Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Darker Side of Regency Life



No one can write about the Georgian and Regency period without coming across the darker sides of life during that time, such as bull-baiting and cock-fighting.  Much as we might abhor cruel sports today, they were an important part of life in the 18th and early 19th century.

Hogarth's print of the cock-fight shows rich and poor coming together to enjoy the "sport" and if you look closely you will see a shadow thrown on the pit from a basket suspected above.  It was the practice to "basket" any cock-fighter who indulged in foul play, or any gambler who failed to pay his debts.  The man "basketed" in Hogarth's print is offering his watch as a pledge to get him out and back to the game.



At the height of the cock-fighting days the chief pits in London were the Cock-pit Royal (both George III and George IV owned fighting birds), one at Moss Alley, Southwark and the New Pit, Hoxton, where a famous series of mains (i.e. fights) were fought between the gentlemen of Islington and Hackney for 5 guineas a battle.This was a relative small price to pay for a cock-fight.  In 1815 Joe Gilliver, who fought cocks for George III and George IV, fought a famous main at Lincoln, with seven battles of 5000 guineas each, and Gilliver won five of them.

There is a story that in May 1794 a game-cock was penned up in one of the coops on the deck of HMS Marlborough, along with the common birds that served as food for the sailors.  The Marlborough, commanded by Captain Berkeley,  was engaged in action against the  French at the Battle of Ushant in 1794 (The Glorious First of June), where all its masts were shot away and in the ensuing damage the coops were also blasted apart.  The fighting cock flew to the stump of the mainmast and began to crow and beat its wings.  The crew were well aware that this was the behaviour of fighting birds when they were victorious and they took this for an omen and fought on to victory.Apparently when the story became known, people travelled from all over England to see this cock, and a silver medal was struck by order of the Captain – now Admiral Berkeley – and  the game-cock was allowed to retire to Goodwood where it had the freedom of the parks and wore the medal suspended around its neck.

Is this story true?  I have no idea, as I have only one reference to it and I can't find any evidence to back it up, but knowing the passion of 18th century people for their gaming, I can imagine it happening!

Cock-fighting was certainly big business and very popular. Gentlemen would even hold cock-fights in their houses and it was common for clauses to be inserted into the leases of farms and cottages, ensuring the right of walking a certain number of game-cocks on the land.

In the north of England, the colliers and weavers continued cock-fighting long after it was banned in 1835. Lancashire had its "hush-shops" where unlicensed beer sellers supplied their customers but in a strict rule of silence.  When a "guest" entered, a glass of beer was put before him. Payment was not made then, but by secret arrangement, so that they did not break the law by actually "selling" beer.  Cock-fights were held on land adjacent to these hush shops, with lookouts posted to warn of informers. Bull-baiting also continued in Lancashire into the 19th century, with the last bull-baiting taking place in 1838.

Life was very harsh in England during those times and thankfully the wild scenes of the bull-baiting and the cock-fight have given place to a fever for horse-racing or football, but sometimes it's worth reminding ourselves that there was a harsher side to the colourful life of the past.

Sarah Mallory
Bought for Revenge – pub August 2013 by Harlequin


5 comments:

cherishyork said...

This was a very interesting post. I think it was really good to know about the dark past of the regency.

Also I have 'Bought for Revenge' at home ready to read. I loaned it from my local library. I'm looking forward to it.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Fascinating post, Sarah. Many years ago, when I worked for the Mid-Pennine Arts Association in Burnley, Lancashire, it was whispered that you could still see a cock-fight at some remote farm, if you knew who to ask and where to go.

True?

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

cherishyork thank you, for taking the time to read this and for borrowing my book from the library - I hope you enjoy it!

Elizabeth - yes I am sure it still goes on today - certainly there is evidence that other bloodsports are still carried on in remote areas.

Jan Jones said...

There are still the remnants of a cock-fighting pit here in Newmarket. Unfortunately it is on private ground behind a high wall in what was once called 'Shagbag Alley'. It's been renamed since...

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

What a shame they changed the name - I love those links with the past. When we were in Somerset recently we drove along "Sheepstealers Lane". No need to explain that one!