My London Shoes blog for this week had me focusing on a person, as opposed to a place or a location.
Following my research on the person in question, my trek out to the ‘smoke ‘ended up being a bit of a surreal experience, because totally unexpectedly, the subject matter took me on a ‘journey’ that not only revisited the location of a couple of Barclays branches I used to be associated with – but also the conclusion of this persons story, and again, totally unbeknown to me at the outset, led me all the way back to my home town area.
So – this week’s blog is all about the legendary East End bare-knuckle prize fighter ….”Daniel Mendoza” – who was born in 1764 and died in 1836 – A man whose influence on the sport of boxing, is still around today.
As I mentioned above, there were some really strange occurrences about this particular blog – even regarding its selection, as it was not even a topic that was on my lengthy ‘To Do-List’.
So – there I was sitting comfortably at home a couple of weeks ago, whilst the wife was watching her weekly fix of the hospital drama ‘Holby’ on tv – when a particular scene caught my attention. The scene in question had the Jewish surgeon Sacha, kitted out in boxing gloves and giving a punch-bag a good old seeing to. Anyway, at the end of this scene, Sacha delivered a line that was something like “I could be the next Daniel Mendoza”!!!
Now – the mention of that name triggered something in my memory – as some 35yrs or so ago, the wife had bought me a book called “A Pictorial History of Boxing” – and I recalled that one chapter was all about the bare-knuckle prize fighter ‘Daniel Mendoza’. Therefore, that prompted me to dig this book out again and re-read the story of Daniel Mendoza – and having done that, I then felt that I had sufficient material to dedicate a blog to him – but what I didn’t know, was the ‘journey’ that my further research would take me on.
Daniel Mendoza was born into extreme poverty in Whitechapel-London, on 5th July 1764.
He was of Portuguese Jewish decent – and records show that he and his parents and siblings, all worshiped at the ‘Bevis Marks Synagogue’ in Aldgate – which was built in 1701 and is the oldest synagogue in the UK – and still standing to this very day.
As a teenager, Mendoza had a number of shop assistant type jobs, but apparently had a tendency to get into fights to resolve disputes – especially where he felt an injustice had been done to him or his employers.
One such altercation in the street, just happened to be observed by one of the current bare-knuckle prize-fighters, who was so impressed with Mendoza that he took him under his wing, in order to make a proper prize-fighter out of him.
Back in the 1700’s Boxing (or pugilism to give it its correct name) as a ‘sport’, was in its infancy – and had only just started to attract spectator interest.
There was no such thing as weight divisions, or ‘rules’ come to that – and the ‘pugilists’ were mainly extremely tall and hefty blokes, who would literally clump and beat the hell out of their opponent in an ‘anything goes’ manner, using brute strength and ignorance, without any grace or finesse. – and it was not uncommon for fights to last anything up to 40/50 rounds until one of the boxers was completely done-in.
Daniel Mendoza however, had one major disadvantage with being involved in this sport – he was only 5ft 7inches tall and only weighed just under 12 stone – and so on a face to face, toe to toe perspective, he didn’t stand a hope in hell against opponents.
However, Mendoza was not the sort to be deterred by this, and so he went away and thought about how he could possibly adopt a ‘scientific’ approach to fighting blokes who were twice his size and weight.
He worked out that, to have any chance, he would need to be able to ‘dodge’ punches, and also ‘defend’ punches being thrown at him.
Therefore, he worked out a strategy whereby he would ‘back away’ from an on-coming opponent, whilst keeping up his guard by defending his body with an outstretched left arm. With his opponent chasing him around the ring, and Mendoza defending himself with his left arm, he would wait for the opportunity to draw the opponent in to him, and then unleash an upper-cut punch with his right hand, that would then have the effect of almost knocking the opponents head off – an approach that no other boxer had ever adopted before.
When he initially adopted this strategy, other boxers and the spectators weren’t too impressed – as they felt that all this backing away malarkey, ducking and bobbing & weaving from punches by Mendoza, was a sign of cowardice – however, when he started to win major bouts, he soon became the talk of the boxing world, and the envy of all other boxers.
He was soon a major celebrity – drawing in crowds not just from boxing but also putting on boxing exhibitions and also turning up as ‘guest of honour’ at theatres – earning up to £50 (well, guineas actually) per appearance – which was extremely big money back in those days.
