Tag Archive | Figg’s Amphitheatre

Amusements of Old London: The Prize-ring

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.”

The first mention of a public boxing match in England was a news item in the Protestant Mercury for January 12, 1681:

Yesterday, a match of boxing was performed before his Grace the Duke of Albemarle between the duke’s footman and a butcher. The latter won the prize, as he hath done many before, being accounted, though but a little man, the best at that exercise in England.

That early encounter presents many of the essential features of others which followed it in later times and went to make up the glory of the prize-ring. Here was a noble patron looking on at two men, with no quarrel between them, engaged in punching each other’s heads for the sake of a monetary consideration. Later, as we shall see, the prize-ring claimed all kinds of virtues for its principles and professors. It was “the noble science of self-defence,” “the nurse of the true British spirit,” and many other fine things beside, if we are to believe its votaries and supporters. The prize-ring was in reality a spectacular entertainment which provided amusement for many generations of loafers who found the money to keep it going, and occupation for a relatively small number of courageous men who lived by that strange industry of head-punching.

As mentioned in an earlier post in this series, the prize-fight originated as a duel of swords, primarily, and Mr. Figg’s establishment on Oxford Road (and Southwark Fair) was the place to go to learn “the manly arts of foil play, backsword, cudgelling, and boxing.” George “the Barber” Taylor opened an establishment focused mainly on pugilism, and it was here that the incomparable John Broughton was found, who later organized the profession by providing “a set of rules and regulations which held the field unaltered for a century.”

This paragon among prize-fighters, who really was, as we believe, a good fellow, has been found worthy of a place among the immortals of the great national biography. We learn there that he was born in 1705; began life as a waterman’s apprentice, and found his true vocation quite early in life by thrashing a fellow-waterman. He then went to George Taylor’s booth, beat that hero, and so claimed the championship, and set up an opposition establishment of his own in Hanway Street. Here he had a successful career of unbroken victory, during which he organised pugilism as a profession, and retired, after his only defeat, on a modest fortune to Lambeth. John Broughton died at the age of eighty-four, in 1798, and left some £7000 behind him, and lies buried in Lambeth churchyard under a tombstone with a Latin inscription on it.

Some of John Broughton’s rules:

They established the all-important principles of the “round” or “set-to,” defined as “a set-to after a fall or being parted at the rails”; the institution of a time limit between the rounds; the appointment of umpires and referee, and the humane regulation “that no person is to hit his adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist; a man on his knees to be reckoned down.” They also confirmed the usage of the division of the gate money between victor and vanquished…

broughton_rules

John Broughton was also the inventor of boxing-gloves, or “mufflers,” as he called them, which he claimed would “secure them from the inconveniency of black eyes, broken jaws, and bloody noses.”

John Broughton and the Duke of Cumberland

His royal highness, it was said, took him on the Continent; showed him the famous guardsmen of Frederick the Great, and asked him how he would regard a set-to with one of those redoubtable giants. “I should have no objection, your highness, to fight the whole regiment if you would allow me a breakfast between each battle,” was the legendary reply. It is said that the duke’s illustrious brother, Frederick Prince of Wales, gave much encouragement to the clever bruiser…

Jack Broughton

Jack Broughton

Those at the top, however, have the furthest to fall, and that’s what happened to Broughton on April 10, 1750, when he rashly agreed to a match between himself and a Norwich butcher named Slack, as a means of settling a dispute. Broughton had not fought for some time and “refused to take training preparation,” and he lost the fight when Slack “dealt that hero a prodigious blow between the eyes,” temporarily blinding him. Not only did Broughton lose the match in under fourteen minutes, but the duke lost ten thousand pounds and “turned his back on his pet of former years.”

Following the duke’s renunciation of Broughton, the authorities closed down his amphitheatre and Broughton retired from the ring. In fact, pugilism itself “fled the country” for a number of years, until it returned to some of the villages near London.

