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Bill Richmond, the son of former slaves from Georgia, was born in New York in 1763. He entered the service of the future Duke of Northumberland and at the age of 14 was brought to England.
After attending school he was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in York. Although weighing less than 11 stone, Richmond took up boxing and developed a reputation for beating much larger men.
Richmond became a prize fighter and scored a notable victory when he defeated Jack Holmes over 26 rounds at Kilburn. However, he lost to the great Tom Cribb after a long fight at Hailsham in Sussex.
In his next contest he beat Jack Carter at Epsom Downs. In 1809 he won 100 guineas after beating George Maddox after a hard fought 52 rounds.
Richmond retired from the ring after marrying a rich woman who helped him to buy a fashionable public house, the Horse and Dolphin, near Leicester Square. He also ran a boxing academy where he taught young men how to fight. One of his pupils was the writer William Hazlitt.
Bill Richmond died in London on 28th December, 1829.
Bill Richmond's first display in the pugilistic art which brought him into notice, was with one George Moore, a recruit, under Captain Connor, of the 19th Regiment, better known by the name of Docky Moore, who insulted Richmond upon the Course at York, during the time of the Races. This Docky had been the terror of Sheffield, and had ruled the roost for some time in that part of the country; in fact, he was elegantly proportioned, possessing considerable strength, and all the necessary requisites for milling; in height about five feet nine inches and a half, and weighing fourteen stone.
The friends of Bill Richmond persuaded him from attempting to fight with such a man, only weighing ten stone twelve pounds; the chance being positively against him, but he was not to be deterred; and the event proved his judgment correct, for in the course of twenty-five minutes, our hero punished Docky so completely that he gave in, and was taken out of the ring totally blind.
On the same course, not long after the above set-to, Richmond beat two soldiers, one after the other, belonging to the Inniskillin Dragoons.
Richmond's milling qualities rather getting abroad, a few of the lads who had a bit of fight in their compositions, envied his success; and one, in particular, a blacksmith, weighing thirteen stone, and in height about five feet ten inches, took the following method of provoking Richmond to have a brush. Richmond was noticed in York for going smart and appearing clean after he had done his work, when he met this hammer-man one evening, as he was taking a walk, who not only insulted him with opprobrious epithets, but gave him a kick on the thigh. Bill remonstrated with him on the impropriety of his behaviour, and told the blacksmith, that if he wanted to fight him, he should be accommodated at the Groves, on the next morning, to which they agreed to meet, when this son of Vulcan was completely satisfied, and acknowledged Richmond the best man.
Bill's Barbecue opened their first location in 1931. They closed their last 3 restaurants yesterday. Here's a 1970 menu from Bill's.
Click the photo below for the high resolution image.
Boy this brings back some memories! My parents and I used to have lunch quite frequently at a Bills Barbecue - in the 70s no less! :) One thing I don't see on this menu though is their famous and delicious hand-made limeades!! Boy THEY were out out of this world! Anyway - sorry to hear that Bills is no more - wonder if anyone would ever be able to resurrect the franchise?
While thinking of old menus from long-established and pretty famous Richmond eateries - here's one if you could ever find it would also evoke MANY memories for folks I'm sure - a menu from the old Angelos Hot Dogs! We used to go into the one on 6th street north of Broad (the 600 Building stands there now)-- went in there for YEARS to get their chili dogs - WOW!! :D I do miss those old places from my childhood!
When I first moved to Richmond, I stopped at a Bill's. The staff was rude and the food was less than mediocre. I never went back. It's really too bad that a Richmond institution phased out, but if this was typical of service and fare, then I completely understand why.
On Wednesday 16 November, the great boxer Bill Richmond (1763-1829) featured in episode 2 of the BBC2 documentary programme Black and British: A Forgotten History, presented and written by historian David Olusoga.
My biography of Bill, Richmond Unchained, which was published in 2015, remains the only full length biography ever written of this vitally important figure from sporting and social history. To see Bill's life 'recognised' in a major television series is, for me, the fulfilment of a longstanding dream.
At the heart of this series is a wonderful project, by which plaques commemorating important figures from black history were erected at locations across the country.
Bill's plaque (pictured above) was unveiled at the Tom Cribb pub in London (it will be permanently installed once the pub undergoes a refurbishment in the new year). Below are a selection of images from the plaque ceremony which took place on Tuesday 13 September, as well as an edited version of the speech I gave at the unveiling.
So read on if you want to discover more about Bill Richmond! If you are then inspired to find out even more about Bill please explore this blog - which contains a wealth of Richmond-related material - or consider buying a copy of my book.
