Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes: “Championess of American and of Europe”

Fightland Blog

By L.A. Jennings

In 1987, Joyce Carol Oates published her seminal text, On Boxing, in which she declared that “Boxing is a purely masculine activity and [sic] it inhabits a purely masculine World.” Oates passion for boxing may have limited her scope of research to the time in which was writing. Or perhaps she knew that there were indeed female boxers, but that boxing itself, the idea of boxing, remains an inherent trait of the sport. And maybe she was correct in that boxing in particular, and sports in general, occupy a specific part of our collective unconscious as masculine endeavors. Even now, when we talk about women boxers, there is the necessity to qualify them as women, and not just boxers. This phenomenon is not restricted to fighting sports. Gender scholar Michael Kimmel recognizes that those in the center of power do not have to be named: men in sports are athletes, but women in sports are female athletes. The qualifier of female takes one away from the center of power, and that marginalization increases when other qualifiers are added, such as African-American woman or Asian-American woman. Men remain at the center of sports and therefore, sports history.

Over the past three hundred years, detractors have claimed that women do not belong in fighting sports because they are male dominated activities. Some critics claimed the female body was not fit for fighting. Others argued that boxing and wrestling had always been male sports, and that women should not try to enter those arenas, but history does not support those assertions. Women have been competing in fighting sports for thousands of years, despite the perpetual claims by opponents of female fighters that they do not belong in the ring, on the mat, or in the cage. The convenient forgetfulness, or misremembering of the past, is way to erase the history of female fighters, and maintain the hegemonic male power structure and the inaccurate belief that women have never, and will never, belong in certain male spaces.

The history, then, of female fighters has been conveniently forgotten by those who either wish to deter women from participating in official fighting sports or seek to describe today’s women as interlopers, just as women are trespassing into the military or politics or the NFL. Luckily, with the advent of the printing press and the careful preservation of documents by archivists, primary source materials revealing the existence of female fighters over the past five hundred years exist in microfilm and Internet databases. One particular fighter, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes, pummels her way off the pages of news accounts in the 1720s, reminding all of us that fighting takes place not only in the ring, but in the media.

Fighters, especially those at the height of their careers, are self-aggrandizers. Fans may complain at the bombastic Twitter chatter of today’s fighters, but it is those who speak the loudest who get not only the limelight, but often, the title shots. In the early eighteenth century, pugilists took advantage of England’s increasingly literate population and the proliferation of newspapers to promote themselves in the press. Fighters called out future opponents and advertised their upcoming bouts. James Figg, known as “the father of boxing” by the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was the champion of his day and like many fighters do to in preparation for retirement, Figg opened the Britain’s first legitimate fight gym. His ‘School for the Manly-Art of Self-Defense’ taught boxing, fencing, and cudgel fighting. Figg used the newspapers of the time to insult his opponents, remind readers of his undefeated career, and to promote his gym as the ideal training academy. One of his students was Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes, who would become known as the “Championess of America and of Europe” in her short, but dramatic fighting career.

All that we know about Elizabeth comes from the challenges she issued in various newspapers during her fighting career. We are lucky to have these documents at all, given how easily the primary source material could have been lost to fire or flood. But because of the lack of documentation about Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes outside of these challenges, the greatest female boxer of the eighteenth century (and perhaps beyond) remains an enigma.

Elizabeth Stokes fashioned herself the “European Championess” of boxing in the early eighteenth century; a title she undoubtedly earned. Her first recorded fight in 1722 was the result of a challenge to Hannah Hyfield, a woman Stokes would soundly beat after twenty-two minutes of solid sparring. The London Journal republished Wilkinson’s original challenge, admitting that the paper did so because it was unfamiliar with female pugilists.

Boxing in publick at eh Bear Garden is what has lately obtained very much amongst the Men, but till last Week we never heard of Women being engaged that Way, when two of the Feminine Gender appeared for the first Time on the Theatre of War at Hockley in the Hole, and maintained the Battle with great Valour for a long Time, to the no small Satisfaction of the spectators.

The Journal then reprinted the following exchange in which Elizabeth Wilkinson challenged Hannah Hyfield prior to the fight:

I Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkewell, having had some Words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring Satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the Stage, and Box me for Three Guineas, each Woman holding Half a Crown in each Hand, and the first Woman that drop her Money to Use the Battle.

Hyfield responded in kind:

I Hannah Hyfield of New gate Market, hearing the Resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God-willing, to give her more Blows than Words, desiring home Blows, and from her no Favour.

