John (Jack) Cooper

The Fighting Gypsy: bare-knuckle fighting on Epsom Downs.

Jack Cooper.
Jack Cooper the Gypsy
Source Not Known

Prize-fighting on the Downs has a long history and Epsom appears frequently as a venue in Fistina: Or, The Oracle of the Ring : Results of Prize Battles from 1700 to December 1867. In 1743 [two years after he unintentionally killed an opponent George (The Coachman) Stevenson in a fairground booth on Tottenham Court Road], Jack Broughton, traditionally accepted as the father of British pugilism and the inventor of the boxing-glove, introduced a set of rules that forbade antagonists to strike opponents when they were down, or to seize them anywhere below the waist. Otherwise, no holds were barred and wrestling played a big part in the battles of the bruisers. A round ended when a man fell, and only half a minute was allowed for him 'to come up to scratch' - a square of a yard chalked in the middle of the stage - to begin another round.

Some notable events which occurred before Jack Cooper killed Patrick O' Leary in 1821 are mentioned below.

Corcoran v Darts, 1771

Peter Corcoran.
Peter Corcoran
Source Not Known

The first bare-knuckle champion born in Ireland was Peter Corcoran, a farm boy who took on the title-holder, Bill Darts, on a stage at Epsom Downs, following the 1771 Derby. In the shortest heavyweight title fight in history, Corcoran knocked Darts out in less than a minute. Corcoran's backer as a fighter was the notorious Captain Kelly, a fellow Irishman who had purchased a military commission. He was a famous gambler and had a reputation as a rogue. In Boxiana, Pierce Egan refers to him as 'one of the most celebrated sportsmen upon the turf … undoubtedly awake to every manoeuvre in gambling'. It was well known that Kelly had bet a large amount of money on Corcoran and the rumour circulated that he had paid Darts to take a dive, in order to protect his investment.

Belcher, the younger v Dogherty, 1808

Tom Belcher.
Tom Belcher
Source Not Known

By agreement, a match between Tom Belcher (younger brother of James) and Dan Dogherty had been arranged for Thursday, 14 April 1808. It took place, on a summit about half a mile from the Rubbing-house, on Epsom Downs, where a roped ring of 21 feet was formed. Dogherty became 'nothing more than a mere object of punishment to his opponent, who continually hit him down, with ease; this could not last long, and in the 33rd round, at the end of forty-five minutes' sharp fighting, Belcher was declared the conqueror, who, upon hearing the welcome sound, threw a somersault.

Cribb v Belcher, the elder, 1809

Tom Cribb.Jem Belcher.
Left: Tom Cribb, Right: Jem Belcher
Source Wikipedia

The Epsom Downs on 1st February, 1809 saw a second bout between Tom Cribb, former coal porter nicknamed 'The Black Diamond', and (James) Jem Belcher which Cribb won. They met in a 30 foot roped ring and fought for a total of 31 rounds, Cribb taking 40 minutes to beat his opponent. Both described as labourers, they were charged with conspiracy to meet and fight each other and to break the peace ...Having pleaded not guilty, on trial Belcher was found guilty and Cribb acquitted. Belcher came to be fined 40s and sentenced to be imprisoned for one month and until the fine was paid. This was James Belcher's last contest: virtually ruined by huge gambling losses sustained at this fight, he caused a fracas after the bout, for which he spent the four weeks in prison. [Surrey History Centre QS2/6/1810/EP/64 ] The former champion had to resign his belt and died in 1811, aged 30.

Oliver v Kendrick, 1819

Tom Oliver.
Tom Oliver
Source Not Known

On the 28th May, 1819, Tom Oliver (The Commissary) was at Epsom, enjoying the racing, when a purse of £ 50 was offered to be fought for, and John Kendrick, the Black, expressed a desire to 'try for it', and Tom agreed to be his opponent, as he remarked, 'to keep his hand in'. About six o'clock, when the last race was over, a ring was formed near the starting post, and surrounded quickly by several thousands of spectators. 'Massa' Kendrick had walked from London to Epsom but endured more than 30 rounds before giving in.

John Cooper from 1820

Jack Cooper.
Jack Cooper the Gypsy
Source Not Known

John Cooper was a son of Elisha [otherwise Elijah or Lusha] and Tryphena (nee Lovell) Cooper, baptised at Old Windsor on 28 July 1799. On 4 December 1815at St Ann's Soho, John Cooper had married Charlotte Lee, by Banns. Witnesses : Uriah Lovell - Solomon Jones - all signed with their mark X.