Luke G. Williams, Wednesday 15 November 2016
Email: [email protected]
|Actor Hugh Quarshie, a great admirer of Bill Richmond, with author Luke G. Williams|
|Hugh Quarshie with David Olusoga, the presenter and writer of Black and British: a forgotten history|
|Artist Godfried Donkor, who has produced several works featuring Bill Richmond, with Luke G. Williams|
|Luke G. Williams with pioneering boxing promoter and manager Ambrose Mendy|
|Boxers Richard Riakporhe and Richie Rambo Mansende read an extract about Bill Richmond from Pierce Egan's Boxiana|
The life and career of pioneering pugilist Bill Richmond has been honoured by the unveiling of a BBC History plaque at the Tom Cribb pub in London. Luke G. Williams puts Richmond's life in context, explaining the significance of his career and the plaque's location.
Most people have never heard of Bill Richmond, yet before Muhammad Ali, before Jesse Owens and before Jack Johnson, Richmond was the first sports star of African heritage.
Bill was born a slave in Staten Island, America in 1763. As a teenager he won his freedom thanks to the intervention of an English soldier named Hugh Percy who brought the youngster to England.
Once in England, Percy acted as Richmond’s mentor. He ensured Bill was educated and then apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in York. Bill married a local white woman named Mary, had several children and lived a respectable life as a trained craftsman and family man.
This was an unusual but far from unique existence for a black man in Georgian England.
However, when Richmond was in his 40s something changed . and instead of continuing with a life of quiet respectability, he decided to enter the world of professional boxing.
Now you must expel all thoughts from your mind of modern boxing when contemplating what the sport was like in Bill Richmond’s day.
For starters, all boxing matches were conducted with bare knuckles. And secondly there were no points decisions or judges. Fights continued until one of the combatants could no longer stand or continue, and sometimes lasted hour upon hour.
In short, bareknuckle boxing was a brutal and unforgiving sport.
Why then might a family man such as Bill Richmond risk injury or even death to enter the prize ring?
The answer, I believe, was what Indiana Jones once called 'fortune and glory'.
In the early 1800s boxing was the biggest and most popular sport in England, and the leading boxers the nation’s most feted and favoured sons.
The ground on which the Tom Cribb pub stands, just off Leicester Square, was the centre of the boxing universe in Georgian England. The early 19th century equivalent of Las Vegas, if you will. A couple of hundred yards to the south, down St Martin’s Street, was the Fives Court, the country’s leading boxing arena, where fighters publicly sparred in front of packed houses and the deal-makers arranged fights. Lords, nobles, MPs, fighters and the working man would all mingle here - united by their shared love of boxing.
Before Richmond entered the prize ring, no other black boxer had succeeded in overcoming the prejudice of the crowd and the public to carve out a successful sporting career, but Richmond was a man with an eye for the theatrical and possessed the steely determination needed to secure social advancement. Through the sheer force of his personality, his charisma and physical excellence he thus became the first black sportsman to achieve national fame and significance.
And he did so without ever succumbing to popular stereotypes – in short, he was a fighter but he was no thug, indeed he viewed boxing as an art, once declaring: “A gentleman, sir, only uses his hands to defend himself, and not to attack we call the pugilistic art, for that reason, the noble science of defence.”
Despite his advanced age when he first fought in the London prize ring in 1804, Richmond enjoyed a remarkable boxing career. Indeed, he was still fighting and winning significant fights in his mid-50s, and in total he won 17 contests, losing just twice.
In the process of his career, this former black slave became one of the most famous celebrities in England and was also viewed as one of the most skilled boxing trainers in the land. The likes of Lord Byron and William Hazlitt were among those who sought boxing tuition at Richmond’s training rooms.
Unfortunately, Richmond was never quite physically large enough or young enough to win the Boxing Championship of England, but he did play a significant role in two boxing matches between Englishman Tom Cribb and another former slave Tom Molineaux for the English Championship in 1810 and 1811.
For these fights the formidable Molineaux was mentored, nurtured and trained by Richmond.
Richmond had lost to Cribb several years earlier and thought he had found, in Molineaux, a fellow black man young and strong enough to win the English Boxing Championship. The prospect of this ‘black challenge’ to presumed white English supremacy caused a sensation in Georgian England and the two Cribb-Molineaux contests, which Richmond co-promoted, were the biggest and most significant sporting occasions of their day. One writer even commented that the outcome of these fights was more important to England’s future than what happened in the country’s ongoing war with Napoleon.
After his association with Molineaux, Richmond remained a highly respected elder statesman of boxing. He was among the group of pugilists invited to the coronation of George IV in 1821 to act as an usher - a remarkable honour for a man who began life in the colonies as a slave.
In the years before his eventual death in 1829, Richmond and his former arch rival Tom Cribb buried their rivalry and became great friends. Every Sunday the two men would dine together at the Union Arms pub, of which Cribb was the landlord, and it was here, on 27 December 1829, that Richmond spent the last evening of his life, before dying aged 69.
Richmond’s death was marked by the appearance in dozens of newspapers of admiring obituaries and articles about him.
Given that he spent the last night of his life on the premises of what is now the Tom Cribb pub, it is highly appropriate that London’s leading pugilistic public house is now the permanent residence for a splendid memorial to Richmond’s remarkable life, a memorial which has been made possible by David Olusoga's new BBC series A Black History of Britain, which will air on BBC2 this November.
