Daniel Mendoza, the boxing legend who raised the status of Jews with his bare fists

He was so proud of his ethnicity that he fought anyone who traduced it. In the process, he became one of Britain’s all-time sporting greats


The bareknuckle boxer Daniel Mendoza is one of the most important Jews in British history.

He was not a pious man — his first professional fight was on Shabbat — but he was proud of his ethnicity, to the degree that he would fight those who traduced it.

In so doing, quite unconsciously, he aided the integration of Jews into British society, raising their social standing and making it dangerous to physically threaten them. Incredibly, no full length biography has hitherto existed.

Several events in the mid-18th century militated against the harmonious integration of the relatively new and small number of Jews into the wider British population.

The Jacobite rebellion of 1745, an attempt by the Roman Catholic “Bonnie Prince” Charles Stuart of Scotland to regain the British throne, may not have had a direct influence on matters, but it made the Protestant English anxious, and suspicious of that which was deemed “other”.

So when the Jewish Naturalisation Act was promulgated in 1753, opposition parties seized on it to attack the government, knowing it would play into these fears with a general election on the way. This, despite the fact that the Jews had demonstrated particular loyalty to the crown during the “Forty-Five” rebellion.

The so-called “Jew Bill” passed into law in 1753. It allowed for wealthy, foreign — mostly Dutch, mostly Sephardi — Jewish merchants to become naturalised by application to Parliament.

It was passed with very little fuss before it suffered a surge of bilious antisemitism, particularly in the Tory press. One pamphlet suggested that the act would lead to enforced circumcision. Physical harm was done to travelling Jews. The act was repealed in the following year.

Poor Dutch Jews continued to arrive in London, increasingly Europe’s boom city, and their criminality — one charge not laid against the Jews in 1753 — became pronounced.

Jewish elders were alarmed. The problem reached its nadir in the murder by a Jewish gang of two servants during a bungled burglary in Chelsea. The outcry against the Jews as foreign, criminal and beastly intensified, and the attacks, physical and verbal, were renewed.

To put it perhaps somewhat romantically, the Jews needed a champion.

That champion was born the year after the murder, and he was to revolutionise attitudes to the Jews of England. He was also to revolutionise the sport of boxing. For good measure, he also wrote the first sporting autobiography. His name, of course, was Daniel Mendoza, Great Britain’s first genuine sporting superstar.

Born in Aldgate, London, into what he himself described as the “middling” class of Jews, his parents were not so well off as to be able to extend his education far beyond the age of 13, and he was required to go out to earn his bread.

Some years after his death, Mendoza was called “a natural genius” in the use of his fists, so the propensity to use them may have been expressed early.

Certainly he lost job after job due to the offence he took at the casual antisemitism he found around him in the streets of East London, although it is undoubtedly the case that he found haughtiness of any form fairly insufferable.

He was apprenticed to a glass cutter, then to a greengrocer, then to a tea merchant. All the appointments ended in fisticuffs. Invariably, Mendoza was the victor.

Eventually his talents were recognised by another young fighter, Richard Humphreys, who became his mentor. The relationship soured however, and in a series of three battles between 1788 and 1790, the two men brought boxing into the mainstream of British cultural life.

Decades later, their talents were still held up as exemplary in terms of “science” and “art”, while at the same time the phrase “à la Mendoza” became a euphemism for settling an argument violently.

Mendoza lost the first fight in controversial circumstances, but after his second and final victory over Humphreys, at Doncaster — held there, extraordinarily, to try to keep away the crowds — he was perhaps, along with the opera singer John Braham, the most famous Jew in the country. He was a star.

Medals were cast bearing his visage, mugs manufactured illustrating his triumph; his picture was everywhere.

With the massive expansion of literacy in the 18th century came a greed for newspapers, and the newspapers spread the fame of “Mendoza the Jew” throughout the country. His example was lauded in revolutionary France, held in abhorrence in Puritan America.

Boxing attracted certain elements of the “Quality” — chiefly those who liked gaming of one kind or another. This included the prince of Wales, who had rewarded Mendoza handsomely after an earlier fight. Indeed, the king himself, George III, was well aware of the “little black bruiser” as the Public Advertiser described him. After his defeat of William Warr in 1791, Mendoza was recognised as the preeminent fighter of the day, the king of the ring. In Windsor Great Park, the two monarchs conversed for half an hour. Mendoza was in awe of no-one, however “great a personage” he might be.

And then came defeat, and the start of a long decline. “Gentleman” John Jackson, a well-built, socially ambitious but inexperienced fighter, almost a foot taller than his opponent and undoubtedly stronger, after ten minutes of fair fighting grabbed Mendoza by his long hair and pulverised him.

It was to be 11 years before Mendoza fought again, and then against an erstwhile friend on a matter of honour.

Throughout his career, Mendoza had been both a teacher and a performer. These two amounted to the same thing as he toured the country, from Duke’s Place to Dublin and Dundee. He “exhibited” everywhere. He made money. In the company of the “Quality”, he spent it, almost certainly on gambling.

Various businesses — he ran a pub, the Admiral Nelson in Whitechapel, popular for a while — failed. He spent time in debtors’ prisons (as, in fact did very many).

As his powers failed he came to rely more and more on “benefit” nights in the West End’s boxing premises. They were not always successful. And while he had trained and encouraged a generation of Jewish boxers, such as Dutch Sam and his cousin Aby Belasco, there was little remuneration to be had from their successes. Sam was a drunkard and Belasco had interminable struggles with jealous detractors.

As a Jew, Mendoza was not entitled to any kind of state welfare — there was no Fund for Distressed Pugilists, or suchlike — and to what degree Jewish charities did or did not help was unrecorded.

His family suffered. Four, at least, of his nine or ten children, ended up in Australia, not generally on a voluntary basis.

Mendoza died blind and more or less penniless in Petticoat Lane in 1836, having lived, almost uniquely, through the whole of the golden age of bareknuckle boxing. His wife, Esther, a cousin (her father was also called Daniel Mendoza), was left penniless and her eventual fate is unknown.

It was a sorry end, but Mendoza was not forgotten. Until the advent of photography, film and television, he remained one of boxing’s go-to names.

As late as 1934 he is name checked in Leslie Howard’s film The Scarlet Pimpernel (Howard was of course himself a first generation British Jew), and James Joyce mentions Mendoza in Ulysses in the exalted company of Spinoza and Mendelssohn.

In recent years, Mendoza has become a source for study by academics interested in ethnic identity, and has been scrutinised as symbolic of English nationalism, Jewish pride and masculinity. The effect has been to turn him from a hero into a case study. With the current resurgence of antisemitism in this country, on the continent, and in America — often disguised as “anti-Zionism” — Mendoza’s willingness to fight those who disparaged his fellow Jews is an example to follow, albeit preferably in fighting talk rather than with fists.

Wynn Wheldon is the author of ‘The Fighting Jew’ (Amberley Publishing, 15 October 2019, £18)

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