The Earl, the Coppersmith, and the Writers; A Very Pugilistic Affair
By David Snowdon, Apr 13 2016 01:48PM
Writing to Thomas Moore on 22 August 1813, Lord Byron records the movements of some notable characters deeply involved, or very interested, in the Regency prizefighting scene:
'The Prince is at Brighton, and Jackson, the boxer, gone to Margate, having, I believe, decoyed Yarmouth to see a milling in that polite neighbourhood.'
Cross-checking this piece of sporting intelligence, we can find details of this ‘milling’ (pugilistic slang denoting a fight) faithfully recorded in Pierce Egan’s second collected volume of 'Boxiana' (1818).
Egan records that ‘this battle’ took place on the day after Byron’s missive, 23 August, in the vicinity of St. Nicholas and Margate. The ‘boxer’ referred to is former champion (1795) John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson. Although only fighting on three occasions, Jackson built up such a reputation that he was subsequently regarded as a final arbiter in all pugilistic concerns. Pierce Egan portrayed him as the ‘fixed star’; other pugilists being ‘the many satellites revolving around the greater orb, deriving their principal vigour and influence from his dominion’ ('Boxiana I', 1813). Byron invited Jackson to Cambridge, Brighton, as well as Newstead, and would go on to immerse himself in an intense period of sparring with the ‘Emperor of Pugilism’ in March and April 1814 (see ‘Boxing with Byron’ article for full story).
The second ‘player’ that the letter mentions, Yarmouth, was Francis Charles Seymour Ingram (1777-1842) – the Earl of Yarmouth. Also acquainted with Jackson, Yarmouth was a noted patron of major prizefights. He was also a friend of the Prince Regent (who also maintained an interest in the sport, and enjoyed viewing exclusive exhibitions). Yarmouth was reputedly the model for fictional literary characters: Monmouth in Disraeli’s 'Coningsby' (1844), and Steyne in Thackeray’s 'Vanity Fair' (1848). It might be argued that Yarmouth’s reputation as an aristocratic libertine, far from diminishing their estimation, elevated him in the eyes of the pugilistic set (‘The Fancy’). A certain amount of dissipated flamboyance was a fashionable trait, an almost indispensable accoutrement, in being, or playing the role of, an archetypal ‘Corinthian buck’.
The big prizefight itself is comprehensively reported in the ‘go to’ book for all things pugilistic, 'Boxiana'. Egan sets up the action, profiling the fighters, particularly the man whose Bristolian pugilistic bloodline demanded notice:
'HARRY HARMER - The peculiar style of fighting of the late Jem Belcher, his cousin, seems to be revived in his person. Like that once brave Champion of England, he is an uncommonly quick and hard hitter; and, with a good deal of dexterity, bobs his head aside to avoid the pointed blow. His trade of a Coppersmith gives his arms the advantages of action and vigour, and in fighting he makes use of them with great celerity, and in a manner not very dissimilar to hammering!' ('Boxiana II', p. 45)
Jem Belcher had been champion 1800-1803. He was oft dubbed the ‘Napoleon of the Ring’, and the Prince Regent was reported to have won £3000 wagering on Belcher’s 1800 success over Irishman Andrew Gamble. Tragically, his career was effectively ruined when he lost an eye whilst playing rackets. A couple of misguided comebacks accelerated his deteriorating health and he had died in 1811, aged 31. Although not mentioned here, there was also his younger brother Tom Belcher, a skilful fighter but not quite carrying the weight to contest the top championship prize. Tom would also enjoy a stint as landlord (1814-28) of the drinking venue regarded as the unofficial HQ of pugilistic affairs, The Castle Tavern, Holborn.
Harmer, therefore, had an illustrious heritage to maintain, but Egan’s account of his progression suggests that he was up to the task:
'HARMER became the object of considerable conversation in the pugilistic circles; his length, quickness, and punishing hitting, rather deterred a few of the fighting men from entering the lists with him, till the game Ford was matched […] for a purse of twenty-five guineas'. (p. 47)
Egan records that ‘the veteran Joe Ward seconded HARMER; and Paddington Jones attended upon Ford’. Thus, the stage was ready for Harry Harmer and Jack Ford to ‘set to’. It did not take long before the brutal bareknuckle blows inflicted showed their telling effect:
'Third. – The right hand of Harmer got into work, and the forehead of Ford received a severe taste of his quality.
Fourth. – The truth must be told, and the bad training of Ford could no longer be concealed. His wind was treacherous, and he was sparring to gain time; but he guarded himself so scientifically […before Harmer] put in a heavy body blow […] and Ford with considerable dexterity returned a sender on the head of Harmer'. (p. 48)
A ‘sender’ was a term signifying a heavy blow, and this, together with his ‘scientific’ know-how, indicates that Ford is offering credible resistance. However, by the ninth round, he had ‘received so much severe punishment, that it was evident he was loosing ground rapidly […and] was reduced to that state, where superior science and strength must be served’ (p. 49).
The tenth round provides Egan to promote the ‘sportsmanship’ and honourable conduct that Boxiana promoted as fundamental aspects of this truly noble British discipline:
'Tenth. – HUMANITY of character should never be forgotten, and it always to be recorded as an example to other pugilists to do likewise.
Ford was in an unfortunate situation against the ropes, where a blow must have finished him; but Harmer nobly disdained to take any advantage of a brave competitor, while a more manly path presented itself; and he never could show manhood in a finer style than in walking away and leaving Ford to go down himself'.
In the next round, victory is again forestalled by Ford’s bravery and ‘gluttony’ as he refuses to surrender:
'Harmer now punished his antagonist with ease […] and Ford was the more enfeebled every round: but, not withstanding the milling he met with, he could not be prevailed upon to GIVE IT IN until the twenty-third round, when he was completely told out! (p. 49)
In 1818, Egan dedicated Boxiana II to Yarmouth, a proven and esteemed supporter of pugilism, and the national qualities it supposedly fostered:
'BRITISH SPIRIT […] Emulation and the love of glory are its true and powerful breeders. To what a pitch of daring do we not see these carry men? At Talavera, Vimeira, and at that memorable epoch of military intrepidity and greatness, the battle of Waterloo'. (p. iv)
Jackson had helped to establish the Pugilistic Club in 1814 and, significantly, Egan reported on its first ‘public dinner’ held on 22 May 1814, and its principal guest:
'Lord YARMOUTH, in a speech replete with energy and point, expatiated on the advantages of pugilism in a national point of view, by observing, that it enlarged the mind with a proper notion of true courage, and also taught it to despise and abhor every thing connected with clandestine modes of revenge […] and the people of England, he also felt assured, owed their present GREATNESS to their generosity and manliness in battle'. ('Boxiana II', p. 27)
It is evident, that Yarmouth’s witnessing of resolute prizefight displays, such as the previous year’s Harmer-Ford tussle had reinforced the belief that pugilism engendered positive and practical benefits to the British nation. Whether he genuinely believed this, or was satisfying the celebratory appetite of the sporting patriotic audience held in thrall, the foremost sports reporter of the Georgian era, Egan, was on hand to broadcast and perpetuate this gratifying 'Boxiana' gospel.