Jerry Noon, Victorian Pugilist
Part One: The Unbought and Undefeated

AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 26 MARCH 2024

Grave of Jerry Noon in Lambeth Cemetery. © William Ellis-Rees 2024

The anonymous grave

One Sunday we joined a walk in Lambeth Cemetery led by Geoff Simmonds Summerstown182 and Tracey Gregory Loughborough Road Histories. Stopping under a tree, Tracey pointed out a grave that is quite unique within the cemetery, consisting of a recumbent stone lion and a shield. The shield, which is now so weathered as to be illegible, provides no clue to its occupant.

Lion graves

There are several graves adorned with lions in London cemeteries. Two belong to men who worked with animals. In Highgate Cemetery the great Victorian menagerist George Wombwell lies under a sleeping lion with wonderful carved whisker holes, and in Abney Park Cemetery another sleeping lion, its chin resting on a massive paw, guards the grave of Frank Bostock, who was a lion tamer and, incidentally, Wombwell’s grandson.

Then there is the curious grave of the Solly family in the churchyard of St Mary’s Walthamstow. The pater familias was a Baltic merchant with no feline connections that I can find. This funerary mash-up consists of a stone sarcophagus decorated with small lion heads, the whole resting on solid lion paws. If made of mahogany it would look quite at home in a Victorian drawing room.

Grave of Tom Sayers in Highgate Cemetery. Henry Downes Miles Pugilistica. The History of British Boxing volume 3 1906.

Heavy hitters

Most of the London lion graves mark the final resting places of nineteenth-century bare-knuckle fighters. There is ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson’s tomb in Brompton Cemetery, which features a mournful if alert lion with his mouth wide open, possibly in a roar. All-England Champion Tom Cribb is buried in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene in Woolwich. His feline raises his head to the skies in sorrow, or, perhaps, searching for the famous pugilist in heaven. Another All-England Champion, Tom Spring, whose real name was Thomas Winter, is buried in West Norwood Cemetery. His lion is a rather small — and sadly worn — creature who gambols with an equally indistinct lamb. The animals were supposed to represent Tom’s character: brave as a lion in the ring and gentle as a lamb outside. In Highgate Cemetery a fine animal guards the tomb of Tom Sayers, heavyweight champion of England and regarded by many as the first world champion. In his case the stone beast is not a member of the species Panthera leo but a model of Lion, his faithful lurcher hound.

And outside London?  The famous heavyweight champion Bendigo — real name William Abednego Thompson — is buried in Nottingham. Perhaps owing to wear and tear his lion resembles a benign domestic cat rather than the king of the beasts. Even further afield, in the Queensland city of Toowong in Australia, is the tomb of Peter Jackson.

Born in the West Indies, Jackson went on to win both the Australian heavyweight championship and the British Commonwealth title. The tomb is topped by a solemn lion made from Carrara marble, while a plaque on one of its sides features a portrait bust of the boxer.

Grave of John Jackson in Brompton Cemetery. Henry Downes Miles Pugilistica. The History of British Boxing volume 1 1906.

So many names

Let us get back to Lambeth Cemetery, which is in Tooting in Wandsworth.  The examples given above indicate that the anonymous person buried under the worn lion grave might be an animal trainer, or, as Tracey suggested, a pugilist. But who was he?

I eventually found a line in a book identifying it as the Calvin grave of 1897. However, a search through the burial registers revealed that no one by the name of Calvin was buried in Lambeth cemetery in that year, nor indeed in the years on either side. Back to the researcher’s drawing board.

Online there were references to a boxer called Calvin, who is very much alive. There were also many, many articles related to men’s underpants. Clearly it was time to search nineteenth-century newspapers, and, when I did, I finally found references to a boxer of the right period with the name Calvin.

Grave of Bendigo in Nottingham. Stephen McKay / Bendigo’s Grave / CC BY-SA 2.0

In fact a plethora of names

Meet Jerry Noon, aka John Calvin, aka Jeremiah Calvin, aka Jeremiah Cullinane, aka ‘The Unbought and Undefeated’, who was buried in Lambeth Cemetery on Monday 7 August 1871. First, though, an attempt to clarify the confusion of so many names. Our man was born Jeremiah Cullinane, an Irish surname that was probably anglicised to Calvin. He generally went by Jeremiah Calvin, and this is the name his death is registered under. John Calvin is the name used by contemporary newspapers, particularly when reporting the various court cases he found himself involved in, and it is possible that he adopted it in an attempt to distance himself from a connection with nefarious activities.