Incidentally, it was the Duke of Cumberland who brought the sport back to London. In 1760, his brother the Duke of York backed a bruiser by the name of Bill Stevens, and Cumberland decided to back Slack, the very same fighter who had beaten his pet Broughton and lost him his ten thousand pounds. While Slack “was acknowledged to have the advantage in the first part of the battle,” Stevens suffered the blows with ease and then “punished the champion’s nob” and ended the winner. Cumberland “retired disgusted from the ring” after this second disappointing loss, and “the ring in London again languished for want of the royal support.”

the_bruiser_bruisd

The Sporting houses

Legal authorities had been trying to shut down these events ever since Cumberland’s withdrawal of patronage of Broughton in 1750, which they managed to do quite successfully in London. In the outskirts, however, where police were not as well-organized or simply not interested, pugilism grew in popularity among all classes, due mainly to the existence of “sporting-houses.”

The sporting houses were public-houses kept by retired prize-fighters, trainers, seconds, or other individuals who had been connected with the prize-ring in their earlier days. A chief part of the usiness of the proprietor of a sporting house was to “give the office,” that is, to furnish to the properly qualified member of the “fancy” the latest intelligence as to the movements of the principals in a forthcoming fight and of the police who were dogging them. Prize-fights were no longer possible near the town, except, as it were, by accident. But the location of a forthcoming battle, the exact hour, the best means of reaching the place of the encounter, the state of the odds on the combatants, and other information of a like interest might always be had at the nearest sporting house by any bona fide member of the fraternity.

As soon as “the office” had been given to the initiated at the sporting houses of Holborn, Soho, Houndsditch or Chelsea, and the date and place of meeting determined beyond any reasonable doubt, the “fancy,” chiefly on horseback, started off on a pilgrimage to the favoured spot. Three days were often spent on the journey when the tactics of the enemy had driven the suffering profession very far afield, to the Sussex or Hampshire downs for instance, Salisbury Plain or the fens of Cambridgeshire.

Organizers apparently set up several alternative sites for their events if one happened to be thwarted by the authorities. In one such situation

…a ring was thrown up on Ashley Common, and between six and seven A.M. “many of the amateurs came dashing direct from London.” Bill Richmond was at the “Magpie” to direct the favoured ones to the proper spot; the multitude soon got “the office” and “followed the bang up leaders” to the common. Mr. Mendoza there rode up to the assembled “fancy” and solemnly assured them that the Marquess and his magistrates would prevent the fight at that spot. The expectant multitude followed that eminent man… to his own inn, “where they found the hero seated in Lord Barrymore’s barouche with the horses turned towards Woburn, and escorted by a hundred and fifty noblemen and gentlemen on horseback and an immense retinue of gigs, tandems, and curricles of every species of vehicle.”

This impressive parade continued for seventeen miles to Sir John Sebright’s park in Hertfordshire, the entire seventeen miles “covered with one solid mass of passengers.”

“Broken-down carriages obstructed the road, knocked-up horses fell and could not be got any further, and many hundreds of gentlemen were happy in being jolted in brick-carts for a shilling a mile.” They most of them reached Sir John Sebright’s demesne by two o’clock, however, where the ring was formed; “the exterior circle was nearly an acre, surrounded by a triple ring of horsemen and a double row of pedestrians, who, notwithstanding the wetness of the ground, lay down with great pleasure, and the forty-foot ring was soon completed.”

Amusements of Old London series

Amusements of Old London: Hockley in the Hole

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

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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.

PFA109529 Bull Baiting (oil on paper laid on panel) by Alken, Samuel Henry (1810-94); 17.8x26 cm; Private Collection; Photo © Bonhams, London, UK; English, out of copyright

PFA109529 Bull Baiting (oil on paper laid on panel) by Alken, Samuel Henry (1810-94); 17.8×26 cm; Private Collection; Photo ¬© Bonhams, London, UK; English, out of copyright

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).

bear_baiting

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.

cards-by-hogarth

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.

Amusements of Old London series