Nearly 200 years since his death, Richmond is, at last, gaining the widespread recognition his remarkable life and career have long deserved.
The above text is an edited version of a speech given by Luke G. Williams at the unveiling event on Tuesday 13 September 2016. For more information on Bill Richmond, check out Luke's book, Richmond Unchained.
Boxer Bill Richmond: Little Known Black History Fact
Bill Richmond, a.k.a. the “Black Terror”, was the first African-American to be labeled an international “prizefighter.” Born a slave in the area that is now called Richmondtown in Staten Island, Richmond also served as a hangman during the Revolutionary War. His most famous hanging was Nathaniel Hale, the first American to be labeled a spy.
Richmond was born to slaves in New York in 1763. Around the end of the 18th century, Richmond, then 14 years old, was sent away to be educated in cabinetmaking in Yorkshire, England. But after being prompted to fight after an argument with a soldier, he spent more time boxing than making cabinets. Having his first professional fight in 1804, the self-taught welterweight would fight men 4 and 5 times his size and win.
Richmond earned his prizefighter status after he defeated Jack Holmes in 26 rounds at Kilburn. He was most famous for his fight against Tom Cribb, a famous English bare-knuckle boxer. Although Richmond was faster than Cribb, he was beaten in the 60th round of the match. In 1809, he won 100 guineas after beating George Maddox after fighting 52 rounds.
After he retired from boxing, Richmond married a wealthy woman and bought a pub called the Horbill-se and Dolphin with his final winnings of his last fight. He also opened a boxing academy to teach young men his boxing skills.
In 1999, Bill Richmond was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
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Bill Richmond the First Black Sports Star
When we think about black sports stars we often go to names such as Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, perhaps Kareem Abdul Jabbar or even Jack Johnson, however, if we dig a little deeper and look a little harder we might come across the story of Bill Richmond the first black sports star.
Bill Richmond was born on the 8th August 1763 in Staten Island, which at the time was an outpost of the British Colonies. His parents were both enslaved persons, and Bill’s prodigious talents would never have been discovered had a British soldier named Hugh Percy not convinced the brute keeping a young Bill captive to release him into his care. Bill’s natural intelligence, wit and tenacity had struck a chord with Percy who brought the 14-year-old Richmond to England with him and set him up as an apprentice cabinet maker in Yorkshire.
It may be hard to believe this, but at that time (1777) the number of black people living in Britain was fairly large many having had their freedom restored in exchange for fighting against the American rebels in the war of Independence. However less surprisingly upon entering Britain, they faced extreme racism.
The smartly dressed, confident and literate Richmond was an instant target for the small minded bigots of Britain, and a young Bill found himself in numerous bruising encounters and brawls as he defended himself from the insults thrown at him from the small-minded men of that time. It was during these encounters that Richmond began to hone his fighting talents as he handed out beating after beating to his racial abusers.
In the words of the leading boxing writer of the day Pierce Egan Richmond taught his detractors that it was wrong to discriminate against a man on “account of his country or his colour”.
Richmond's reputation as a man of honour and fighting prowess began to grow, and in 1795 he moved to London. Prizefighting was one of the leading sports of that era and Richmond feeling confident after years of handing out beatings in Yorkshire spontaneously challenged seasoned veteran George Maddox to a match in January 1804. Richmond lost in 9 close rounds with one brutalising blow opening up a dangerous cut over his left eye. This was bare-knuckle boxing and injuries from bouts could often be life-altering.
A less determined man would have possibly quit the sport, but in 1805 Richmond made a successful comeback defeating a Jewish boxer by the name of Youssop who was left “totally disfigured” after six vicious rounds. Richmond quickly followed this with a win over Jack Holmes in another one-sided beating likened at the to a “public slaughter.”
These and other victories opened up the possibility of a rematch with Richmond's nemesis George Maddox in 1809. The fight took place in August, and Richmond battered Maddox across a bloody 52 rounds. At the end of the battle, Maddox was described as “Hideously disfigured”. But all who watched the contest agreed that the skill and bravery of the two men went without question.
Wealthy from his winnings, reputation enhanced Richmond wisely invested his money into property becoming the Owner and Landlord of the Horse and Dolphin pub near Leicester Square. During this time Richmond began to tutor other young fighters one of whom was the young gifted and black boxer Tom Molineaux who under Richmond's tutelage went on to fight the British champion Tom Cribb in one of the most contested boxing bouts in British history.
Richmond due to some financial losses was forced back into the ring. He fought a Jack Davis in 1814 and then in 1815 took on his riskiest fight when aged an unbelievable 51 (black really doesn't crack) he fought and defeated Tom Shelton who was half his age. It was an epic battle with Richmond eventually defeating Shelton, the racist interfering referee and the crowd. According to boxing writers of the day, Richmond somehow punched his way through the majority of the 23 rounds unable to see out of his left eye.
