From Wilkinson to Harper, a brief history of the extraordinary individuals that have shaped women’s Boxing in Britain.
“On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men, of warriors” said Viking bard Saxo Grammaticus of the women that fought in the Battle of Brávellir.
The same women who in another era would have slayed foes with bow and axe now ply their trade with gloved fists. Since the days of swords and shields that same spirit has endured, from the battlefields of England to the prize rings in the world.
As women’s professional boxing in this country climaxes this weekend with the epic showdown between the undefeated champion Terri Harper and slick challenger Natasha Jonas, I will attempt to trace this spirit. Chart it through history, give you an overview of the bold women who have changed the history of British boxing.
The story starts with Elizabeth Wilkinson. Wife of a famous bare knuckle champion, Wilkinson became the first well known women’s boxer. In 1722 Wilkinson challenged Hannah Hyfield of Newgate Market to what may have been the first female prize fight in London.
She issued the challenge in a newspaper; ”I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring Satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the Stage and Box me". Hard and wiley she seldom lost, often forcing her opponents to retire. A hurricane of fists in a dress.
Outspoken and brash, she toured the country with James Figgs promotional company and took on every female challenger in the land. For a short time she was the most famous prizefighter in England.
Wilkinson Scores a knockout
As the 19th century dawned however the British Evangelical Christian movement became a political force. They Labeled women’s involvement in the sport an abomination. This ushered in a dark age for female fighters who were relegated to sideshow “performances” and nightclub acts. Female athletes forced to entertain men on a sensationalist level.
Despite some advances in the states with Hattie Leslie and Alice Leary fighting in the first women’s fight in New York in 1888 progress on this island was slow. Victorian society produced gender restrictive laws and customs that prohibited women from sport almost completely.
It was not until the roaring twenties that the flame of the female fighter would raise another star. Annie Newton was the niece of former lightweight champion ‘Professor’ Andrew Newton and she had grown up in a boxing gym, leading the tricks of the trade.
After losing not one, but two, husbands to the Great War she stepped up into the ring to support her infant daughter. She had immense skill and when she sparred men they were often shocked by her skill and speed. It was said she could hit the speed bag 900 times without missing.
In June 1925, she took part in a boxing tournament at the Alcazar, Edmonton. She was in the ring for over a hour and a half sparring with three men, giving them two rounds each, and getting the better of all of them.
In 1926, an exhibition match of six rounds was arranged at the Hoxton Baths between Newton and Madge Baker. It ignited furious debate within British society.
The Mayor of Hackney wrote "I regard this proposed exhibition of women boxers as a gratification of the sensual ideals of a crowd of vulgar men.".
The Home Secretary wrote; “I hope and trust that the influence of decent public opinion will prevent such an outrage taking place."
When the bout was eventually cancelled by order of the town council Newton was furious “I’m terribly upset about it. I have been looking forward to the match for a long time and got myself in first-rate condition.”
Ever the fighter she offered to instead meet three male boxers in two-round bouts, but this too was cancelled.
Like Wilkinson before her she had a first temper to match her fighting prowess. She would later tell reporters “All this talk about boxing being ‘degrading’ and ‘risky’ and ‘too hard work’ strikes me as very comic. Is it any more degrading, or half as hard work as scrubbing floors? Is it any more risky than working in a munitions factory”
Annie Newton Poses in her uncles Gym
With Newton silenced the fire of women’s fighting was once again briefly extinguished. The forces of misogyny and regressionism seemed to have triumphed, but as before, that wouldn’t last forever.
Britain was a hostile place for women’s boxing across most of the 20th century. Although Caroline Svendsen has become the first licenced female boxer in the United States and fighters like Jackie Tonawanda and Cathy Davies gained some fame over there, the UK remained in the dark.
That was until a street wise girl from Fleetwood reignited the spirit that had fueled her forebears. Jane Couch was about to change the game forever.
Expelled from school, drinking and fighting Jane’s life was well and truly off the rails when she stumbled across a documentary about Muay Thai kickboxing. He joined a gym and learnt she not only had the desire to fight, but the ability too.
Soon switching to boxing she applied for a licence to box professionally. The British Boxing Board of Control initially refused to grant Couch a professional licence on the sole ground that she was a woman, and argued that PMS made women too unstable to box.
Luckily, the world Wilkinson and Newton inhabited was gone, and Jane now had legislative weapons to help in her crusade for equality.
She solicited the support of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the body created by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to take the BBBoC to an independent sexual discrimination tribunal.
In March 1998 she won. The ‘Fleetwood Assassin’ became the first officially licenced female boxer in the UK. She set a legal precedent for females in this country to box professionally. She didn’t just open the floodgates, she kicked them open with such force it can still be felt today.
Jane Couch Lands with ferocity
Lightweight and light Welterweight world champion Jane served as the inspiration for the next generation of world beaters, the generation we see today.
The golden generation of 2012 was the culmination of all of these pioneering women’s hard work. The all British Isles trifecta of Katie Taylor, Nicola Adams and Natasha Jonas we’re so good they forced AIBA to include women’s boxing in the 2012 Olympics in London. The same city that shut down the bouts of Wilkinson, Newton and Couch was now playing host to the biggest celebration of women’s fighting the world has ever seen.
In the subsequent years all three turned professional, all registering with the BBBoC under Couch’s precedent. Taylor is a unified two weight world champion. Adams won a world title and retired and now, this friday Jonas too will fight for a world title.
Her opponent in that fight is, to my mind, the pinnacle of the fight for boxing equality. Terri Harper is a 23 year old world champion, an ordinary lass with extraordinary skills. A star in her own right with a huge fan base, not just a girl that fights, but a proper, recognised fighter.
With the emergence of Terri Harper we at last see parity, equality. Harper has emerged into a world where her talents can speak for themselves, where she can express herself through the art of pugilism, the way people who happen to be born male have for centuries.
The final evolution
The spirit of war that has existed in fierce and defiant British women since the dawn of time will be on display this Friday night in a way it never has before. Dominant professional champion vs skilled professional challenger, headlining a card where the world will be watching.
These unapologetic women have not just led the way for sport but in the crusade against a patriarchy that has ruled for generations. On the seventh of August 2020 Harper and Jonas will be boxing on the shoulders of giants, creating their own history, and inspiring the next generation of strong women to lace up the gloves.