Amusements of Old London
William B. Boulton, 1901
“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”
Hockley in the Hole, Clerkenwell
Hockley was a venue which provided entertainments reminiscent of Elizabethan times, such as bear- and bull-baiting, sword- or cudgel-bearing gladiators, and such. It was, in the early 18th century,
the headquarters of… the “fancy,” … the organisation of rather low caste sporting characters who devoted themselves to forms of sport… more or less frowned upon by the respectable and law-abiding.
Hockley had “an atmosphere of blackguardism about [it]”. While its claims to represent the tradition of the old Bear-Garden of Queen Elizabeth I at Bankside were questionable, it did receive enough patronage to rank it as “one of the chief amusements of the town for the next half century.”
Animal-baiting (Mondays and Thursdays)
Queen Bess herself was such a “grand connoisseur” of the sport that she forbade the acting of plays on Thursday, which was the day specified for bear-baiting at Bankside. By the time of the Stuarts, however, it had descended into the ranks of “lower entertainments,” but was still “patronised more or less furtively… by persons of high station.”
Both bulls and bears were chained to a staple in the arena or pit by a chain of about fifteen feet in length, so that the defending animal had relative freedom of movement over a circle of thirty feet. “They… are fastened from behind… and worried by great English bulldogs, not without great risque from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other.” The dog, attended by his owner, was held in front of the chained animal by the ears until he was wild with fury, and then let go.
An experienced bull
kept his feet close together to avoid any attack from beneath, and presented a horn at the advancing enemy. The horn… was either blunted at the point or provied with a sheath which minimised the risk of a gore… The old bull… relied chiefly upon getting the dog in the hollow of these long horns… and upon disabling it by a toss in the air and a drop of perhaps thirty feet on the hard floor of the pit. The experienced dog knew the danger, and avoided it as much as possible by crouching on the ground in the preliminary fencing for an opening, which usually preceded the rush for the throat. If the bull made his coup, the dog went flying into the air, often into the boxes twenty feet above the pit, as when Mr. Evelyn saw one dropped into a lady’s lap… in 1670.
Bear-baiting was more dangerous to the dog and thus was more rarely seen. Variations of the sport might have two dogs attacking a bull, as well as animals such as leopards, tigers, and horses (including one ferocious horse owned by the Earl of Dorchester who had killed other horses and was deemed untamable).
Note: The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 forbade the keeping of any house, pit, or other place for baiting or fighting any bull, bear, dog, or other animal.
Prize-fighting with weapons (the rest of the week)
The prize-fight of Hockley in the Hole “was organised solely for the purposes of exhibition and the resulting gate-money” and “performed with lethal weapons, or with cudgel and quarter-staff.” The meetings between participants (“gladiators”) were organized in advance and announced with handbills such as this one from 3rd July, 1709:
At the Bear Garden at Hockley in the Hole, near Clerkenwell Green, a trial of skill shall be performed at the noble science of self-defence, on Wednesday next, at two of the clock precisely.
I, George Grey, born in the city of Norwich, who have fought in most part of the West Indies—viz., Jamaica and Barbadoes, and several other parts of the world—in all twenty-five times, and upon the stage, and never yet was worsted, and being now lately come to London, do invite James Harris, to meet and exercise at these following weapons, viz., backsword, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, single falchion and case of falchions.
I, James Harris, master of the noble science of self-defence, and formerly rid in the Horse Guards, and have fought an hundred and ten prizes, and never left the stage to any man, will not fail, God willing, to meet this brave and bold inviter at the time and place appointed, desiring sharp swords and from him no favour.
No person to be upon the stage but the second. Vivat Regina.
While the swords were sharp and blood flowed freely,
there was never a serious attack with the point, and there is only one record of a single death as a result of half a century of fighting, and that an accidental one from blood-poisoning. No padding was used, apparently, no masks or jackets, which are necessary even in foil practice to-day, and yet it is certain that great injury was as a rule avoided.
Mr. Figg’s Establishment on Oxford Road had no animal-baiting and was patronized by a higher class than than Hockley. Figg’s specialized in self-defence and prize-fighting, of which Figg himself was the acclaimed master.
Female prize-fighters were popular in nearly all of these establishments, including Figg’s, and “supplied a pleasant change from the ordinary attractions of the place. The challenges were certainly arranged beforehand like [those of the men], and “words” referred to by Elizabeth [in the handbill] were no doubt exchanged over a friendly pot of porter at some favourite house of call near the Fleet Ditch… The artificial character of the quarrel and of its preliminaries, however, does not appear to have diminished the realities of the encounter.
[Hockley’s] final overthrow was the result of the growth of London and the municipal improvements which accompanied it. The whole district was drained and its level raised in 1756, when it is probable that the bear garden disappeared. The cult of the London prize-ring had already supplanted the attractions of its contests with sword and quarter-staff, and its bull and bear baitings found patronage further afield.