Wilkinson undoubtedly fought prior to this bout with Hannah Hyfield, but her name does not exist in any reports until this 1722 fight. In fact, Elizabeth Wilkinson’s name is the subject of much debate amongst historians, who tie her first to the recently executed murderer, Robert Wilkinson, who, in addition to being a murderer, was apparently a prize fighter. In 1927, Arthur L. Hayward edited Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, an anthology of biographies of eighteenth-century British criminals from a 1735 collection of original papers. This collection included the story of Robert Wilkinson, yet curiously, the piece ends with a reprint of the Elizabeth Wilkinson and Hannah Hyfield challenges published in 1922. The author provides no further commentary, but instead insinuates a connection between the murderer Robert Wilkinson and the pugilist Elizabeth Wilkinson.

Boxing history enthusiasts have read into this connection extensively, making suppositions from blood relations or spouses to Elizabeth’s adoption of the last name ‘Wilkinson’ as a sort of bloody tribute to the former prize fighter cum murderer. The former theory is based on the evidence that the name Elizabeth Wilkinson never appeared in any historic records prior to her public challenge to Hannah Hyfield; thus, her absence from public record as Elizabeth Wilkinson must indicate that she changed her name. However, it is not unlikely that a young woman in eighteenth-century Britain could exist in reality without her name appearing in any written records. And even if her name did, for some reason, occur in print prior to the 1722 challenge, those documents may not have survived in any number of situations in the subsequent years.

Painting of James Figg by William Hogarth (British, 1697–1764)

Following her victory over Hannah Hyfield, Elizabeth became a fixture in James Figg’s boxing venues, where she continued to fight and dominate the ring. Although Elizabeth defied gender roles through her pugilistic activities, she was not condemned by all of England’s society. She was the hero of the eccentric British Isles. Nineteenth century English sports journalist, Pierce Egan, published a series of tomes on the boxing phenomenon in British culture. Egan tied the popularity of boxing to English nationalism, citing the relationship between the inherent ‘manliness’ and prowess of men born on British soil. But Egan notes that national pride in boxing extended beyond male citizens. In a small section titled “Female Pugilism,” Egan quoted an exchange between Elizabeth Wilkinson and Hannah Hyfield, exclaiming “even HEROINES panted for the honours of pugilistic glory!” (300).

Sometime between 1722 and 1726, Elizabeth Wilkinson became known as Elizabeth Stokes, the wife of fellow pugilistic, James Stokes. Stokes was Elizabeth’s promoter and an associate (and later opponent) of legendary boxer, James Figg. James and Elizabeth’s combative partnership was standard practice amongst female pugilists in the eighteenth century. Elizabeth and James were often challenged as a pair with Elizabeth fighting the wife and James the husband.

The British Gazetteer announced on Saturday, October 1, 1726, the upcoming bout between two women: the British Elizabeth Stokes and the Irish Mary Welch. The bout was to take place at the Stokes amphitheater, which was owned by Elizabeth’s husband, James.  A note at the bottom of the advertisement explains “they fight in cloth Jackets, short Petticoats, coming just below the Knee, Holland Drawers, white Stockings, and pumps.”

I, Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught and knowing the Noble Science of Defence, and thought to be the only Female of this Kind in Europe, understanding here is one on this Kingdom, who has exercised on the publick Stage several Times, which is Mrs. Stokes, who is biled the famous Championess of England; I do hereby invite her to meet me, and exercise the awful Weapons practiced on the Stage, at her own Amplitheatre, doubting not, but to let her and the worthy Spectators fee, that my Judgement and Courage is beyond hers.

Stokes responded to the Welch, claiming that she was undefeated in the boxing ring.

I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, beign well known by the Name of the Invicible City Championess for my Abilities and Judgement in the abovesaid science; having never engaged with any of my own Sex but I always came off with Victory and Applause, shall make no Apology for accepting the Challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the Reputation I have hitherto established, and (few) my Country, that the Contest of it’s Honour, is not ill entrusted in the present Battle with their Championess, Elizabeth Stokes.

While the advertisements for fights were printed and reprinted across Britain, there seems to be no official or unofficial document that detailed the outcome of these bouts. However, it appears that Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes remained undefeated in her pugilistic career.

On July 1, 1727, Elizabeth and James Stokes were jointly challenge by the aforementioned (and assumed defeated) Mary Welch and her training partner, Robert Baker, also of Ireland. Although the husband and wife were challenged as a couple they fought individually against their Irish opponents. In their challenge, Welch and Baker “invite Mr. Stokes, and his bold Amazonian Virago,” whom they claim to suffer from vanity based on several “petty successes,” to fight on Monday, July 3rd, 1727. The Stokes’ responded in what may be one of the most snarky and derisive comebacks of all time:

We James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, were of Opinion that by our former Performances, we had establish’d to ourselves such a Reputation, as would effectively have secur’d us from the Trouble of any Hibernian Challenges, but finding these Comcomitants (as they call themselves) in Pursuit of Fame, are not susceptible of any Conviction of their Insufficiency to stand in Competition with us, but what they purchase at a very smart Expense, we shall for this once do them the Favour to comply with their Invitation, and hope they will have the Modesty to impute it more to their own Indiscretion, than to any Enmity of ours, if their imaginary Prospect of being Sharers in Renown, should be chang’d into a real Partnership in a defeated Combat.

