A Lady of the Fancy!
Joanna, the heroine of Whisper of Scandal, is a Lady of the Fancy, one of the patrons of Regency boxing. In the Regency fans of the sport came from all strata of society. It was an age when sport was rowdy, riotous and sometimes cruel. Sport was also one area where the rigid ranks of society mingled; a duke would play cricket in the same team as his gardener and the Prince of Wales entertained a pugilist to dinner.
In 1750 an act of parliament reaffirmed that boxing was illegal largely because of the 18th century nervousness about big gatherings and unruly crowds. In legal terms boxing was considered to be an affray or assault, but from 1780 it was patronised by the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of York and Clarence and thus became both popular and fashionable. Wealthy patrons were vital to the sport, providing the prize money, which could range from £50 to £1000. As boxing was illegal the fights frequently took place on private land or landed estates outside London. Word would go out only a few days before a fight was to take place in order to avoid alerting the magistrates though often the magistrates themselves would come along because they enjoyed a mill. Word was spread via the boxing pubs – the Castle Tavern in Holborn, the Union Arms in the Haymarket and the Horse and Dolphin in St Martin’s Lane. Followers would set off early in the morning, travelling out of London armed with fishing rods to act as a decoy. Crowds of 20 – 30 000 were common and the roads became cluttered with riders, pedestrians, coaches etc. Sometimes bouts were held at racecourses where the spectators could use the grandstands. This occurred at Newbury in Berkshire.
The fighters, in contrast to their patrons, were usually from the working classes. Jem Belcher, a champion prize fighter, combined boxing with butchery, as did Tom Spring. John Gully was a coal merchant, Tom Cribb a sailor from Bristol. The most famous pugilist, Gentleman John Jackson, was the son of a builder. He set up a boxing academy at 13 Bond Street. “Jackson’s Rooms” were grander than other boxing academies and attracted a noble clientele. Jackson was known as the Professor of Pugilism and the Commander in Chief. He organised gloved exhibition bouts at the Fives Court in St Martin’s Lane. The Court could seat 1000 people and was packed for bouts. The general public paid three shillings whilst the elite paid a guinea and sat on their own balcony. Gambling on boxing was prodigious with stake money far outstripping the prize for the fight. £40 000 was gambled on one match and over £100 000 on another.
There was a special exhibition match in 1814 for the Allied Heads of State. The Pugilistic Club was also formed in that year. Members subscribed an annual amount to go towards bouts but this did not replace the funding provided by private patrons. The Pugilistic Club met at Jackson’s Rooms. It was committed to fair play and exposing corruption in the sport. It was also flamboyant for its members wore a uniform of blue and buff with yellow kerseymere waistcoats with PC embroidered on the buttons.
In Whisper of Scandal Joanna attends a prize fight at one of the boxing pubs in Holborn and afterwards experiences the raucous high spirits of the boxing fans. It must have been quite an experience for a gently bred female!
There is an extract from Whisper of Scandal on my website plus a contest and my history blog!