The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


14    The Sporting Fraternity


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.



Gambling was one of the major paths to a criminal life. Although some men took to robbery because they were poor and had no hope of employment, a common thread in the lives of thieves was that they took to the road to meet gambling debts or to make money for gambling. John Dykes, hanged for robbery in October 1721, age 23, acknowledged: ‘My ruin was begun by the delight I took in gaming, and when I had lost most of my money that way, I used to play with boys in the street, for farthings and halfpence, by which means I sometimes pretty well recruited my stock’ – though usually he was quite broke. Fearing to tell his father about his circumstances, he turned his hand to picking pockets, but was often apprehended and sent to Bridewell. Dykes confessed to many robberies as a footpad, and also breaking into houses. ‘But what most troubles me is, that, near the men hanging in chains, by Bow, I met a poor gardener, as he was going home, late at night, and robbed him of all his wages.’

            Joseph Leath, who was hanged for robbery in February 1744, took a letter out of his pocket at the place of execution, and desired that it might be read to shock his companions and save them from a similar fate. In it he said, ‘Gaming and lewd women will infallibly drag you into practices of a like kind with those for which I suffer. Believe me, every gaming-house is hung with halters, and every one of those wanton creatures, is neither better nor worse, than an agent for the hangman.’

            At the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gambling houses, according to Thomas Brown (1663–1704), were called Academies, where nothing was learned but sleight of hand, fraud and cutting. Although we think of gamblers as members of the élite, large numbers of them had an infamous character, who ‘now and then borrow a little money upon the King’s High Way, to recruit their losses at the gaming house’. Gambling was as common among the lower classes as the upper classes, though in 1716 the Lord Mayor forbade the practice of throwing dice for fruit and nuts, in an attempt to bring street gaming to an end. London’s chief magistrate, Sir John Gonson, in his address to the Grand Jury during the Quarter Sessions for the Royalty of the Tower in January 1731, reminded the High Constable and other officials of their duty to apprehend rogues and vagrants, ‘particularly those who go about with orange-barrows and dice, which, tho’ it may seem to some a minute thing, is often attended with very ill consequences; apprentice boys, school boys, &c. are taught to play at dice; and when once they have contracted a habit of this low gaming, and lose their money, they too often rob or pilfer from their masters or parents.’ The smuggler and robber John Blade, alias Black Jack of the West, who was hanged in Norwich in March 1737, used to go round the fairs in Norfolk, cheating people with illegal games such as Pricking at the Girdle, Old Hat, Thimbles and Balls, and a game he invented, called The Black Joak.

Print illustrating riotous behaviour at a gambling house

            Gambling in the streets, at fairs and at markets comprised the lower-class gambling underworld, while gambling in clubs comprised the upper-class underworld – if that is not a contradiction in terms. The beau monde and the underworld met at the gaming table. As Oliver Goldsmith observed in his life of Beau Nash of Bath: ‘Wherever people of fashion came, needy adventurers were generally found in waiting.’ Gambling clubs were possibly more widespread in the early part of the century than the latter, when they were more carefully controlled by aristocratic connections. In 1718 the Leet Jury of Westminster authorized a search of gambling dens, and in a single night were able to present thirty-five houses for prosecution. These ‘common gaming houses’ were often subjects of warrants to search out and close ‘disorderly houses’, night-houses and houses of ill-fame. In March 1730 the Spread Eagle Chocolate House in Bridges Street, Covent Garden, which kept a common gaming table, was searched under warrant, and several gamesters were arrested including two noted Jewish City merchants, who had to give recognizances to play no more during life. ‘A woman who opposed the constables, and assisted some of the gamesters to make their escapes, was also bound over to the next Sessions’ (Grub Street Journal, 19 March 1730). A statute passed during the reign of Henry VIII decreed that ‘No person of what degree or condition soever, shall by himself, factor, deputy, servant, or other person, for his or their gain, lucre, or living, keep, hold, exercise or maintain any common house, alley, or place of bowling, coyting, colsh, cayles, half bowl, tennis, dicing table, or carding, or any other manner of game prohibited by any statute heretofore made, or any unlawful new game, now invented or made, or any other new unlawful game, hereafter to be invented, found, had, or made, on pain of 40s. a day, for every day he keeps or suffers any such game to be played.’ This statute remained in force throughout the century, and was supplemented (e.g. in 1730) by additional laws which attempted to curb gambling by limiting the amount of money one could lose at play. However, very few people refused to honour debts in excess of their legal liability, for fear of blasting their reputations.

