> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > Heenan and Sayers
> Martyn Wyndham-Read > Songs > Sayers’ and Heenan’s Great Fight

Heenan and Sayers

[ Roud 2148 ; Laws H20 ; Ballad Index LH20 ; DT HEENSAYR ; Mudcat 36947 , 79775 ; trad.]

Roy Palmer, Jon Raven: The Rigs of the Fair

Heenan and Sayers describes the the brutal boxing fight between American John Carmel Heenan ‘the Benicia Boy’ and British Tom Sayers at Farnborough, Hampshire, on 17 April 1860.

A.L. Lloyd, accompanied by Steve Benbow on guitar, recorded Heenan and Sayers in 1962 for his and Ewan MacColl’s Topic EP Gamblers and Sporting Blades. It was reissued in the USA on the Riverside LP Champions and Sporting Blades and in 1998 on the Topic CD Bold Sportsmen All. Lloyd noted on the original EP:

John C. Heenan and Tom Sayers

The fight between the heavyweight champion Tom Sayers and John C. Heenan, the Benicia Boy, took place on 17 April 1860, at Farnborough, Hampshire. In the 37th round, the friends of both fighters stormed into the ring and had to be dispersed by the police. After four more rounds, the police again intervened, the fight was stopped, and the result was declared a draw. Several ballads described the battle of the giants. As a rule, the American versions favour Heenan, while English versions declare that only police intervention robbed Sayers of a glorious victory. The present ballad, sounding fairly impartial, awards the golden glove, fair and square, to Heenan.

Martyn Wyndham-Read sang Sayers’ and Heenan’s Great Fight in 1977 on the Broadside album English Sporting Ballads.

Sara Grey sang The Yankee and the Unicorn in 2013 on her Fellside album Down in Old Dolores. She noted:

From Lena Borne Fish. On the surface of the song is the boxing match between Thomas Sayers the heavyweight champion of England, against John C Heenan ‘The Benicia Boy’ at Farnborough in Hampshire on 17 April 1860. The match lasted 37 rounds and came to an end when police intervened. The match was declared a draw. The fight was one of the most brutal in prize fighting history, putting to an end bare-fist fighting in England. On another level the song is a wonderful international rivalry between America and England. Ironically the combatants became good friends and went around fairgrounds doing demonstration matches. Heenan went on to fight Morrisey and Morrisey fought Heenan once and then got his henchmen to gang up on Heenan and beat him up. Perry, mentioned in verse 6 is Oliver Perry who in 1813 was supposed to command a fleet of ships to ward off the British for the control of Lake Erie and Ontario, but it never happened.

Jon Doran and The Northern Assembly (Heather Ferrier on piano accordion and Jordan Aikin on whistle) sang Heenan and Sayers in the ring of the Dunston Teams amateur boxing club in November 2021:


Heenan and Sayers

You ranting lads and sporting blades, come listen to my song.
I’m sure that it will please you well and it won’t detain you long.
’t was the seventeenth of April and thousands went with joy
To see the English champion and the bold Benicia Boy.

It was in the town of Farnborough all in the blooming spring,
When the burly English champion he stripped off in the ring.
He stripped to fight young Heenan, the gallant son of Troy,
And to try his English muscle on the bold Benicia Boy.

It was early in the morning before the cock did crow,
Like tigers into battle these gallant lads did go.
The blood if flew in torrents and never a blow they missed,
And they carried a bunch of thunderbolts well fastened in each fist.