‘I am a pugilist, and that is an artist.’ – A Biographical Sketch of the Gentlemen’s Instructor, John Plantagenet Green (Part I)

“Some novel lessons in the elasticity and expressiveness of the English language” were learned in the Middlesex Sessions of November 1874, when a witness called to give testimony made newspaper headlines over and above the men charged with a crime.

William McCarthy, 23, and James Rowland, 21, both labourers, were the lads in front of the magistrate, accused of assaulting a Walter Townsend and other constables of the Metropolitan Police Force. But it was the dialogue between the judge and a Mr Plantagenet Green, who was in court to give evidence for the prosecution, which ended up reported across England’s newspapers.

The prisoners had been in a pub in Chelsea and having created a disturbance, officer Townsend was called to kick them out. Upon arrival he was attacked by the pair, as were several colleagues who came to assist. 

In stepped Plantagenet, and, as he described it to prosecutor Mr Moody, he positioned himself between the police and the rowdy ruffians, threatening to give the latter “a domino” should they continue to wave their fists about.

As reported in the Western Daily Mercury and many other papers, the court transcript continues:

The Judge: One moment, Mr Moody, the witness said something about dominoes. 

Green: Yes, my lord, I told him I would give him a domino.

The Judge. Give him a domino? What does that mean?

Green: I meant that I would land him one.

The Judge: Land him one!

Mr Moody: I believe, my lord, the term domino is a vulgarism for striking a man in the face.

Green: It means landing him one. I had it ready.

In cross-examination, Mr T. Cole said the witness had described himself as an artist, and asked him what he was an artist in.

Green: In these (holding up his fists). I am a pugilist, and that is an artist. 

Cole: An artist in black eyes?

Green: Yes; I paint them black.

The Judge: By giving them dominoes?

Green: That’s about it. 

The judge found both prisoners guilty. Taking into account their previous convictions, McCarthy got two years and Rowland one, both with hard labour. 

Green’s comical turns of phrase were read over breakfast across the country, and it wouldn’t be the last time.

The 1850s: In constant attendance at Nat Langham’s hostelry

Green’s name – although he was also using the alias Snowball – first appeared in The Era in April 1851 with a posting stating he was available to fight any novice of his weight or size (these not actually being given!) for £10 a side. Challenges were being accepted by Jem Burns at the Queen’s Head, Windmill Street in the Haymarket, central London.

Still using the alias Snowball, an ethnic slur of its time, Green went over 34 rounds lasting one hour and 23 minutes with Jeremiah Noon in 1854, in a contest that was “from first to last, a specimen of boxing” and “extremely amusing” according to the Morning Advertiser. On a cold and soggy January day out in the marshes of Kent, Green “danced about in the most ludicrous fashion” but “undoubtedly fought better than even the most sanguine of his friends expected”. 

In 1857 he was sparring weekly at Nat Langham’s pub, the Cambrian Stores, Castle Street, Leicester Square and was by then described as “the renowned” Mr Plantagenet Green. In adverts for regular boxing fixtures at the pub, Green is listed alongside “Langham’s Black” – a reference to Bob “The Black Wonder” Travers – a man whose name would become somewhat more renowned and remembered by history than Green’s. 

The two black boxers, Green and Travers, were “in constant attendance” at Langham’s hostelry (“one of the most convenient, handsome, and well-appointed resorts for the Fancy of London. The best possible sparring Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday night.”) according to an ad in Bell’s Life, as was Tom Sayers – one of our best known 19th century pugilists.

In December 1857 Green – still being referred to as Snowball – was matched with Jesse Hatton to fight for £15 a side at catch weight, with Bell’s Life describing this “fistic tourney” as “by no means important as to the amount being contended for, but it proved to be of a highly amusing character”. Charley Mallett, described by the newspaper as “the poet laureate of the PR” (Prize Ring) called it “the pugilistic pantomime of 1857”. 

This was Green’s 4th professional match after battling Fred Dickenson, ‘the English Shylock’, and Noon, and he’d been victorious only over Shylock.

“Snowball never had the reputation of being anything extraordinary as a boxer, although since his last appearance in the ring with the renowned Jerry Noon he was considered, and this was proved the case, to have much improved in his knowledge of the polite art,” Bell’s Life generously noted. “He is a strong, powerful, young fellow, but has hitherto been considered to be anything but a man of pluck at bottom. It is now three years since he last figured in public.”

Green’s costume raised the eyebrows of Bell’s Life’s boxing reporter. His fighting boots were spotless and white, his drawers black and white, stockings black, and upon his head Green wore a white nightcap with a tassel. 

