One of the first legends in the emerging sport of boxing was Hinckley's Nat Langham, who became the only man to beat the great bare-knuckle fighter Tom Sayers.
Nat Langham was born in 1820, the son of poor framework knitters, who lived in Cross Keys Yard, Hinckley. Nat was not proud of these roots and in later years would claim he was the son of a farm labourer.
What can be certain is that from his earliest days Langham was malnourished. He always had a weak constitution and lungs, which makes his choice of profession somewhat surprising.
On top of that, when he was about eight years old a street vendor caught him stealing a hot potato from his cart so he thrust it into the child's mouth. Langham's tongue was so burnt and swollen that he suffered permanent damage and spoke with a pronounced speech impediment for the rest of his life.
It is not certain when Nat had his first "prize" fight for money. Some suggest it was against a William Ellis of Sapcote while others claim he fought against Hinckley's champion Dick Brown, for a purse of £5, near the Harrow Inn on the Watling Street.
What is certain is that Langham went to the sparring rooms of the Leicester pugilist Dick Cain, at the Castle Tavern, and soon caught Cain's attention. Cain became Langham's mentor and took pride in the development of his young protege.
He returned to Hinckley, where on 12th February 1843, he definitely fought William Ellis of Sapcote, for £5 a side. Ellis was much the heavier man and the older, but Langham was the victor, cutting his opponent's "big round face to ribbons".
He then went to London and came under the influence of Ben Caunt, a fellow East Midlander. Caunt arranged his first prize-fight in the London ring against Tom Lowe on 7th May 1844 and after a fight lasting 43 rounds, Langham was the winner.
Langham stood just under six feet and weighed 11 stones and because of his weak constitution he developed a technique to counter his physical disadvantages.
He perfected a left-handed punch and made almost exclusive use of this. He stood with his legs wide apart with one foot quite a way in front of the other; his left arm was well out, his right close to his chest. The object of the fight was to render his opponent blind by placing blows on his forehead and eye area.
Langham's knock-out blow would be a downward left-hook, the so-called "pick-axe" blow. What he lacked in brute strength Langham made up for in technique and speed.
Langham also made use of his tactic of "going down" on one knee and one hand, which gave a fighter a chance to grab a second wind.
Fights were governed by few rules. They were considered a breach of the peace by the police and consequently were held outside city limits to evade detection.
Following Nat's success his next fight was against Dr Campbell, "The Brighton Bomber", for £5 a side. The fight lasted 27 rounds with victory for Langham.
His reputation was growing and he was matched against George Gutteridge of Bourne in Lincolnshire for £25 a side. The fight took place on 23rd September 1846 at Bourne and was a bruising encounter that lasted for 85 rounds.
Nat was the victor and the next challenge came from an Australian William Sparkes. The fight took place on Woking Common on 4th May 1847 for £50 a side, a considerable sum. Again Langham was victorious.
Nat's next appearance was against Londoner Harry Orme for £50 a side. It took place on 6th May 1851 and lasted 177 rounds. This time Langham was the loser, beaten by sheer exhaustion.
But the biggest challenge of his career came when the great unbeaten Tom Sayers challenged him on 18th October 1853 at Lakenheath in Suffolk and was awaited with great anticipation. There are lengthy accounts of what turned out to be a bloody contest. One eyewitness recalled: "Time after time I saw Nat with his eyes closed and his mouth open, his head leaning helplessly against Jemmy Welsh's shoulder."
The fight lasted for two hours two minutes, Nat eventually defeating Tom and so entering the annals of sporting history as the only man to beat him.
After the fight, Nat announced his permanent retirement from the ring. Nat did return to Hinckley on a number of occasions but although his parents lived in Castle Yard he refused to acknowledge them.
He was hailed as a local hero and celebrity. It is said that on one visit to the town he was presented with a replica of the Tin Hat, the symbol of the town and also a symbol used by the proprietors of the local boxing booths. There was an inscription on the hat:
"The Tin Hat from Hinckley. Birthplace of Nat Langham. Champion of England. Born 18th February, 1820. THE ONLY MAN TO BEAT TOM SAYERS".
However, Nat's biggest fight was against ill health and despite consulting the principal physician of the Brompton Hospital, he died of consumption at the age of 52 on 1st September 1871. He was buried in the Brompton Cemetery in West London where his grave can be seen to this day.
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley-on-line