In 1851, 16 year old, middle-class Mary Ann Barton went to enjoy the glamour of the local fair and the company of the local Gypsy youths. She became pregnant, 21 year old Jem was the father. Mary Ann was an intelligent, but not well-educated girl whose family lived in the pleasant suburb of Thorpe on the outskirts of Norwich. Her father was Thomas Barton, a school master. Her father held the (then common) view that girls need not be educated because they would, in time, be married and would rely on their husbands for any reading, writing or monetary calculations required. In the Victorian middle-class world a pregnant unmarried daughter brought disgrace to her family. So, in spite of her tender years, a marriage was rapidly organised. To Jem, this marriage promised an entrance to a new middle-class status. To Mary Ann, it promised excitement and a way out from her strict upbringing.
Their marriage took place on 21 July 1851 at Thorpe Hamlet parish church. It was registered Blofield (13/37).
On 15 Oct 1851 a “James Mace” was tried and convicted of “Larceny from the Person” (being a pickpocket) at Norwich Quarter Session held at Norwich Castle. It is not certain that this was Jem, there were other James Maces in the area. However it seems very likely that it was him, his brother was arrested for a similar offence, and it was a common offence committed by his Gypsy friends. A scan of the court record follows. The case is No 46.
Jem’s debut to the “London Prize Ring” was on 17 Feb 1857 when he fought Bill Thorpe at the mouth of the Medway. Nat Langham made a huge effort to make sure he was well trained and prepared. The spectators were mainly the patrons of Rum-Pum-Pas. Stake money was £25 a side, but there were very large side bets. He won in 18 rounds.
For the first 3 years of their marriage Jem continued to earn a living by violin playing, pedestrianism (the Victorian term for professional competitive running), booth boxing and prize fighting. Jem fought on the Fenland circuit for purses between £5 & £10. He fought many nameless opponents.
Named opponents were Sydney Smith of Wisbech, Charlie Pinfold and “Farden” Smith.
On 12 Nov 1852, he fought Tom Harvey at Harleston fair, Norwich, winning in 31 rounds.
During the Regency period and George IV’s reign, prior to Victoria’s ascent to the throne, prize fighting flourished due to royal and aristocratic patronage. After this, the police started to clamp down on the illegality of prize fighting. As a result, on 3 Jan 1853, Jem and 3 other fighters were tried and convicted of assault at the Quarter Sessions of Suffolk held at Beccles. Jem was given a one month jail term and fined £10. A scan of the court records follows. The case is No 15.
Jem and Mary’s first son, James Mace, was born 10 Mar 1852. The birth was registered at Mitford (4b/213). Jem took a pride in his children and gave many of them names which had echoes of his past. The first born was clearly named after his father. This was a common practice at the time. For reasons that will become apparent, he will be referred to as James Mace (1).
The punishment had little effect. Although his return fight against Tom Harvey had to be scratched, he went on to fight and beat the “Lincolnshire Bulldog” at Dowdham.
During the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856) when England was fighting Russia (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”, “Florence Nightingale” and all that), public and governmental attitudes changed again. England needed belligerent citizens. The police stopped trying to arrest prize fighters.
Jem then fought and beat Gutteridge but lost to Nickels.
In 1854 another son, Alfred Henry Mace was born.
At this time in his private life Jem was becoming better off, mainly because of his fight winnings. Gradually, he spent more time away from home. He took an interest in horse racing. His chosen occupation effectively forced him to gamble. Over his life Jem became addicted to gambling. When he gambled on the horses, he fancied himself a good judge. When he was betting on pedestrianism, Jem was often in a position to fix the odds and the results. When he was betting on his own fights, he was normally fighting bigger men and more established fighters, so he could get good odds on his own victory. His considerable fighting abilities and immense self-confidence ensured he made a fortune. Unfortunately, when he was forced to rely on the horses, it cost him a fortune.
In 1854, He was invited by Nat Langham, who was the middleweight champion of England, to join his fairground boxing troop. Some of the fights organised by these booths would be exhibition bouts between the employed boxers, but the major attraction was that members of the audience were offered good prizes for the dubious pleasure of taking on one of the professionals for a limited number of rounds. This provided local youths the opportunity to show off in front of their friends and the audience with good entertainment and a sense of being involved. It also provided the professionals with an excellent opportunity to hone their skills against a large variety of opponents. Boxers at these booths normally wore gloves. He was paid £2 per week “all found”.
Nat Langham arranged higher ranking fights. A fight was planned against Roger Coyne but was scratched.
He subsequently fought John “Slasher” Slack at Mildenhall and won in 9 rounds on 2 Oct 1855. Stake money was £5 a side. This fight was significant because it was Jem’s first listed in “Fistiana”, the Prize Fighting bible, and also, it resulted in Jem being invited by Nat to join him at the public house “Cambrian Stores” where he was the landlord. So Jem left his wife and family in Beeston and went to London.
Jem fought Jack Pratt of Norwich but was obliged to withdraw because of hand injuries. The lack of training and “hand pickling” evoked a dressing down from Langham.
On 4 Mar 1856, a daughter Adelaide Mace was born.
The adjacent panel lists the Licensees of the “White Swan”. There were no more after Jem left.
A “White Swan” sign is still displayed above Dipples jeweller’s shop in Beeston.
The following studio photograph was taken about this time.
On 20 Mar 1857 Jem’s first child, James Mace (1), at home in Norwich with Mary Ann, died of meningitis. He was just 5 years old.
In Aug 1857 Jem took the tenancy of the “White Swan” pub in Swan Lane, Beeston. It seems very likely that Mary Ann’s parents were instrumental in this move, seeking to get their wayward child and son-in-law into a settled middle-class existence.
It only succeeded up to a point. Although Jem was nominally the landlord, it was Mary Ann who shouldered most of the responsibility and work and Jem continued his mobile lifestyle.
Following is a picture of the “blue plaque” erected in Swan Lane to commemorate this. The wording on the plaque is slightly inaccurate. He was landlord of the “White Swan” before, not after, he became world champion. (Both photos by Les Reynolds)
The plaque was removed by thieves in 2005 leaving an ugly gap, illustrated below.
Once the Crimean War (1853-1856) was over, the Police again attempted to stop prize fights and arrest the pugilists. A game of “cat and mouse” developed between fight promoters and the Police. Because the Police were organised on a county basis, fights were held where 2 or 3 counties met so a fight could take place on whichever territory the Police were least quick off the mark. Also promoters took advantage of the development of steam trains and steam ships to move large numbers of fans further and faster than the Police could follow. To the promoters this had an added advantage; they could have free entry to outdoor fight venues and still make a profit from transport ticket sales. The standard ploy was to hire a train, then sell tickets to an unspecified destination. This way neither the fans nor the Police knew where the fight was to be held until the train actually arrived. Another trick was to arrange for fans to meet at, say, Southend, and hire a steam ship to take them to an island in the Medway estuary. It was then virtually impossible for the Police to organise any suitable transport until the fight was well and truly over.
For details about Nat Langham and Jem’s stay with him in London, click the adjacent button