offering him a match in any style, but old (bareknuckle) preferred. In the Sportsman’s Pelican event coverage, Wellend was described as a neophyte, or amateur, while Haines was not, indicating perhaps that his boxing career was already established in or out of London at this time. Language used in subsequent reports also supports this – by June 1889 Haines was already being described as the champion black boxer of England.

Three nights of boxing at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, followed from the 24th to the 27th June 1889, with Haines losing to Ted Burchill then taking a win over Jem Stewart and another win by knocking out Davenport. A phenomenal streak of success followed between June and November. After Haines beat Charlie Bartlett (another black light-heavyweight) and Alf Bowman in Bowman’s debut, both matches being at Her Majesty’s Theatre Haymarket, he worked his way through Arthur Cooper, Harry Nickless and Jack Welland at the Pelican Club. He sparred with Harry Nickless at the Malt Exchange School of Arms, Borough, in May and J. Townsend at the Market House, Chapel Street, Islington, in July.

In June, Haines had posted in the Sporting Life that he was open to box any black man in the world over 11 stone 9lb for £100 upwards, “nobody barred”. Riding high, by August he was supposedly declaring himself the leading glove boxer of England. A challenge was posted in the Sporting Life by Davenport or his backer, stating that “a gentleman” would put up a purse if Haines would make a match with Davenport in any style he liked. This was, most likely, what resulted in the event at Chichester.

On the 5th November Jem Haines was chosen as Frank ‘Paddy’ Slavin’s opponent at the Royal Aquarium. The 6ft 1 Slavin (pictured left punching Jem Smith in Bruges, image from Famous Fights in 1901) was on tour in England and booked at the Aquarium in a show of form for the audience, which was “not so large as it has been on most nights during his engagement, the boxing was none the less exciting”. With Bill Watson from Covent Garden and Harry Nickless in his corner, Haines – who was now credited as from Lambeth – was judged “a well made young fellow with excellent shoulders” but “he suffered in comparison to the Australian who stood right over him in height.”

Haines was the first to let off, getting two hard blows to Slavin’s face with his right. Suffering from his shorter reach, he repeatedly missing Slavin with his left. “The company were fairly aroused during the last round” as Haines countered Slavin heavily, before Slavin took a few drives on Haines’ ribs which made him “blow freely before the conclusion”. The audience applauded with enthusiasm. A year later, Slavin went on to be declared world heavyweight champion by the National Police Gazette newspaper in response to the established champion John L. Sullivan’s reluctance to put his title on the line in a fair fight.

On the 28th November 1889 the Sporting Life advertised that “Jem Haines’s colours [the patterned waist tie, used to hold up the trousers, unless you’re Mike Moore!] will be on view at Mr Dennison’s, the Crown, New Cut, Lambeth, to-day (Thursday).”

November 30th’s boxing listings for the Cromwell Hill Baths on Putney Bridge Road had Haines matched with Harry Nickless, although this may have been a double booking as he had originally been set to meet Alf Bowman at the Agricultural Hall for a £70 purse that week (some reports suggesting the 27th November, some the 30th). Peter Jackson was headlining the Hall, sparring with different men each night, while Jack Wannop was also matched with Jack Fallon for a £325 prize on the Tuesday night. And if the “Greatest Show of Boxing Ever Witnessed” wasn’t enough to draw in a crowd, an advert in the Sporting Life noted the presence of military band and floral decorations too.

“Owing to the action of the police” the Bowman-Haines match was abandoned, then rescheduled for the Goodwin Gymnasium on Kingsland Road (“capable of seating 600 people”) on the 31st.

The newly-fitted out club on the crossroads near Shoreditch Church was almost at capacity for the fight, with hundreds of men packed onto raked seating along each side of the 60-foot room. Bowman stepped into the 14 by 12-foot ring with a “strengthening plaster around his loins”. After a first round of “bustling character” and a second which saw Haines pushing Bowman all over the ring, Bowman soon equalised matters. Despite more than holding his own in the final two, the judges opted for Bowman on points. It was a rare loss for Haines, but he still pocketed £20 for his troubles.

