How far can the lady go without unsexing herself? Billy Noon V the ‘irrepressible’ Mrs Noon

I have written previously on a boxer arrested on more than one occasion for punching his female companion in the face. Unlike Jem Haines, Billy Noon not only got away with doing the same, he was paid and cheered for it too.

Billy and Mrs Noon were a husband and wife boxing act, one of only a couple I have found so far performing in London in the 1880s (another being Professor Ball and Rose Danvers), although male and female pugilism-themed sketches do start to appear more often in the music halls by the start of the 1890s.

The idea of women raising fists was far from new. Kasia Body’s book ‘Boxing, A Cultural History’ is an excellent read and includes details of reported competitive matches between girls in London in the early to mid 1700s, and I cannot recommend enough Joy Wilkinson’s play about women boxers, The Sweet Science of Bruising, which is set in 1869. Most of the photographs of ‘Victorian’ female boxers to be found in popular online media recently were actually taken in the 1910s and ’20s and are usually Australian or North American.

Intergender performances between strong women or female wrestlers and male opponents became a fixture of the early 1900s wrestling boom in Britain and the United States (almost 120 years later, the WWE still doesn’t book intergender matches…). But a male and female couple going at it in the boxing ring in the 1880s would have been quite the thrilling novelty.

The Billy and Mrs Noon act was put on in the way the ‘Miller and the Sweep’ sketch between a black and white boxer with coal and chalk painted gloves, or a fight between two men with dwarfism or missing limbs was: it was the Victorians’ idea of a light-hearted interlude between serious exhibitions or the bloody stuff you bet on. It was original, risqué, fun, and taboo-busting for all involved.

William Noon was born in 1853 or 1855, most likely in Birmingham. His birth date is reported in the newspapers on one occasion as August 1857, but we have learned by now to take anything printed in the Sporting Life in particular with a pinch of salt. As ‘Billy Noon’ he first started to appear in the national sporting papers in 1883, but his boxing career appears to date back much further. From 1876 he was reportedly engaging in bareknuckle matches, often lasting over an hour a time.

At some point between the late 1870s and early 1880s a man named William Noon was arrested and sentenced to prison time (there is some discussion as to what he was arrested for later on in this article) and upon his release, joined a travelling boxing booth. William Noon failed to report himself as being under police supervision upon the booth’s arrival in Chester and was brought before the courts. Mr C. North, the booth’s proprietor, wrote to the local newspaper to ask that they make clear to readers that he had no knowledge of Noon being a “ticket-of-leave” man. North said that he was entirely ignorant of Noon’s “previous life and character”, indicating that he may have had quite the colourful past. Noon was sentenced to three months behind bars for breaching the terms of his release.

In November 1883 we find Billy Noon the heavier man to a Walter Greenfield at Alf Greenfield’s assault-at-arms in the Floral Hall Rink in Leicester, with Billy’s home city given as London. Alf managed a pub in Birmingham which was well known for its picture gallery of pugilists – The Swan With Two Necks on Livery Street – and hosted an event over two evenings in January ‘84 to raise money in support of his trainee Dick Collier. Walter and Billy were matched again. Also on the bill were lads named White Nob and Young Whuff. 

At the same venue in April, alongside Noon, were a Cock Jennens, Young Breeze and Young Glaze, sparring at a benefit for a veteran trainer named Jem Hodgkiss. Former pupils of Hodgkiss include Bodger Grudgeley and Hammer Lane. None of these men are relevant to this story at all, I just find their ring names absolutely hilarious.

Noon sparred with a black boxer, Pearce, in front of a reported 3,000-strong audience at the Circus, Newcastle, in September 1884 and a little later in the year appears to have been back based in Birmingham, his name mentioned in an advert for twice-weekly sparring at the Highland Laddie on Tower Street, in a boxing saloon opened by Jem Carney: “Fine ales and choice cigars, latest sporting news to be obtained at the bar” (Sporting Life, Saturday 15 November 1884). 

Noon disappeared entirely from the newspapers between November ‘84 and October ‘86. He may have just been ticking along working in a trade, he might have been one of the William Noons appearing across Northern and Midlands newspaper during this time for drunk and disorderly conduct, or quite possibly he was with Alf Greenfield on Alf’s US tour.

In October 1886 his name reappeared on the bill at a complimentary benefit for two featherweight boxers in Birmingham at Alf Greenfield’s pub, and again a few weeks later for Joe Daine, “one of the staunchest supporters of the Prize Ring” and a “superior judge of dogs, especially the Bulldog”, who had fallen on hard times.

