Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 14. The Literature of Pugilism and Hunting

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VI. Caricature and the Literature of Sport

§ 14. The Literature of Pugilism and Hunting

The success of Life in London was partly due, no doubt, to Pierce Egan’s great personal popularity; he was known as “Glorious Pierce,” and the prince regent had commanded that he should be presented at court. For Egan was the first great sporting journalist, in days when journalism had discovered the dignity and the beneficence of sport. To understand Egan’s eminence in this field, it is necessary to go back some years. The eighteenth century—the century, in England, of reason and system—systematised, to some extent, English sport. From the eighteenth century, the then distinctively English sport of pugilism received organisation and science. In the reign of George I, fighting with fists had begun to take the place of the combats with sword or cudgel. James Fig, “the father of the ring,” who opened in 1719 the Academy in Tottenhamcourt road, where the famous captain Godfrey and other athletes exhibited their skill, was swordsman as well as boxer. It remained for Jack Broughton, the champion from 1734 to 1750, to reduce boxing to an accurate science; and Daniel Mendoza, champion from 1784 to 1820, introduced “a new, a more rapid, and more elegant style of boxing, and a more artistic technique.” By the close of the eighteenth century, boxing had not only, like hunting, become systematised; thanks to the pleasure taken in the prize-ring by the prince of Wales and his brothers, pugilism was the most fashionable of amusements and of spectacles. The passion for this form of sport ran through all classes, and was more ardent even than the modern passion for football. On the one hand, it may be remembered that the last desire expressed before execution by Thurtell, the murderer of Weare, was “to read Pierce Egan’s account of the great fight yesterday.” On the other hand, a man of intellect, like William Hazlitt, was a genuine lover of sport, and would take infinite trouble to see a prize-fight. In The New Monthly Magazine for February, 1822, Hazlitt describes how he travelled on a cold and wet December night to Hungerford, and went bedless, in order to see “the Gasman” (Thomas Hickman) fight Bill Neate. The paper gives what is, perhaps, the most vivid description of a prize-fight ever written. The reader may realise by its means all the details of prize-fighting that to modern taste appear brutal and disgusting; but he will be left in no doubt about the pluck and endurance displayed by the fighters, and, in Hazlitt’s comments upon Hickman’s “vapouring and swaggering,” he will find an admirable statement of the virtues of the true sportsman. Indeed, the whole position of sport had changed. That athletic exercises were considered worthy of serious attention, the great illustrated work of the artist and antiquary, Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the earliest period (first published in 1801) is a sign. And to pugilism, even more than to hunting, the patriots of the day liked to point, as both proving and developing those qualities—courage, endurance, “bottom,” or unquenchable spirit—which were held to make the true Briton the equal of any three or more Frenchmen. In the rooms of John Jackson (Byron’s tribute to Jackson as man and as boxer will be remembered), Tom and Jerry were shown a picture of an assassination in Rome, the victim having been stabbed with a dagger; and Logic’s comment was:

  • When comparisons are made, the above plate speaks volumes in favour of the manly and generous mode resorted to by Englishmen to resent an insult or to decide a quarrel.
  • Pugilism, though already subject to attack as brutal and ferocious, had the great heart of the country behind it. In the service of pugilism Egan made his fame. He was not, of course, the first writer on boxing. Captain Godfrey brought out, in or about 1740, a small Treatise on the Useful Art of Self-Defence. Paul Whitehead had sung of the art in The Gymnasiad (1757); John Byrom, Robert Barclay and others, had celebrated it in prose or verse; and the journals, including The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Flying Post, The World and others, had published accounts of prize-fights. But Egan was the first to make a name for himself as a sporting journalist. Writing in a florid, slipshod style, by no means devoid of vigour and vividness, he described the fights with understanding and at the same time with what many of his readers probably mistook for “a literary touch”; and his example has not yet completely faded from journalism. In 1824, he began editing a weekly paper, Pierce Egan’s Life in London and Sporting Guide, which, later, developed into the more famous sporting journal Bell’s Life in London. Egan’s Book of Sports and Mirror of Life (1832) is a valuable compilation; but his most successful work on sport was his illustrated book, Boxiana; or, Sketches of Antient and Modern Pugilism, from the days of the renowned Broughton and Slack, to the championship of Crib. The work was founded on an earlier work of the same title, produced by George Smeeton in 1812. The first two volumes of Egan’s book were issued in 1818; and a third in 1821. A new series, in two volumes, was issued in 1828 and 1829. Here may be read the lives and achievements of Fig, Broughton, Jackson, Gulley, Mendoza, Molineaux, Tom Crib, Tom Spring, Jem Ward—of all the great and lesser heroes of “the fancy.” Henry Downes Miles, who, in 1906, published Pugilistica, the three volumes of which carried the story of British boxing down to Sayers and Tom King and the end of the prize-ring, frequently accuses Egan of inaccuracy; but his book, for nearly a century, was the standard history of the art, and, in his own day, was the classic work upon the principal British sport. Among many other publications of the time concerned with boxing, an honourable place is held by the illustrated journal, The Fancy, which, between 1821 and 1826, published memoirs of famous pugilists, accounts of fights, general sporting intelligence and a few pages of miscellaneous news, all of which are rich in information on the vigorous and not squeamish sporting activities of the period.

    Hunting, like pugilism, though in a less degree, was systematised by the eighteenth century, and became a subject of popular, as well as practical, literature. During the first half, or more, of the century, every country gentleman hunted, but very many country gentlemen kept their own packs, which were small and not choicely bred. Few of them, probably, were maintained on even so steady, if so nicely “humorous” a principle as those musical fellows of Coverly hall in Warwickshire. Squire Western’s hounds have not been closely described; but it is not unlikely that, in spite of Gervase Markham’s works, and Richard Blome’s The Gentleman’s Recreation of 1683, and the amount of science displayed by Somervile in The Chace, such hounds as those of lord Scattercash were not so rare in the mid-eighteenth century as in the mid-nineteenth. Then came a remarkable master of hounds—one who, according to a writer commonly supposed to be Sir Egerton Brydges, could “bag a fox in Greek, find a hare in Latin, inspect his kennels in Italian, and direct the economy of his stables in exquisite French”—a scholar and a sportsman, Peter Beckford. Beckford, in 1781, published at Salisbury a quarto volume, Thoughts upon Hare and Fox Hunting, which has been held to “mark an era not only in the literature but in the history of hunting.” This work, and the same author’s Essays on Hunting, laid the foundation of the art of hunting; and Peter Beckford’s name has been held in veneration not only by “Nimrod” and other writers on the sport, but by all serious students and practitioners of the art. After Beckford, good books on hunting became fairly numerous; and among them should be mentioned The British Sportsman, by Samuel Howitt, a sportsman and artist, who married a sister of Rowlandson and worked in close contact with his brother-in-law. Hunting, coaching, and all sports with horses offered an attractive field to the artists of the day, as well as to the writers; and Bunbury proved to be the ancestor of a long and numerous line, which includes George Cruikshank, Leech, Robert Seymour and many other famous names. Among the earliest successors of Bunbury is Henry Alken, who did excellent sporting pictures between 1816 and 1831. A man of obscure origin (he is supposed to have been studgroom or trainer to the duke of Beaufort before he won fame as an artist), Alken was commended by a writer (probably Christopher North) in Blackwood’s Magazine for his understanding of English gentlemen—a subject in which George Cruikshank was held to fail. In the great popularity of sport, Alken found ready employment as draughtsman. His National Sports of Great Britain contains fifty admirable coloured engravings, in which his accurate knowledge and his artistic sense are cleverly combined; to The Analysis of the Hunting Field, a volume of papers on the components of a hunt reprinted from Bell’s Life in London, he contributed six of his finest designs; and his comic series, Specimens of Riding, Symptoms of being amazed and others, deserve the popularity they achieved. If Alken could draw like a gentleman, he was soon to be associated with one who could write like a gentleman.