Both men ended the year as specially-engaged Christmas attractions at the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, alongside a new pantomime, a nautical sketch called The Doomed Ship, a large cast of singers and brand new scenery and special effects. Haines, who stood two inches shorter than Bowman but half a stone heavier, was for some reason or another advertised as the black “champion middleweight” with Bowman the “ex amateur champion heavyweight”. Time ticked over into a new decade, and life for Jem Haines ticked along just fine for a while.

Chapter II

I have come to understand that large gaps in BoxRec records tend to mean one of four things in the 1880s and ’90s: the contemporary compiler of the online database just missed a bit; the boxer was distracted with other things and might have sparred or exhibited or toured music halls but did not engage in any professional fights; the boxer was hospitalised; or the boxer was in prison.

After an incredibly productive 1889, Haines’ official record suggests he disappeared for almost a year and a half between his match with Bowman and the 31st March 1891 when he returned to form and “fought with furious intent” for a win over ‘Baby’ Jack Partridge at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Westminster. Looking like he wanted to “annihilate” Partridge, the latter “kept a respectful distance” only to face a barrage of “remarkable hard hitting” in the second round which sent him to the floor. Jack had quite enough and quit.

A dig through the newspapers shows that while he had no ‘professional’ fights, Haines was still extremely active in London in early 1890. After several weeks at the Canterbury with Bowman (the pair attracting “exceeding applause”, according to a review in the Era) he had an exhibition match with Ted Burchill of Shoreditch at the Blue Anchor, and in March 1891 was at the Carlisle Hall, Marylebone, engaged in “a most amusing spar” with a Charlie Burgin at a benefit for Jim Fox. Haines was also named among audience members at a match in Borough between Tom Tully, a lightweight black champion, and George ‘Swager’ Spencer.

On March 18th Haines posted notice in the Sporting Life that he had deposited £10 for Josh Cosnett to cover and make a match. He then rather randomly decided to pop over to France and work a boxing booth at an outer-Paris gingerbread fair.

And while he was there he tried to convince a reporter that he was the official champion heavyweight boxer of England.

Buried in The Sportsman’s ‘French Sporting Notes from our correspondent in Paris’ on the 16th April 1890 (a lengthy column written in such a bizarre style I cannot make head nor tail of most of it), is the following paragraph:

“The Gingerbread Fair is being described ad nauseum in the daily papers, but many of the ‘Pugs’ in London and especially that rare game ‘un Charlie Mitchell, will be surprised to hear that Jem Haines has been interviewed as ‘Champion of England’ by a French journalist. The latter gentleman, who ‘speaks the language of King Macbeth’, details his interview with Jim Haines, who explains his presence in this gay and festive village by saying that in three weeks’ time he has to meet George Kosney [possibly Josh Cosnett?], of London, to fight him for Lord H——-, who has wagered £500 on him. He has come to Paris so as to modify his tactics and prevent his opponent learning his style. The interview was of the most cordial description.

Jim Haines told the journalist he had taken part in eight competitions, and that he had been the first out of seventy boxers, earning thereby the title of Champion of England. He said Bowman was the lad who beat him in 1888 [sic], and he was willing to give anyone £20 who would take his number down. After this the handicap will require readjusting.”

During Haines’ absence, Josh Cosnett was whipped by Jack Wannop and as a result, backed out of fighting Haines. So Haines posted a challenge to Wannop instead, writing in the Sporting Life on the 17th May 1890 that he wanted to go fifteen rounds or to a finish, under Queensbury Rules, for either £50 or £100 a side. Wannop immediately took him up and agreed to the terms but upped the ante by suggesting £100 or £200 a side. With his backer Dais Patte, Wannop made arrangements to visit the Sporting Life offices and deposit his cash, and hoped that Haines would show up too, “business only meant”.

