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In Bloodie Bones, the first Dan Foster Mystery, Dan, who has just taken part in a bare-knuckle boxing match, finds himself justifying his love of pugilism to Anna Halling, a woman he has recently befriended. He tells her, amongst other things, that money made in the ring is “honestly earned, more or less”.
In fact, as a serving Principal Officer of Bow Street (Bow Street Runner), Dan knew all too well that boxing was illegal. Fighters could be brought up on charges of duelling (regarded as attempted murder), and if the worst happened in the ring and an opponent died, the charge could be manslaughter. In addition, fights drew huge crowds and could be scenes of disorder and affray, and fighters and organisers were thus liable to charges of breaching the peace or unlawful assembly. Fights also attracted thieves, prostitutes and conmen.
Faced with this lawlessness, magistrates occasionally took steps to prevent fights taking place. In 1801 British champion Jem Belcher of Bristol and his would-be opponent Joe Bourke were arrested when magistrates learned that a fight between them had been arranged. Later that year the Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza was arrested when he planned to fight Jem Belcher. To avoid falling foul of magisterial interference, fights were often arranged to take place on county boundaries where it was easy to avoid arrest by hopping from one legal jurisdiction to another. To further confound the magistrates, it was not unknown for the location to be changed on the day of the fight.
Yet all too often magistrates turned a blind eye to these huge boxing events. In the main, the law only intervened if the crowd threatened to be disorderly, and most fights went ahead without any interference from the justices. But why were authorities so tolerant of this illegal activity? Dan suggests that one reason is because the sport was popular with the upper classes, including the Prince of Wales – and they could hardly go around arresting members of the royal family.
There is another explanation. Bare-knuckle fighting had its heyday in a period when Britain was almost continually at war. It suited a government hungry for sailors to man its ships and soldiers to populate its battlefields to tolerate a sport which instilled militaristic values. It was an idea Pearce Egan, the author of Boxiana: Or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812) elaborated upon in his claim that sports like boxing made the British soldier daring and intrepid, and Jack Tar quick to man the guns when called upon.
According to Egan, boxing formed the national character. It gave Britons “generosity to their disposition – humanity to their conduct...[and] courage.” It was directly linked with British military victories, for it put “that true heroic courage…into the hearts of Britons, which have made them so renowned, terrific and triumphant, in all parts of the world”. Boxing made men brave and strong: the Battle of Dettingen was won literally by strength of arm when British soldiers used their broad swords to force their way through enemy lines.
Egan argued that it is natural for men to quarrel and fight, but boxing is the best way to settle scores. It is less deadly than duelling, and preferable to the murderous methods favoured by foreigners: the Dutch with their long knives, the Italians with their stilettos, the French and Germans with sticks and stones. By contrast, quarrels in Britain do not end in assassination and murder. A good clean fist fight settles the matter, and afterwards men shake hands and all resentment is forgotten. In this way, Britain’s manpower is preserved for the service of its country, for “the life of an individual is a loss to the state, from the peer to the peasant”.
Boxing was British. As the anonymous author of The General History of Boxing (appended to Daniel Mendoza’s book The Complete Art of Boxing, 1788) expresses it, “this gymnastic game of ambidextrian exercise is wholly British”. Critics who level accusations of brutality against it are “Frenchified” and “effeminate”. As far as Egan was concerned, boxing originated in Britain, where its history stretched back to the time of Alfred the Great. Pugilism, Egan wrote, is “in perfect unison with the feelings of Englishmen”. It knows no distinction of class: it is the sport of dukes, lords and princes as well as commoners. It instils national pride, and reflects the British sense of fair play. Foreigners might sneer at the British for their rude manners, but thanks to boxing they have something better than affected politeness – honesty and sincerity.
Indeed, some supporters of the sport claimed that without it Britain would fall. William Cobbett in his 1805 essay ‘In Defence of Boxing’ argued that pugilistic qualities were essential to the survival of the nation. Without them there was a danger of men becoming effeminate; this would ultimately lead to “submission to a foreign yoke”. As Egan put it, “the English character may get too refined, and the thorough-bred bull-dog, degenerate into the whining puppy”.
Given the role of warfare in maintaining and expanding the powers of the ruling elite both before and since, it is perhaps not surprising that the authorities turned a blind eye to a technically illegal pastime that primed Britons for battle. Strong, courageous and honest, the boxing Briton was the terror of the world. As A Boxing We Will Go, one of the sport’s favourite drinking songs put it, champions like Tom Cribb, Daniel Mendoza, John Gulley and Tom Molineaux would stand up to Napoleon Bonaparte (Boney) wielding only “nature’s weapon” – the fist. “If Boney doubt it, let him come/And try with CRIBB a round,/And CRIBB shall beat him like a drum,/And make his carcase sound.”
Helen Says: It's interesting that the debate still continues with modern-day boxing, despite its various safeguards etc. So many boxers (Ali for instance) suffer such tragic brain damage, is it really a 'sport' that can be justified? Opinion in the comments below are welcome!
Lucienne Boyce writes historical fiction and non fiction. She has published two historical novels, To The Fair Land (2012) and Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery (2015). Bloodie Bones is a winner of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016 and was also a semi finalist in the M M Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction 2016. She published The Bristol Suffragettes in 2013. She is a steering committee member of the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network, and is currently working on the second Dan Fostery Mystery and a biography of a suffragette with Bristol connections. Lucienne recently joined BCfm Radio (Bristol) as a presenter on the Silver Sound programme.
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