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Georgian Fight Club, 1710
Wood v. Turner – who will escape the Hole?
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Each of the combatants had his second by him with a large stick in his hand; they were not there to parry blows, but only to see that there was fair play on all sides.
It’s certainly not news that some of humanity has always enjoyed taking chunks out of other parts of humanity, and others still have enjoyed watching it. A notorious arena for this, along with a variety of cruelties to animals, was the Bear Garden alongside the River Thames in Southwark, London (very near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where at least the confrontations were simulated). This was on various sites from the mid-16th century onwards, the last account we know of dating from 1682.
But the Southwark fighting arena had an equally notorious successor, the Bear Garden at Hockley-in-the-Hole. This was further north in the city, in Clerkenwell, alongside the River Fleet. The site later became the Coach and Horses pub,1 which today as a gastropub, The Coach, where today the clientele are more likely to fight with a lobster. So it goes.
Bull and bear baiting was advertised there from around 1700, and only a year later there was a handbill announcing that four men would “fight at sword for a bet of half-a-guinea, and six to wrestle for three pairs of gloves, at half-a-crown each pair” – and in the same year there were already official complaints of a public nuisance. But it continued. A handbill from 1709 offers a euphemistic take on another prize fight: “At the Bear Garden at Hockley in the Hole, near Clerkenwell Green, a trial of skill shall be performed at the noble science of self-defence, on Wednesday next, at two of the clock precisely.” (The first rule of Georgian Fight Club was to talk about it.)
In last week’s Histories, we met the German traveller Zacharias von Uffenbach, offering his snooty view of Oxford. But that was just one part of his visit to England in 1710, and from 6th June until 26th July he was in London (and again from 9th October to 4th November). His journals2 record a wide variety of experiences… including this detailed account of a prize fight at Hockley-in-the Hole. Those of a sensitive disposition should look away.
[Uffenbach here uses the term ‘Moor’ (from the term of the time ‘blackamoor’) to refer to black people. It has been estimated that there were somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 black people in London in this era.]
In the afternoon we drove to the Bear Garden at Hockley in the Hole to watch the fights that take place there, a truly English amusement. First a properly printed challenge was carried round and dealt out. Not only were all the conditions of the fight there set forth, but also the weapons to be used. The combatants were an Englishman and a Moor. The Englishman a was a short, thick-set man but the Moor was as tall, well-made and pretty a fellow as I had ever seen. The former was called Thomas Wood and the latter George Turner. The Moor is by profession a fencing master; there are, in fact, such a quantity of Moors of both sexes in England that I have never seen so many before. Males and females frequently go out begging; it might well be so here, for in Germany formerly much money was given in that fashion. The females wear European dress and there is nothing more diverting than to see them in mobs or caps of white stuff…
The place where the fight took place was fairly large. In the middle was a platform as tall as a man of middling height; it had no rail and was open all round, so that neither of the fighters could retreat. All round the upper part of the open space were wretched galleries with raised seats, like those on which the spectators sit at the play. But the common people, who do not pay much, are below on the ground. They tried with violence to clamber up on to the galleries and scaffolding, and when some would have hindered them, they cast up such monstrous showers of stones, sticks and filth, and this with no respect of persons, that we were a little anxious; as we, however, were sitting on the best side, they did not come near us. They behaved like madmen and things looked very ugly.
After we had sat there a little while, four fellows got up on the platform and laid about them prodigiously with sticks, to the end of which muzzles were fastened. This is a sport peculiar to the English, and one can see it any day practised by children in Morefield or any other wide open space in London. It is diverting to watch how skilfully they can parry each other’s blows with their sticks and how those lacking practice get fearful knocks, especially on the head and shins. The fellows gained nothing by it but the shillings thrown them by the spectators. When they had finally stopped, half a crown came flying down to them; thereupon they were at it again violently to decide which of them should have the half-crown.