            Ralph Wilson in his biography of his partner the gambler and highwayman John Hawkins, who was hanged in 1722, said that the Westminster Justices didn’t suppress the gaming tables because they were protected by several powerful men in the magistracy: ‘There’s a yearly alliance betwixt them, which generally expires about Christmas, when the advocates raise all their forces, and join some Christian companies of informing constables. And being thus prepar’d for some notable enterprize, their first attack is upon the three-penny gaming-tables, whence they drag away ten or a dozen needy pick-pockets. This alarms the governors of greater places, who dispatch their agents with presents to these formidable enimies of vice, all is hush’d up, and the alliance renew’d.’

            The prosecution of gaming houses during the early 1720s was affected by an argument between various legal officials arising from overlapping jurisdictions in Westminster governed by the court of burgesses and the Justices of the Peace. The officials of the court of burgesses were particularly noted for being susceptible to corruption, and the Westminster Justices wanted to bring the vice offences prosecuted by the burgesses – public nuisance and regulation of bawdy houses, disorderly houses, gaming houses, and so on – under the control of the Quarter Sessions. They met with stiff resistance, and the Reforming Justices of Westminster (i.e. those who were members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners) met in secret petty sessions (rather than in formal public sessions) to prevent their plans for raids from being revealed. However, during a campaign against gaming houses in Covent Garden in 1722, it was suspected that many Justices themselves owned gaming houses, and these Justices gave advance warnings of impending raids, hence there were few prosecutions. Those who were arrested were sometimes advised by these Justices to take out vexatious counter-suits against the constables. In 1723 twenty-six Westminster Justices formed what they called a ‘convention’ whose aim was to suppress gaming houses. Such associations met regularly throughout the following years, though the resulting prosecutions were often minimal. In March 1726 a warrant was obtained from the Lord Mayor to apprehend the master of the Goat and Buffler tavern in Fleet Street, for keeping a common gaming house. However, as the constables and their assistants approached, one of the servants gave notice to the gamesters, who all escaped through a gentleman’s chambers into Clifford’s Inn, leaving their cloaks, hats, swords and canes behind them. The constables managed to take into custody only one gamester, one of the waiters, and the master of the house.

            In January 1731 the High Constable of Holborn Division, with several of his petty constables, set out to raid a notorious gaming house behind Gray’s Inn Walks, but the gamesters had been given notice and managed to flee, leaving only the master of the house to be apprehended, and bound in recognizance of a £200 penalty if he allowed gaming on his premises in the future. The Grub Street Journal (7 January 1731) took the occasion to list the officers of the typical gaming establishment:

1. A Commissioner, always a Proprietor, who looks in of a night; and the week’s account is audited by him and 2 other Proprietors.
2. A Director, who superintends the room.
3. An Operator, who deals the cards at a cheating game called Faroe.
4. Two Crowpees, who watch the cards, and gather the money for the bank.
5. Two Puffs, who have money given them to decoy others to play.
6. A Clerk, who is a check upon the Puffs, to see that they sink none of the money given them to play with.
7. A Squib is a Puff of a lower rank, who serves at half salary, while he is learning to deal.
8. A Flasher, to swear how often the bank has been stript.
9. A Dunner, who goes about to recover money lost at play.
10. A Waiter, to fill out wine, snuff candles, and attend the gaming room.
11. An Attorney, a Newgate Solicitor.
12. A Captain, who is to fight any Gentleman that is peevish for losing his money.
13. An Usher, who lights Gentlemen up and down stairs, and gives the word to the Porter.
14. A Porter, who is generally a Soldier of the Foot guards.
15. An Orderly Man, who walks up and down the outside of the door, to give notice to the Porter, and alarm the house at the approach of the constables.
16. A Runner, who is to get intelligence of the Justices’ meetings.
17. Link-boys, Coachmen, Chairmen, Drawers, or others, who bring intelligence of the Justices’ meetings, or of the constables being out, at half a guinea reward.
18. Common Bail Affidavit Men, Ruffians, Bravoes, Assassins, cum multis alliis.