His place among British boxing elites finally established Richmond began to showcase his skills to European Royalty and in 1821 he acted as an usher at the coronation for King George IV. It cannot be stressed that Richmond achieved all this during a time when slavery was a very legal and widespread practice.
Bill Richmond died at his home in London in 1829 after having lived a remarkable life and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.
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Bill Richmond: The black boxer wowed the court of George IV and taught Lord Byron to spar
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It is 19 July 1821. King George IV has just been crowned and a lavish banquet in his honour is about to begin in Westminster Hall. Amid the extravagance and excess stand 18 powerfully built figures, whose imposing presence causes many of the nobles and dignitaries present to gasp in wonder and appreciation. Clad in retro-Tudor-Stuart costumes, these men are England's leading boxers and, as such, are the most famous and feted sportsmen in the land.
Among this somewhat incongruous group, one man stands out. Amid a sea of otherwise uniformly white faces, Bill Richmond is the only black man present. Richmond was no more than 5ft 9in tall and was already 57 years old, but in contrast to the corpulent, sweating king (who was just one year his senior), Richmond was still in magnificent physical condition, without an ounce of fat on his defined and wirily muscular frame, which had once been described by an admirer as a "study for a sculpture".
It had been 17 years since Richmond had first ventured into the glamorous but dangerous world of the London prize ring and he was now retired, but his achievements as a bare-knuckle boxer, or "pugilist", to borrow the Georgian term of choice, were impeccable.
Metaphorically and literally, Richmond had undergone a remarkable journey since his birth in 1763, having travelled 3,500 miles to escape life as a slave in a Staten Island parsonage in America to carve out a life of freedom, glamour and social acceptance in London. Through the considerable force of his personality and his unerring eye for social advancement, Richmond had – like a real-life Charles Dickens protagonist – hauled himself from a life of grinding and condescending servitude to sample the rarefied heights of elevated upper-class English society, having mixed with MPs, nobles and the likes of Lord Byron to become one of the most prominent "men of colour" of the Georgian era.
For a black man to achieve any level of prominence, let alone "celebrity", during the early 19th century was a rare feat. This was still a society, after all, where it was possible for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in 1810, to describe "negroes" as "an awful example of the corruption of man left to himself".
Therefore it strikes me as a staggering collective omission by sports and social historians that the story of Bill Richmond has scarcely been told – as well as a shocking failure of imagination, given that the unlikely narrative of his life is worthy of a Hollywood movie.
Richmond was a pioneering black boxer – the trailblazer for the likes of Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. He began life as a slave in America in 1763, arguably the worst social circumstances a man or woman could be born into. By the time he was a teenager, though, Richmond had won his freedom and entered the protection of the British soldier and noble Hugh Percy, his wit and intelligence having dazzled Percy while he was stationed in the loyalist stronghold of Staten Island during the American War of Independence.
In 1777, Percy persuaded Richmond's slave-owner, the Rev Richard Charlton, to release him into his care. This transformed the young man's life, and by the 1820s Richmond had become hugely respected, not only as a boxer but also as a trainer and tutor of both professional and amateur pugilists. For example, he gave lessons to the brilliant essayist William Hazlitt, who admiringly referred to him as "my old master", while Lord Byron was also said to have been one of Richmond's eager pupils.
Percy brought Richmond to the North of England, paying for his tuition in reading and writing and then setting him up with a cabinet-making apprenticeship, an unusually high level of formal education for a black man living in Britain at this time. He later moved to London with his white wife, Mary, whom Richmond had met during his days as a cabinet maker in Yorkshire. It was in the capital that Richmond's life turned towards his unlikely fame he was in his forties and with a young family to support when he became a successful boxer.
In the early 19th century, boxing, along with horse racing, was the dominant sport in England, with the pages of newspapers often containing exhaustive reports of the latest contests. Richmond soon became one of the sport's most famous practitioners, beating many top contenders and assembling a career record of 19 fights and 17 wins. His presence at the aforementioned coronation celebrations of George IV was the ultimate symbol of his acceptance into English society and sporting circles.
I had been aware of the bare facts of Richmond's life and career for a while, thanks to the George MacDonald Fraser novel Black Ajax – in which he appears as a subsidiary character – as well as the Channel 4 documentary Bare Knuckle Boxer and various books about boxing history – but I was shocked to learn that there had not been a single biography devoted to Richmond since his death in 1829.
Despite my fascination with Richmond's life, I initially had no intention of researching and writing his biography. However, all that changed in the summer of 2003, when I discovered a revealing and inspiring article from Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle in the British Newspaper Library in Colindale, London.