It is written that Daniel Mendoza single handily helped transform the popular English stereotype of a Jew from a weak, defenceless person into someone deserving of respect. Even the then King George III was a big fan and it is said that Mendoza was the first Jew that a King had spoken with face-to-face and shook hands with.
His amazing career record speaks for itself, and reads as:- 37 fights – 34 wins – 30 wins by knock-out – only 3 losses.
Throughout the majority of his years of success, Daniel Mendoza lived at No. 3 Paradise Row (the place, name-checked in the popular song ‘On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’) in Bethnal Green – and it was here that Mendoza wrote his historically renowned book “The Art of Boxing”, which was all about his ‘scientific’ strategies and techniques towards boxing.
One of his most famous fights was in 1795, where he actually lost to ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson – and I was totally surprised to find out that this fight was held in ‘Hornchurch-Essex’ literally a mile or so down the road to where I live in Romford.
This fight in Hornchurch was held at a place known locally as ‘The Dell’, which was a large gravel pit right next to the historic landmark of St. Andrews church.
Apparently over 3000 spectators turned up for the fight at The Dell, and it is said that it was one of the first ever fights where spectators paid for the privilege of watching the event.
Unfortunately, the fight at The Dell was all over in 10 rounds when his opponent pulled on Mendoza’s long hair, whilst pummeling him in the face. Mendoza wore his hair long because of his Jewish faith – but after that particular bout, all bare-knuckle fighters made sure that their hair was shorn before entering the ring.
Today – The Dell is simply an overgrown pitted area – but I still went in search of it for this blog.
After he packed up boxing Mendoza became land lord of the ‘Admiral Nelson’ pub at 299 Whitechapel Road – funnily enough, almost directly opposite the Whitechapel branch of Barclays where I worked in the late 1980’s.
Unfortunately, although Daniel Mendoza made a lot of money from prize-fighting, he was not good at keeping hold of it – to the extent that he ended up doing numerous ‘stretches’ in the notorious ‘Kings Bench’ and later the ‘Queens Bench’ Debtor Prisons in Southwark, in south London.
Sadly Daniel Mendoza died penniless in 1836, at the age of 72 – and was buried at the ‘Novo Jewish Cemetery’ in Mile End – and this is where the story gets spookily interesting from my perspective.
The Novo Jewish Cemetery at Mile End was opened in 1733 – and was the resting place for thousands of Jews throughout the forthcoming centuries – until there was no more room.
The land was bought up in 1972, and built on to house the current Queen Mary College (QMC) University campus – with the proviso that one-third of the graveyard remained in situ and untouched.
Now – back in the late 1980’s when I worked at Whitechapel branch, we had a sub-branch at the University site, and another at Mile End Station – and it was my job once a week, to visit the Mile End Station and the University sub branches, just to make sure that everything was ticking over ok – and I never once noticed the Novo graveyard at the University branch.
On display on an exterior wall of the University Library, there is a plaque that commemorates the achievements of ‘Daniel Mendoza’ that was unveiled by the late great Sir Henry Cooper in 2008 – and the fact that Mendoza was buried there.
However – this story’s journey doesn’t end there.
When they were building the University campus at the Novo Jewish Cemetery, two thirds of the graves had to be moved – and again, totally unbeknown to me, the remains, including those of Daniel Mendoza, were dug up, moved and interred in a mass grave at a Jewish Cemetery located in Brentwood-Essex – and just like it was with The Dell boxing venue – literally just down the road from where I live in Romford – how weird is that!!!
So – finally, bringing the life and times of the ‘father’ of boxing technique as we know it today, to a close – the one other interesting fact about the legendary Daniel Mendoza, is that he is the Great- Great Grandad of the legendary actor/comedian ‘Peter Sellers’ – and it is reported that when doing ‘room scenes’ for his iconic ‘Inspector Clouseau’ films, Sellers would always insist that a picture of his Great -Great Grand Father Daniel Mendoza, should be displayed on a wall somewhere.
After an exhausting day checking out all the ‘Mendoza landmarks I’ve mentioned above – I nipped in for a ‘cheeky’ couple of beers, at one of my ‘locals’ The Railway Hotel pub in Hornchurch, right next door to Hornchurch tube station, and literally just a couple of minutes’ walk from the site of ‘The Dell’ – the scene of one of Daniel Mendoza’s many historic fights.
Sorry this one has dragged on a bit, but I felt it was interesting story and one worth telling – hope you enjoy the accompanying photos.