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Prize-fighter, fiddler and publican – the great Jem Mace

Posted in Historical articles, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Friday, 30 September 2011

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This edited article about sport originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 829 published on 3 December 1977.

Bare-knuckle fighting, picture, image, illustration

Bare-knuckle fights were popular throughout the C18 and C19 centuries, by Peter Jackson

In the nineteenth century, before the Queensberry Rules, which now govern boxing, were introduced, boxers fought with their bare fists. Often a contest lasted until one of the combatants was battered almost to death.

One of the most famous boxers of the time was James Mace. But Jem, as he was known, was no musclebound bruiser; when he had finished his rounds in the booth he liked to relax by playing the violin.

Born on 8th April, 1831, at Beeston in Norfolk. Jem began his career in the rough and tumble world of a travelling boxing booth. At fairs, the booth would be set up and he would challenge all comers to fight him for a purse.

Soon Jem progressed from fairground fighting, and on the night of 19th January, 1860, he defeated Bob Brettle and became middleweight champion of England. Although Jem was defeated several times after that, he always managed to get his championship back and he was holding it when he retired from the ring in 1871.

One of Jem’s most famous fights was against Thomas King on 28th January, 1862. After 43 rounds of hard, but even, fighting he finally won.

In those days the authorities tried hard to stop prize-fighting and in 1867 Mace was arrested for taking part in the sport.

Following this he went to Canada and Australia, continuing his fighting career and becoming landlord of a pub.

After his retirement from championship fighting. Jem Mace continued to give exhibitions at circuses, but as time went on he was faced with poverty.

At last he was forced into becoming a sparring partner in a small sideshow – he was back where he had started. Jem continued at this hard trade until his death on 30th November, 1910.

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