The article was a "funeral oration" written about Richmond after his death in December 1829 by Tom Cribb, the former holder of the English Boxing Championship. It contradicted the narrative I had read in boxing and sports history books: that Richmond and Cribb had been irredeemably bitter enemies. Certainly the men, at one stage, shared a fierce rivalry – Cribb had, after all, defeated Richmond in the ring in 1805, before also vanquishing his protégé, Tom Molineaux, in a pair of controversial championship contests in 1810 and 1811. Nevertheless, Cribb's warm and generous tribute to the deceased Richmond, modelled on Mark Antony's tribute to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play, suggested that once the men had retired from the prize ring, they had become close friends.
Reading the speech, I also found myself profoundly moved. Partly, I think, this is because it was written by "plain, blunt Tom Cribb", one of the toughest, most manly men who ever walked the face of the earth, yet when he wrote about Richmond, Cribb seemed uninhibited, unabashed and unashamed in expressing affection and love for his friend. "You all lov'd Richmond once," he emphasised at one point, a sentiment that could seem like a trite rhetorical flourish but, coming from Cribb, who also admitted that his "heart is slumbering in that shell with Billy", it was a line that, for me, achieved significant emotional resonance.
Cribb's speech was also fascinating in terms of how it addressed Richmond's ethnicity. To modern eyes, its liberal use of the "N-word" and Cribb's reference to Richmond as "blacky" are, at worst, offensive and, at best, painfully naive and clumsy. However, despite its embarrassing stumbles ("I am not here to say that Bill was white"), Cribb's speech succeeded in doing something quite remarkable: directly challenging the barriers and prejudices that were so prevalent in Georgian England.
When Cribb wrote his eulogy, the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire was four years away, and the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln still 33 years in the future. Yet, years in advance of these landmark events, Cribb was making a brave call for all human beings to be judged by their characters and actions, and not their ethnicity. Cribb's rejection of the idea that "colour always [makes] the man" was both honestly expressed and inspiring in the face of death, as Cribb pointed out, all men, no matter what their "colour", will one day succumb to the same fate and "tumble" from their "perch".
The tribute helped to bring into focus for me just how remarkable a life Richmond had led. Through the course of the following decade of research, which took me from the dusty archives of Britain to the church in Staten Island where Richmond was once a slave, I discovered that on many occasions Richmond suffered abuse because of his ethnicity. Whether in the boxing ring, while walking the streets or while tending the bar of the Horse and Dolphin – the public house which became a focal point for London's black community after Richmond's fight earnings enabled him to become landlord between 1810 and 1812 – the threat of racial taunts and violence was ever-present for Bill.
In an approving piece in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, he was referred to as "the Lily-white", a popular Georgian term for chimney sweep. This was typical of the sort of patronising language that even Richmond's admirers used to describe him. He was also referred to variously as "the black", "Mungo", the founder of the "sable school of pugilism" and the "black devil".
The bravery he demonstrated to overcome these taunts and prejudices and live a professional and public life was considerable. Furthermore, Richmond's pugilistic exploits caught the imagination of the public and were regularly recounted in detail in the pages of national and local newspapers, and this at a time when most newspapers ran to only four pages in length.
The extent of Richmond's considerable fame can also be measured by the fact that artists of the period produced prints of him, such as Robert Dighton's A Striking View of Richmond. Furthermore, the coronation celebration of George IV was not his only encounter with royalty, for when Frederick William III of Prussia visited London in 1814, Richmond was one of the "celebrated professors of the fist" who were commissioned to spar in front of him and other assorted royals and nobility.
Another of Richmond's notable characteristics was that he was as far removed from the common stereotype of the monosyllabic thug as it was possible to be. Those who met him frequently referred to his excellent manners, witty conversation and intelligence, as well as his ability to tell amusing "milling anecdotes" – a series of qualities that put paid to the bigoted but widespread perception at the time that black people were intellectually inferior to whites. Indeed, Richmond was invariably better educated than his white contemporaries, several of whom were illiterate.
Pierce Egan, the writer who was a key factor in popularising the exploits of Georgian boxers, wrote at length about Richmond's intellect in the first volume of his journal, Boxiana, declaring: "He is intelligent, communicative, and well-behaved and however actively engaged in promulgating the principles of milling, he is not so completely absorbed with fighting as to be incapable of discoursing on any other subject."
Impressively, Richmond was also a man of iron self-control in retirement, unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not become corpulent and dissolute, but retained his trim, muscular features, and remained largely abstemious in his approach to alcohol, with The Morning Post observing that he seldom took "more than a glass of sherry and water".
Richmond was also endowed with the business sense and altruistic spirit of a social entrepreneur. For young black men in London during the early 19th century, boxing was one of the few routes (albeit a dangerous one) to paid and independent employment, and Richmond would often tutor such men one of his pupils was another former slave, Tom Molineaux, whom Richmond mentored and trained for his famous championship contests against Cribb in 1810 and 1811.
These were arguably the two most significant sporting occasions of Georgian times, attracting huge crowds and unprecedented press attention, and Richmond was a key figure in brokering and promoting both bouts. Sadly, while Richmond bucked the age-old cliché of the fast-living sports star, Molineaux's career and life were marred by personal excesses and proved all too short-lived.