According to Boxiana or sketches of pugilism, by Pierce Egan, 1829 :-
"Jack Cooper The Tremendous Little Gypsy
This milling hero, a second gas-light man for tremendous execution, was born in the neighborhood of Windsor, and is about 20 years of age; In weight between 9 and 10 stone and in height about 5ft 5inches.
His first exhibition in the Prize Ring was with West Country Dick,on Epsom Downs, on Tuesday May 16th,1820, for a purse of £ 10, to make up a third fight, after Rasher and Giblet, and it was the best battle of the three.
The Gypsy introduced himself to the notice of the amateurs, and he selected Dick as a customer, having been offered his choice of several of the light weights. Cooper is well made, having a frame that almost seems to defy punishment. Dick was seconded by Randall and Clark; and Cooper by Young Brown and Abbot. It is but justice to state, that West Country Dick bad been up all night drinking, and far from being in a fit condition to fight; yet his courage would not let him refuse, and he immediately acquiesced with the proposal.
On 24 October 1820 a fight was made up in a hasty manner for a purse of 10 guineas between Paddy O'Leary & Cooper the Gypsy - betting was 6/4 on Cooper. This fight went 49 rounds & lasted 52 mins and Cooper won the contest but he was led out of the ring 'in a sad pickle'. Nevertheless it was noted that Cooper possessed such fight pre requisites that it would be a difficult job for any pugilist of his weight to conquer him.
A return with O'Leary ended in disaster with the death of the Irishman. Jack was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to six months in prison [of which he served three].
Soon after his release Jack was back in the ring: the fact that he had killed a man in the ring generated fear in his opponents with much larger crowds eager to watch the Gipsy hard man."

Morning Post Cuttings August 1821.
Morning Post Cuttings August 1821
Click image to enlarge

Bell's Life reported during 1822:-
"To gratify the plebeians and commoners, a subscription purse of £ 25 was collected for a fight between Dick Curtis and Cooper the Gypsy. It took place in the railed hollow where the plate horses saddle, and in the hurry to encircle the field of blood, hundreds of elegant females had a peep if they chose, as they were snugly wedged in …"
In The gypsy's parson:his experiences and adventures, by the Rev. George Hall (1863 -1918), Rector of Ruckland, Lincolnshire, pub. 1915, the author observes that:-
"In his Romany Word-Book*, Borrow mentions the transportation of Fighting Jack Cooper, 'once the terror of all the Light Weights of the English Ring, who knocked West Country Dick to pieces, and killed Paddy O'Leary, the fighting pot-boy, Jack Randall's pet'. Jack Cooper and his brother Tom were transported under peculiar circumstances. Tom was the first to be sent away. It appears that the brothers went to a ball where, in the course of the evening, Jack 'pinched' a silver snuff-box, and without meaning any harm dropped it into his brother's pocket. Presently the snuff-box was missed by its owner, and suspicion fell upon the Gypsies. A policeman was called in, and, while conversing with Tom, offered him a pinch of snuff. As the Gypsy removed a handkerchief from his pocket, out flew the snuff-box to his great astonishment, for he was unaware of the trick played by his brother. Speedily the handcuffs were slipped upon Tom's wrists, and in due course he was brought to trial. Before the judge, Jack swore that Tom was innocent, as indeed he was, but he was nevertheless sentenced to transportation.
However, Jack's fate was not long delayed. 'Infatuated with love for his paramour,' (says Borrow),' he bore the blame of a crime which she had committed, and suffered transportation to save her." On the expiration of his lengthy term, he preferred to stay in Australia, where he made money by teaching young gentlemen the pugilistic art."
[A more accurate explanation of events follows#]

*Romano Lavo-lil word-book of the Romany or, English gypsy language by George Borrow, pub. March 1874, contained reminiscences from Cooper's wife including: -.
"Jack lingers and lingers in the Sonnakye Tem [Sonnakey Tem/Gold Country], golden Australia, teaching, it is said, the young Australians to box, tempted by certain shining nuggets, the produce of the golden region … stoutly West Country Dick contended against Jack, though always losing; how in Jack's battle with Paddy O'Leary the Irishman's head in the last round was truly frightful, not a feature being distinguishable, and one of his ears hanging down by a bit of skin; how Jack vanquished Hardy Scroggins, whom Jack Randall himself never dared fight. Then, again, her anecdotes of Alec Reed,cool, swift-hitting Alec, who was always smiling, and whose father was a Scotchman, his mother an Irishwoman, and who was born in Guernsey; and of Oliver, old Tom Oliver, who seconded Jack in all his winning battles,..."
Gypsy Jack Cooper' penultimate bout is recorded to have been on 3 October 1832 at Croydon Fair for a stake of £ 5. Past his best as a pugilist, he overcame a traveller named Saunders in 90 minutes. Subsequently he was beaten by Sailorboy HarryJones in a field by Chertsey Bridgeafter 27 rounds over two hours and ten minutes and then retired from the ring.

