A Corporal’s Last Stand

Tragically struck in the back by a French musket ball on the blood drenched battlefield of Waterloo in 1815 the young John Shaw not only lost his life he also lost his long anticipated chance of a crack at the heavyweight boxing title belonging to the legendary Tom Cribb!

Although very few of us will have heard of John Shaw before I can almost guarantee that every single one of us will have come across his image; or at least a representation or reimagining of his image at some point in our lives. If you conjure up the image of Custer’s Last Stand in your mind (which I’m sure most of you can) well this image; this world famous image of a soldier standing defiant against overwhelming odds in a life or death conflict is actually based on a much earlier painting of Englishman Corporal John Shaw who just happened to be a bare knuckle boxer of some renown, but his ‘last stand’ image was painted some 59 years before Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn. I know there are 100’s of paintings showing similar scenes but every single one of them are echoes of the original Corporal John Shaw painting.

He was born in 1789 in the quaint little village of Cossall in Nottinghamshire to a typical rural working class family but attended school regularly until he was 12 before leaving to start work. He eventually settled on becoming a carpenter for the local Squire on his country pile known locally as the Woolaton Hall Estate, he was a good honest steadfast worker but he didn’t suffer fools gladly as all the local ruffians soon found out. By the time he was 16 he was already 6ft tall and reputedly the strongest man for miles around.

On the 15th of June 1805 Squire Middleton decided to hold a sport’s day on his vast estate; it was a sort of thank you treat for his workers and the townsfolk of surrounding villages whose lives revolved around the estate. For most of them life outside of work was pretty mundane so this was a once in a lifetime event for them to enjoy themselves and they flocked to it in their 100’s. A boxing ring and other platforms had been erected and the festivities were scheduled to start at 12 noon, the trouble was most people had been arriving since 6.00 am and now they were getting agitated with all the waiting around. A local bully leaped into the ring and bellowed at the top of his voice, c’mon let’s have a contest of our own making, I’ll fight any man here if anyone’s got the guts to face me. His audacious challenge was quickly taken up by john Shaw. The first round didn’t go too well for Shaw, but when a one eyed man from the crowd whispered something in his ear during one of the breaks he responded by throwing a body shot in the very next round that folded his loud mouthed opponent like a mousetrap. This was Shaw’s first documented fight and the enigmatic stranger from the crowd was none other than the great Jem Belcher.

John was tall but he was also bony and light for his size; he needed filling out, and decided the best way to do this was by joining the army and in 1807 he signed up to the 2nd Life-guards regiment. He loved the army and it loved him, he bulked up to 15 stones and excelled in sports especially boxing and sword play. By virtue of him being considered a good honourable soldier the army frequently allowed him time out to take part in prize fights, and because by now he was being trained by the celebrated Gentleman John Jackson ex-heavyweight champion of all England, he won every single contest he took part in which included some big names. Now that he was considered a force to be reckoned with everyone was linking his name to that of Tom Cribb, although Cribb was semi-retired at the time he was still the reigning champion and without reservation offered to accommodate Shaw any time any town, but sadly for the boxing fancy the proposed fight never materialised, Shaw was whisked away by the army over to Belgium to fight against Napoleon’s rampant forces.

On Sunday the 18th June 1815 Corporal John Shaw; dressed in his scarlet and gold livery galloped his favourite steed across the Waterloo battlefield but within minutes of the onset of his charge his beloved horse was shot from beneath him. Most people would have fled; tried to get back to their own lines but not the heroic Shaw. With his razor sharp sword firmly clutched in his right hand and swinging his crested helmet in his left as a weapon he singlehandedly tried to take on the might of the advancing French army. He was doing quite well too until the fickle hand of fate stepped in and his one man blockade was abruptly ended by the deathly sting of a sniper’s bullet in the back.

Years later when his body was eventually repatriated a plaster cast was taken of his head/skull, and this plaster cast can still be found in the library at Abbotsfield today. His remains along with those of one of his friends were ceremoniously reinterred in the churchyard at Cossall and a large ornate marble monument was erected in memory of their names.

Shaw’s story is one of unwavering courage and I have nothing but admiration for him, but with the greatest of respect I don’t think he had a snowball in hell’s chance of beating Tom Cribb. Yes he was good but Cribb was better; and whereas Shaw was naïve Cribb was a consummate professional and could knock a man silly with either hand, plus he didn’t reign as an undefeated champion for 14 years for nothing!