Richmond has a good case to be recognised as the first black sportsman of national fame and international significance, the trailblazer to a long, illustrious and socially significant line that eventually stretched to include the likes of Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Richmond wouldn't have known this in 1821, of course, but as he stood at the heart of coronation festivities – a black man thriving within a bastion of white privilege – he could have been forgiven for pausing to reflect just how far he had travelled, and how remarkable a life and career he had already led.
Given the wide scope of his accomplishments, it is high time that Richmond was afforded the prominent place in British history that his life and achievements so richly deserve. I hope that my book Richmond Unchained will enable more people to learn about this remarkable man and his remarkable life, and that the unveiling yesterday of a memorial to Richmond at the Tom Cribb pub in Panton Street, London – once the stomping ground of his rival-turned-friend, as well as the location where Richmond spent the last evening before his death – will provide a lasting tribute to a man who overcame the terrible circumstances of his birth to become one of the wonders of the Georgian age.
'Richmond Unchained' by Luke G Williams (Amberley, £15.99) is out now
Bill Richmond - Britain's first black celebrity
On the sweltering afternoon of 19th July 1821, a celebratory banquet was about to get under way in Westminster hall in honour of the new King, George IV, who had been crowned earlier in the day (as told by Luke G Willliams). In amongst the royal family and fabulously wealthy aristocrats were 18 men who had been invited to the occasion on the merit of their sporting prowess. These were pugilists, or prize-fighters, men who competed in a sport that nominally was the precursor to modern boxing but was more akin to modern UFC or MMA there were no boxing gloves, and basically no rules.
Banquet guests gasped excitedly as they observed the men, celebrities of their day and in peak physical condition, but there was one man who stood out among them all. Standing at 5&rsquo9 (comfortably above average height for a man at the time), he had not an ounce of fat on him and his presence demanded the attention of everyone in the room. Though his face showed signs of age, his torso was immaculately sculpted, and he was in considerably better shape even than the elite fighters who stood next to him. He also stood out because he was black. He was the only black face among a sea of white faces, and guests were fascinated.
This was the famous Bill Richmond. Although he was 57 years old and retired from fighting, he was still the most formidable looking of the men and commanded the respect of the thrilled guests. Richmond&rsquos journey to Westminster that summer afternoon had involved an escape from slavery, thousands of miles of travel, racial strife and a whole lot of fighting. He had earned his place as a well-respected sportsman and was Britain&rsquos first black celebrity. Standing among the elite of British society, he must have felt that this was the pinnacle of a life that had started a long way from the royal banquet.
Born into slavery
Bill Richmond's biographer, Luke G Williams, gives the most reliable account for his early life. He was born on 5th August 1763 on Staten Island, New York, to slave parents who worked in the household of Richard Charlton, a wealthy Reverend at St Andrew&rsquos Episcopal church. Charlton resided in the town of Richmond on Staten Island and it is thought that this is where Bill took his surname from. He could have easily been condemned to a life of anonymous servitude, but events in the world around him produced a chance meeting with the man who would change his life.
In 1775 decades of tensions between colonists in America and the British government in London led to the American declaration of independence and the subsequent mobilisation of British troops in New York City, seen as a key port for the inevitable war. As a prominent loyalist Charlton invited the commander of British troops in New York, Hugh Percy, the Duke of Northumberland, to his residence on Staten Island the following year and it was here that Percy was introduced to Bill Richmond. The Duke was dazzled by the boy, who was only 13 but had such physical presence and exhibited such intelligence that Percy knew he had to take him under his wing. Eventually, Percy persuaded Charlton to sell the youngster to him.
At his headquarters in New York City Hugh Percy would often host important guests and one of his favourite forms of entertainment was prize fighting. Having spotted Richmond&rsquos potential as a fighter, Percy organised fights for the boy and before long was picking out some of the toughest soldiers in the British army to test him. The teenage Richmond despatched them easily, and Percy was wildly impressed.
Though a strong abolitionist himself, Percy did not want to antagonise the American loyalists he so desperately needed for the war effort by openly freeing his slave, so he did what he considered to be the next best thing. In 1777, he sent Richmond to England and paid for him to attend school in Northumbria where his ferocious intelligence earned top grades, before arranging a cabinetmaking apprenticeship for him in York when he left school. Cabinetmaking was a highly valued profession at the time, and local people were curious about why a black man had been afforded these opportunities by a high-ranking noble. Not everyone was pleased with his success, and some people were even less impressed when he married a local white woman, Mary Dunwick, with whom he would have several children.
From amateur to professional
Richmond continued his amateur fighting career in York but according to Pierce Egan, a local journalist in the 1790s, at least a few of his fights there came about because of racist insults that were hurled at him. Either way, he soon built a reputation as a formidable fighter, and it was a reputation that would open even more doors for him. Prize fighting was immensely popular in Britain at the time and transcended the strict social class system, with workmen and aristocrats alike keenly attending fights and following the newspaper reports which breathlessly gave details of important fights up and down the land.