Charles Godfrey Leland in the The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume XXXII, No. 4, August, 1886, wrote -
"Such a passion was inspired more than half a century ago by Jack Cooper, the Kurumengro Rom, or Fighting Gypsy, in a girl of his own tribe. Her name was Charlotte Lee, and it was about 1830 that Leslie, the Royal Academician, led by the fame of her beauty, painted the picture, now in New York in the possession of his sister Miss Emma Leslie, from which the engraving here given was taken. The fame of her charms still survives among her people, and when a few days ago as I write, I was talking of Charlotte to some gypsies of her kin, near Philadelphia, I was asked if I meant the Rinkeni, that is, the Beautiful one.. I have known her very well in her old age; at one time I saw her very frequently, when she lived at Bow Common. Once in conversing with Mr. George Borrow, the author of ' Lavengro', I mentioned Charlotte, when he informed me that he believed she was the only one of her people in Great Britain of pure Romany blood."

Charlotte Cooper.
Charlotte Cooper after a painting by C R Leslie
Source The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine

Convictions and transportation

Thomas Cooper, son of Elisha and Trophenia Cooper, baptised at Old Windsor, Berkshire on 22 November 1801.

On 10 August 1833, Thomas alias Gipsy Cooper had been charged at Lambeth Street Police Office with stealing 32s (£1.60) from a mariner, William Jones at Chelmsford Races. The accuser claimed to have found Cooper's hand in his pocket but the thief was rescued by his group of associates. The prisoner had been remanded. Essex Standard, 17 August 1833.

[Chelmsford Assize, December 4] Thos. Cooper, itinerant fiddler, better known as Gipsy Cooper, of pugilistic notoriety, was indicted for assaulting and robbing Edward Hawkes, a tailor, at Chelmsford Races in July. Leaving a booth, Hawkes was surrounded by 5 or 6 men and knocked down. Cooper held a hand over the victim's mouth but could not prevent a cry of 'murder'. Another of his assailants is reported to have shouted 'Cut his throsat and do not let him prate so!' While on the ground they robbed him of a sovereign, 12s. a snuff box, and other articles. Guilty.-Death recorded. Exeter Flying Post, 12 December 1833.

There seems to have been a plot frustrate justice and get Cooper off:-
It was said of Michael Simmons, 'an old and daring offender', charged by the Police at Lambeth Street Magistrates Court with picking a Gentleman's pocket that 'While in Newgate he made a representation, through Mr. Wontner, to the Secretary of State, that he was the vperson who committed the office for which Gipsy Cooper, the pugilist, was apprehended, which turned out to be entirely false, and it was proved to have been a planned trick to exculpate Cooper, who has since been transported for life'. Morning Post, 30 December 1833.
Convicted of highway robbery in Essex, Thomas, alias Gypsy, Cooper was not executed but transported to Van Dieman's Land penal colony [later called Tasmania] on The Arab, to arrive in Australia on 30 June 1834. He was a pugilist who had fought 'Dutch Sam" (Samuel Elias).

#John (Jack) Cooper's case appears to have been heard at the Old Bailey on 2 March 1840: Mary Ann Hart was indicted for stealing, on the 24th of February, 1 purse, value 1s.; 1 half-crown, 4 shillings, and 2 groats; the property of Julia Nelthorp, from her person; and John Cooper, for feloniously receiving the same, well knowing them to have been stolen, against the Statute, &c. Hart aged 19 and Cooper 35 found guilty and sentenced to be Transported for Ten Years. Mary Ann Hart was immediately embarked on the Surrey, the last convict ship to take female convicts from England, to arrive in New South Wales on 13 July 1840 and Cooper followed on the Eden, to reach Australia by 18 November 1840, reportedly a Horse Dealer born in Windsor.

A pupil in New South Wales of John Cooper the Gypsy is reported to have been John Gorrick, a Hawkesbury River butcher. He arrived in England to fight under the name of 'Bungaree' after an Aboriginal warrior. Having challanged Johnny Broome, the lightweight champion they met up on 27 April 1842 at Mildenhall, Suffolk and he was defeated in 42 rounds of a fight that only lasted 52 minutes.

Brian Bouchard © April, 2017