On New Years Day 1887, Billy had a notice printed in the Sporting Life:

“Billy Noon of Birmingham, who for a long time was with Alf Greenfield of Birmingham, wishes to inform his old and new friends that he has opened a boxing class at Mr John Jelley’s, the Red Lion, Park Street, Walsall, where Billy hopes his Birmingham and Black Country friends will not forget to give him a call when visiting Walsall.”

Three weeks later, a benefit was held for Noon, “the well-known Birmingham lightweight” at the Red Lion. By July he was in London, and matched with Dave Cable in a twelve-round match under Queensbury Rules for £20 a side, set for August at the Old Mile End Gate School of Arms – a boxing club in W. Mazdon’s saloon at 174 Whitechapel Road, opposite the London Hospital.

Only four rounds were fought before Billy fractured a small bone in his left arm, which he had reportedly broken before. He was unable to continue. The Sporting Life described both men as featherweights – Cable was 38 years old and “was for a long time considered the 7st 6lb champion” having won a great many competitions five years prior. He was best known for a bareknuckle match lasting one and a quarter hours, which ended in a draw. In August 1887 Cable stood 5ft 1 and weighed 8st 4lb. Noon’s weight is given by the Sporting Life as 8st 6lb and his height at 5ft 1 ½ (the Life actually says 5ft 11 ½ but given Noon’s weight and his opponent’s height, we can call this a typesetting error!).

After the unfortunate bone cracking drama, a benefit for Billy, “supported by some of the best men in the metropolis” was held in Mile End, the Sporting Life jovially wishing him “a bumper benefit!” in a September 1887 advert. An open 8st competition attracted 14 competitors with the promise of a handsome cup presented by the publican of the Ropemaker’s Arms, and the large saloon was crowded.

It is around this time, while in recovery, that Billy popped back up to Birmingham and started fighting his wife. An advert in the Sporting Life on 8th October 1887, says:

“Billy Noon and Mrs Moon [sic] (late of London), can now be seen in their dramatic sketch, entitled “How Battles are Won and Lost” at Alf Greenfield’s, The Swan with Two Necks, Livery Street, Birmingham.”

[The Sporting Life, 8th April 1891, Mrs Noon “showed how far a lady could go with the gloves without unsexing herself”…]

1888 began with another grand assault at arms in support of Billy, this time held at the Bull’s Head, Pritchett Street, Birmingham, in the spacious saloon managed by Mr Pat Hasty.

In February 1888 Mrs Noon was getting some practice in, sparring with Professor Sullivan from Hackney. Billy passed the time judging competitions and backing novices, and by November 1888 was back down in London sparring at the Red Lion off Fleet Street.

Mrs Noon came with him, the pair performing at the Red Lion pub’s gymnasium (Sergeant Green’s) at the start of December, with Mrs Noon billed as the “champion boxer of Birmingham”. A “boneless wonder” named Ronioini, some wrestling, and boxing from Deptford’s Dick Leary joined them on the bill. 

At the Queen’s Head on Pedley Street, Brick Lane, in December 1888, the Sporting Life had this to say about “the amusing encounter between Billy Noon of Birmingham, and his better half”:

“The display was a novel one, and all that can be said about it is this, that if the lady puts her husband through his facings at home after the manner in which she drubbed him on Tuesday night, well then Billy Noon is to be pitied and no mistake. Mrs Noon, who is under 7st, is a two-handed fighter of a very formidable order, and according to her husband’s statement, is open to be backed for a hundred against any woman breathing.”

[The Sporting Life, 22nd January 1890 – the copper shower being pennies thrown by an admiring crowd]

The pair appeared at the Duchy of Cornwall, Lambeth, to repeat the performance a couple of days later, and then again at the 7th Surrey Rifles Drill Hall on Kennington Lane to close the year, “settling their family differences” in the ring.

Billy’s career fighting men was back on track, with sparring and exhibition matches at the Blue Anchor, Church Street, Shoreditch, across 1889 and 1890, interspersed with appearances alongside the “irrepressible” missus in which “the lady held her own” in London’s pubs and saloons, from the Markethouse in Islington, to the Hop and Malt Exchange, Borough. “Neither spared the other in an effort to please the company.”

[The Sporting Life, 6th May 1890 – I couldn’t help but laugh at “Mr and Mrs Billy Noon (from Birmingham), and Jack Adams (one leg)”]

By May 1891, 30-something-year-old Billy was occasionally being referred to in the sporting papers as Professor Noon, a sign of respect for veteran boxers and wrestlers who trained others. A typical night might see Billy spar against a man for three rounds then with Mrs Noon for another three.

At the Lambeth School of Arms, the MC Bill Staples had to request that “the champion lady boxer of the world not spillicate the old man entirely” and at the United Radical Club, Kay Street, Goldsmiths Row in Hackney, in front of an audience of 300 (“including several ladies”), promotor Pat Condon introduced the pair with the preface that they were settling their quarrels in public rather than at home. “The lady showed she was proficient in the noble art” across “three rattling rounds.”