Yet it was not until he was in his forties that Bill Richmond would start to fight professionally. William DeLong describes how, having moved to London with his young family in 1795, Richmond met Thomas Pitt, the Lord of Camelford and a former Navy officer. Pitt was an avid fan of prize fighting and hired Richmond nominally to help in his household, but Richmond &ndash who always had a keen eye for social advancement &ndash would spend most of his time coaching Pitt in the art of fighting. The two became friends and would attend fights together, sparring with each other while onlookers marvelled at the natural swagger of Pitt and the pure athleticism and guile of Richmond. By the early 19th century, Richmond was being paid to fight, and his professional career would end with a very respectable record of 17 wins out of 19 fights. Yet even the two losses were losses of the heroic variety, gaining Richmond even more respect. The first came in one of his first professional fights in 1804, where he squared off against George Maddox. Maddox was undefeated and would typically win victory against other opponents in a couple of rounds, but Richmond managed to take him on for nine rounds before finally succumbing to defeat. He would eventually beat Maddox in a rematch in 1809, after a colossal 52 rounds, winning 100 guineas for his troubles. He was 45 years old at the time.
His other loss had been in 1805 and would spark one of the most famous rivalries in early 19th century British sport. On a field in Sussex Bill Richmond faced the renowned Tom Cribb, 18 years his junior, and managed to battle him for 90 minutes before Cribb knocked him out. Cribb would go on to become the undisputed champion of British boxing between 1809 and 1822, and Richmond never forgot his loss to the young upstart.
Tom Molineaux fights Tom Cribb, with Bill Richmond standing behind him.
In 1810 he used the money he had earnt to establish a pub, the Horse and Dolphin, just off Leicester Square. It was here that he met Tom Molineaux, a fellow freed American slave who had travelled to England to pursue a prize fighting career. Richmond coached Molineaux and prepared him for two mammoth fights against the now-national champion Tom Cribb, but Cribb won both fights and Molineaux fired Richmond as his trainer. As a result, Richmond lost a large amount of income and was forced to sell his pub.
Retirement and death
Richmond fought sporadically in the 1810s but was fully retired by his early fifties. It was during this time that he formed an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Tom Cribb. After retiring himself, Cribb took ownership of the Union Arms pub, a few doors down from Richmond&rsquos old pub near Leicester Square, and the two former foes would often be spotted drinking together. Indeed, it was in the Union Arms where Richmond was last seen alive. On the evening of Sunday 27th December 1829, he dined with Cribb as he always did on a Sunday before retiring to his home with a cough. He would not live to see the morning. In the early hours of Monday 28th December 1829, Bill Richmond died at the age of 66.
Although Cribb was forced to miss the funeral because of his own illness (he would recover and live until 1848), he dictated a heartbroken eulogy to his friend which was read at the funeral on his behalf. Despite its use of language that would be unacceptable today &ndash his letter routinely referred to his friend as &lsquoblacky&rsquo and was dotted with unfortunate phrases such as &lsquoI am not here to say that Billy was white&rsquo &ndash Cribb&rsquos letter was a challenge the racial boundaries that Richmond had faced and that would exist in the world far beyond his time. He scoffed at the idea that &lsquocolour always makes the man&rsquo and noted that all people, no matter their colour, will eventually meet the same end. Cribb, the fearsome and poorly educated former sailor from Bristol, showed he had a more open mind than most of Britain&rsquos elite.
Tom Cribb's pub still stands in London today.
In August 2015, a plaque honouring Bill Richmond was unveiled in the Tom Cribb pub.
Bill Richmond&rsquos Horse and Dolphin pub has long since been demolished, but Tom Cribb&rsquos pub still stands in the exact spot it always did. In 1960, its name was changed from the Union Arms to the Tom Cribb, and in 2015 a memorial plaque was unveiled in the pub in honour of Bill Richmond. The few people who know this story can look around the pub and imagine Bill Richmond having a drink and a laugh with his friend Tom Cribb. But most modern patrons may look at the plaque and wonder why they have never heard of the man, Britain&rsquos first black celebrity. His name, once respected across the land and listed as a guest of honour at the King&rsquos coronation, has faded from national memory. As unjust as that is, the fact that he was ever famous at all is a testament to this remarkable man. He now resides in the anonymity he was born into, but through sheer talent and intelligence was able to break free from that anonymity in his lifetime. His fame was taken from him, but his achievements cannot be.
The Ministry of History is not an academic source. Our pieces are written by writers who have been studying history for years and are well versed in and influenced by countless other writers and works. For this article specifically our sources have included:
'Bill Richmond' - article by IBHOF.com (International Boxing Hall of Fame)
'Bill Richmond: The Black Boxer Wowed the Court of George IV and Taught Lord Byron to Spar', article Luke G Williams, published by The Independent (2015)
Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity From Bronze Age to Silver Screen, Greg Jenner (2020).