Seventy eight rounds occupying one hour and fifty eight minutes occurred and while bets had been on the “game fellow” Hatton, Hatton’s performance was ultimately described by Bell’s Life as one of the worst than fans of the Prize Ring had probably ever seen. Green walked away “without having the least visible punishment”.

It is in this article that Green, who is referred to as both Plantagenet and as Snowball, is also referenced as Edward Plantagenet Green and as Ned. This was possibly confusing for a reader at the time, and is very much so to me now. In most later articles and in all court cases reported in the press he is “John Green, also known as Plantagenet”. We also find one or two references to John Augustus Green or John Augustine Green, and he later appears as John Plantagenet Green in advertising for his gymnasiums. One article describing the way black Americans creatively named their children during this period suggests that his real name may, in fact, be Plantagenet. 

Finding a man called John Green in census records is like finding a needle in a haystack. Scouring the 1851, ’61, ’71 and ’81 census for John Greens of London born in the 1820s or 1830s failed to identify anyone likely to be him – there was no one who jumped out from occupation or place of birth, and of course the UK census does not include race. I knew him to have definitely lived in West London, specifically the Fulham area, for some or all of his life, yet among the butcher, labourer, solicitor, pot man and so on John Greens in London no one who seemed to fit.

Reliable biographical information on Green in either contemporary newspaper articles or nostalgic pieces published after his death is hard to come by. While most of the black pugilists I’ve researched and written on for this blog are from North America or the Caribbean and emigrated to London in their late teens or early twenties, there was nothing much in my British Newspaper Archive deep dive to suggest Green was American at all, the piece on black Americans and creative names aside. I could not find any John Greens born in 1827 (his newspaper-reported age a bit later places him about here – but more on that later) give or take 5 years on any census who lived in London between 1851-1881 who were born overseas, bar one literally born at sea. Surely that cannot be correct for a common enough name in a city like London?

Newspaper references to Green as a “descendent of the Kings of Africa” or “the Emperor of Morocco” don’t do much to clarify where he was born or what his heritage may have been. He’s described as black or “a man of colour” but little else can be found.

Green’s Boxrec profile gives his birthname as John Augustus Edward Green, his nationality as British, and place of birth as Barbados, but the profile is incomplete and shows just one match against Bat Mullins in 1871.

With enormous thanks to Bill Ellson, who contacted me via Twitter and my comment section after I published this now-updated blog, I know that the reason why I couldn’t find John Green in any census is that he was actually, at least as far as the 1871 census suggests, called Edward Green. He’s there with his much-younger wife Harriet, living in the Fulham house I knew him to be in the year before, and he was in fact from Barbados. Occupation: ship’s cook.

In January 1858 Green posted a challenge in Bell’s Life offering to fight a number of different men as “he cannot afford to be idle… man and money always ready at the Cambrian Stores,” Nat Langham’s place. Jack Hicks – man and money available at the the King’s Arms, Whitechapel Road – answered the call to take either Green or Travers on at 9st 8lb for £100 a side. In February 1858 Hatton also said he fancied another go, again with either Green or Travers, although I cannot determine whether either of these fights came about. 

Instead, Green appears to have dipped his athletic toe into the swimming pool at Albion Hall, Albion Square, later on that year for a race against ‘the Arabian diamond diver’ Mr Sultan. Mr C. Moore, the celebrated one-legged swimmer (!) also appeared. 

As 1859 began, Green installed himself in the rooms of Professor Leon Gillemand at 73 Newman Street, Oxford Street, in order to instruct gentlemen “in the science of self-defence and gymnastics generally”. Gentlemen could also be attended to at their own residences, and Plantagenet would be happy to supply gloves. 

He promised to appear at a benefit for the Pugilstic Benevolent Association at the National Baths, Westminster Road, and in early 1860 proved himself a first-rate dancer at a benefit for the English champion, Tom Sayers.

The 1860s: An established teacher of boxing for gentleman amateurs in Soho

In 1861, Green, Travers and friends were among pugilists who turned out in force to support a charity benefit at the Westminster Baths in support of distressed Coventry weavers, Nat Langham and the renowned Jem Mace closing the night’s proceedings in front of nearly 2,000 spectators. They raised a tidy sum of some £200 for the cause – the sudden impoverishment of 30,000 men, women and children in Coventry whose trade in weaving and ribbon-making had been annihilated by an “accumulation of evils”. 

By October 1860 Green was well and truly established as a teacher of boxing for gentlemen amateurs and had opened his own sparring rooms at 14 Newman Street, according to Bell’s Life, although a second notice appeared in the paper a few days later saying Green could be found “at all times” at the Green Man, Berwick Street (a pub still alive and well today, a quick walk around the corner from 14 Newman. 

