In the evolving literary sub-genre of sports writing, Pierce Egan (c. 1772-1849) infused his prizefight commentaries with a theatricality that extended their appeal beyond the confines of a diverse sporting set (‘the Fancy’). This paper examines prominent factors that rendered Egan’s approach distinctive, and how it functioned as a means of invigorating the sporting narrative. A major feature is Egan’s blend of inventive imagery and linguistic exuberance, which constituted an integral part of his animated pugilistic writing, primarily in the Boxiana series (1812-29), and this could be identified as the ‘Boxiana style’.
Questions arise concerning the possibly limited accessibility of the ‘flash’ argot to more refined readers, and whether Egan’s classical and chivalric allusions are undercut by their collocation with pantomimic touches. Similarly, did the more cultivated references risk alienating those whose appreciation was limited to a mixture of the slang, slapstick, and gambling elements? My paper discusses how Egan’s Boxiana style transcended differing attitudes prevalent within a socially diverse readership that mirrored the fusion of Regency types attending pugilistic contests. Egan’s commentaries accentuated the spectacle of a sporting event, and promoted a visualisation process that eroded social barriers as a stage production might appeal to a heterogeneous theatre audience. The performance aspect, that played such a pivotal role in Egan’s pugilistic reporting, is a dominant theme in this discussion.
Corps de l’article
Whether describing a snaking convoy of spectators journeying to a prizefight, or conveying anticipation of the pugilists’ gladiatorial-like entrance and ensuing interchange of violent blows, the pugilistic reports of Pierce Egan (c. 1772-1849) embodied the theatricality that he associated with this colourful sporting subculture. Although possibly born in Ireland, Egan was based in London from a very early age, and the theatrical bent to his philosophy is partially explained by the relatively narrow environmental radius of his formative years: ‘the vivid social world of his writings was evoked from the sporting venues, alehouses, theatres, and bordellos located in the couple of square miles around Piccadilly’. Also, Egan’s experience in the printing trade manifested itself in the typographical brio of his texts, which ‘inaugurated new serialized forms of cheap, mass-circulating literature’ (McCalman and Perkins 217). Apart from sports journalism and editorship, Egan’s principal publications were the Boxiana series, which comprised ‘sketches’ of pugilism (first collected volume published in 1813), and a controversial metropolitan tour, Life in London (1821). John Reid provides a useful overview of Egan’s social sphere and mind-set: ‘A valued member of […] sporting and drinking clubs [….] A self-educated man […] who knew […] the ephemera of his day [.…] A man of the underworld of literature and journalism’ (Reid 10-11).
Egan did not immediately acknowledge authorship of Boxiana I, the reader being guided by ‘ONE OF THE FANCY’. This sporting set embodied much of pugilism’s inherent contradictions, and controversy was exacerbated by Egan’s deployment of a pugilistic brand of ‘flash’ language, combining slang and sporting jargon (which I refer to as the ‘Boxiana style’). This essay discusses how Egan animated the pages of his pugilistic texts with innovative imagery and linguistic verve, and how his distinctive scene-setting accentuated the dramatic dimension of the prize-ring environment, thus helping to extend the appeal of pugilistic commentaries beyond the confines of the Fancy. Egan’s reflection of prizefighting culture, within the wider context of popular entertainment, informs the discussion on spectacle. Also it establishes this writer’s significance to the transformation process sometimes required to accentuate, or create, a spectacular dimension within reports of sporting events where anticipated excitement had failed to materialise.
I. Instilling Drama into the Pugilistic Commentary
By foregrounding the spectacle surrounding a prizefight Egan intrigued a potential new audience and possibly transcended preconceptions harboured by a readership that mirrored the class and race fusion involved in sporting events. Indeed, the manner in which the Boxiana texts erode social barriers might be compared to the appeal of an entertaining stage production to a mixed theatre audience. The illegality of prizefighting precluded the opportunity for contests to be advertised openly, but Egan regularly commented on the social diversity of spectators rubbing shoulders ringside, or in popular sporting meeting places such as the Castle Tavern, Holborn: ‘The groupes to be met with in the coffee room, at times […] are highly characteristic of the different grades of life […] a kind of Masquerade’ (Book of Sports 73). This underscores the social ambiguity, and charade, around Regency metropolitan life which found upper-class bucks donning shabby clothing in order to ‘live low’ in insalubrious drinking and gaming haunts. Conversely, the lower classes regularly assumed a respectability of dress to parade on the fashionable walks, or to merge into large gatherings with criminal intent.
Egan’s intimate knowledge of the low-life environment supplied his narratives with a diverse collection of venues and characters. Disguise, an integral part of the Life in London ‘sprees,’ augmented a sense of theatre costume, and blurring of social distinctions is a theme often probed in Egan’s writing. Here, he highlights the exploits of a ‘Sporting Tailor’: ‘He was aware that a “good appearance” in life had its weight with every class of society. He therefore […] dressed himself for the part […] and entered into the spirit of the scene’ (Book of Sports 98). Egan’s priority was to entertain, and he identified with the tacit sentiments of The Beggar’s Opera: ‘the gaiety and exuberance […] are in part based upon the implicit denial of all distinctions of rank and class. It is the egalitarian – one might almost say, antinomian – instinct of the London populace, represented […] in a colourful and spirited form’ (Ackroyd, London 279). Egan exercised a similar eclecticism in the construction of Life in London, intermingling quotations, allusions, comic verse, and ballads, adroitly exploiting the reader’s ingrained awareness of popular cultural models. In this metropolitan novel, he explored the potential of social ambiguity in an untrammelled view of the classes:
Life in London’s major achievement […] was to throw itself into this experience of social indeterminacy, and to turn it into a source of pleasure. It rejoices in the role-playing nature of modern urban existence [….] That such a formulation should have gained popularity right across the social order […] has a lot to do with the sporting culture out of which Life in London emerged.Dark 185
This underscores the reciprocity between Egan’s primary works; Life in London and Boxiana capturing the role-playing and sporting ethos of this period, as well as the heady dissipation of the city. Entertainment proves a relatively classless concept, Egan manipulating the universally attractive side of a prizefight - its spectacle. For the literate, regardless of social background, Boxiana-style writing encouraged the visualisation of prizefights together with the characters that comprised the Fancy.
