Nat Langham (1820-1871)

Nat Langham entered sporting history in the sport of pugilism (bare-knuckle boxing), by becoming the only man to beat the great pugilist Tom Sayers. He would become the Middleweight Champion of England from 1843 to 1857.

Nat Langham (1820-1871) bare-knuckle boxing
Nat Langham (1820-1871)

20th February 1820 Nat was Born Stephen Nathaniel Langham.

He was the son of poor framework knitters Nathaniel and Mary Langham (both born in Hinckley), who lived in Cross Keys Yard in the Upper Castle Street area of Hinckley in Leicestershire. Being a stocking maker was not a well-paid job, the phrase ‘poor as a stockinger’ was cruelly accurate. In such places as Cross Keys Yard the miserable poor attempted to eke out a living in congested, slum-like conditions.

Nat was not proud of his roots, in later years would claim he was the son of a farm labourer. In the earliest days Nat was malnourished, he always had a weak constitution and lungs, which would make his choice of profession somewhat surprising.

Within the basement area of a merchant's house in Hinckley he would entertain the servants of the house by eating off the same plate as the dog. He ate raw onions by the dozen to entertain public house customers, and if that was not enough he would drink a mug of stale ale he was given to wash the raw onions down.

1828 Nat’s parents left him to his own devices to scavenge on the streets, he was eight years old when a street trader caught him stealing a hot potato from his cart. To teach him a lesson the street trader thrust the hot potato into Nat’s mouth. As a result of the punishment, his tongue was so burnt and swollen that he suffered permanent damage and would speak with a pronounced speech impediment for the rest of his life.

Nat entered his first ‘prize’ fight for money. There is a bit of controversy as to whom he fought, some say that it was against William Ellis of Sapcote village, while others suggest that he fought against Hinckley's champion Dick Brown, for a purse of £5. This fight would have been at the Harrow Inn, named after the nearby Harrow Brook that crosses Watling Street (A5). At the time, the Harrow Inn was well known for its sporting activities of illegal bare-knuckle fights. It was also a convenient place to hop over the Warwickshire-Leicestershire border when the police arrived.

He would be encouraged to go to Leicester in search of employment as a delivery man of goods by horse and cart, but also to attend the sparring rooms of the Leicester pugilist Dick Cain, at the Castle Tavern, 43 Gallowtree Gate in Leicester.

Nat did not attract any attention on himself until in a street brawl, with a local from a rough area, it was said that ‘Nat gave him a sound hiding’. Word got around after the brawl which alerted Dick Cain to the fact that Nat possessed the fighting instinct along with the talent which would enable him to enter the prize-ring. Dick Cain became Nat's mentor and took pride in the development of his young protégé.

12th February 1843 Nat returned to Hinckley, where he was challenged to fight William Ellis of Sapcote for £5 a side. William Ellis was a much heavier man and older. The result of the fight was that Nat was the victor leaving his opponent William with a cut and a battered face. With this victory he became the Middleweight Champion of England, he decided to go to London and try his luck. He would meet the pugilist Ben Caunt who was also from East Midlands and a former heavyweight champion. Ben was impressed with Nat’s ability so he would organise his first prize-fight in London.

7th May 1844 Nat would see himself in the ring against Tom Lowe. The fight lasted for 43 rounds in 50 minutes with Tom conceding to Nat, giving Nat the victory.

The developing style that Nat had was not without little controversy. Nat stood just under six feet tall and weighed 11 stone, this was considered the unlucky weight because he was too light for the heavyweights and too heavy for the lighter fighters. Due to his weak constitution he developed a technique to counter his physical disadvantages. Nat had developed a strong left-handed punch and made full use of this, he would stand with his legs wide apart with one foot quite a way in front of the other, his left arm would be well out while his right close to his chest.

The objective of the fight was to make his opponent blind by hard punches on to his forehead and the eye area. Nat developed a knock-out blow that would be a downward left-hook, which was called the "pick-axe" blow. What he lacked in brute strength he made up for in technique and speed.

Another tactic that Nat had was of ‘going down’ on one knee and one hand, this would give him a chance to get a second wind. He used this at times in a suspicious manner, although it was within the pale of the law, which his friends would contend. The fights were governed by just a few rules, they were considered a breach of the peace by the police and consequently were held outside of the city limits to keep it quiet.

The ring was normally 24 feet square and had eight posts along with two rope rails, another ring would surround this that was reserved for the umpires, seconds and backers of the two fighters and also for the more privileged of spectators.

Due to Nat's victory against Tom Lowe, Ben Caunt would put Nat on a higher offer of £25 a side, this would give some weight to any challengers. It would not be long before a challenge would be accepted at "The White Lion" in Hinckley and also at Ben Caunt's hostelry "The Coach and Horses" in London.

12th June 1845 Nat would be lined up for a fight against Dr Campbell, known as "The Brighton Bomber" for £5 a side. The fight would last 27 rounds in 37 minutes with the victory going to Nat.

