For many Americans, Boxing Day is a tradition they’ve heard of, but never truly understood.
Today, Boxing Day is just a day off from work and an opportunity to unwind while watching football (soccer) on television. It almost works out like a Second Christmas Day, as it’s called in the Netherlands, for instance. However, the origins of the holiday are shockingly violent and the tradition was the cause of several deaths in the early days.
The story starts in South Kensington, London in 1897 with a disagreement between next-door neighbors Reginald Higgins and Jonathon Stone. The two men and their families resided in a row of townhouses just off Sloane Road (a major thoroughfare in the relatively new neighborhood). It was a pricey area, mostly inhabited by upper-middle class families. Many of the houses there also served as second homes to the wealthy who still had manor homes in the countryside.
Higgins and Stone were quite similar in many ways. Both were retired junior officers in the British Army with Stone having served in India. Both were married with primary school-aged children, were well-paid and revered in their occupations (Higgins a well-connected architect, Stone a physician), and the two belonged to a well-respected gentleman’s club.
However, while they seemed to get along well with everyone else in their social circles, it was widely known that the two couldn’t stand one another. They had each spread accusations and rumors about one another. Stone had claimed Higgins had been bribing local authorities in exchange for consideration on the design of public buildings. Higgins accusations against Stone were less malicious. He claimed his neighbor had often stolen coal from his outdoor delivery box, didn’t dispose of rubbish properly, and that his unruly children had caused quite a bit of property damage (broken windows, fence slats, etc.) to his home.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back occurred on Christmas Eve 1897.
Stone, Higgins, and their wives were in attendance at a holiday party hosted by one of their club members. Higgins and his wife, Jane, had arrived first. Not long afterward, Stone arrived with his wife, Abigale. Jane Higgins immediately became enraged. She claimed Abigale was wearing the same dress that had apparently been lost during delivery weeks ago. The presumption, of course, being that the person delivering the dress had gone to the wrong door and that Abigale, her husband, or one of the children had accepted the package as their own.
Upon hearing this news, Reginald Higgins became so angry that he started to cause a scene. Jane calmed her husband, asking him to forget the issue until after Christmas.
Higgins did exactly that.
On the morning of 26 December, Higgins dropped a note through the letter slot of Stone’s front door. It requested Stone meet him at their club after the evening meal and to be prepared to “defend himself in a fairly officiated boxing match.”
What neither party knew about the other is that each had been accomplished pugilists during their military service. In fact, Stone had been his regiment’s champion for 3 years, only relinquishing the title due to retirement. In other words, each felt the match would be quick and easy victory.
When they’d both arrived, the club’s treasurer, Andrew Whitley was on hand to referee the match, even if he had no prior experience doing such a thing. To make matters worse, no one had thought about gloves (which were in common use by then as mandated in 1867’s Marquess of Queensberry Rules for boxing), but there were none on site. Further, no one knew where the hell to get a couple pair at 8pm on a Sunday either.
As a result, the parties agreed to box bare-knuckled, which isn’t surprising since both thought the encounter would be over quickly in their favor.
What ensued was a reported 20 minutes of unadulterated violence that left both severely injured. According to Whitley, speaking on the record to a newspaper several years later, both men sustained broken noses, apparent broken hands, and “array of lacerations and contusions that are too awful to detail in polite company.” He also said that the orbital bone of Stone’s left eye was broken in the fight, and there had been fears the eye might be permanently blinded. Stone did not lose vision, however.
Both men sought medical attention immediately. Stone’s wife, Abigale, also filed a police report. The resulting inquiry by the local authorities turned the incident into something of a scandal among the families’ social circles. Whitley was even forced to resign his post as treasurer for allowing the fracas to take place.
General sentiment among the gossip about the fight declared Higgins the winner, which made Stone so angry that he challenged Higgins to another fight the following 26 December. Higgins declined initially, but in February of 1898, Stone purchased an ad announcing the rematch in a local newspaper. Eventually, Higgins decided to accept the challenge rather than be painted a coward. After all, the damage to his reputation had already been done.
And this is where things get really interesting.