This list fails to mention the Doorkeeper, a role sometimes taken by a boxer or soldier, who performed services similar to the bouncer in modern clubs.

            The Phœnix, a famous gaming club in the Haymarket, kept rising from the ashes after being raided. It was raided in late March 1729 by Sir John Gonson and his assistants. Twenty gamesters were arrested: nine of them were bound in recognizances of 20l. with a promise to play no more, five were committed to the Gatehouse, and six were sent to Tothill Fields Bridewell to beat hemp, including the doorkeeper Charles Rogers, alias Shock, and a certain Allen, alias Pipes, a noted prize fighter. In January 31 the club, now renamed the New Phenix, was raided yet again. Most of the gamesters made their escape over the tops of nearby houses, but nine were captured; one, a Horse Grenadier, was bound over to play no more or suffer a penalty of £200, and three men were set to hard labour at Tothill Fields Bridewell. The Phenix club rose again from the flames in mid-February 1731, and its gaming table was relocated to a back room in another house, passage to which was gained through the cellar secured by triple doors, guarded by two men. The authorities believed that this club was frequented by highwaymen and robbers, and a great number of constables raided it once again on a Friday night: ‘they were a long time vigorously opposed by the gamesters, who assaulted them with red-hot pokers and spits; but at last they entered the gaming-room, and took 7 of them. Will. Ambrose, the box-keeper, was committed to Newgate for want of sureties to play no more at unlawful games, and for assaulting the constables with a red-hot poker; Sam Smith was committed to the Gate-house, being a common gamester; Edw. Mortimer and Michael Picket, the one a gentleman’s servant, the other a stay-maker, were committed to Tothill-fields Bridewell to hard labour; Wilson, a lawyer’s clerk, was bound to his good behaviour; a cooper in the Minories, thought not to be an old offender, was discharged; as was a Soldier of the Guards, who was a door-keeper, upon giving information against several common gamesters. Four or 5 escaped through a hole which they broke into the wall of the adjoining house.’

            Gamesters sometimes put up stiff resistance and were even willing to kill constables who were spoiling their pleasure. In December 1721 half a dozen constables attempted to enter Mr Vandernan’s house in Playhouse Passage, Drury Lane, which had been operating as a common gaming house for the past nine years. The constables knocked down the outer door and broke through the inner hatch, and about twenty gamesters within shouted out ‘Damn ye, we’re all taken, put out the candles and draw your swords!’ They drove back the constables with their swords, and some of them broke the windows on the upper floors and threw brickbats, ale-house tankards, and a chamber pot down upon the constables. The constables read the Riot Act (thereby allowing soldiers to assist and authorizing them to shoot to kill) but the gamesters within shouted ‘A turd for your Proclamation!’ Several soldiers arrived to assist in breaking down the door. When asked to surrender, one gamester replied, ‘Aye, damn ye, if you’ll have our swords in your guts.’ There was a pitched battle, and a mob who gathered outside the club joined in attacking the constables whom they called ‘damned informing rogues’. The riot lasted from 11 at night to 2 in the morning, when a gun was fired and the rioters dispersed. Two of the constables died from their wounds. No-one could pinpoint their murderer, but two of the gamesters, and a passing peruke maker who joined the riot, were convicted for riotous assault in February 1722, and sentenced to fines and imprisonment. Though the frequenters of this gaming establishment were wealthy enough to wear swords, they were not gentlemen, but desperate characters, one of whom was said to be the highwayman William Butler; he escaped on this occasion but was hanged for highway robbery in August 1723. Charles Piercy, the man who guarded the door of a fashionable gaming house near Covent Garden Opera House, was killed in January 1726 by Robert Irwin, a desperate gambler trying to gain entrance to get six-pence from a man who owed him money. Irwin rang the bell of the house and when Piercy opened the wicket, Irwin asked admittance to see one of the gamblers inside. Piercy said he had orders not to let him in, and as he started to shut the wicket, Irwin thrust a bayonet through the wicket and killed him. Irwin fled to Ireland but was eventually captured and hanged.

