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The Seven Rules of Pugilism

John 'Jack' Broughton
(The father of boxing)

    Long ago in Georgian England, prize-fighting, or 'pugilism' as it was known, was a very popular form of entertainment which attracted all social classes of followers, rich and poor. As with Cock-fighting which was to be made illegal around the 1830's, the spectre of two Herculean combatants fighting almost to the death in an ever-increasing effusion of blood and gore was always guaranteed to draw great crowds. Today's more enlightened society generally tends to regard such sport as little less than barbaric and indeed, early efforts were made to present it as more of a humane spectacle. When, in 1743, John 'Jack' Broughton, a bare-knuckle fighter of some repute and popularity was to witness at close hand the rather ugly death at his feet of one of his beaten opponents in the ring, a trauma was triggered which was to encourage him to write down a list of mandatory rules, each to be applied in future fights. Broughton and his 'seven rules' was a long way from the Queensbury Rules that we know today, but it was a start though death and general mayhem did linger within the sport for many years to follow. In Birmingham for example, two fights on one day in 1787 resulted in a death and sadly, with human beings what they are, such violent events - as in the macabre spectacle of a public hanging - were to have the effect of drawing in even greater crowds.  Many thousands of citizens were known to walk for many a mile to be present and although patronised mostly by the high society, the working classes also turned out in great force whilst the middle classes were said to be a little less enamoured.
A Pair of Pugilists
    Massive wealth was expended in the side gambling which accompanied prize-fighting and the street bookmakers created fat wallets.  It is recorded that Royalty in the guise of the Duke of York and the Prince of Wales would wager amounts totalling millions of pounds at events which, though often illegal, were frequently organised and staged in the grounds of the large private estates. Unsurprisingly, no gentlemen or middle-class males were ever known to be combatants, but some of the most popular fights were indeed between women who often fought even more tigerishly than the men.
    It is with this brief knowledge of a pastime now passed that I came across a newspaper description of such an event which had occurred in the backwoods of Georgian Melton Mowbray in 1829.  Not too common an occurrence around these parts I am led to understand, but at the height of the popularity of this hunting town and in the middle of its busy winter season, this particular event was ever likely to be packed to overflowing with many of the wealthiest and the highest of high-society figures who would have walked through walls or over burning coals to be present. Perhaps then, after all, the venue - if not the time of year with snow on the ground - was predictable.  I reproduce here the article in its entirety, from;

Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 11th Jan 1829

P R O V I N C I A L    M I L L I N G.

Melton Mowbray, Jan. 7.

   The fight between Wilcockson and Randall, two men of Nottinghamshire, for 100 pounds a-side, which has excited the utmost attention of the Fancy of Nottingham, and the adjoining counties of Leicestershire and Yorkshire, came off yesterday at Nether Broughton, between eight and nine miles from Melton Mowbray, on the Nottingham Road.
    An immense concourse of spectators assembled, amongst whom we noticed Sir Harry Goodrich, Capt. Garth, Lord Forrester, and most of the Gentlemen of the chase from Melton.  The combatants who had been training at Langley Mill, Notts, under the able superintendence of Young Gas and Morgan, Josh Hudson's black, arrived on Monday night at the Red Lion Inn, [Nether] Broughton, both in good spirits, "and eager for the fray."  The circumstances of their arrival having got wind, not by means of the Court Circular, but common report, speedily reached the  ears of the nobs of the village - the Parson and the Magistrate to wit - busy rumour said, that preparations were in agitation to prevent the fight taking place in that neighbourhood.
    Twelve o'clock was the time appointed, and the pugilists, attended by their seconds, and followed by an immense number of persons (chiefly mounted), from various parts of the country, proceeded to the lordship of Old Dalby, where the stakes had been previously fixed on a most eligible plot of ground, chosen by the umpires; but on reaching there, the parson of the parish, and a posse of constables, had taken possession of the ring, and positively refused to allow the fight to proceed; the whole cavalcade was therefore sent to the right about. A consultation of the men's supporters then ensued, and it was determined to repair to the lordship of Nether Broughton, where a good-natured kind-hearted farmer offered the use of his field, but did not forget to exact sixpence from each horseman and dragsman before they entered, and succeeded by this manoeuvre in pocketing upwards of 20pounds  
    Gas and Morgan, the Black, entered the chilling arena with their men about one o'clock.  It was a good piece of ground, but covered with snow, and sometime was occupied  in clearing it away.  Some of the friends of Wilcockson objected to the Black as his second, having seen him and Gas in familiar conversation, and, fearing that some conspiracy was in agitation, they resolved that Wilcockson should should be seconded by his own friends, although there were not the least grounds for the suspicion. At twenty minutes past one o'clock the men commenced peeling - they appeared in very good condition. Wilckockson is taller by a head, and more muscular than Randall; his weight is twelve stone, and that of Randall nine stone eleven pounds.  They had fought two years ago, when, in consequence of an accident happening to Wilcockson, the battle was drawn.

