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robert.snell1@ntlworld.com

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JOE BERKS or BOURKE (c.1775-1812)

Born in Wem, Shropshire and when fully grown stood about 6’ tall , weighing around 196lbs, perhaps Joe Berks would be passed over if you took a quick glance at his recorded ring career of only winning one fight, his first fight in fact. However this butcher by trade exchanged blows with the best, in and out of the ring. His downfall was his violent, explosive temper, because he was a powerful, tough and very courageous fighter.

His first noted clash is with a shoemaker called Christian in 1797, where in 22 rounds in London’s Hyde Park he subdued his opponent, although Christian claimed a foul blow. In 1801 and drunk he made the mistake of picking a fight on Wimbledon Common with none other than Jem Belcher, the Champion of England, which resulted in a turn up there and then which the butcher lost in just 19 minutes. Three months later they met in an organized contest for the title at Hurley Bottom, near Maidenhead for a purse of 100 guineas, losing again to the champion in 16 rounds. Not happy with that and his resentment of Belcher he again called out Jem Belcher at Camberwell Fair in 1802 and in another turn up he again suffered under the fists of the champion. Their dislike for each other was continued the next day in the ring where after 14 rounds lasting 14 minutes Berks once again succumbed.

When Jem Belcher was forced into retirement due to the accident where he lost his eye in 1803, Berks claimed his title, which was not generally recognized by anyone, including the London Fancy. Still just as argumentative he then tangled with the formidable Hen Pearce in a room fight, losing once again in 20 minutes. In 1804 they met up in the ring at Wimbledon Common where Hen Pearce settled any claims to Berks pretensions of being the champion by beating him in 24 rounds and so Pearce claimed and was recognized as the rightful champion. In 1806 Berks was beaten again by Dick Deplige at Bretton Park, near Peterborough in 21 rounds and in a reported contest in 1807 by Bob Gregson, although this is disputed as to whether this fight actually took place.

His story doesn’t end there, drink had always been his problem, he was accused of stealing a watch to sell to buy drink and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment and afterwards the renowned “Gentleman” John Jackson, ex-champion of 1795 helped him to overcome his drink problem. Berks then enlisted in the army, becoming a sergeant in the Oxford Light Infantry where he fought under the Duke of Wellington in the Spanish Peninsular War, but was killed in the storming of Badojoz in 1812.