            Gambling was perceived to have grown markedly by the mid-1730s. The newly fashionable card game of quadrille was favoured by the more respectable. Gentleman and Ladies whose income was no longer equal to their station, allowed their homes to be used as gaming houses, with their name being offered as an inducement to the polite classes to come. The gaming societies had their puffs, who gathered in young men fresh from the country, just as bawds kept on the lookout for country maidens, and directed them to what they thought was the beau monde in the West End. There was even supposed to have been an incident in 1735 when a child was put forward as the wager – and lost.

            An Act of 1739 ‘for the more efficient preventing of excessive and deceitful gaming’ required that the keeper of a gaming house would forfeit £200, half to go to the prosecutor, half to the poor of the parish (or, in Bath, where gaming was of course common, half to the poor in the hospital). The Act was renewed and enlarged in 1745, following a notorious incident when Dame Mary, Baroness of Mordington, claimed that her privilege of peerage allowed her to continue her gaming house in the Great Piazza, Covent Garden, ‘for and as an Assembly, where all persons of credit are at liberty to frequent and play at such diversions as are used at other Assemblys. And I have hired Joseph Dewberry, William Horsely, Ham Cropper, and George Sanders, as my servants, or managers, (under me) thereof. I have given them orders to direct the management of the other inferior servants, (namely) John Bright, Richard Davis, John Hill, John Vandenvoren, as box-keepers. Gilbert Richardson, housekeeper, John Chaplain, regulator, William Stanley and Henry Huggins, servants that wait on the company at the said Assembly, William Penny and Joseph Pennym, as porters thereof. And all the above mentioned persons I claim as my domestick servants, and demand all those privileges that belong to me, as a Peeress of Great Britain, appertaining to my said Assembly. M. Mordington. Dated 8 Jan. 1745.’ Parliament nevertheless determined that neither she nor Lady Casselis, who made a similar claim, were protected against prosecution for keeping a common gaming house.

            Gaming-houses were one of the ‘temples of iniquity’ which Henry Fielding brought to the attention of the Grand Jury of Westminster in June 1749: ‘This vice, Gentlemen, is inseparable from a luxurious and idle age; for while luxury produces want, idleness forbids honest labour to supply it.’ In October 1750 a party of soldiers and constables raided the Hoop tavern in the Strand, a notorious gaming house, and arrested thirty-six gamblers and chopped up and burned the expensive gaming tables. In February 1751 they arrested forty-five gamesters at another house in the Strand: ‘There were three tables broken to pieces, which cost near £60 apiece; under each of them were observed two iron rollers, and two private springs, which those who were in the secret could touch, and stop the turning whenever they had any youngsters to deal with, and, so, cheated them of their money’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, 1 Feb. 1751). In April 1751 a party of guards raided the Long Room, in James’s Steet, Westminster, where gaming was taking place under cover of a masquerade ball, and seventeen were committed to the gatehouse. The punishment for unlawful gaming was simply to pay a certain sum of money as a ‘surety’ that the offender would never again resort to a gaming house. The owner of the house would pay a similar surety or recognizance to guarantee that he or she would not again run a gaming house, and to suffer the loss of the expensive gaming tables. Such fines meant little to the habitues of these establishments, for whom the loss of considerable sums of money was a status symbol. To lose £12,000 at hazard was something that could impress the Guardsmen. Only people caught cheating were given a more severe punishment than a fine, for they were guilty of fraud. These were usually the men who made a living out of gambling by playing with false cards or loaded dice. In 1740 three men, Thomas Lyell, Lawrence Sydney and John Roberts, were committed to Newgate on charges of defrauding gentlemen of more than £4,000 during assemblies at the masquerade: nine pairs of dice were cut open, and only one single die was found to be unloaded; Lyell and Sidney stood in the pillory near the Opera House for their offence. Sentences in the provinces were more severe than those in the metropolis. In Norwich in October 1777, a tradesman was fined £20 for cheating at cards and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment without bail; if he failed to pay the fine by the end of that term, he was to stand in the pillory with his ears nailed to the post.