A note from Haines to a man named Mr Ball posted in the Life the same week gives us an idea of his whereabouts – he was lodging at 141 Waterloo Road, London in Lambeth. For reasons unconfirmed, the match with Wannop did not go ahead, although the two went on to meet the following year. At the end of July, a well-attended complimentary benefit was held for Haines at the Lambeth School of Arms, but there is no indication in the Life’s report as to whether it was purely an honorary event or a fundraiser for any trouble, medical or otherwise, he may have been in.

In September 1890 Haines was surprised to receive a challenge from Felix Scott, a black boxer from Liverpool, who wished to fight him at 10 stone 4lbs. Writing in the Sporting Life, Haines said that Scott knew full well that Haines fought at catch weight and at present weighed 13 stone, but if Scott fancied a fight he had a much smaller lad who could match him. Perhaps there was some element of confusion on Scott’s, or the newspaper that printed his challenge’s part – three years prior Scott had fought the welterweight Jim Hayes, who would have scaled a bit over 10 stone.

With a £100 prize “fluttering about” at the Aquarium for anyone who could out-weightlift professional weightlifters Cyclops and Vulcan on the evening of Saturday 25th October, Haines threw his hat into the ring.

The touring strongmen had been due to meet the American Apollo, but he had sent a telegram saying he was laid up with rheumatism, and the audience were much disgruntled. “As most of our readers know, Jem is a black pugilist, and though he could give Cyclops or Vulcan a long start with the gloves or knuckles, he proved no match for them at weightlifting,” reported the Sporting Life. He had a go though – performing quite adequately with the light and medium dumbbells but could not get the heaviest above his shoulder with both hands. Cyclops did it with one. A few other young men had a go, and while no one went home any richer, the crowd was at least quite satisfied.

In November, Haines was brought into court for the first but certainly not the last time in relation to out-of-control cab drivers. This time he was called as a witness to an incident involving a Miss Pollard, who had sustained a hip and arm injury and had been taken to Charing Cross Hospital for five stitches to the eye when the horse pulling a car she was in fell over in Trafalgar Square. The shock of the fall caused an explosion of glass from the cab window.

Haines had been proceeding through the Square at the same time as the plaintiff (2.30am on a Sunday morning) and had remarked to a friend that the lady’s horse appeared to be running away. After the accident, he had gone to the passenger’s assistance and helped her to the hospital. It emerged in cross-examination that Haines and Pollard knew each other. Burrows, the cab drive, apologised to the court for his “eccentricities”, he was just rather excited (“and he looked it”). His “old moo” of a horse had only fallen three or four times before, she had a bad hip you see, and the wooden pavement was wet, but he was generally very good at driving difficult horses. The judge told Burrows, who had by this point started rambling about a man called Blind Dick, that he seemed confused and it would be wrong to let him continue, then he ruled in the defendant’s favour.

Haines saw out 1890 at Bob Habbijam’s in the West End, where he was co-opted to perform the popular boxing burlesque ‘The Miller and the Sweep’. This comedy of very questionable taste, which had been popularised by Alec Munroe, Ching Hook and possibly others in the 1880s, saw a white boxer with chalk covered gloves and a black boxer with sooty gloves paint each other with punches. Finding out too late that his opponent Johnny O’Brian intended, in the words of the Sporting Life, to “play Othello”, (I believe this to mean he wore blackface) Haines quit the sketch half way through.

The pair returned later in the night for an exhibition match, O’Brian hopefully having had a wash, but Haines objected to the thinness of the proposed gloves (which were “akin to pillowcases”). During a heavy-hitting first round Haines yelled “I have only come to fight exhibition!” and that he’d been at the club for six nights in a row already. He repeatedly tried to leave the ring. Upon being told there was no money in it if he departed, he declared he was no coward, and allowed O’Brien to pummel him but did not return a punch. He sat down on the bottom rope and refused to get up, before crawling out of the ring to jeers from the gathered men.

Jem Haines began 1891 by violently assaulting his girlfriend.

<< CLICK HERE TO READ CHAPTER III AND IV>>

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