Jerry Noon was his nom de guerre: it was not uncommon for boxers to fight under an alias or a nickname. The Dictionary of Pseudonyms, which is edited by Adrian Room, states that Jerry took the name from a boxer called Anthony Noon. In 1834 Anthony Noon, ‘The Pocket Hercules’, fought Owen Swift, ‘The Little Wonder’, in a match that lasted a brutal seventy-three rounds. The upshot was that Anthony died. He was only twenty-one, and he was buried in the graveyard of St James’s Piccadilly, which at that time was in a location some distance from the church, in the Camden Road. Owen Swift, who was sentenced to six months of hard labour, was subsequently responsible for two further boxing deaths.

Adopting the name of a dead boxer does not seem very propitious if you are aiming for a long and successful career. But perhaps Bell’s Weekly was correct in suggesting that Jerry was Anthony Noon’s cousin. Sadly, I have not yet been able to prove or disprove this. For the sake of clarity, though, I will refer to Jerry as Jerry Noon, the name he was most commonly known by.

Portrait of Jerry Noon. Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review 8 October 1864.

Jerry’s world

During the first half of the nineteenth century, when Jerry was active, boxing certainly did not resemble the regulated sport of today — it was more like mixed martial arts with fewer rules and more violence. Bare-knuckle prize fighting was illegal because its primary purpose was for participants to do to violence to each other, and as a result the boxers and their seconds and backers could find themselves arrested if they caught and even jailed for breaching the law.

To avoid this, prize matches were held in secret rural locations, which potential spectators could discover by applying to specific public houses that were usually run by retired boxers. Contemporary newspapers printed rather breathless accounts of the boxers and their support teams and hundreds, if not thousands, of would-be spectators pouring on to specially booked trains that would whisk them out of London. The illicit nature of the activity and the satisfaction gained by evading the law added to the excitement.

Matches took place in the open air within a makeshift roped ring. Even in the coldest months of the year the pugilists would strip to the waist, wearing only thin tight breeches, stockings and shoes. They fought ‘bare-knuckle’ without gloves. Hand protection might be used for training or exhibitions but did not become compulsory until the 1867 Marquess of Queensberry Rules ordered that ‘the gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new’.

Rules, rules, rules

Even if exciting for spectators these encounters were grim, brutal and bloody. Until 1867 rounds were of no specified length: they only ended when a fighter fell or was knocked down. The fighting could last for hours, the two men slugging it out until one refused to go on, or was knocked out, or forfeited the match when his seconds threw in the towel. On some occasions, as with poor Anthony Noon, there were fatalities. For all that, boxing was not a totally unregulated sport. Over a period of about a hundred years there were three sets of rules which laid down codes of conduct for fighters, and the changes in regulations give an insight into the violent world of prize-fighting.

The Broughton Rules of 1743 forbade hitting an opponent when he was down or grabbing him by the leg, the breeches or any other part below the leg, none of which stopped boxers from kicking or wrestling. The London Prize Ring Rules of 1838 — revised in 1853 — also forbade head butting, hitting below the waistband, inflicting injury by ‘gouging, tearing the flesh with the fingers or nails, and biting’, kicking, or deliberately falling on an opponent. They further stipulated that shoes or boots must not have spikes on the soles more than 3/8 of an inch — nearly a centimetre — in length. Spikes were presumably fitted not to enable a boxer to rip an opponent to shreds but to help him stay upright in a muddy field.

Jerry’s matches all took place before the third set of rules — the Queensberry Rules — came into being. These would finally prohibit wrestling, hugging and wearing shoes with any form of spikes. They also introduced boxing gloves and standardised rounds to three minutes in length with a one-minute interval.

Boxing match. Fred Henning Fights for the Championship. The Men and their Times volume 2 1902.

Fleeting fame

Bare-knuckle prize fighters were usually working-class men who could make the most of their physical skills and attributes to ‘better’ themselves, sometimes fighting a single match for a prize that would now be worth up to £10,000. They were loved by their peers and feted by the fancy — the wealthy gambling fans — who included members of the royal family and the aristocracy. On retirement from the ring the fortunate few would be looked after by their upper-class patrons, and it was not unusual for an ex-boxer to be installed as landlord in a busy West End public house.  

But fame often proved fleeting. The raffish, blokeish world of the boxers was not conducive to a settled and happy family life. Some succumbed to the perils of gambling and alcoholism. Others suffered long-term physical damage from fighting. Many died young. 

This was Jerry Noon’s pre-Lambeth Cemetery world. But what of his life and career? Part Two of the article will reveal all.

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