            Common gaming houses seem to have made way for more fashionable gaming clubs during the latter part of the century. Horace Walpole in his letters to Sir Horace Mann often expressed astonishment at the sums of money being lost at Almack’s in Pall Mall (relocated to St James’s Street from 1778) or White’s in St James’s Street: ‘The young men of the age lose five, ten, fifteen thousand pounds in an evening there. Lord Stavordale, not one and twenty, lost eleven thousand there, last Tuesday, but recovered it by one great hand at hazard: he swore a great oath, – “Now, if I had been playing deep, I might have won millions”’ (2 Feb. 1770). Lord Stavordale’s cousin was Charles Fox the leading politician, a very great gambler. He sometimes went to Almack’s in the evening, staying there until the next afternoon before going to White’s to drink until the following morning, before setting out for Newmarket and the horse races. In the space of two nights he and his brother Stephen, neither of them over 25 years old, lost £32,000.

            Women became prominent in the fashionable gambling clubs, where their favourite game was cards (rather than dice), whether loo, faro or quadrille. Earlier, Richard Steele in the Guardian (29 July 1713) deplored female gambling: ‘Hollow eyes, haggard looks, and pale complexions, are the natural indications of a female gamester. Her morning sleeps are not able to repair her midnight watchings.’ There were even establishments catering mainly for women. In September 1722 the High Constable of Holborn Division, with several assistants, raided what the Daily Journal called ‘a Female Gaming-House’ in Theobald’s Row near Red Lion Street, and arrested five women and three men. One of the men acted as the proprietor, another acted as a ‘groupe’ (i.e. croupier), and the third as an ‘accidental auxiliary’. Sexual dishonour was the ultimate price paid by the female gamester: ‘The man who plays beyond his income, pawns his estate; the woman must find out something else to mortgage when her pin money is gone. The husband has his lands to dispose of, the wife, her person.’ Fashionable novels such as The Sylph, attributed to the inveterate gambler Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, featured women gamblers as their central characters, and suggested that they were blackmailed into committing adultery in order to pay their debts.

            By the end of the century the most celebrated houses were run by women. Lady Buckinghamshire and Lady Archer kept a faro bank at their houses, and she and Lady Archer often found themselves lampooned in prints by Gilray in the 1790s.

Print illustrating  Lady Luttrell and Mrs Sturt standing in the pillory

Lady Buckinghamshire’s gaming house in St James’s Square was particularly disreputable, and noted for the frequent and unaccountable disappearance of golden snuff boxes and purses. In March 1797 Lady Buckinghamshire, Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, Mrs Sturt and Mr Concannon were prosecuted for playing at faro at Lady Buckinghamshire’s house, Mr Martindale acting as the proprietor of the table. Gaming parties were held at the different houses of these people in rotation, from 11 or 12 o’clock each night until 3 or 4 o’clock the following morning. Martindale was fined the usual £200, and each of the Ladies were fined £50. The charge against Mr Concannon was quashed due to a legal technicality. This prosecution prompted a famous cartoon by Gilray, showing Lady Buckinghamshire tied to the tail of a cart bearing a placard ‘FARO’S DAUGHTERS BEWARE’, with Lady Luttrell and Mrs Sturt standing in the pillory.

Cartoon by Gilray, showing Lady Buckinghamshire tied to the tail of a cart

These particular women were spoken of in numerous articles in the press during the early 1790s as ‘the Faro Ladies’, or ‘the Banking Ladies’. They charged 25 guineas as an advance by the bank holders towards the night’s expenses, but seemed to be making regular losses by the summer of 1794, when some of them substituted the game of roulette. Whist seems to have superseded both by the end of the decade. Martindale was declared bankrupt in 1798, with debts of £328,000 in addition to debts of honour, which were struck off at £150,000. Lady Buckinghamshire does not seem to have reopened her house, though Concannon’s wife Mrs Concannon opened her own gaming house in Paris around 1800.