[The Sporting Life, 22nd July 1891, Billy and Mrs Noon at the Hop and Malt Exchange, Borough]

In January 1892, Billy suffered a loss to ‘Goodey’ Jacobs of Spitalfields in Tom Symond’s crowded boxing room at the Blue Anchor, his age blamed by the Sporting Life as “too much to overcome”. I am yet to find any sign of him boxing again after this date. Mrs Noon too disappears entirely after “setting the house in uproar” with her “clever work” in December 1891.

Who were Billy and Mrs Noon?

On a number of occasions across the 1870s, a teenage William Noon of Birmingham, variously described as a brass founder, a filer, and a percussioner, was arrested for theft. It is difficult to determine whether this is the same Billy Noon who joined North’s boxing booth, but the age of this boy and the dates of his prison sentences fit with boxing Billy’s approximate birth date (as reported in the Sporting Life) and with his arrest for failing to report himself as being “on parole” in 1882.

This William Noon served three months for “stealing vice clams” as a child and seven days for throwing stones. At 16 he got six months with hard labour for thieving a pair of trousers, and at 18 was sentenced to 10 months time and 12 months supervision for taking a pair of shoes.

The following year the judge finally lost his patience and awarded a term of seven years penal servitude followed by three years police supervision to 19-year-old William, who had pleaded “guilty to larceny after a previous conviction”. On the final occasion, the item stolen was a set of spring balance scales. If it is the same William, he may have emerged from prison and joined the touring sparring pavilion, set on starting a new life.

William Noon is not a commonly found name in English census records, certainly not in Birmingham, although as previously mentioned, there are a number of William Noons to be found across the Midlands, North and Devon in the newspapers in the 1870s and 80s, being arrested for assault and drunkenness, mostly – including in Leicester and Chester, where Noon appears to have had connections. A woman or several women named Mary Ann Noon, occasionally described as a prostitute, also make regular newspaper appearances across these years for public drunkenness and other raucous misdemeanours.

Whittling down records to those William Noons born in the 1850s and based in Birmingham only appears to leave one man on the 1881 census. The previously mentioned teenage criminal, who worked in the filing of small metal items when he wasn’t thieving things, might be the same man as the William Thomas Noon who married a Mary Ann Wilkes in 1874, occupation given as ‘tool maker’. On the 1881 census he is 28 years old and still a “steel tool maker” and he and 27-year-old Mary have two young daughters – Sarah and Clara. My maths and imagination cannot quite work out whether he could have married and fathered either or both children between his prison sentences in the ’70s, if it is the same young man. William and Mary Ann are together in Birmingham in 1891 and 1901 too.

Also in 1891 there is one William Noon to be found in London (absent a wife), boarding with other labourers on Gun Street in the Old Artillery Ground area of Whitechapel. This Noon is living alongside an American named James Haines, who one could assume to be Noon’s boxing peer Jem Haines but the age (32) is too old and the place of birth (Houston) different to Haines’s, who I believe to have been from South Carolina.

[The Sporting Life, 29th April 1891]

If Billy and Mrs Noon were indeed the former thief and Mary Ann, then after hanging up the boxing gloves they went on to spend their 40s in Birmingham, Billy still working as a tool maker, and in their 50s – after 36 years of marriage and with Clara and Sarah long moved out – were getting by through “private means” at “the back of 49 Summer Street”. A Mary Ann Noon of the approximate correct age to be this Mrs Noon died in Birmingham in October 1921. A William Noon of the approximate correct age died in January 1938 in Evesham, Worcestershire, about 40 miles’ from Birmingham.

I cannot be sure that either of these are the boxing Billy and his Mrs. It cannot even be said for certain that the boxers were married – they may have been cohabiting partners, brother and sister, or even mother and son, adopting the ‘Billy and Mrs Noon’ moniker for propriety and because, well, it’s a darn good gimmick.

Their act was a sideshow, but Mrs Noon’s “gameness” and skill attracted a nod of respect from sporting reporters, albeit expressed in a typically patronising fashion. Billy might have had a dodgy past, but he was a man with an ego small enough to allow his tiny wife to punch him in front of his pals.

I wish I could get to the bottom of who they, particularly she, might have been, and as always welcome intel from readers. Did something in particular happen to see them disappear from the ring at the start of 1892? Pregnancy, sickness, arrest or death? 1891’s coverage of Billy’s matches hint that age was catching up with him. Perhaps it was just time to move on and settle into a ‘normal’ domestic life. Hopefully without fisticuffs behind closed doors.

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