The Power of the Pen

    As we have witnessed down the years of the last century and within the gentlemanly sport of pugilism - or boxing as we like to call it today - many of the fiercer scraps took place outside of the ring and many of these were of the verbal sort. Of course the written word was also frequently used as a means of combat, as someone did once observe that 'the pen was mightier than the sword' - a term first known to have been recorded in 1839. In April, 1827, A Mr Best used the editorial columns of Bell's Life in London sporting newspaper to challenge his coveted opponent.  It seems that a Jem Ward had carried on a long and drawn out dispute with another pugilist by the name of Byrne, creating hostile responses along the way. The publicity was free and the effect was hilarious but I have not pursued the matter further as to the final result. Here are just a couple of the letters which give a taste of the discourse:

    "Sir - I am not disposed to occupy your columns with long letters or weak arguments. If I were to explain all that occurred at Liverpool respecting the intended match between me and Simon Byrne, both you and the Sporting World would be satisfied that the chaffing was not with me but with others, to whom, as I do not want to make mischief, I will not allude. To the point, however - I and most anxious to fight Simple Simon, and if he can get backers, I will fight him anywhere in England, 300l. to 200l., and stake 50l. as soon as he likes; or I will fight Byrne on his own terms, on a stage, at Glasgow, if he will give me 20l. to pay my expenses."
Yours and Co.               JEM WARD.


"Sir - I am so indignant at Jem Ward's cowardly conduct in his late humbug, that although I am as yet a maiden in the P.R., I have made up my mind to have a shy at him for 25 pounds a side (that being the sum my friends will come up with); or if, as I suspect his dastardly behaviour has left the poor devil no friends to back him, even for a sixpence, I will meet him on Marlborough Forest, or any other place, and fight him for a bellyful. If he will fight let him say so at once, and mean it, as I don't understand his cutting so much chaff as he did with Simon Byrne, for I wish him to know he will burn his fingers if he comes that caper over me. My weight is 12st. 8 lbs., but I will reduce myself if too heavy. I mean milling, and nothing but milling; and am your very obedient humble servant."
WM. BEST, Snowhill, Bath.  
       My money will be ready at any time at the Castle and Ball, Bath - April 14. 

Once again, I cannot assist with the result of this little spat, but such media sparring was commonplace then.

Or "Fancy Something a Little different Sir?"

If 50-plus rounds of no-punches-pulled pugilism was to prove insufficient to assuage the blood-lust of the travelling fans, or if the boxers chose to stay away from the town, other sports or pastimes were ever waiting in the wings to take more coins from the punters's pockets. Until about 1836, along with the abominable 'sport' of dog baiting, the equally horrific sport of cock-fighting was regarded as a legal sport during the reign of Charles II in England and in 1825 in Melton Mowbray, great excitement was abroad concerning rumours of a new cock-pit soon to be constructed in the town.  From his 'Melton Mowbray Queen of the Shires', let Jack Brownlow tell the story;
     ' ... the old cock pit was in the paddock at the rear of Anne of Cleve's House in Burton Street, close by the Play Close wall. The sunken amphitheatre or pit was of considerable size, and surrounded by tiered banking which provided seating for a large number of spectators. Unfortunately this historic reminder of a cruel sport was filled in during the 1930's. It was the scene of many famous subscription matches for high stakes and the inevitable gambling for large sums of money. The Leicester Journal reported in the 1820's, 'Never it is said were so many British noblemen gathered together in the town, as at a celebrated Main. The stakes were for fifteen hundred guineas; the function was attended by a great array of Scotch nobles, clad in kilts and tartans.' A main of cocks consisted of a stipulated number of battles, usually eight or nine...
    This so-called sport was so popular that the old cock pit proved inadequate to cope with the ever-growing crowds. It was no surprise, therefore, when the County newspaper announced early in 1825 'The approaching great Main of Cocks in Melton Mowbray between two gentlemen of Leicestershire for one hundred sovereigns the main and fifty sovereigns each battle, has raised such expectations of a general attendance of all amateurs of Cocking, that a Pit capable of containing five hundred persons is now building in a convenient part of the town for the purpose'. The 'New Pit' was built at the cost of £800 by Sir Harry Goodricke in the street off Thorpe End, which still bears his name.
(Locals might like to know that today, as they drive into the car-park of Morrison's supermarket in Melton, they might - almost two centuries ago - have been attending a 'Main' at the New Pit)