Adele Johnson at home in Rocketts Landing. An abstract painting by Virginia artist Norman Wyatt keeps Johnson’s imagination active. “I make up my own story every day. I love looking at it,” she says.
Johnson’s love for her husband of nine years, Billy Cooper, leads her to pull out a photo book of their wedding and name it as one of her favorite things.
A metallic silver urn with faces that meet at the top tells another story of family continuity. For Johnson, the faces represent past, present and future, like shared DNA.
At the center of the living room is an expansive textured table from Restoration Hardware that is both contemporary and modern. “That’s who I try to be,” she says.
In the foyer, a work made of broken glass assembled into a form by Virginia artist Stacy Brown hangs on a wood lattice support.
Two small dolls stand together on a bookshelf. While Johnson doesn’t collect dolls, these two — gifts from her daughter — are special.
Throw pillows are tossed casually on matching oversized chairs and a sofa in the living room. Johnson loves them for their comfort and the African flavor of the fabric.
After living for 15 years in Brandermill, a planned community in Chesterfield County, Adele Johnson and her husband, Billy Cooper, were ready for a change. “He’s a city guy,” Johnson says of Cooper, a Richmond native. So, a year ago, the couple left their lake view behind and moved to one of Richmond’s newest semi-urban neighborhoods, Rocketts Landing, which is a stone’s throw from the James River just east of town.
“I’d been looking at Rocketts Landing for a number of years,” Johnson says, and she’s happy with their decision. Purchasing their home before it was built gave them the opportunity to customize and get things just right. They’ve got five floors — a man-cave basement, first-floor living room and kitchen, two floors of bedrooms and a rooftop deck with views in every direction. Plus, there’s an elevator for convenience. And it’s just a quick drive to Johnson’s new gig as executive director of Richmond’s Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia.
On and off the job, Johnson’s passions for family and stories of the past have converged. “My dad was a history buff, very well-read and well-traveled,” she says. “My mom was the family storyteller, always talking about ancestors and getting everyone together. So, I had an appreciation for memories and culture. I feel like this is the right time, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
At the museum, she says, “We have the responsibility to tell stories about African-Americans who’ve done great things. It’s an honor to walk in the building every day and know that we could have an impact on someone.” She cites well-known luminaries like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who tap danced around the world but paid for a stoplight in Jackson Ward to keep children safe as they crossed the street. And she mentions lesser-known but important people such as Mary Davidson, who invented the toilet-tissue holder. Sharing the stories of these African-American Richmonders of the past is part of making that impact, especially with school visitors. “They learn that you can find a problem and come up with a solution,” Johnson says. “You, too, can be an inventor.”
At home, Johnson and Cooper relish the chance to spend time together in the calm of their living room and kitchen, which feature plenty of places to sit and sip a glass of wine after work. Visits are welcome from their children and five grandchildren, as well as from Cooper’s mother, who has the second floor all to herself. Just like at the museum, legacies are passed on through objects that tell stories of the past and inform the future of their family.
Black History Month: Bill Richmond (1763-1829)
Bill Richmond, also known as “The Black Terror”, the first black boxer to gain international recognition, was born in Cuckold's Town — now Richmondtown — on Staten Island, New York, on August 5, 1763.
In 1777, when the English troops held New York during the revolutionary war, he served their general, Earl Percy, afterward the Duke of Northumberland.
When Percy returned to England, he took young Bill with him and sent him to school in Yorkshire. He also served as an apprentice to a cabinet maker.
The first glimpse of the talent he possessed with his fists came into view against Docky Moore, a soldier who insulted Richmond, and was promptly challenged to fight. Although considerably outweighed, Richmond thrashed the soldier and soon enjoyed similar success against others who attempted to insult him in ensuing years.
Richmond had his first professional fight in January 1804, when he was 36 years old.
He witnessed veteran boxer George Maddox in action and declared he could defeat him. Given the opportunity, he failed miserably. Maddox stopped him in three rounds. Undeterred, Richmond entered the ring in May 1805 and defeated a Jewish boxer known as “Fighting Youssep”.
This contest gave him a reputation as a pugilist, and he was soon matched with boxer Jack Holmes, who was credited with giving Tom Cribb, one of the leading pugilists in England, one of his toughest fights.
The win over Holmes after 26 gruelling rounds set the stage for a match with Cribb in October 1805.
Now 42, Richmond demonstrated excellent footwork and sound defence against Cribb before enduring withering punishment from his 24-year-old foe and succumbing to defeat in the 25th round.
It was Richmond's second and last defeat.
In 1808, Richmond faced and defeated Jack Carter at Epsom Downs near London. In 1809, he had a rematch with Maddox at Wimbledon Common and won after 52 rounds. Richmond married after this fight and with his winnings bought a pub, the Horse and Dolphin in Leicester Square, London. Richmond also opened a boxing academy and on occasion he fought in exhibition boxing matches. He also became a cricketer.
Bill Richmond died at his home in London in 1829. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.