If you have read more than two or three Regency romances, you have encountered at least one male character involved in a fancy form of fisticuffs called boxing. No doubt the hero has gone a few rounds with Gentleman Jackson in his “Boxing saloon (salon)” at 13 Bond Street, London, and, for the truly heroic hero, even bested the great man of prize fighting.
Two other names seem to lend their name in prominence to the Regency era, as well—Cribb and Belcher. They were also champion fighters in the sport. Cribb ended up a rather successful businessman. Sadly, Belcher liked to gamble and ended up In prison and dying young in 1811. He, however, stands out in my mind as having lent his casual style of dress in wearing a large kerchief around his neck instead of a cravat—the belcher kerchief. In the second Regency I ever read, Georgina by Clare Darcy, the hero was disdained by many for wearing one of these.
But back to boxing…
The sport has been around since at least ancient Greece. Throughout the medieval period, it seems to have disappeared, but began making a comeback in England in the sixteenth century. By the early 1700s, rules were beginning to form, and popularity of the sport grew amongst all classes of males.
At first, it was a bloody sport with few regulations. The most hand protection a fighter wore were leather strips around their knuckles. Mostly they fought with bare fists and could hit anywhere. By the Regency, no hitting below the belt existed, but pretty much anything else prevailed.
Men from errand boys, to gentlemen in fine rigs drove out to heaths and commons, to observe the fight, cheer on their favorites, and, of course, wager on the outcome of the fight. The sporting magazines of the time reported on these fights. One account seems to have been quite a day of sport.
“By way of ushering in the New Year, the amateurs of the fist had a full day s sport cut out on the 1st inst. No less than three fights having been fixed to take place. These matches were decided on Highgate Common, in the presence of a very numerous field. The first match for forty guineas, was between an Irishman, of the name of Christie, who never fought a pitched battle before, and a second rater of the name of Byrne. This battle afforded but very little diversion. Christie could neither give nor stop, and his adversary, although he possessed some science, had no gift at hitting, and but suspicious bottom. After a hugging battle of forty minutes, Byrne was declared the victor. Richman, the black, and Blake, were the seconds.
“The second battle was between two well-known boxers in miniature, one of whom was Ballard, a Westminster lad, and the pupil of the veteran Caleb Baldwin, and the other Charles Brannam, who has combated with Dixon and others…”
(The Sporting Magazine, January 1812 PP 192-193.)
Also, according to this same publication, English men at the turn of the nineteenth century, were so prize fighting crazed pitch—spontaneous–battles took place. These. “A pitched battle was lately fought at Thorpe, between two champions of the names of Cannell and Fox. The former was victorious, but the fight afforded little satisfaction to the amateurs. At its conclusion, Pegg, a known bruiser, jumped into the ring, and challenged any one present to fight for a guinea, which was accepted by his former antagonist Chapman, who, after a short contest, beat Pegg completely…”
This sport, with its ever-changing rules, could prove deadly. “On Saturday, the 20th instant, a pitched battle was fought at Wanash, near Guildford, between one Mansell, of that place, and a paper-maker, named Wokins; when the latter, having nearly beat his antagonist, received a blow under the ear, which killed him on the spot. A Coroners Jury sat on the body and returned a verdict of manslaughter.”
Thirty seconds was how long an opponent needed to stay down for his adversary to declare victory. Any fighter feeling he needed a break, could drop to one knee for 30 seconds to give himself time to recover; however, this was considered unmanly.
For myself, I’ve never considered having a hero step into the ring (which is really a square now), thinking it a little on the lowbrow side of sports. I am, however, wrong in this thinking. Even Lord Byron learned the art from Gentleman Jackson.