            In November 1797 Joseph Atkinson and his wife Mary were prosecuted at the Court of King’s Bench for running a gaming house, which they had kept under the Piazza, Covent Garden, for many years. Atkinson frequently paid what he called ‘hush money’ to the authorities, though in this instance it apparently was not sufficient. The Atkinson’s modus operandi consisted of giving magnificent dinners every evening, gratis, for which cards of invitation were sent to the younger clerks of the merchants, bankers and brokers in the City. After dining and drinking freely, they went into the gaming room and lost all their money playing at cards and dice into the following day. Atkinson used loaded dice, which he called ‘dispatches’ because ‘in five minutes, they would dispatch £500 out of the pocket of any young man when intoxicated with champagne’. Atkinson regularly extended the credit of those he had fleeced, until he had completely ‘cleaned them out’. The practice of writing Bills of Exchange so as to continue playing well after all one’s funds had run out, gave opportunities to forgers. Henry Weston, son of the late Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, in 1796 lost a large sum of money plus his inheritance at a gaming house in Pall Mall, which he tried to patch up by forging a promissory note in the name of another General for £10,000, but this was discovered. When he was taken he tried to cut his throat, but did so inefficiently. He was hanged for forgery on 6 July 1796, age 23. He sent to the Magistrate Lord Kenyon a list of professional gamblers, one of whom lost £46,000 at play at a house in Pall Mall, and various officers addicted to gaming.

            The gamester became a humorous character in literature, both polite and popular, and there were semi-fictional biographical compendiums such as Theophilus Lucas’s Memoirs of the Lives, Intrigues, and Comical Adventures of the most Famous Gamesters and Celebrated Sharpers in the Reigns of Charles II., James II., William III., and Queen Anne (1714). The seventeenth-century tradition of ‘characters’ – pithy descriptive sketches – is often found in the writings of Ned Ward; in his Adam and Eve Stript of their Furbelows (1705) he portrays the gambling lady in debt to both her jeweller and her pawnbroker: ‘she is generally such a bubble to some smock fac’d gamester, who can win her money first, carry off the loser in a hackney coach, and kiss her into a good humour before he parts with her, that she is generally driven to the last extremity’. Susanna Centilivre The Gamester (1705) was the first of many plays about gambling throughout the century:

You Roaring Boys, who know the Midnight Cares
Of Rattling Tatts [false dice], ye Sons of Hopes and Fears;
Who Labour hard to bring your Ruin on,
And diligently toil to be undone;
You’re Fortune’s sporting Footballs at the best,
Few are his Joys, and small the Gamester’s Rest.

In Tobias Smollett’s novel Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753) the title character works in conjunction with professional gamesters to defraud the young sons of aristocrats of their money, while pretending to give them wise counsel. Female gamesters were depicted in works such as Susanna Centlivre’s The Basset Table, Sarah Fielding’s The History of the Countess of Delwyn, and Fanny Burney’s Camilla, and in poetry, such as Mary Wortley Montagu's ‘Thursday Eclogue’ (‘The Bassette Table’) and Anne Finch's ‘Ombre and Basset laid aside’.


Cock-fighting, Boxing and other Rough Sports


Most popular sports were associated with gambling. Addison in theTatler for 14–16 February 1710 deplored the cruelty of the Shrove-Tuesday custom of tying a rooster to a stake and throwing sticks at it, beating it to death. ‘Some French writers have represented this diversion of the common people much to our disadvantage, and imputed it to natural fierceness and cruelty of temper; as they do some other entertainments peculiar to our nation: I mean those elegant diversions of bull-baiting and prize-fighting, with the like ingenious recreations of the Bear-garden. I wish I knew how to answer this reproach which is cast upon us, and excuse the death of so many innocent cocks, bulls, dogs, and bears, as have been set together by the ears, or died untimely deaths, only to make us sport.’