Egan highlighted the development of public interest in this putatively illegal activity, and the sport’s easy transition from one recreational platform to another:
[January 1788] The newspapers teemed with anecdotes […] and scarcely a print shop in the Metropolis but what displayed the set-to in glowing colours [….] HUMPHRIES and MENDOZA were the rage – the Modern comedies glanced at their exploits – and the sporting hemisphere was quite charged with it.Boxiana I: 110
Despite advocating accuracy, Egan was swift to exploit anything not commonplace, and it is understandable if the sport’s principal chronicler chose to embellish his accounts in order to mask the mundanity and repetition of many encounters: ‘[Dutch Sam v Nosworthy, 8 December 1814] It would be superfluous to detail the remainder of the rounds [….] A complete sameness pervaded the whole of them’ (Boxiana II: 70). This example illustrates that Egan did not claim prizefights offered constant excitement and variation, but his commentaries would frequently wring out any drama, vividly describing the punishing nature of the blows and relating the accompanying betting. Egan also capitalised on any pantomimic incidents occurring in the ring or diverting badinage from the crowd.
Given that a sporting contest did not guarantee thrilling incident, Peter Ackroyd posits that the spectacle assumed priority: ‘London visionaries […] tend to favour spectacle and melodrama and the energetic exploitation of whatever medium they are employing […] with the great general drama of the human spirit. They have a sense of energy and splendour, of ritual and display’. Part of Egan’s ‘visionary’ approach was the use of sporting jargon to supplement the verve of his reports, as in an encomiastic profile of Tom Belcher:
Whenever he puts himself in an attitude, there is not a peeper absent from the stage. In an amateur, it would, indeed, betray as great a piece of neglect in omitting to witness Tom’s one, two […] as for indifference to be felt by a lover of the drama, in Kean’sout-and-out effort [….] Upon these two subjects, yawning and ennui cannot occur.Boxiana III: 559
It was a natural progression for Egan to weave the linguistic flourish of the flash argot into the dramatic picture. Indeed, in Life in London, the slang discourse forms part of the element of disguise as the protagonists integrate themselves into various low-life haunts. Gregory Dart suggests that this element displays ‘a modish enthusiasm for two closely-linked concepts, firstly of fashion as a kind of flash (over) statement, a sort of sartorial italics, and […] flash language itself as a species of fancy dress’ (Dart 190).
Not content to merely report the fights, the Boxiana series often involved the reader in the preamble to contests, including pre-fight correspondence and meetings, procession of spectators to the venue, and the customary showmanship of the fighters throwing their hats into the ring and fastening their coloured ‘fogles’ (neckerchiefs) to the stakes. Egan would further assist the reader’s visualisation of the unfolding scene by providing background information on the state of the weather, notable figures in attendance, as well as observations on the condition of the two combatants as they ‘peeled’. Just as a theatre audience member might temporarily escape immediate concerns, the avid Boxiana reader vicariously experienced fight day from the perspective of one of the Fancy, eventually being transported ringside. Egan’s description (during his first foray into sporting newspaper proprietorship) of the interest excited at Cribb’s tavern by the impending arrival of John Langan, simply to draw up an agreement to fight English champion Tom Spring, reveals a congested scene: ‘The taproom might be compared to a MOB […] the first floor crowded almost to suffocation – the second floor, where Spring perched himself, to receive his opponent, much worse’ (Pierce Egan’s Life 6: 41). Egan conveys the constricted atmosphere, and then there is the drama of Langan’s arrival: ‘“He’s come.” This sentence was conveyed through all the rooms like an electric shock [….] The curiosity to get a peep at him almost exceeds belief’ (Pierce Egan’s Life 6: 41).
Public fervour had been demonstrated at the two famous battles for ‘the Championship’ between national hero, Cribb, and the black American challenger, Tom Molineaux (c. 1785-1818). The clamour, and scrutiny, surrounding the build-up and outcome of these tussles engulfed the ‘sporting world’: ‘Notwithstanding the rain […] the Fancy […] waded through a clayey road […] for five miles, with alacrity and cheerfulness, as if it had been as smooth as a bowling-green’ (Boxiana I: 402). When a major fight, between Oliver and Painter (17 July 1820), was staged near Norwich, Egan sustains the exhilaration surrounding what promises to be a novel spectacle for the locals, the event’s drawing power, as well as hinting at its suitability for female onlookers: ‘This combat engrossed the whole of the conversation, even amongst the most polite and tender circles [….] The doors and windows of the houses displayed numerous groups of inhabitants eager to witness the departure of the Fancy’ (Boxiana III: 139-141). The attendant excitement could be likened to that which might have accompanied the arrival of a London theatre troupe on a provincial tour. On this theme, the bustle surrounding Fancy cavalcades accompanying major prizefights is comparable to circus companies moving into town, where, for observers, ‘the parade through their town of all the performers, wagons and animals was not only the chief advertisement for the show but also one of the highlights’ (Schlicke 155). The essential qualities of many of the topics under discussion are encapsulated in the account of the Hickman v Oliver fight (12 June 1821):
The delicate fair ones were seen peeping from behind their window-curtains; the tradesmen leaving their counters […] ould folks hobbling out astonished; the people of propriety […] stealing a look. Indeed, it might be asked, how could they help it? […] The fun met with on the road going to a mill is a prime treat; and more good CHARACTER is to be witnessed than at a masquerade.New Series Boxiana I: 34
Class, gender, commerce, and exhibition conflate in this animated description.