23rd September 1846 Due to Nat’s growing reputation, he was to see himself matched up with the highly respected George Gutteridge of Bourne in Lincolnshire for £25 a side. The fight took place at Bourne and turned out to be a bruising encounter. In the first 10 rounds, Nat had the advantage. Then for the next 40 rounds, George Guttridge appeared to improve, but from the 51st round until the 93rd round, Nat took control until George Guttridge finally conceded. Nat would come away from the fight with a win after 93 minutes.

4th May 1847 Nat was match up with the Australian William Sparkes at Woking common for £50 a side, which was a considerable sum of money. The fight would be dubbed as ‘for the honour of the old country’. Nat was victorious in this fight, Ben Caunt said ‘I will back Langham against any man in the world!’.

6th May 1851 Nat would see himself in the ring with Harry Orme from Bow in London for £50 a side. Nat cut Harry’s mouth and nose in the first round, Nat’s shots raised a mouse under each eye but a hip-toss from Harry dazed Nat in the 11 round. Finally, Nat gave up the struggle after Harry threw him again, and Harry had the victory. This fight lasted for a staggering 177 rounds which took 2 hours and 50 minutes, Nat was compelled from sheer exhaustion to acknowledge himself outmatched. This would become the only defeat of Nat’s career.

After this defeat he decided to leave the ring and follow the footsteps of his mentor Ben Caunt and to become a promoter as well as coaching young talents, until the biggest challenge of his bare-knuckle boxing career came, the great unbeaten Tom Sayers challenged him. Nat accepted the challenge.

18th October 1853 Nat arrived at Lakenheath in Suffolk with great anticipation, replicas of the fighters' colours were retailed in thousands for this big fight. One eyewitness recalled ‘Time after time I saw Nat with his eyes closed and his mouth open, his head leaning helplessly against Jemmy Welsh's shoulder. I was sickened as I watched the fight and was nauseated by the bruised, battered, swollen, and bleeding face of Tom's come popping up time after time from his corner.’ The fight would last for two hours two minutes, with Nat defeating Tom Sayers to victory. After this gruelling fight, Tom Sayers attempted to secure a rematch but none was forthcoming. Nat would enter into the annals of sporting history as the only man to beat Tom Sayers. After the fight Nat announced his retirement from the ring, and Nat and Tom Sayer would remain friends.

10th December 1853 Nat married Elizabeth Watson at St Martins in the Fields, Westminster in London. Ben Caunt was one of the witnesses and he was also Elizabeth’s uncle. They would have two sons (both died during childhood) and two daughters, Alice and Elizabeth.

He started a fairground boxing booth and promoted fights for up and coming fighters, he also took the licence of a public house called the ‘Cambrian Stores’ at 12 Castle Street (now Charing Cross Road), St Martins in the Fields which is just off Trafalgar Square in London. The pub became the place to be for English Prize Fighting. The ground floor was would mainly be for the crowds of working class fight fans and Nat built the ‘Rum-Pum-Pas’ club for the aristocracy on an upper floor.

Nat would find himself pandering to the rather weird, homo-erotic, sado-masochistic, hierarchic tastes of his aristocratic clientele at the ‘Rum-Pum-Pas’ club. The clientele would eat and drink and watch the professional boxers fighting in the nude. Some clients would pay for the extra privilege of boxing with a nude professional while they would keep their shirt and pants on. Nat would also provide boxers to act as escorts to the clients if they wished to visit places frequented by prostitutes.

1855 Jem Mace ‘The Gypsy’ who was one of Nat’s protégés joined him as one of his young boxers at the Cambrian Stores. Later on Jem would go to Australia and helped to establish the sport there. Nat's influence on the sport would be said to be world-wide.

1857 Nat found himself in a fight with none other than his mentor Ben Caunt, this was to settle a domestic squabble between their respective wives. After 60 rounds the fight would end in a draw, leaving family affairs more settled.

Nat returned to Hinckley on a number of occasions, his parents were still living in Cross Keys Yard, but he refused to acknowledge them, it is thought that he resented his parents for his life in younger years.

On one of his visits to Hinckley not only was he hailed as a local hero and a celebrity, he was also presented with a replica of the Tin Hat, which was and still is the symbol of the town and also used by the proprietors of the local boxing booths. There was an inscription on the hat that read ‘The Tin Hat from Hinckley. Birthplace of Nat Langham. Champion of England. Born 18th February, 1820. The only man to beat Tom Sayers

Nat was so energetic that he had a virtual monopoly on the business of pugilism within London, it was known that ‘Nat's word was law’.

3rd October 1860 Nat’s wife Elizabeth died from peritonitis at their home at Cambrian Stores.

1867 The Marquis of Queensbury rules were introduced; they were a code of rules that most directly influenced modern boxing.

1st September 1871 Despite consulting with the principal physician of Brompton Hospital in London, Nat died from consumption, which was a form of a wasting disease, when he was just 52 years old. Although Nat had a very successful career, he left a personal estate worth less than £100.

Nat was buried in the Brompton Cemetery. Today his grave is in a poor state, weathering has corroded the words that were written in his memory, it also once had railings around it but these have long since been vandalised.

In memory of Nat Langham, he would have 'Langham Close' in Hinckley named after him and a Blue Plaque placed above the archway to Cross Keys Yard, Castle Street in Hinckley.

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