How boxer Annie Newton was banned from fighting in Hackney in the 1920s
- Credit: East End Women's Museum
Emma Bartholomew discovers how a boxing match between two women sparked outrage in Hackney 90 years ago – with the mayor blasting the idea as ‘gratification of the sensual ideas of a crowd of vulgar men’, and the home secretary lamenting his inability to step in
Ninety-two years ago, the prospect of a women’s boxing match being held in Shoreditch Baths sparked a scandal in Hackney.
Six rounds had been scheduled between Annie Newton and Madge Baker at the venue on February 8, 1926.
Annie Newton was billed as the best female boxer in England, and could apparently punch a bag 900 times without missing.
Newton’s uncle, a professional boxer himself, had encouraged her to start boxing as a child because she suffered poor health.
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She lost two husbands in the First World War and had to raise her daughter as a single mother, so started taking taking part in boxing matches to support her family.
Madge Baker, meanwhile, was a student of Digger Stanley, and her closest rival.
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When news of the event spread, however, it provoked outrage and protests.
A “town’s indignation meeting” of local representatives was held, with the aim to prevent the match.
The Mayor of Hackney, Rev W Evans, led the campaign, and was quoted in the Daily News saying: “I regard this proposed exhibition of women boxers as a gratification of the sensual ideals of a crowd of vulgar men.”
Evans appealed to the home secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, who replied that he hoped “decent public opinion” would prevent “such an outrage”.
“I should have no power to interfere,” he lamented, “mainly, I think, because the legislature never imagined that such a disgraceful exhibition would have been staged in this country.”
In the end Shoreditch Borough Council banned the event.
The only vote in favour of the bout going ahead came from a woman, who stated that “if the girls wanted to maul each other”, it was “perfectly all right” by her.
Attempts were then made to hold the match six days later – on February 14 at Manor Hall – but Rev Evans wrote to the management to make sure that was called off, too.
On hearing the match was once again postponed, Newton apparently said she was “terribly upset” about it.
“I have been looking forward to the match for a long time and got myself in first-rate condition,” she said.
Annie offered to meet three male boxers in two-round bouts, but this, too, was called off, and in the end she was only allowed to give an exhibition of her skill with the punch ball.
She told a reporter at the time: “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?”
The story was unearthed by historians at Hackney Museum and the East End Women’s Museum when they were researching the Making Your Mark exhibition, now on show.
Sadly, it didn’t make it into the cut, according to curator Rebecca Odell, because they decided to focus on more traditional activism.
“It was one of these ones you stumble across when you are part-looking,” she said. “We found it in a newspaper article from America.
“Annie Newton was interesting and inspirational, and way ahead of her time.
“She was a full time boxer in the ’20s and it wasn’t until 1998 that women were granted a licence to fight by the British Boxing Board, under the grounds pre-menstrual syndrome made them too unstable to box.” Women’s boxing was only recognised as an Olympic sport in 2009.
“People forget how recently these changes have happened,” said Rebecca.
“But there’s a long history of women demonstrating they are professional athletes for 100 years.”
Despite the scandal, Newton remained defiant: “In a way, of course, the decision will make no difference,” she said, “because I shall go on with my sparring partners and enjoy myself no end. I could not give it up for anything in the world.”
She predicted: “While I may not see it, or you either, the day will come – like it or not – when the world will see women in the ring.”
She was, of course, right.