Then the master and the fighter I mentioned above appeared themselves. They had taken off their coats and tied only a handkerchief round their heads. First they bowed in every direction, and then showed their swords all round. These were very broad and long and uncommonly sharp. Each of the combatants had his second by him with a large stick in his hand; they were not there to parry blows, but only to see that there was fair play on all sides. They began the fight with broadswords. The Moor got the first wound, above the breast, which bled not a little. Then the onlookers began to cheer and call for Wood; they threw down vast quantities of shillings and crowns, which were picked up by his second. This seemed to me quite the wrong way round, as one should have compassion on the fellow that is hit, especially since the winner receives two-thirds of the money that is taken at the gate. In the second round the Englishman, Wood, took a blow above the loins of such force that, not only did his shirt hang in tatters, but his sword was knocked out of his hand and all the buttons on one side of the open breeches he wore were cut away.
Then they went for each other with sword and dagger and the Moor got a nasty wound in his hand, which bled freely. It was probably due to this that, when they had attacked each other twice with ‘sword and buckler’, that is to say with broadsword and shield, the good Moor received such a dreadful blow that he could not fight any longer. He was slashed from the left eye right down his cheek to his chin and jaw with such force that one could hear the sword grating against his teeth. Straightway not only the whole of his shirt front but the platform too was covered with blood. The wound gaped open as wide as a thumb, and I cannot tell you how ghastly it looked on the black face. A barber-surgeon immediately sprang towards him and sewed up the wound, while the Moor stood there without flinching. When this had been done and a cloth bound round his head, the Moor would have liked to continue the fight, but, since he had bled so profusely, neither the surgeon nor the seconds, who act as umpires, would allow this. So the combatants shook hands (as they did after each round) and prepared to get down.
Then there arose a prodigious cheering, and one could hear nothing but shouts of Wood! Wood! while yet more money was thrown down to him. An Englishman sitting behind us, who had probably drunk a considerable amount, was making a vast uproar and throwing down whole handfuls of shillings. His wife, who was sitting with him, was also rather vociferous; she assured us herself that two years ago she had fought another female in this place without stays and in nothing but a shift. They had both fought stoutly and drawn blood, which was apparently no new sight in England. When I asked whether it had ever happened that people had been killed or died subsequently of their wounds, I was answered in the affirmative; they told me that four years ago the brother of this identical Moor, Turner, had lost his life. Nothing was done to the perpetrator, unless it could be proved that he had transgressed the rules of fighting and wounded his adversary with malicious intent. The most diverting thing of all was that, when the fighters had got down, so many little boys climbed up on to the platform that it would scarce hold them, and called out asking the spectators for money to scramble for. It was amazing to see them swoop down on it in groups of ten or a dozen; sometimes a couple of them would roll down together, but, straightway picking themselves up, plunge afresh into the fray, which lasted for at least an hour. We left while it was still going on, since we had a long way to go. On our way home we got out at the park and walked there for a little.
The gory glory days of Hockley-in-the-Hole came to an end in due course. By 1715 ‘the fancy’ (higher echelons of society) had moved away to watch bear-baiting in Marylebone; and in 1756 the area was drained as part of improvements around the Fleet River course. The street next to the Bear Garden was renamed Ray Street in 1774, and one had to go to Spitalfields to enjoy animal cruelty as a sport.
Meanwhile, back in 1710, von Uffenbach also described visiting a cockfight and a bear-baiting while he was in London. At the end of the latter, he snarked, “And thus was concluded this truly English sport, which vastly delights this nation but to me seemed nothing very special” – but he and his brother did wager a few shillings on the cockfight. But now it’s farewell to Zacharias – next week, something different!
(PS. I’m thinking of putting together a small ebook of the best bits of social history seen through the eyes of von Uffenbach – do reply to this email if you think you might be interested.)
According to Walter Thornbury’s Old and New London (1878), a “small valise… marked on the lid ‘R. Turpin’” was found there – perhaps belonging to highwayman Dick.
Translated in London in 1710 by W.H. Quarrell and Margaret Mare, 1934.