The air of performance that pervaded Egan’s pugilistic commentaries was augmented by the readiness of certain Fancy characters to assume an ostentatious demeanour. When the fashionably attired Tom Owen arrives for a fight, his ‘white topper’ was ‘carefully deposited […] as the King’s Crown is taken care of at the Tower’ (Boxiana III: 65). This foreshadows the showy behaviour of one of his backers who, as a prelude to the fight, delivers a recital:
[Hinckley] appeared in the ring, in a most splendid rich waistcoat [….] The feelings of the Orator were rather overcome, but a drain of DAFFY relieved his exertions and soon gave fresh spirits to his argument [….] He then, with a sort of Siddonian look upon the fogle, burst forth after a manner of one of Kean’s irresistible touches.Boxiana: 65-6
For pugilistic chroniclers, flash dressing and pre-fight posturing augmented the piquancy of reports. Owen’s overall demeanour marks him as the archetypal Fancy buck: ‘prepossessing appearance […] full of fun and anecdote’ (Boxiana II: 197). A later description of Owen, on his way to a cockfight, sees fashion and ambiguity coalesce as the sportsman tweaks his appearance accordingly: ‘well fitted to rival a horse-dealer […] yet with a loose hung gentility about him, that just left it a matter of doubt whether you ought to ask him into your drawing-room or your stable’ (Book of Sports 150).
Flamboyance and raucous socialising were factors used by Egan to herald the main event, the onus being placed on the performance aspect. Whilst all combatants did not ‘play to the gallery’, there was at least a consciousness that they were objects of sporting display. Cribb’s entrance for the rematch with Molineaux contains a sense of ‘curtain up’: ‘they mounted the stage […] CRIB springing upon it with great confidence and bowing to the spectators’ (Boxiana I: 410). It should be noted that a losing fighter often relied on spectator donations. In such situations, it would not pay to play the steely-gazed, enigmatic type. Fame and fortune was an intoxicating combination for those who ascended the pugilistic ranks. The class interaction of the sporting world meant that some would be involved in a social whirl where they associated and, ostensibly, were accepted into the company of high-profile figures. Although the pugilistic writing of the period perpetuates a preoccupation with recognition, Egan applied a check-string by using astral imagery to imply that the cult of celebrity was transient: ‘A star has now and then […] appeared in the pugilistic hemisphere with uncommon brilliancy; but […] sunk into a mere glimmering [….] Be it the task of BOXIANA to rescue them from unmerited obscurity’ (Boxiana I: 200-1).
There was a risk of the demarcation between showmanship and affectation becoming confused, and of vainglorious pugilists wallowing in public acclaim. The author appears to be aware of, and differentiate between, entertainment to advance the sport’s profile, and ‘absurd affectation’ (Boxiana I: 355). Indeed, Marc Baer records that the popularity of renowned actors could be fleeting if their adoring public detected signs of arrogance: ‘Adulation […] was always tempered by expectation of deference [….] Even the hint of pretentiousness […] could swing an audience from idolatry to violent opposition’ (Baer 71). Nevertheless, Molineaux, a relative newcomer to the Fancy, understood that a certain swaggering style was conducive to attracting attention, thus increasing earning power: ‘Remarkably fond of entering a country town in a post-chaise […and] ordering the drivers to gallop as fast as possible to the best inn [….] MOLINEAUX was quite aware that that sort of dash created an interest and curiosity’ (Boxiana III: 494). It is apparent that some fighters relished the opportunity to mount the sporting platform, and individuals oscillating between the roles of man-about-town and pugilist were not always assuming a role. Indeed, this performance ethic, or ring showmanship, might be interpreted as a manifestation of a natural (Fancy) gregariousness, characters on the margin between life and art. Ultimately, the Fancy community thrived on anecdotal entertainment which, in turn, favoured embellishment and, arguably, a degree of bluster. The role of the pugilistic press in creating public heroes, or prompting widespread discussion of sporting deeds, was significant.
II. Different Perspectives on the Performance Aspect
In considering alternative scene-setting methods it is useful to look at differing accounts of a particular contest. Reporting the fight between Randall and Martin (11 September 1821), Jon Bee devotes attention to the mental state of the combatants, seemingly attempting to penetrate their very souls: ‘Both sought to avoid making first play […] watching the minutest motion of each other’s iris [….] Martin was mildly anxious […] and, at each new position, we thought he stepped less firm than usual’ (Boxiana IV: 391-2). This constitutes a relatively meditative analysis of the action, and Bee later supplied an opportunity to ascertain a relatively impartial viewpoint by reproducing an article from ‘the pen of an amateur’ as it ‘contains a few particulars and incidents […] usually passed over or misrepresented’ (Boxiana IV: 395). The ‘amateur’ relates his curiosity, but is not completely unaware of the sport’s intricacies. He has read some of the pugilistic writing of the day and reveals a hint of (justifiable) scepticism:
The intense interest excited in our minds by the sporting intelligence conveyed by the London press, and the difficulty of discriminating […] simple, unvarnished fact, amidst the eloquence and metaphorical colouring in which battles are narrated, renders it necessary that we ourselves should […] see a prize-fight.395
These initial impressions reflect the often mixed reception to the Boxiana style, as well as its inherent contradictions. The observer’s yearning for ‘unvarnished fact’ constitutes a reprimand, but the piece later acknowledges its efficacy in generating interest.
