This edited article about pugilism originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 731 published on 17 January 1976.
Having had more than enough trouble down the years, plump King George IV was anxious that his Coronation in 1820 should go through without a hitch. But it was to prove a day of mixed fortunes for him.
His hated, discarded wife, Caroline, whose private life was nearly as scandalous as her husband’s, turned up at Westminster Abbey, tried to get in to be crowned, and failed. However, she made no effort to gate-crash the big banquet held after the ceremony in Westminster Hall, and went away, dying a month later, much to the relief of George and the Government.
Meanwhile, the banquet had been a great success, and no one in his senses would have dared to get in uninvited, for prudent King George had hired the toughest bodyguards in human history, eighteen of Britain’s brawniest and bravest bruisers, the pick of the prize-fighting fraternity, to act as “chuckers-out”.
Admittedly, dressed as pages, these big men, clad in silks and satins, did look rather strange, but they were the focus of all eyes, because they were the most admired group of men in the kingdom. Naturally, there were no intruders, and the King, although he was criticised by some for being cowardly enough to enlist such a heavy mob, was greatly applauded by most for adding lustre to the occasion. These men, Tom Cribb, “Gentleman” John Jackson, terrible Randall, Bulldog Hudson, fearless Scroggins and the rest, were adored by all classes, more than any group of sportsmen since.
For the British, as readers of this series will know by now, loved fighting with their fists, and, above all, they loved great fighters. From the mid-18th century until well into the 19th, they were idolised.
Early in the 18th century, boxing was a savage affair of punching, kicking, biting, gouging and throwing, put on for crowds in fairgrounds. The first and self-elected Champion was one James Figg and he and his company of bruisers also gave sessions with stick, cudgel and broadsword, thereby giving the customers plenty of variety. Their heads were shaven to show a “broken pate” which decided the result of these last three blood sports.
One of Figg’s pupils, Jack Broughton, the true father of boxing, drew up a famous Code in 1743, his chief rule being that a round ended when one fighter was knocked down by a blow or thrown down wrestling. 30 seconds grace was allowed to the battered hulk to recover and reach a mark in the centre of the ring, or he had lost. Broughton also introduced two seconds and two umpires. They had remarkably little to do in this all-action, few-holds barred mini-war, which perhaps, rather surprisingly, forbade hitting a man when he was down or grabbing him below the waist. You could also pull a man down by his hair if you wanted to, if he was silly enough to wear it long. The great Mendoza was beaten in this way by “Gentleman Jackson” and when he complained, was advised to get his hair cut.
Jack Broughton introduced boxing gloves known as mufflers for his pupils, but prize-fights, on which vast sums were staked, were always bare-fisted. Gloves were considered sissy. Incredibly, fights sometimes lasted over six hours and one ran to 276 rounds.
Broughton was finally dethroned as Champion, and his chief backer, the Duke of Cumberland, accused him of losing deliberately for money and disowned him. Although he later forgave the innocent pugilist by that time he had had prize-fighting outlawed.
But you could not keep the Briton’s favourite sport down by law, so most fights were staged outside London, where the Law was less likely to catch the culprits in time to stop the contest. And by the 1780s, when the nobility, always willing to take on any man with their fists, had begun to patronise the sport in a big way, the law was mainly ignored.
As keen as anyone on pugilism was the Prince of Wales, later George IV, as his line-up of leading bare-fisted bruisers at his Coronation proved. The Fancy, as patrons of the Noble Art of Self Defence were called, not only mixed with fighters in a thoroughly democratic way, but often dressed like them and copied their speech. They took lessons from the great Jackson in his Bond Street academy, where the poet, Lord Byron, who thought the world of the intelligent, charming Jackson, was one of the pupils.
In the first half of the 19th century, a pugilistic encounter was the talk of the nation. The money staked was colossal, and when Bill Neat fought the Gas-man at Hungerford in 1821, £200,000 was in dispute, more than a million in today’s terms. So many crooks and riff-raff moved in, that it almost killed the sport, until in 1864, the Queensberry Rules were drawn up by the Marquis of that name, which was the beginning of today’s sport, including gloves. Bare-fisted bouts went on, often in secret, or in Belgium or France to avoid the police, for many years, but a new age had dawned.
It was never as popular as the old one it replaced. And, for all the excitement engendered by occasional big fights today, it is as nothing compared to the fever that gripped the entire nation when a big prize-fight took place.
Imagine the scene when Bill Neat fought Tom Hickman, the “Gas-man”, whose odd nickname came from the fact that the new gaslight was so brilliant, and so was he.
Hundreds of carriages, carts and wagons converged on the ring a mile from Hungerford on a December day when the grass was wet, and there were soon 20,000 present. There was burly Tom, who called his right hand “the grave-digger”; there stood Bill Neat, long-armed, clumsy, but ready to dethrone the proud Hickman; there were the Swells, swaggering around the outer ring, and there in their thousands stood Britain on parade, watching the Gas-man sucking oranges and strutting about like the cock-of-the walk.
The famous fight almost ended in the first round, for the Gas-man went for Neat like a tiger and felled him with a tornado of blows. But Neat rose up, fought cautiously, then brought his sledgehammer fists into play and sent his opponent to the ground. The vast crowd roared. Somehow, Hickman staggered upright and grinned a ghastly smile, as if amused that someone at last was daring to stand up to him. One side of his face was crimson and his right eye was closed, but for round after round he fought on, giving blow for blow. In the 12th round, Neat lunged at his face and for moments he hung suspended in space. The great writer, William Hazlitt, noted that “all traces of life, of natural expression were gone from him. His face was like a human skull.”
But the Gas-man was not beaten yet, for he fought on round after round until, wrote Hazlitt, “in the seventeenth or eighteenth round, his sense forsook him and . . . the battle was declared over”. At once, carrier pigeons flew off, carrying news of her husband’s victory to Mrs. Neat. “Alas for Mrs. Hickman,” said Hazlitt.
“Where am I? What is the matter?” said the Gas-man when he came to.
“Nothing is the matter, Tom. You have lost the battle, but you are the bravest man alive,” whispered Gentleman Jackson to him and handed him a purse full of money that he had collected for him. And Neat went up and shook him by the hand.
The Golden Age of old-style pugilism did not last long because, as we have seen, with so much money involved, crime inevitably reared its ugly head.
But even in 1860, something of the old spirit remained. One lovely April day in 1860, Tom Sayers, Champion of England, met Heenan the American to decide the championship of the world near Farnborough. A national conspiracy kept news of its location from the police and on the night before the fight, every London pub stayed open all night so that word could be got round where the special trains to the secret ring were to start. The fight had been raging two hours, and the Briton was sparring with his left because his right arm had been broken by the American, when the police finally reached the frenzied scene. Eight years older than the American, five inches shorter and more than a stone lighter, Tom Sayers was still giving as good as he got when the Law ended the fight. The Champion was undefeated still.
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