The London Jewish community of the mid-eighteenth century was expanding rapidly, mainly through immigration. These immigrants fell into two broad categories: Ashkenazim, who had arrived from Eastern and Central European countries, and Sephardim, largely of Iberian descent. The Ashkenazim were poorer and tended to integrate less well. They accounted for most of the Jewish pedlars and small-dealers.
The Sephardim, by contrast, were wealthier and tended to be laxer about religious observance. As merchants and financiers they fought to have restrictions lifted on international trade. British law at the time dictated that foreign-born persons applying for naturalization had to receive the Sacrament at Anglican Holy Communion. Jewish immigrants could be exempted from this requirement, but were granted ‘endenization’ which carried fewer rights than full citizenship (such as the right to own land or trade with the colonies).
In 1753 Henry Pelham’s Whig government proposed a bill allowing Jews who had been resident in Britain for three years might be naturalized without taking the Sacrament. The Jewish Naturalization Act (or ‘Jew Bill’) passed through both Houses of Parliament, but created press-inflamed agitation amongst the public. Tory papers denounced the Act as an attack upon Christianity. As it happened, 1754 would be an election year. Beginning in May 1753, the opposition sponsored articles in the London Evening Post attacking the Jew Bill. Much of the opposition was cynical politicking, but it revealed deep-rooted social anxieties too. The London Evening Post was particularly aggressive in building up a picture of Jews as cruel and sinister ‘monsters’.
Early in his career Henry Fielding had created The Grub Street Opera (1731). The ballad-opera failed, but one song survived and was integrated in Don Quixote in England (1734). Its title was ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’. Thanks to the intervention of singer-composer Richard Leveridge who added a few new stanzas and gave the song a catchier tune, it gained the status of a national anthem.
In 1748, William Hogarth painted The Gate of Calais, better known as The Roast Beef of Old England. He established in visual form the stereotype of poverty-stricken French citizens that was used time and again by satirists after him. His picture shows a huge rib of red-blooded beef being delivered to Madam Grandsire’s English hotel in Calais. Surrounding the porter are a trio of poor fishwives, a pair of miserable soldiers, a salivating friar, a couple of emaciated cooks, and a pauper in the tattered uniform of the failed Jacobite rebellion. All are in contrast to the anticipated plenty represented by the hunk of English meat central to the scene.
The symbolism is plain: native means wholesome, foreign indicates weakness and effeminacy. Loathing of foreigners was multi-adaptable: what applied to one, applies to another. In the mind of the British public the Jew was a foreigner. The Evening Post’s adaptation of ‘The Roast Beef’ simply swaps hatred of the French for that of Jews (28 July 1753; first verse):
When mighty Roast Pork was the Englishman’s Food,
It ennobl’d our Veins and enriched our Blood,
And a Jew’s Dish of Foreskins was not understood,
Sing Oh! the Roast Pork of Old England,
Oh! the Old English Roast Pork.
The ‘pamphlet war’ was an ugly one. In broadsides and ballads Jews were accused of ritual murder, of planning to turn St Paul’s Cathedral into a synagogue, of wanting to force British males to be circumcised. Antisemitism had returned with a vengeance. The gloves were off. The outburst of hatred postponed any further attempt to modify the legal status of Jews within society. In the clamour of anti-Jewish propaganda the dictionary of medieval slurs was reopened and, more worrying, elements of modern ‘racial’ stereotyping were introduced. It undermined any tendency towards religious tolerance for generations to come. The rhetoric of the row suggested that Jewishness and Englishness were incompatible. Integration was impossible. Five months after its introduction, the government withdrew the Act.
During the later decades of the eighteenth century the East End of London began to be occupied by poorer classes of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, their numbers overrunning those of long-established immigrants in the area which caused strains of overcrowding. In this tense atmosphere, Samuel Elias – better known as Dutch Sam – was born on 4 April 1775 in Petticoat Lane, Whitechapel. In this tough area, boxing was a narrative of the immigrant poor. For young Jewish boys fighting helped to confirm a sense of identity and ethnicity. The ring was a place to knock out stereotypes, a punching stage of liberation. Sam learned to box at former heavyweight champion Daniel Mendoza’s academy.
Known as Mendoza the Jew, this bare-knuckle-fighter of Paradise Row, Bethnal Green, had captivated Regency London with his skills and set an example for Jewish kids to follow. Sam’s first recorded boxing match took place in 1801. He became the sensation of the pugilist circuit. The young lightweight faced opponents who were taller and heavier than he, but his blending of power and guile proved lethal. On 7 August 1894 he faced Caleb Baldwin, the ‘Pride of Westminster’. Sam ‘invented’ the uppercut and humiliated his celebrated opponent in the only defeat of his career. It cemented Dutch Sam’s reputation as the biggest hitter in the game, earning him the nickname of the ‘Man with the Iron Hand’. The ‘Terrible Jew’ (another nickname) was unbeatable. He succeeded Mendoza as the sporting hero of the London Jewish community.
His training regime was unusual. Sam could not go through his exhausting physical routines without an ample supply of gin. In one of his fights (April 1805) he was, according to reports, ‘positively inebriated’ when entering the ring, but in spite of that he professionally trounced his opponent. Considering the ‘rules’ of the game at the time that was quite a remarkable feat. Until Queensberry, there were no written regulations, no weight divisions, no round limits, no rest periods, and no referees. A boxer was declared the winner when his opponent was physically no longer able to continue. A single bout went a long way. Dutch Sam fought Tom Belcher, the brother of former heavyweight champion Jem Belger, on three occasions. The first fight, held in 1806, ended in a 57th round knockout win for Sam. The second match, which took place the following year, ended in a draw; the third was a 36th round stoppage win for Sam. Such was his standing that Daniel Mendoza agreed to act as second in his corner for all three bouts. After defeating Ben Medley in 1810 in round 49, Dutch Sam retired undefeated in over a hundred contests.
Sam was admired for his skill and agility. Between 1812 and 1828 Pierce Egan published his Boxiana; or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism with illustrations by George and Robert Cruikshank (the book went through several editions in five expensive volumes). The author charted the ‘Sweet Science of Bruising’, the progress of bare-knuckle boxing from its emergence in the early eighteenth century to its decline in the 1830s (and he also included an anthology of pugilistic verse). His verdict on Dutch Sam was full of praise: ‘Terrific is the only word that adequately describes his manner of fighting’. In 1814, Sam made the fatal error of a comeback. Not for money or pride, but because of a drunken dispute with William Nosworthy, a young baker from Devonshire who had recently beaten a Jewish boxer.
His anti-Semitic remarks upset the Dutchman who challenged him to a fight. Against medical advice he once again entered the ring. Although Sam had remained in training, his gin habit had deteriorated. A shell of his former self, he was knocked out by his opponent in the 15th round. After a life of fighting and boozing, he threw in the towel on 3 July 1816 and was buried in Whitechapel. His son, known as Young Dutch Sam, also became a professional fighter. Arthur Conan Doyle (who showed a keen interest in boxing and wrestling) included Sam as a character in his 1896 boxing novel Rodney Stone. The Iron Fist had made a mark, bruising his way out of a life of misery and discrimination towards levels of recognition that young London refugees could aspire to. East London’s uncompromising environment produced more champion fighters than any other part of Britain – most of them were of Jewish immigrant descent.