North Laine History

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The Sayers v Heenan fight at Farnborough in 1860

Part of the handwritten note by which Tom accepted the challenge of John Heenan

The Plough, Rottingdean, where Tom trained

Tom Sayers lived in the vicinity of Orange Row

The plaque to Tom  Sayers in North Rd, opposite Gardner St

In recent years North Laine has seen several plaques commemorating the lives of those who lived in the area or contributed to the North Laine. 

A plaque for Tom Sayers, North Laine's 'boxing legend', can be found on the wall of the Guitar & Amp shop opposite the northern end of Gardner Street. Sayers was born and bred in the North Laine and was known as the 'Brighton Boy'.

Such was his fame that when he died his burial at Highgate Cemetery was attended by 10,000 people.

Sayers was born in 1826 and brought up in the Pimlico area of North Laine. Pimlico was a notorious slum between what is now Tichborne Street and Gardner Street, where about 1,000 people lived. Tom may have earned pennies as a young boy on Brighton beach working for fishermen and holidaymakers. 

Life for those in Pimlico was hard. A government report in 1849 described Pimlico as ‘“an area where diseases prevailed often the result of sulphurated oxygen which arises from the excrement retained in cesspools”. 

Sayers became a bricklayer by the age of 13 and worked on the London Road Viaduct. By 1846 he was living in London and set up home with 15-year- old Sarah Henderson. He started to earn a reputation for being useful with his fists in informal fights and in 1849 turned professional, taking on Abe Crouch in his first fight. 

Sayers was not a big man. He was 5ft 8ins and weighed between 112 and 154 lbs. He had to fight men who were generally much larger. Although based in London, he often used the Plough Inn at Rottingdean as his training HQ in the 1850s when he was establishing himself as a national boxer. Tom fought in an age before Queensberry rules were introduced in 1867. Fights were typically contested with bare knuckles. The rules also allowed for a broad range of fighting, including holds and throws of the opponent. Spiked shoes, within limits, were also allowed. 

In contrast with modern boxing rules, a round ended with a man downed by punch or throw, when he was given 30 seconds to rest and eight additional seconds to "come to scratch" or return to the centre of the ring where a "scratch line" was drawn, and square off with his opponent once more.

So there were no round limits to fights. When a man could not come to scratch, he would be declared the loser and the fight would be halted. Fights could also end if broken up beforehand by crowd riot, police interference or chicanery, or if both men were willing to accept that the contest was a draw.

While fights might have enormous numbers of rounds, the rounds could be quite short, with fighters pretending to go down from minor blows to take advantage of the 30-second rest. Boxing bouts at this time were illegal and had to be organised in secret. They were often last-minute affairs to avoid the attention of the police.

In 1853 Sayers challenged Nat Langham for the English middleweight title, although in those days there were no clear weight divisions. Sayers lost but his reputation was not damaged.

However, Tom’s life was beginning to unravel as Sarah, whom he married, had left him and his attempts to set himself up as a publican failed. Desperate to earn a good pay day, in 1856 he challenged leading heavyweight Henry Paulson and won.

His reputation soared and he was offered a fight against William Perry for the national title. Tom cruised to victory and defeated more challengers to his title before he accepted one from the US champion John Heenan in 1859. Attempts were made to stop the contest but it eventually went ahead in Farnborough on 17th April 1860, with Sayers conceding 40 lbs.

Sayers damaged his right arm early on. The fight lasted more than two hours. By this time Heenan was so hurt he could hardly see, but after 37 rounds the crowd broke into the ring and the fight was declared a draw.

Sayers never fought again. He retired from the ring and received £3,000 from a public subscription which allowed him to live in some comfort, although his final years were affected by heavy drinking and diabetes. 

He lived just five more years after his fight with John Heenan, dying in Camden on November 8, 1865. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery at only 39 years old. 

In 1954 Sayers was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame. Then on 17th April 2010, with the pavement packed outside the Guitar & Amp shop in North Road, North Laine, Brighton, a plaque to Tom Sayers marking the 150th anniversary of his winning the first-ever heavyweight boxing title was unveiled to remind North Laine residents and visitors of one of its more famous sons. 


Tom Sayers