To get a idea of how the 'sport' was organised and it's method of scoring, see also this report from Melton's New Pit, from Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle of April in 1827;

C O C K I N G 

COCKING AT MELTON. - The great annual main of cocks was fought at the New Pit at Melton, last week.  Phillips led for Dr. Bellayse, and Porter for Sir Harry Goodrick.  First day, Tuesday, Potter, 6 main, 2byes; Phillips, 4 main. Wednesday, in consequence of Croxton Park Races, no main battles were fought, but an in-go of byes was fought late in the evening, Porter, 3, Phillips 4 - Thursday, Potter, 3 main, 1 bye; Phillips, 7 main, 1 bye.  Friday, Potter, 2 main, 1 bye; Phillips 3 main;;  total for Potter, 11m, 7 b.;  for Phillips, 14 m., 5 b. The Pit was well attended.  There was a good door throughout, and the Gentlemen of the Melton Hunt attended the sport in dress, with scarlet coats, and partook of an excellent cold collation and choice wines, served up by the worthy host of the George at Melton.  The general betting was brisk, but not near so heavy as on the two former years. We have not heard who will fight the main next season, but hope it will be kept up with the usual spirit, as it is the best match of cocks ever known; and the most commodious Pit.
And during Croxton Park Race Week: 
The Melton Mowbray grand main of cocks, between the gentlemen of Leicestershire (Weightman, feeder) and the Gentlemen of Norfolk (Stafford, feeder), fought in the New Pit, during the Croxton Park race- Week, terminated on Thursday, the 9th instant, in favour of Leicestershire. The fighting throughout was excellent, and afforded great scope for betting. The Norfolk birds were very fine, dangerously spurred , fighters, and great credit is due to Wightman, the winner, he being obliged to destroy a number of his best cocks in consequence of the group appearing in his pens; indeed, so close was he run for choice,as to have to fetch in some previously refused cocks for the day of weighing. He is pitched to feed against Phillips, in a grand main at the York Spring Meeting; and also against Potter, at Preston, and, from the established fame of the cocks to be brought against him, and the large and beautiful choice he already has assembled in the neighbourhood of both places, most excellent fighting may be expected.

Sir Harry Goodricke would probably never have recovered his outlay of £800 in the construction of his new pit as the practice was to become illegal in the middle of the 1830s.  As can be seen in the below website, the fascination of two birds fighting to the death has never totally gone away and especially in the far east, the spectacle remains for those who wish to view it or partake.  See more at this site  I don't think that I will bother thank you! The same can also be said for the operation of illegal boxing which still holds its fascination and such pugilism is to be found in 'underground' venues about the world.


By way of a bonus and not related in any way to the above post, I bring you a little gem which I came across in an old newspaper recently.  This small filler I copied from the Nottingham Evening Post of Saturday, January 7th 1899.


'Dr. Wynn Westcott held an enquiry at the Bethnal Green Coroners Court yesterday respecting the death of James Blake, aged 42 years, a cork-cutter, lately residing at 193 Globe Road, Bethnal Green, who died in the parish infirmary.

Dr George Gatenby, the assistant medical officer, stated that death was due to syncope and pleuro-pneumonia.

The Widow:  May I make a complaint to you doctor?

The Coroner:  What is it you want to say?

The Widow:  When I was sent for to see my husband die I went at once, and whilst I was giving him a drink of milk I was grossly insulted.
The Coroner:  In what way were you insulted?
The Widow:  His head was on my breast as he drank the milk, and a saucy young monkey, who sat on a bed opposite, said to me. “I wouldn’t mind being in his place even if I died tomorrow.”
A Juror:  Scandalous.
The Coroner:  Who was the “saucy monkey” as you term him?
The Widow:  A young fellow who was in there with the gout.  He insulted me grossly, and passed many rude remarks.  He also sang “Tonight I’ll be a widow in a cottage by the sea,” which he repeated four or five times. (Shame.)
A Juror:  I consider it disgraceful for a man to act in such a manner: he ought to be reprimanded.
The Coroner:  I quite agree with you that it was quite improper, but how are we to punish him?
Eventually it was decided that Dr. Gatenby should, on his return to the workhouse, lay the full facts before the medical superintendent, and also the Chairman of the Board of Guardians.'

Don't even ask me what happened to him!


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