Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Regency Boxing

Recently I’ve been writing a couple of articles about the research I did for Whisper of Scandal, as it will be published in Germany later this year. One of the items I came across was about boxing. I’m not a huge fan of the sport but I did find the research into the Regency passion for boxing to be fascinating. In Whisper of Scandal my heroine, Joanna, is a “Lady of the Fancy,” one of the patronesses of the ring. This is despite the fact that like me she doesn’t care for contact sports. (She was just too polite to refuse when asked to be a patroness!) In the book the hero finds her at a boxing match hiding away in a back room with her fingers in her ears to blot out the sound of the punches!

Sport in England in the late 18th and early 19th century was rowdy, riotous and often cruel. It was also quite democratic; a duke would be happy to 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, a criminal activity that was viewed by the courts as an affray or assault. This was largely because there was nervousness in the later 18th century about big gatherings and unruly crowds, but from 1780 the sport became both fashionable and popular with the support of the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of York and Clarence.

The support of rich patrons was in fact vital to the sport. Keen attendees at matches were not only royal and noble but also members of the gentry and men from the world of business. As fights were technically illegal they could not be advertised. They often happened on private land or on estates outside London. No advance tickets were sold. The organisers would arrange the fighters, the stake etc. Then a few days before the match word would go out that a fight was happening. This was to avoid alerting the magistrates. Hungerford and Bath were two popular venues because they were easily accessible from London. Sometimes bouts were held at racecourses where the spectators could use the grandstands. Word was spread from the London boxing pubs, Castle Tavern in Holborn and the Horse and Dolphin in St Martin’s Lane. Fans – the Fancy – would set out early in the morning and were prepared to travel a long way to matches, just like football fanes today. The Fancy came from all strata of society. One thing that amused me was that these crowds, sometimes twenty or thirty thousand strong, would set off armed with fishing rods as decoys! It appears that they did not have too much to fear from the magistrates either since often they would come along as spectators, as they did at the Cribb versus Molyneaux fight in Rutland in 1811.

Unlike the supporters, the fighters were mostly from the unskilled working classes. It was a very vicious sport. Not many boxers died in the ring but some died from their injuries afterwards. Others were said to die from drink. Boxing offered great rewards for top fighters with prize money ranging from £50 to over £2000. Despite this, champion boxer Daniel Mendoza died in a debtor’s prison. Others such as Tom Cribb ran pubs in their retirement. “Gentleman” John Jackson, who was the son of a builder, set up a highly successful boxing academy in Bond Street that was patronised by the aristocracy.
Despite the popularity and fashionable credentials of the sport I think I would have been like my heroine, hiding away with my eyes closed and my fingers in her ears to avoid witnessing the brutality!



Blogger Jan Jones said...

Very interesting, Nicola. I'm now visualising a great pack of private coaches leaving London, each one with fishing tackle strapped to the roof...

11:36 AM  
Blogger Graham said...

Thanks for the interesting article, Nicola. I live in walking distance of the site of the Cribb/Molyneux match in Rutland. It's called Cribb's Lodge, and is now a nature reserve.

The organisers chose the spot as it borders three separate counties - Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Rutlandshire. The idea was that if they got into trouble with any county authorities, they'd simply move across the boundary into another county!

11:44 AM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

It would have looked a bit suspicious wouldn't it, Jan, as well as being downright odd! I was amazed to think of crowds of 30 000 blocking the road the Bath, with our without their fishing tackle. That would be enough to alert anyone!

That's very interesting about the Cribb/Molyneaux match, Graham. A cunning plan!

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Liz said...

But a boxer saved her life!

12:55 AM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Indeed he did, Liz, which was why Joanna accepted the invitation to become a Lady of the Fancy. She was never comfortable with the violence though, since she had experienced too much of it in her personal life. Thanks for the comment!

7:21 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

I think I could have watched a boxing match. What I wouldn't be able to stomach, however, would be the cock fighting, bear baiting or anything with animal cruelty! Human beings beating each other up are doing it willingly and presumably know the risks, whereas I doubt that was the case with the poor beasts!

2:49 PM  

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