            Though we think of bull-baiting and bear-baiting as Elizabethan or Jacobean sports, they remained popular throughout the eighteenth century. In early July 1772 there was a grand bull-baiting in Tothill Fields, Westminster, when 70 bull-dogs were set loose, and afforded excellent sport for a crowd of 10,000 spectators. The bull broke his collar and ran among the crowd, tossing several persons, but no lives were lost. In early August 1772 a bull was baited on Kennington Common amidst a vast concourse of spectators. The bull broke from his stake and gored two people, who later died, and hurt many others. But it was all good sport. In November 1772 a bear belonging to a man in Stoke Newington was shot after it bit off the hand of someone who was going to feed it.

            Many areas, in the centre of town as well as in outlying fields, set aside rings or amphitheatres for the performance of these rude sports. Blue Cross Street in Covent Garden had freak shows, bear gardens and cockfights, and ‘gladiator’ combats, i.e. bare-knuckle fist-fighting or boxing, between women in short petticoats as well as between men. (Protective padded gloves were not used for professional boxing until much later in the nineteenth century; the result was that surgeons often entered the ring to attend to more serious injuries than a black eye – justifying some boxers’ colourful nicknames such as Jawbreaker and Gravedigger.) Boxing matches in the fields in Islington drew very large crowds. In October 1772 boxers illegally took over Sampson’s horse riding ground, and charged 6d. each for admittance to see the boxing match, from which they earned a good sum.

            The most popular area permanently set aside for such events was the Bear Garden at Hockley in the Hole, though there was also a popular Bear Garden at the Bankside, Southwark, and at least two others less often mentioned. Hockley in the Hole was famed for its bear garden, the same ring being used for bare-knuckle boxing. Christopher Preston, the proprietor of the ring, fell in and was killed by his bears in 1709. The season in 1715 included, in addition to bull-baiting and bear-baiting, contests between wrestling women and between dog and man. The admission price was 2s. 6d. In Preston’s poem AEsop at the Bear Garden (1715) it is described as ‘an ancient place, dedicated originally to bull-baiting, bear-baiting, prize-fighting, and all other sorts of rough game, and not only attended by butchers and drovers, and great crowds of all sorts of mob, but likewise by Dukes, Lords, Knights, Squires, &c.’ Although the upper classes did go to the bear gardens, they were mostly rakes, and if any aristocrats went, it was mainly a case of slumming it in what was essentially a lower-class milieu. A 1737 Dictionary of Thieving Slang defines ‘Bear-Garden Discourse’ as ‘common, filthy, nasty talk’. The middle classes certainly objected to the bear gardens early in the eighteenth century. The Daily Journal on 8 September 1724 reported that ‘The sober part of the town express great concern at the scandalous advertisements that are almost every day publish’d, for calling raw tradesmen out of their shops, students from their books, apprentices and hired servants, and even his Majesty’s soldiers from their duty, to attend at the rude and savage diversions of the Bear-Garden, where prophaneness reigns triumphantly, vollies of the most dreadful oaths being pour’d out incessantly, and picking of pockets practic’d openly with impunity.’

Print illustrating a boxing match betrween Benjamin Brian and Thomas Johnson in 1791

            The main event prompting this outrage were advertisements for a prize fight featuring the famous boxer James Figg, the famous ‘Master of Defence’ who taught boxing at his own Amphitheatre or Academy on the Oxford Road, near Soho, from 1719. Figg appears as a challenger sitting on a blind horse in Hogarth’s print Southwark Fair (the symbolism of which is obscure), and also in The Rake’s Progress, next to the French fencing teacher Dubois who had recently died after a duel. One of his pupils, the Thames waterman Jack Broughton, became ‘the father of English boxing’ and devised the sport’s first formal rules in 1743. Prize fighters at Dorset Gardens Theatre would maul one another, to the great satisfaction of the spectators, who were mostly journeymen shoemakers, weavers and tailors, and then march down Chancery Lane accompanied by a troupe of young men with ‘bear-garden physiognomies’, that is faces bearing scars, some of them beating on drums to announce their victory. Boxing matches were noted for violence outside the ring as well as inside the ring. In 1727 a man trying to climb up into the gallery at Stokes’s Amphitheatre in Islington Road, near Sadlers Wells, to watch a boxing match was kicked back down into the pit by one of the paying occupants of the gallery, and he died two hours later from the contusion on his neck. In 1738 a barber/peruke-maker was squeezed to death as he attempted to get into the Great Booth at Tottenham Court to see a boxing match between Broughton and Stephenson. Boxing, like gambling, was primarily a masculine world, but, like gambling, there were some prominent women practitioners. Elizabeth Stokes, called the ‘Invincible City Championess’, fought the Irish championess Mary Welch at Stokes’s Amphitheatre in October 1726 and may have been Stokes’s wife. According to the newspaper advertisement which announced their challenge fight, ‘They fight in close jackets, short petticoats, coming just below the knee, Holland drawers, white stockings, and pumps.’