In addition to being the European boxing Championess, Elizabeth Stokes acted as an instructor to aspiring young pugilists. In the announcement for a fight with Mary Baker (presumably the former Mary Welch now married to her boxing partner Robert), there is an endnote announcing that “two of Mrs. Stokes’s scholars are to fight six Bouts at Quarter-Staff, between the Womens Bouts.” Although the details of these students, including their gender, is lost, the note reveals that Elizabeth’s famous reputation as a boxer positioned her apprentices to compete in the same large venue as their teacher.

In 1728, Elizabeth responded to her most demanding challenge yet from Ann Field, an ass-driver from Stoke Newington. Historians often cite this challenge, not only because of Ann’s humorous job description, but because Elizabeth is so assured in her response. The bout itself, held on October 7, 1728, was easily overshadowed by the clever and funny correspondence in the media:

I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington, ass driver, well known for my abilities in boxing in my own defence wherever it happened in my way, having been affronted by Mrs. Stokes, styled the European Championess, do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing for 10 pounds, fair rise and fall; and question not but to give her such proofs of my judgment that shall oblige her to acknowledge me Championess of the Stage, to the entire satisfaction of all my friends

Field’s courageous challenge was met with particularly cutting remarks from Stokes:

I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, have not fought in this way since I fought the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate 29 minutes, and gained complete victory, (which was six years ago;) but as the famous Stowe Newington ass-woman dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I do assure her that I will not fail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses.

In December of 1728, Stokes was challenged once again to fight in public, but this time it was the husband of her opponent who called out the famous English pugilist. Dubliner Thomas Barret, who claimed to have fought “six hundred and odd Battles,” brought his wife, “the fair Sarah Barret,” to face the “profound” talents of Elizabeth Stokes. Thomas Barret claimed his wife, Sarah, “has fought thirty five Battles in Ireland, Scotland and England, and was, never yet defeated, and does not in the least doubt but to have as good Success with this European Championess. Elizabeth and James responded with a coy statement, claiming

I James Stokes, and Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, thought not to fight in Publick anymore, but being credibly informed both by Scotch and Irish Gentleman of name, of the Bravery of this new Irish Champion and Championess in North Britain; but I am no-ways surprised at this Encounter, and will display the Judgement of the Sword to their Disadvantage, my spouse not doubting but to do the fame and hopes to give a general Satisfaction to all Spectators.

Elizabeth’s career continued in the media through 1730. In May of 1729, Dubliner Charles Wright and his “Scholar” Mary Waller challenged James “the renowened City Champion” and Elizabeth “hitherto accounted Britania’s most puissant Heroine.” In the most verbose and flowery challenge yet, Joseph Paddon called out the “two impregnable fortresses” of James and Elizabeth Stokes to take on him and his student whom he “trained from her Cradle to the Toils of War.” Unfortunately, the evidence of all of these matches exist only in the pre-fight banter. In nineteenth century, publications emerged that focused solely on covering pugilism in both Britain and the United States.

Over the course of her career, Elizabeth primarily fought in boxing matches, although her skills with a short sword and dagger were well-known.

Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes may be the most venerated female pugilist in British history, but she was not the first, nor the last women to defy gendered norms and enter the boxing ring. The details of her personal life are, unfortunately, constricted by the lack of documentation in the annals of history. In his essay “Disappearance: How Shifting Gendered Boundaries Motivated the Removal of Eighteenth Century Boxing Champion Elizabeth Wilkinson from Historical Memory,” historian Christopher Thrasher argues that ‘society’ purposefully erased Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes from boxing history in favor of a male contemporary. Fighter James Figg is currently cited as “the father of boxing” with hundreds of articles dedicated to his career, but according to Thrasher, Stokes was the more popular of the two during their lifetime. Using a scan of the Google Books database from the 18th through the 21st century, Thrasher revealed that while Stokes was the more popular of the two during the 19th century, Figg far surpassed her in the 20th century, while Stokes fell into obscurity. Perhaps the late Victorian era return to masculinity led historians to put James Figg on a pedestal and Elizabeth Wilkinson in the corner.


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