Contrary to the correspondent’s reproaches, dramatic spectacle enhanced the reader’s ability to visualise the action. One compelling analogy reflects the rugged nature of the fighters and the volatility of a bare-knuckle battle: ‘both of their nobs, like two flints, almost struck fire’ (Boxiana IV: 498). Another conveys the state of exhaustion as two combatants lean on one another: ‘they were actually in a position like a couple of bears about to waltz’ (459). The fact that the ‘amateur’ wished to ‘understand’ the prizefight rationale underscores the notion that such exaggerated representations merely augmented the visualisation process, and entertained. His account does not breeze into a description of the physical onslaught but, rather, intensifies the suspense: ‘They stood before one another, with their eyes directed forwards, watching every move. They changed their ground, but still their eyes kept in parallel, marching and countermarching’ (397-8). This conveys a sense of tactical judgement combined with trepidation. Once the fight commences, a convincing condensation of the crucial action follows:
[Randall] came in on his man, caught him in one arm, and […] went to work so fast, it seemed like the motion of a mill-wheel [….] Martin’s head hung down like an apple on its stalk. The seconds put it in its proper place, but it dropped again. They moved it backwards and forwards, like a baker rolling about a loaf.Boxiana IV: 398
Ironically, in contrast to his description of the fighters’ earlier jockeying, the writer stimulates visualisation of proceedings by including his own ‘metaphorical colouring’ of mill-wheels, apple-stalks, and dough-rolling (a common reference to Martin’s occupation of baker).
Bee’s version was privy to the subsequent reception of Randall; the mood struck being that of homecoming warrior: ‘Great crowds were collected [….] A sight of the hero of the day was as much in request as that of any conqueror of ancient or of modern times’ (394). A similar clamour for information is highlighted in the aftermath of Randall’s victory over Turner (5 December 1818): ‘Hundreds were waiting at the turn-pike gates […] to learn who had won [….] The sale of newspapers was as great as if some important victory had been achieved on the continent’ (Boxiana III: 185-6). Egan renders the mixture of joy and relief almost palpable, and underscores that, to many, the opportunity to share sporting glory was more gratifying than news of distant military success. The pugilistic event is effectively extended, onlookers seeking to claim a degree of participation in the performance, and Egan consistently depicted a dynamic relationship, between spectacle and audience, in which spectator response reaffirms a temporary mutual interest. Egan had indicated this communion-like atmosphere when describing the intensity of spectators at the Humphries v Mendoza contest: ‘their attentions were so completely riveted […] an awful silence, as if by one impulse, instantly prevailed’ (Boxiana I: 105).
The divergent handling of the Randall v Martin reports occurred only a few months prior to the publication of a celebrated essay, ‘The Fight’ by William Hazlitt (1778-1830), but whether they influenced this author’s thoughtful appraisal of a prizefight is unclear. David Higgins suggests that Hazlitt’s attendance of the Hickman v Neate contest (11 December 1821) was ‘represented as a sort of pilgrimage to a shrine of manly English virtue,’ and views Hazlitt’s journey into the pugilistic sphere as a bid to immerse himself in its ‘intensely male’ ethos (178, 177). According to Tom Paulin, Hazlitt succeeded in his aim of ‘being swallowed up’ in the prizefight scene and its ‘spectacle of total immediacy’ (82). Hazlitt appears enthralled by his first sighting of the venue: ‘The moon now rose in silver state […an] object of placid beauty, with the blue serene beyond […] it gave promise d’un beau jour for the morrow, and shewed the ring undrenched by envious showers, arrayed in sunny smiles’ (Wu IX: 65). Bee, too, depicted a poetical scene immediately preceding the fight, his ‘official’ Boxiana account comparing favourably with Hazlitt’s observations:
Anxiety beamed in the faces of the privileged classes [….] At this time, too, the rays of the sun being compressed between two large clouds, threw its bright beams right upon the spot, and enlivened the immense assemblage […] many of whom were taking NEAT for choice, with five to four on his winning; whilst the sun-beams danced in unison with their wishes, and Hungerford church spire, in the distance, seemed, as the clouds now and then passed its apex, to nod assent to their undertakings.Boxiana IV: 70-1
Despite the quixotic nature of his reverie, Bee also conveys practical information regarding the class mixture of the crowd, and the monetary implications. The notion of a firmamental blessing being conferred upon what, in many ways, were violent and unrefined proceedings could be construed as faintly ridiculous, but illustrates the perspective enjoyed by the Fancy.
Hazlitt’s style of fight commentary diverges radically from Egan and Bee’s flash verve, relying more on descriptive similes and imagery:
The Gas-man flew at his adversary like a tiger, struck five blows […] then following him as he staggered back [….] Neate seemed like a lifeless lump […] round which the Gas-man’s blows played with the rapidity of electricity or lightning [….] It was as if Hickman held a sword or a fire in that right-hand.Wu IX: 69
The ‘electricity’ metaphor was a staple Boxiana device, but a different dimension is provided by the vision of Neate’s prostrate form as a ‘mighty ruin’. Furthermore, the concept of Hickman wielding a ‘sword or a fire’ successfully conveys a sense of a potent force. Hazlitt also provides a compelling version of the contest’s dramatic conclusion, culminating in Hickman’s bloody defeat: ‘I never saw any thing more terrific than his aspect just before he fell. All traces of life, of natural expression, were gone’ (Wu IX: 70). As well as the prominent ‘masculinist’ imagery, the essay represents an attempt ‘to mediate prizefighting to the journal’s upper middle-class readers, whom, he claims, have much to learn from the heroism of lower-class pugilists […and] was a powerful and provocative attempt to meld the popular and the polite’ (Higgins 173-4). Whatever Hazlitt’s motivation, Bee expressed appreciation: ‘the Ring is much indebted for many home facts (for support) from men of letters, who may be considered outside its vortex’ (Boxiana IV: 416). Arguably, Hazlitt aspired to emulate Egan’s reportage style. Indeed, Paulin states that the essay ‘is a completely unified work with a studied, throw-away casualness that aims at journalistic immediacy’ (82).
