Thursday, October 07, 2010

A Lady of the Fancy!

My October US release, Whisper of Scandal, is in the shops now. In the book I have a scene at a prize fight, a setting I’ve never used in a Regency before. In part this is because, like my heroine, I don’t really like boxing but the scene was right for the story so I went with it and I did find the research fascinating.

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!


Margaret McPhee said...

Fascinating blog, Nicola.
I'm off to order a copy of Whisper of Scandal right now!

Nicola Cornick said...

Hello Margaret! How nice of you to comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I found the whole topic of Regency boxing fascinating to research. I hope you are able to find a copy of Whisper of Scandal. I'm told Amazon aren't stocking it (boo!) but it is available from the Book Depository. Thank you!

margaret blake said...

Fascinating facts,Nicola. They must have been "bare knuckle fighters" with no Marquis of Queensbury rules, it must have been a right old punch up. I imagine many boxers were really hurt. Doesn't bear thinking about.
The working class being fodder for the rich as usual, eh?

Nicola Cornick said...

Yes, apparently there were a lot of injuries and some deaths, Margaret. One patron pulled out of the sport after one of his fighters died. A very rough business although there were some rules - no punching below the belt!

Jan Jones said...

Gosh. A Lady of the Fancy. You just go on intriguing, don't you?

Nicola Cornick said...

LOL, Jan, thank you!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Fascinating, Nicola.

There is a wonderful account of boxing by the critic and man of letters, William Hazlitt. It's about a fight between 'The Gasman' and Bill Neate, and it was published in The New Monthly Magazine of February 1822. You may have come across it.

It was re-printed in the Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, published by Penguin. I recommend it for its vivid writing and the feeling of tremendous excitement.

'Neate made a tremendous lunge at him (the Gasman) and hit him full in the face.

'It was doubtful whether he would fall backwards or forwards; he hung suspended for a second or two, and then fell back, throwing his hands in the air, and with his face lifted up to the sky.... The eyes were filled with blood, the nose streamed with blood, the mouth gaped blood.'

Your Joanna must have a strong stomach!

Nicola Cornick said...

What a vivid quotation, Elizabeth!

The hero finds Joanna hiding in the back room of the inn, away from the fight, with her fingers in her ears!