The Green Man on Berwick Street today – image from Google Maps

Green’s February 1861 advert in The Era names him as John Plantagenet Green, the owner of new sparring rooms at 191 Piccadilly. Sparring costumes were available at the premises, and boxing lessons available between 10am and 10pm, as were exercises in broadsword and fencing with Mr Robert de Pearsall, formerly a Lieutenant in the 4th Imperial Austrian Regiment of Lancers. “Gentlemen will be met with no annoyance or interruption”.

It is in this same busy month that the name Plantagenet Green first appears in court, being involved as he was in a minor way with an assault on a man called Fox, who’d changed his name to Sparks to train as a boxer with the Tipton Slasher, although he wasn’t a boxer any longer. 

The scene takes place at the Ascot horse racing. Upon entering the betting ring, Fox, or Sparks, was pounced upon by a man called Hodges and two or three of his friends (Plantagenet Green allegedly being among the party) demanded £20 off him. Refusing to pay, he was attacked with sticks and umbrellas, his hat torn off and his clothes ripped. Gripped around the throat by Hodges, the attack was interrupted by police. One witness said he saw Hodges drive a spike up Sparks’ nose and blood came out. Hodges said it wasn’t him, he’d never assaulted a man in his life, and he’d been in the company of gentlemen. It was clearly a case of mistaken identity the judge declared, and nobody was convicted.

By November 1861, Green appeared to be based at the Queens Head, Brewer Street, Regent’s Street, and in 1862 joined a Polish lady, Madame Linowska at the Hanover Square Rooms to teach. In “a short dress of dark velvet and two or three white roses in her hair” Linowska demonstrated the art of fencing to the gathered gentlemen while Green oversaw the night’s boxing. 

Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle – Sunday 23 February 1862 – via British Newspaper Archive

In February 1862 the ever-present Jem Mace notified Bell’s Life that he’d like to place his hard-earned money on Green to beat Johnny Walker at 10st 2lb for £50. He received a response a few days later from Walker or his backer in the same paper:

“Mace must be aware that it’s Walker’s intention never again to enter the roped arena as a combatant and that the challenge recently issued by Jem on behalf of his protege Plantagenet Green sound very much like braggadocio,” a letter read. “J.W. sincerely hopes that for the future, notices of a similar offensive character will be abstained from”.

A firm no, then.

There was yet another change of Soho address for Green by the end of December 1862, when he began advertising sparring lessons on the “most approved and scientific principles” from the King of Prussia at 7 Lower John Street, Golden Square. 

Challenges for Green continued to be posted in Bell’s Life across 1862 and 1863, with Jack Smith of Portsmouth saying he was willing to fight Green for £25 a side and George Crockett for £50 or £100 a side at catch weight, but little to be found on whether any of these fights were pulled off.

In Spring 1863 “the celebrated pugilist” was newly employed to teach boxing and single-stick at a grand new gymnasium and school of arms opened by “the Queen’s gymnast” Jose Corelli at the Princess’s Concert Rooms, Castle Street, Oxford Street, a venue fully kitted out with a trapeze, ladders, and an assortment of poles and bars.

By November the same year, Green was advertising to “the nobility and gentry” that his new saloon at the Red Lion Tavern on Great Windmill Street (the pub where the Communist Manifesto was written! Great fact, eh?) was the place to be for learning “the art of self-defence with ease and convenience, on moderate terms”. Green boasted that “his system of teaching surpasses all others” and he could make you perfect in just a few lessons. Gentlemen could also be “waited on” in their homes.

The following April, Bob Travers, Green and a number of other pugilists were among the men named as spectators who had boarded a steam tug boat called Bull Dog (illegally, as the tug did not have a license to carry passengers) in order to attend a prize fight at Erith between “Young Dutch Sam and Drew”. The owners of the boat were fined, but their motley crew of 200 pugs and betting men appear to have escaped the wrath of Woolwich Police Court. 

London’s boxers appeared en masse at the Cambridge Music Hall on Newman Street in March 1865, sparring to fundraise for the unfortunate victims of a recent fire at the Surrey Theatre. The comradeship among pugilists in supporting each other and the popularity of boxing as a fundraising activity for other causes can’t be underestimated over much of the Victorian period: these men were constantly helping others in need. 

The night was deemed a success, apart from the fact there was so much tobacco smoke in the air those at the back of the theatre had difficulty seeing the ring.

In 1865, Green was offering private lessons from his rooms at 21 Leicester Square (now prime central London real estate occupied by a Marco Pierre White steak and pizza restaurant) and in 1866 made “a return to the field” with a fight against Tom M’Kelvey with £25 a side staked. Fans of the illicit Prize Ring could find out its whereabouts by enquiring at the Bell pub, Red Lion Street or having a word with Nat Langham. 