Egan’s commentary of this fight conveys the ferocity of the ‘punishment’: ‘Hickman went in resolutely to smash his opponent, but he was met […] with one of the most tremendous right-handed blows [….] A bullock must seriously have felt such a blow’ (New Series Boxiana I: 49). Egan’s deployment of the ‘bullock’ analogy ascribes Hickman with a combination of savagery, strength, and obstinacy. The ensuing drama, and concern for a ‘motionless’ Hickman is then communicated: ‘The whole ring seemed panic-struck. Spring vociferating almost with the voice of a Stentor to awake him from his stupor’ (50). Egan imparts an air of incredulity as events unfurl: ‘The spectators left their places and ran towards the ropes, thinking it was all over’ (50). This last expression appears strangely prescient of more contemporary exclamations of premature sporting celebrations. A year later, there was much public sorrow exhibited upon news of Hickman’s death (in an accident). At his funeral (19 December 1822), Bee records that a vast crowd ‘pressed around […] wherever a glimpse might be caught of the procession’ and that mourners ‘followed the remains of a man whose achievements had occupied the thoughts of all’ (Boxiana IV: 208-9). The concept of a sporting ‘celebrity’ funeral is certainly not a modern phenomenon. Moreover, the impact of prizefighting on popular culture of the period, and its affinity with theatricality and spectacle, can be ascribed as much to the Boxiana-style reports of Egan and Bee (arguably these authors warrant greater credit) as to Hazlitt’s acclaimed essay.
III. Classical Connections
Musing on metropolitan wanderings, Egan had commented on the aesthetic ‘contrasts […] so marked with light and shade’ (Life in London, p. 36), and readily interpolated explicit references in his sports writing: ‘[Donnelly v Oliver, 21 July 1819] It was expressed, that if Flaxman […] had wished to select a living model as a lecture […] a finer subject than Donnelly could not have been found [….] Smiling confidence appeared to sit on his brow; his eye was sharp and penetrating’ (Boxiana III, p. 84). There were also the imposing figures of former champions John Jackson (1769-1845) and John Gully (1783-1863), captured on canvas by Ben Marshall. These portray dapper gentlemen, standing next to Classical sculptures, emanating quiet dignity (Fuller 26, 29).
Egan had commented on a dilemma faced by Bill Stevens (‘The Nailer’) with a flattering comparison: ‘he sat down like the great ALEXANDER, weeping that he had no more heroes to overcome’ (Boxiana I: 70). Hazlitt, too, proclaims: ‘If Neate was like Ajax […] Hickman might be compared to Diomed’, and the perception of fighters as mythical-style heroes was intensified in striking portraits by Thomas Douglas Guest (c. 1779-1839) depicting Cribb and Belcher in fighting attitudes (Wu IX: 69; reproduced in Fuller: 33, 40). Indeed, Guest’s speciality was ‘historical and mythological subjects’ (DNB). These paintings (published in 1811) featured the pugilists in front of louring skies, evoking imaginings of the men as elemental forces themselves. The leap required for the visualisation of pugilists as legendary conquerors is not an unreasonable expectation for their chroniclers to harbour and, in Hazlitt’s essay, Paulin observes that ‘the semi-naked boxers easily assume classical form’ (Paulin 104).
Egan was not averse to including contributed pieces vindicating pugilism, and one by ‘a Young Gentleman of the Fancy’ extols the merits of contemporary fighters against Classical models:
We never thought much of any of the feats of antiquity, until we read that Milo had knocked down a bull with his fist [….] Was Ajax braver than Gregson? […] Hen [Pearce] would have threshed Mars himself [.…] Molineaux […] would have been a match for Hercules; and Cribb gives one no unfavourable idea of the great god Pan [….] Gentle readers, weigh these men […] before ye prefer other heroes.Book of Sports 123-4
This piece endorses a complaint raised by Egan: ‘most minds labour under a kind of fascination in their respect towards antiquity […] that it obtains an undue preference’ (Boxiana I: 202). It is unclear whether Egan is referring to ancient ‘antiquity’ or merely eighteenth-century fighters. As with many sports, supporters in a particular generation are prone to harbour idealised recollections, but generally these nostalgic leanings only extend to periods within one’s lifetime. Ultimately, Egan and Bee established a set of sporting legends whose exploits could be followed through pugilistic publications instead of ancient tomes, and many lower-class readers would have more readily identified with this jumble of fighting labourers and artisans rather than remote mythical figures. The Boxiana series provided a rarefied atmosphere for uneducated pugilists to ascend to heroic status, and Egan successfully united artistic metaphors to pursue his egalitarian message.