            A good many trials for murder in the Old Bailey illustrate the violent outcome of private boxing contests. Almost invariably two men drink too much and decide to have a boxing match to see who is ‘the better man’: they strip to the waist and set to, and one dies as the result of being struck on the temple or being kicked in the chest or breaking his skull by falling against something. The fights following on from drunken brawls often took a surprisingly formal turn. For example, in November 1726 Richard Pritchard and William Fenwick got drunk at the Baptist Head Tavern in White Cross Street, and began quarrelling and fighting. Pritchard beat Fenwick, and challenged Fenwick to fight him next day. Wagers were laid on both sides, and the men agreed that Moorfields would be the scene of action. There the two men entered the ad hoc ring, shook hands, and began boxing. Pritchard knocked Fenwick down three times by a blow near the left ear, from the last of which falls he was not able to rise again, ‘but lay panting, never spoke more, and lived but an hour after’. A surgeon determined that a broken blood vessel occasioned by the blow was the cause of his death. The jury decided on a verdict of accidental death rather than either murder or manslaughter. In March 1726 Richard Bun, the drawer at the Vine Tavern in Eagle Court, drunkenly demanded payment of a guinea from Francis Chandler, who retorted he didn’t owe him anything. Bun began hussling Chandler, who shouted ‘Stand off. – You’re a Bear-Garden fellow, I don't understand boxing.’ Bun continued striking at Chandler, who retreated in a posture of defence, again shouting ‘Stand off! I am no Bear-Garden fighter, though you are.’ In desperation, Chandler drew his sword and killed Bun. Chandler was convicted of manslaughter and branded in the hand. In May 1734 two men quarrelled about a 2d. bet laid in the Nine-Pin Ground in Hampstead; a third man, Joseph Greenfield, took the part of the man who lost the bet, and said he’d fight any man for a crown; a fourth man, John Jones, a total stranger to Greenfield, took up the challenge and began to strip but said he had not a crown to wager, so the other man ‘agreed to fight for Love, as they call’d it’. They fought fairly and Jones was getting the better of Greenfield, when Greenfield said he ‘would fight no more in the Nine Pin Ground among blackguards, but would fight it out in a room’. But Jones said he wanted to continue on the ground, so ‘they shook hands three times very lovingly, and went to boxing again.’ Greenfield struck Jones in the temple, and as he fell down, Greenfield kicked him in the groin. Jones died three days later, and Greenfield was convicted of manslaughter and burned in the hand – which was the most common verdict and sentence in many similar cases.

            In John Gay’s ironic portrayal of the criminal underworld, The Beggar’s Opera, Mrs Peachum advises Finch: ‘You should go to Hockley in the Hole, and to Mary-bone, child, to learn valour. These are the schools that have bred so many brave men.’ An example of such bravery occurred in August 1730, when Edward Sutton, the invincible champion of Kent, was arrested for wounding two women with his sword. John Villette, the Ordinary of Newgate, pointed out that Robert Wilkinson, who was hanged for murder in 1722 at the age of 35, and who had previously been a footpad in a gang of about seven robbers, had one main ambition, ‘that of being a Bear-Garden Chief. There seldom was a boxing match at Hockley in the Hole, but Bob was one of the combatants; and though he was but low in stature, yet, as he was very strong limbed, and a daily practitioner, he often carried the prize. And no man could be more elevated than he, with the hoarse acclamations of carmen and butchers; though he shared their compliments but in common with his fellow brutes, the bull-dogs.’


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