Thomas Chester, the editor of the newspaper where Stone had bought the advertisement had been moonlighting as a small-time boxing promoter and bookmaker. He found the advertisement to be hilarious, but didn’t think anything of it initially. But 2 weeks later he received a similar advertisement purchase.
He contacted both Stone and the buyer of the other advertisement with a proposition. Chester offered a proper venue with a real referee, and the participants could invite anyone they wish to witness the event. In return, he would take 15% of all betting. He also assured absolute discretion and vowed that he, the referee, and the gymnasium employees would keep the event a secret. He further stated he expected their guests to exercise the same secrecy and that no women, not even their own wives, would be allowed.
Stone, Higgins, and the participants of three other bouts (all upper-middle class citizens of London) agreed to the terms.
But, Chester reneged on his promises of discretion, and after the event which saw a turnout of seventy spectators (a veritable who’s-who of successful professionals) he published a sensationalist story in his newspaper, The Caller, on New Year’s Day 1899 titled, “A Horrible Secret- Boxing Day in London.” Not only did he describe the scandalous violence in extreme detail (an attorney, Richard Fiennes Crawford, for instance, suffered a punctured lung from a broken rib and nearly died), he named all of the participants and many of the high profile spectators/gamblers in attendance. Further, he described the crowd as, “Gentlemen whom for one evening of the year become ravenous swine feasting on Sterling and fine spirits.”
Chester was subsequently fired from his job for his involvement and convicted in court of racketeering. He spent seven months in prison, but became famous as a result of the scandal. He was hired by a rival newspaper to be editor-in-chief even before he was released from prison.
By the holiday season of 1899, the news had spread nationwide with some newspapers in the North glorifying the idea of Boxing Day in editorial columns as a means for grievances to be settled once and for all. A newspaper in York took things a step further saying, “Boxing Day should serve as a reminder to all men, regardless of station, that there is a time when upon the unspoken rules of decent behaviour unravel, and even the man who empties the ash bin may challenge the Lord to answer for his cruelty.”
In the days after 26 December 1899, over a dozen Boxing Day events were reported throughout Britain.
By the holiday season of 1901, the tradition had taken a firm hold all over the country. The first death resulting from a Boxing Day fight took place in Kingston-upon-Hull when Leonard Horton crushed the trachea of Bernard Perry. Other associated violence took place as well. Wealthy factory owner Luther Hill’s family home was burned to the ground by an angry mob when he refused the challenge of an employee.
In 1902, four “boxing” related deaths were reported along with riots in London, Liverpool, Derby, and Clacton-on-Sea.
In 1903 and 1904, there were two and four deaths respectively. Only one riot (a doozy in Brighton that saw about of a quarter of the high street burned) took place in 1903. In 1904, newspapers and even some city councils were making appeals to citizens to take the day off from work and avoid going outside. Many shops closed for Boxing Day that year throughout the country and at least 2 dozen major factories closed for fear of riots.
Things had obviously gotten out of control, and in 1905, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour proposed making 26 December a bank holiday. The idea was to encourage an extra day off for all workers, hoping to quell a what was becoming movement of poor and lower middle class people making threats and committing acts of violence against those of loftier stations. Most major employers begrudgingly accepted the idea, usually granting workers two holidays for Christmas. Officially, the bank holiday was not given the name Boxing Day, however. Even today, the official name is simply 26 December Holiday.
Boxing Day bouts continued in 1905 and beyond, especially poorer cities. Rough and tumble factory workers would often gather and matches or tournaments set up, but they were far less brutal. Gambling, however, was still rampant. There were no reported riots or extraneous acts of vandalism however.
By World War I, the custom had fallen mostly out of fashion except among soldiers. Boxing Day events were carried out when possible on 26 December anywhere British soldiers were stationed. When the war was over, Britain found itself in a respected position of authority in Europe after its effort. The custom of the extra Christmas Holiday spread to other countries as a result.
So there ya go! The origins of Boxing Day…
…That I completely fabricated. All of this was a lie.
If you really want to read about Boxing Day and its origins, go here.