Considering the intense interest focussed on leading fighters it was, perhaps, a natural progression for the spheres of acting and Classicism to coalesce, and for such pugilists to assume the mantle of actor-hero. Egan suggests that this is a welcome form of escapism where ‘pity’ was not sought:
The heroes of the fist want none of it, and feel that […] they are playing a glorious part; and that the eyes of all that are noble, heroic, and scientific in the kingdom, are fixed on them; that the nation awaits the event of their glorious enterprise.Boxiana I: 591
Typical Egan overstatement is not conducive to maintaining a level-headed approach, and a cynical interpretation might be that naïve and needy pugilists were manipulated as a vicarious form of entertainment for massed spectators. This emphasises a persistent thread – the gambling element dictated the codification of pugilism. Egan turns to the cockpit motif when describing the emergence, into the ring, of Young Dutch Sam (7 April 1829):
The anxious moment had now arrived, and all the peepers were on the stretch [….] On peeling, Sam appeared as fine as a star […] laughing and full of confidence. In short, SAM might be compared to a handsome game cock, crowing almost to himself, that victory was in his grasp […] his backers were delighted.Book of Sports 200
Arguably, the comparison is merely an effective method of conveying the vitality and confidence of a pugilist in prime condition. A sense of performance remains however, Egan capturing the anticipation of an audience straining to see the action, and the supporters’ delight appears a superficial emotion that might not have varied whether they were watching a backed racehorse or cockerel.
IV. Re-packaging the Sport for Wider Appeal
The entertainment principle attached to pugilism was reinforced by non-competitive sparring bouts that encapsulated the spirit of display, but were not designed to extend beyond Fancy circles. When more general public displays were initiated, theatres were deemed apt venues to demonstrate the finesse and showmanship that pugilism permitted. Overall, theatricality formed a prominent adjunct of early-nineteenth-century society, and an integral part of the nation’s genetic makeup: ‘English national identity appeared in the guise of theatre because the English people were so often theatrical, and was grounded in theatricality because Britons so often observed the stage’ (Baer 218).
In the ‘Boxiana period’, pugilistic demonstrations were well attended and universally popular: ‘In the summer of 1823, RANDALL sparred at the Theatre, Margate, to overflowing houses’ (Boxiana IV: 416). Displays could also be incorporated into stage productions based on the sporting set: ‘[August 1825] CANNON and Peter Crawley were engaged at the Coburg Theatre […] in a piece called the FANCY at Warwick’ (New Series Boxiana II: 97). When the action reverts to the prize-ring, Egan emphasises the parallels between theatrical and sporting performances:
[Davis v Turner, 18 June 1819] John Palmer, a distinguished actor, felt so much embarrassment in being called to rehearse a part before GARRICK, that his power of utterance totally forsook him [….] It might have operated in a like manner with Davis when he came into contact with the darting eagle-eye of TURNER.Boxiana III: 222
For the public, to read Hazlitt’s ‘The Fight’ and then be presented with the opportunity to view the very same pugilists, recreating events, must have been an intriguing prospect. Furthermore, with coarse badinage, bloody wounds, and fevered gambling expunged from the simulation, it is evident that the performance is now deemed an inoffensive spectacle for a diverse audience. Therefore, in April 1822 (two months after publication of Hazlitt’s essay), the manager of the Royalty Theatre felt comfortable enough about engaging Neate and Hickman ‘to perform […] before a mixed, a numerous, and genteel audience’ (Boxiana IV: 94). The two men received, according to Bee, generous salaries of ‘twelve sovereigns a week’, but this was ‘amply compensated by the great accession of persons to the theatre’ (95).
Away from this controlled environment, it is evident that the performance aspect featured heavily in major prizefights, Bee claiming that watching crowds would sometimes include individuals seeking to gain transferable insights: ‘[Hickman v Oliver, 12 June 1821] It was a fine study for an artist, and it was a complete picture for an actor; and we were glad to witness some first-rate performers viewing’ (Boxiana IV: 169). Some ‘acting’ is inadvertent, as displayed by a particularly reluctant Matthews, in a supporting bout of May 1819: ‘after the manner of an intimidated youth on his first going into the water, that makes a sudden plunge to get out of his misery, [he] rushed in upon his opponent.’ This unenthusiastic manoeuvre was countered ‘so hard’ as to draw ‘the claret copiously,’ and Matthews’s ensuing dismay concludes the scene: ‘the ghastly look he assumed, accompanied with such marks of horror […] would have been a new idea for the climax of KEAN’S Sir Edward Mortimer’ (Boxiana III: 199).
In much early-nineteenth-century theatre, a plain, unbroken performance was not routine, and an evening programme often included at least one side attraction. Pugilistic set-pieces in productions based on Fancy pursuits could be considered as contextually justified, but might equally have been inserted arbitrarily. Paul Schlicke provides examples of the diversions on offer between acts: ‘the actress who had represented the witch in Macbeth would step forward to sing the ballad of Rory O’ More [and] the actor who had portrayed a murderous henchman would perform his celebrated jockey dance’ (Schlicke 52). Novelty, too, could displace artistically superior productions: ‘Drury Lane, cavernously empty all too often when straight dramas were performed, was filled when Van Amburgh brought his lions and tigers […] during the 1838-39 season’ (Schlicke 57). Thus, theatrical entertainment focused on variety and spectacle, and this was imitated in Boxiana-style reports. Unlike the grandiosity of the sport’s Art-world connections, Egan et al. could not realistically claim that fighters were possessed by a fiery muse that led to their immersion in different personas when entering the ring. Any traces of role-playing could merely be construed as flamboyance, arrogance, or authorial attempts to enliven reality.