21 Leicester Square, London, today image from Google Maps

Green and M’Kelvey were described as “celebrities of the Prize Ring” by the Morning Advertiser in their report on the fight being postponed due to the law catching wind it was happening. An early report from the Illustrated Sporting News under the deadline “A Disappointment” noted that while “the Elite of the ring were present, and even the wished-to-be-tabooed East end division mustered strong numbers,” the match was cancelled after police pursued some 400 would-be spectators from Waterloo Station to Woking to Weybridge determined to find the location of a prize fight. 

To Horley the next day the principles went and while bets were marginally in M’Kelvey’s favour, the two proved to be fairly evenly matched, Green showing his wrestling skills by twice throwing ‘Mac’ to the floor in quick succession. Twelve rounds in twenty one and a half minutes passed when an appeal by Green’s camp was made for foul play by M’Kelvey for punching Green when he was down on the ground. The judge found in Green’s favour and awarded him the win, the match drawing to a close early. Green had been seconded by “another man of colour” (most likely Travers) and “a celebrated doctor from the seaside”. M’Kelvey had “no control over his temper” according to the Illustrated. “No further remarks are necessary; the match was badly arranged, worse carried out.”

It’s in the Sporting Life’s coverage of this match that we find out Green’s supposed age – 39 in February 1866 – and that when he had appeared at his first fights in the early 1850s he weighed in at 10 stone. In 1866 he was a little over 10 stone 8. There’s not much further detail on his appearance: “his physique is well known, nor is it necessary to give a picture of his well known physog [face] to our readers,” said the Life. It actually would have been quite helpful, guys, to be honest. 

Green’s age at the time I write this is still somewhat of a mystery but I’m currently looking at sources again following the update from Bill Ellson on his ‘real’ name. The 1871 census show’s Green’s wife Harriet to be 23 and Green to be 33 although the style of handwriting makes the first 3 look a bit like a 5, so he might in fact have been 53. I thought him to be about 43. If he was 33 he must have been a remarkably well-developed 13 year old when he had his first match in 1851. If he was 53, he was boxing well into advanced age (and was also 30 years older than his wife! I mean, it happens…). It’s possible the census taker was mistaken or mislead, and he was indeed about 43. I’ll try and get to the bottom of it.

From Bell’s Life’s coverage we see that this was only Green’s fifth Prize Ring fight, and his “aspirations were confined to sparring schools”. They conclude:

“As to Plantagenet Green, he is all very well in the sparring schools, but for actual warfare he is by no means suited: and, moreover, as he is close upon his 40th year, he is far too stale to ever expect distinction and we would now recommend he rests on his laurels and seeks to retain the friends he has made through continuance of his well-known civility and good temper.”

It was randomly off to Norwich a couple of weeks later for Green, as he took a benefit at the Vine Tavern (still there, been doing great Thai food for years – highly recommend it…) ahead of a planned match with Millard of Bristol for £200, and back to London in April for a friendly match with Bob Smith of Birmingham at Bob Travers’ pub, The Sun and Thirteen Cantons, Travers being now a well-known inn-keeper. 

Having refused to take Bell’s Life’s advice and call time on his career, 42-year-old Green took part in an exhibition match at the third annual Marquis of Queensberry’s Challenge for “gentlemen amateurs” at Lillie Bridge grounds in 1869, where he went three “good and earnest” rounds with another black boxer named Jones.  

Click here for Part II: 1870s – 1890s

3 thoughts on “‘I am a pugilist, and that is an artist.’ – A Biographical Sketch of the Gentlemen’s Instructor, John Plantagenet Green (Part I)

  1. Sarah, re Green entering the “third Annual Marquis of Queensberry’s Challenge for ‘gentlemen amateurs'”, as a professional he would not have been able to do this. What you are referring to was an exhibition bout between professionals which took place at this amateur event (a circumstance not especially unusual) in this period), and hence nobody would have won.
    When will your book on Wannop, etc, which you were writing be available? All the best, Tony


    1. Thanks Tony, hope you’re keeping well. I’ll make a correction. More excitingly, I now have confirmation on him being Edward Green from Barbados too. No update on the book I’m afraid – my full time day job is very intense and between that, consulting work on the Hezekiah Moscow/Alec Munroe/Sugar Goodson TV show (which is going v. well), various other commitments and trying to keep myself, my cats and a house standing it’s unlikely there will be any time soon. No particular interest in writing and self publishing it right now and no time and luck thus far with agent and publisher route. – S.


      1. Sarah, well done on finding confirmation about Green being from Barbados. This needs to go in a further post.
        How did the cemetery talk go?
        If you contact me privately (I do not have an up-to-date email address), I can advise on the publisher route. – Tony


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