Fights and Fire Engines

The Story of Isaac Perrins

I think most of us are well acquainted with the story of the Tipton Slasher, William Perry, Heavyweight Boxing Champion of Great Britain in the 1850s, and commemorated by a statue in Tipton’s Coronation Gardens. So I’m not going to tell it again. Instead, how about the story of another local man who fought (not as successfully as William Perry though) for the Heavyweight title, who seems much less well known. Surprisingly, much of this story can be put together from the correspondence and order books of Matthew Boulton’s and James Watt’s Soho manufactury, birthplace of mass production and the efficient steam engine.

The Boulton and Watt archives at Birmingham library give a wonderful insight into the professional and personal lives of Boulton, Watt and many of their workers, including how they managed their business and their relationships with their customers. I was particularly taken by a few references to Isaac Perrins – in fact to two Isaac Perrins, father and son, who both worked for Boulton and Watt in the late 1700s.

Isaac Perrins senior was not, I think, a local man, but his son was born in Smethwick. The father, a skilled steam engine erector, died in 1781 and his son was working for Boulton and Watt by the next year. By 1787 Isaac junior was travelling the country, installing, maintaining and repairing steam engines as far afield as Manchester, Cornwall and Glasgow. In 1793 Isaac bought a pub in Manchester, but continued to work around the North West for Boulton and Watt.

Those of you who know the William Perry story might recall that when he retired from boxing, his fans took up a collection and bought him a pub (not as a lot of people think, the Fountain in Tipton, but the Bricklayer’s Arms in Wolverhampton). This was often the case for retired boxers, and indeed was the case for Isaac Perrins as well, who as well as repairing steam engines, had failed in his attempt to win the British Heavyweight Boxing Crown (or more properly belt!) in 1789.

Isaac is one of the few employees of Boulton and Watt of whom we have a portrait. There is a famous print of the start of his title bout against the reigning champion, Tom Johnson, in 1798, and Boullton and Watt issued a pair of commemorative medals, commemorating the fight, with portraits of the two boxers on them.

Isaac Perrins first came to the boxing fans’ attention in October 1782, when he knocked Jemmy Sergeant down 12 times in 6 minutes. Sergeant didn’t get up to be knocked down a 13th! In fact Perrins was so skilful and so strong (winning most of his boughts inside 5 minutes when the typical fight could last an hour or more) that he increasingly struggled to find local opponents.

His championship fight took place against Londoner Tom Johnson on 22nd October 1789 at Banbury. Johnson , 5″ shorter than Perrins and nearly a stone lighter, adopted novel tactics and danced around the arena trying to avoid being hit and hoping to tire Perrins out. Not one blow was struck for the first 5 minutes of the contest, with Perrins swinging widely in increasing desperation, and Johnson adroitly dodging out of the way.

One hour and 15 minutes later, with his nose broken and with a face that “had scarcely the traces left of a human being” Perrins retired and Johnson retained the championship.

Perrins continued to fight for another 3 years, but retired in 1792, his supporters helping him buy a city-centre public house. Perrins had set up his own engineering company in the city and was frequently contracted by Matthew Boulton to repair Boulton and Watt engines in the North West, as well as to check to ensure that no engines manufactured by other companies were infringing on Boulton and Watt’s patents. The correspondence books make it clear that Perrins was known to write to Matthew Boulton with information on novel innovations he saw on other manufacturer’s engines!

In 1799 Isaac Perrins was appointed conductor of firemen and inspector of engines by the Manchester Improvement Commissioners, who were able by virtue of the 1785 Act for Cleansing and Lighting the Streets, Lanes and Passages, within the Towns of Manchester and Salford, in the County Palatine of Lancaster, and for Providing Fire Engines and Fire Men to set up one of the first municipal fire brigades. Perrins renamed his pub ‘The Fire Engine’ shortly after this appointment. It seems likely that much of the pumping and valve gear on the Manchester engines was designed and manufactured by Perrins. I have looked to see if Boulton and Watt had any involvement but I’ve yet to come across any reference to them building fire engines!

Isaac Perrins died on January 6th, 1801, having been seriously injured whilst fighting a major fire in Manchester on December 10th the previous year.

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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