One form of pugilistic ‘acting’ which was not condoned was manipulation of the result, and Egan was swift to spotlight any hint of a rigged fight (a ‘cross’). In circumstances where hefty sums of money had been wagered, playacting was not appreciated. In one episode, Egan cloaked his disdain for the two ‘performers’ and provides an entertaining account for the reader:
[Jack Carter v Molineaux, 2 April 1813] Previous to the battle, the articles were read […] it stated the winner was to have a purse of 100 guineas – when CARTER stepped up, enquiring what the “LOSER WAS TO HAVE!!!” Richmond […] his second, gnashed his teeth, and shrugged up his shoulders.Boxiana I: 454
One can imagine the bemused second rolling his eyes heavenwards as he looks at the ringside spectators in much the same manner as a mock appeal for commiseration to a theatre audience. When the fight commences Egan conveys a sense of the ludicrous:
Never was such a set-to witnessed; one “was afraid, and the other dared not”, and two minutes were trifled away in this sort of caricaturing, when CARTER touched Molineaux on the mouth, who genteely returned it [….] Twenty-five rounds occurred, in which coaxing, persuading, drumming, and threatening, were obliged to be resorted to [….] But the grand climax of the performance was left for CARTER to enact, who, when Molineaux was completely told out – overcome, perhaps, with the sensibility of his drooping antagonist – swooned away in all the style of a modern fair lady.455
There is no attempt to conceal, or exonerate, the sham nature of the episode, which constitutes an example where sporting entertainment is ‘associated with exploitation, not amusement’ (Schlicke 139). Egan’s mock incredulity is accentuated by typographical variation, and the account opens with the suggestion that this is a parody of a prizefight which would be an ideal subject for a print. The mass appeal of this cultural model complements the divergent notions of pantomime and art: ‘For the fashionable, prints were treated as art and print shops as galleries, thus functioning as an element of social life; but for the lower orders prints were treated as entertainment and print shops as theatres’ (Baer 259).
Any revamping of pugilism’s representation as a form of popular entertainment could lead to the more knockabout exhibitions being classified under the umbrella of circus performance. This form of pugilism had the potential to boast the same raw ingredients (variety, spectacle, and novelty). In fact, Schlicke notes that such exhibitions were transferable, such as at the Royal Amphitheatre (1823), where the advertising is eager to emphasise that there would be ‘nothing offensive to delicacy’. Schlicke underscores the innocuous nature of the exhibition: ‘The pugilists offered their attraction by way of an interlude. Such alternation of different kinds of display in consecutive scenes […] was wholly conventional, although it was more usual to employ the clown’ (Schlicke 179). The transposable nature of clown and pugilist corresponds to the playful Boxiana sections where Egan exploited the absurdity of a situation rather than railing against the competitors. He regularly privileged the entertainment principle, which appears to coincide with Dickens’s position on putatively rational entertainment, Schlicke emphasising that Dickens preferred diversions ‘in which didacticism was conspicuously absent’ (Schlicke 216).
When denuded of the gore and gaming elements (and illegality), pugilism could be freely promoted as an entertainment that did not offend more refined sensibilities. In ‘The Fight’, Hazlitt pre-empted his tale with a plea for the ‘Ladies’ to ‘listen with subdued air and without shuddering’ (Wu IX: 61). It is debatable whether it is his representation of physical violence or the occasional flash word that would be deemed so repugnant, but the phraseology of the full appeal, to potential female readers, evokes historic images of medieval tournaments. Presumably, if noblewomen had deigned to view armed competition, and confer their colours to a favoured combatant, then this air of spectacle and chivalry could be replicated in major pugilistic contests:
With what an air would our boxers strike, did they know that bright eyes were looking on them! How delicately would they “peel” [….] The candidates for fame are before us – they look round the arena [….] It is quite overpowering to think of it – the awful pause – the steadfast eye – the advance – the retreat – the increased motion of the hands […] the feint -- the preparation to parry -- the FIRST BLOW! It is, indeed, a grand sight: it is ever grand and awful; but with thousands of fair ones for spectators, how charming it might become!Book of Sports 120
This anonymous contributor emphasises the spectacle, and mischievously suggests: ‘They would get accustomed to it in a shorter time than to port-wine’ (120). The essential chivalric principles are claimed to be already in place and merely requiring to be stressed in order for the parallel to inveigle prospective female spectators and readers. The piece proceeds to offer a comparison:
A tournament […] was the sparring of those days, not so graceful or so manly indeed, but more ostentatious and imposing [….] Two men mounted and armed with spits, each in a sort of cupboard of steel, galloping towards each other, for the sole purpose of the one pushing the other off his horse! The thing is really ridiculous.Book of Sports 122
The primary impression emerges that pugilistic chroniclers believed objections to their sport, on the grounds of barbarity, unfounded, and that if people attended pugilistic events they may eventually share some of the Fancy’s enthusiasm.
The physicality, or brutality, of pugilism could not be conveniently disregarded, but a debateable point is whether ‘polite society’ abhorred or secretly relished this feature. Discussing pugilism in the late nineteenth century, now involving gloved fighters, Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) termed this predilection as ‘pugnacity’, summarising it thus: ‘Sense of danger, dread of danger, impulse to batter and destroy what threatens.’ Moreover, he suggested that if this element was removed interest would wane significantly (Shaw 249). Nevertheless, the sports journalist and editor Vincent Dowling posited that the sport offered a more humane display for those who eagerly flocked to public executions, which had not been ‘loaded with abuse, though these spectacles, [are] destitute of the animating and comparatively harmless character of a fair fistic combat’ (Dowling 8). Schlicke espouses the view that Dickens ‘greatly enjoyed unpolished art’, and this is a concept that can be extended to Egan (Schlicke 146). Although some of pugilism’s artistic and mock-heroic associations have been discussed, it was the unrefined élan of such entertainments as circus, pantomime, and variety stage-play which coincided with the spectacle of prizefighting. One common factor is that the Boxiana style deployed these elements to promote the visualisation process. Pugilistic events were unequivocally ‘unpolished’, but the Boxiana style rendered the prizefight commentary a literary, and dramatic, art form.
See image 1. George Sharples produced this portrait of Egan in 1821.
In this period, the word ‘theatricality’ was regarded as ‘either neutral or favourable in connotation’, rather than associated with artificiality (Baer 11).
Six volumes of Boxiana were published (from 1813 to 1829), the final two appearing as New Series of Boxiana.
Collectively, ‘The Fancy’ comprised those who followed sporting events, particularly prizefighting.
Written by John Gay (1685-1732), and first performed in 1728.
Pugilists Richard Humphries (c. 1760-1827) and Daniel Mendoza (c. 1765-1836).
Ackroyd, ‘London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries’, in The Collection, p. 350. Perhaps it is fair, given his imaginative flair, to classify Egan as a visionary, rather than a luminary (source of intellectual or moral inspiration).
Slang term for ‘eye’.
Two punches in quick succession.
Edmund Kean, actor (1787-1833).
To ‘peel’ was to remove outer garments in preparation for the fight.
Pierce Egan’s Life in London, and Sporting Guide Connected with the Events of the Turf, the Chase, and the Ring (February 1824 to October 1827).
Tom Cribb (1781-1848). An alternative spelling used was ‘Crib’.
These contests took place on 18 December 1810 (at Copthorn, Sussex) and 28 September 1811 (at Thistleton Gap, nr. Grantham).
A flash term for ‘pugilistic encounter’.
See image 2. Tom Owen (b. 1768) was dubbed ‘The Fighting Oilman’. This portrait, again by Sharples, appears in Boxiana II (facing p. 192).
‘Daffy’ was one of the many flash terms coined for ‘gin’.
Presumably refers to Sarah Siddons, actress (1755-1831).
See image 3. The pugilist Jack Randall (b. 1794) was a favourite of Egan’s, and was almost invariably referred to as ‘the Nonpareil’. This Sharples portrait appears in Boxiana II (facing p. 260).
Bee was the pseudonym of Egan’s rival, John Badcock (fl. 1810-30). Bee supplanted Egan as author of the fourth volume of Boxiana (1824).
First published in the New Monthly Magazine (February 1822)
Irish champion Dan Donnelly.
John Flaxman, sculptor, decorative designer, and illustrator (1755-1826).
Benjamin Marshall, painter and racing journalist (1768-1835).
In Greek legend, Iliad described Ajax as being of great stature and second only to Achilles in bravery. Diomed, King of Argos, was another Homeric hero (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online).
See image 4 for ‘Tom Belcher’ (published in November 1811).
In 1805, Guest was awarded the gold medal for historical painting for ‘Bearing the Dead Body of Patroclus to the Camp, Achilles's Grief’ (DNB).
Greek wrestler who was the most renowned athlete in antiquity (EBO).
Legendary hero, son of Zeus (EBO).
Greek fertility deity (EBO).
A prime example is W.T. Moncrieff’s theatre production Tom and Jerry: or, Life in London in 1820 (first performed at the Adelphi, November 1821).
David Garrick, actor (1717-79).
Flash term for ‘blood’.
Kean played the character, Mortimer, in The Iron Chest (first performed at Drury Lane, 1795). This play was written by theatre manager, George Colman the younger (1762-1836) (DNB).
American animal trainer, Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1801-65).
Illustrators, and brothers, Robert (1789-1856) and George Cruikshank (1792-1878) frequently collaborated with Egan. George’s prints depicting the 1811 Cribb v Molineaux battle, and Robert’s ‘Sparring’, are in the comical mould (published October 1811 and February 1817). (Fuller 36, 42).
- Ackroyd, Peter. The Collection. London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.
- ———. London: The Biography. London: Vintage, 2001.
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- Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
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- Dowling, Vincent. Fistiana. London: Clement, 1841.
- Egan, Pierce. Boxiana; or, Sketches of Antient and Modern Pugilism […]. London: Smeeton, 1813.
- ———. Boxiana; or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism […]. Vol. II. London: Sherwood, Neely, & Jones, 1818.
- ———. Boxiana; Sketches of Modern Pugilism […]. Vol. III. London: Sherwood, Neely, & Jones, 1821.
- ———. Life in London, or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq. And his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis. London: Sherwood, Neely, & Jones, 1821.
- ———. New Series of Boxiana. 2 vols. London: Virtue, 1828-29.
- ———. Book of Sports, and Mirror of Life. London: Tegg, 1832.
- Fuller, David. Noble Art: Prize-fighting in England 1738-1860. Catalogue for an exhibition held in Newmarket by the British Sporting Art Trust, 2005.
- Higgins, David. ‘Englishness, Effeminacy, and the New Monthly Magazine; Hazlitt’s ‘The Fight’ in Context’, Romanticism 10. 2 (2004): 173-190.
- McCalman, Iain, ed. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- McCalman, Iain and Maureen Perkins. ”Popular Culture.” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Paulin, Tom. The Dog-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.
- Pierce Egan’s Life in London, and Sporting Guide Connected with the Events of the Turf, the Chase, and the Ring (February 1824 to October 1827).
- Reid, John C. Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
- Schlicke, Paul. Dickens and Popular Entertainment. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.
- Shaw, Bernard. Cashel Byron’s Profession. London: Constable, 1950.
- Wu, Duncan, ed. The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt. 9 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998.