• Dickens Serves Out The Chicken: A Misleading Character Portrayal Taints a Boxiana Hero

    'Was Achilles to be compared to the Game Chicken? Pshaw! Hen would have threshed Mars himself'. (‘A Young Gentleman of the Fancy’, in Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, 1832, p. 124)

    William Hobday’s fine action painting of prizefighting champion Henry Pearce exudes the vitality and latent power of an athlete in his prime. The striking image complements and harmonises with the prose portrayal supplied by the foremost pugilistic writer of the nineteenth century, Pierce Egan, in the pages of the period’s indispensable sporting publication Boxiana. Pearce’s first name was often abbreviated to Hen and he was usually referred to by his fighting sobriquet ‘the Game Chicken’. In fact, anyone simply uttering “the Chicken” in sporting circles would leave few in doubt that Hen Pearce, champion prizefighter, was the subject of conversation.

    Emerging from the pugilistic hotbed that was early-nineteenth-century Bristol, Pearce was officially recognised as the sport’s champion between 1805 and 1807. Following Jem Belcher’s loss of vision in one eye following an accident whilst playing at rackets, the Chicken proved himself a worthy successor in October and December 1805. The first battle was against 21-year-old John Gully who Pearce had visited for a sparring session in Gully’s then residence - the King’s Bench Debtor’s Prison. Financial backers eager to see the two clash for ‘the championship of England’ (effectively ‘the World’ according to the sport’s followers) swiftly paid off Gully’s debt to trigger his release. Pearce subdued Gully’s heroic effort, but only after a gruelling contest of 64 rounds, lasting approximately an hour and a quarter:

    'Thirty-seventh to forty-third. - The Chicken displayed a manifest superiority: their figures were bloody in the extreme; but Gulley [sic] was literally covered from the torrents which flowed down from his ear.

    Forty-fourth. – The Chicken, with considerable science and force, planted his favourite hit in Gulley’s throat, when he fell like a log of wood. The fortitude which Gulley had displayed in this most trying conflict, had raised him considerably, not only in the estimation of his friends, but the sporting men in general. He had been so severely punished'. (Egan, Boxiana, 1813 p. 165)

    Notable spectators in attendance at the Hailsham venue included Lord Byron, the Duke of Clarence, and Lord Althorp.

    Two months later, the Game Chicken rubber-stamped his top-of-the-pile status after fending off an ill-advised challenge from his erstwhile mentor, and fellow Bristolian, Belcher. The honourable conduct evinced by Pearce in the fight was conspicuous:

    'PEARCE threw BELCHER upon the rope, and while his body was balancing in that unprotected, yet fair situation, the Chicken had an opportunity of ending the fight, by one of his tremendous blows, but his generous mind spurned the committal of a deed that would have grieved his soul'. (p. 149)

    This sporting ethos was perceived as mirroring Britain’s military prowess and magnanimity in victory, and Hobday’s portrait was judiciously published on the same day, the bonus being that his work depicted the victor.

    Pearce’s fighting career was one that flickered for a relatively brief but glorious duration. He was unbeaten in the prize-ring, Egan underscoring some of his attributes:

    In uniting the courage of a lion with all the softer sensibilities of human nature […] the Chicken was unequalled. He was a most tremendous hard hitter, and in striking with his left hand under the ear, his favourite aim, his blow was so terrible in its effects, that his opponents have been seen in a complete state of stupor. (p. 172)

    Egan also highlighted the qualities of Pearce’s character as Boxiana consistently sought to enlighten those who sneered at pugilists and regarded them as ‘men devoid of sensibility’ and ‘little more than a degree above brutes’ (p. 173):

    'Never let it be said, by that mind who has strength enough to admire heroism and virtue […] that REALITY shall be passed over with silent neglect; […] and Pugilists, never let it be forgotten, even when the fight rages desperate, and an advantage should present itself […] recollect that the brightest gem in your character, is humanity'. (p. 150)

    The Game Chicken is cited as prime exemplar of the sport’s humanity which was an element lauded by Egan as a fundamental requirement for the men portrayed as representative of the national character. Although this most often manifested itself in instances of exhibiting sporting conduct such as not taking unfair advantage of an exposed opponent, its scope extended to life in general. If any prizefighter displayed disreputable traits, or abhorrent behaviour, Egan did not flinch from issuing severe censure with alacrity, and expose any serious shortcomings to the scrutiny of his increasing readership.

    As with certain sporting greats through the ages, Pearce was a flawed individual: ‘The Chicken, it appears, during his residence in the Metropolis, had made rather too free with his constitution’. In this case, even Pearce’s overindulgence in alcohol was claimed not to be borne from any wanton self-destructive streak: ‘it originated more from circumstances and place, than sheer inclination – in company with sporting men frequently’ (p. 151). Feted in London by the high-living, free-drinking elements of the sporting set known as ‘The Fancy’, Pearce’s health declined and he retired from the prize-ring in 1807.

    According to exploits recorded by Boxiana, the retired champion retained bravery in abundance, although accusations of histrionics may be levelled at Egan’s description of the Chicken rescuing a girl from the attic of a burning shop in Bristol:

    'He draws his trembling charge from the window, places her safe upon the parapet […] Universal joy prevailed, and the delighted and astonished multitude were lost in the ecstasy of the plaudits --- and the almost lifeless sufferer clinging round the knees of her deliverer, invoking blessings on his name'. (p. 152)

    Egan’s closing remark, ‘Yet, this was the act of a Pugilist’, appears a riposte to critics claiming that prizefighting constituted ‘a show or appearance’ of bravery, and was ‘calculated to deaden in the spectator that sympathy for the sufferings of others’ (William Vasey, Remarks on the Influence of Pugilism on Morals, 1824).

    Amidst his panegyric, Egan chronicled another episode on Clifton Downs where Pearce spotted a young woman suffering the ‘brutal attacks’ of three men:

    'The Chicken, regardless of the consequences, immediately remonstrated with them […] They instantly all fell upon him with the utmost fury; but the courage and science of PEARCE soon made them severely repent of their temerity. The Chicken received the violence of his assailants with coolness and intrepidity, by rendering their attempts unavailing – but he so successfully planted his death-like hits upon their frames, that one of them bolted, and left his two companions to the care of PEARCE, who […] left them prostrate on the earth, begging for mercy'. (Boxiana, pp. 154-5)

    In closing his eulogy on Pearce, Egan stated that the twin deities Nature and Art had bestowed their gifts liberally on the Game Chicken:

    'In giving him a fine athletic form, strength, wind, and agility, had finely tempered those rare requisites with the most manly courage and sublime feeling; - and if ever greatness of soul raised the character of man, or humanity shone resplendent in the breast of human being – a purer claim to those inestimable qualities were never witnessed, than in that of – HENRY PEARCE'. (p.146)

    Pearce eventually succumbed to consumption, dying in 1809 at the age of 31. Ultimately, in the sporting press, Hen Pearce was widely acknowledged as an undefeated champion and one of the ‘good guys’. Moreover, there was only one Game Chicken.

    It is, therefore, perplexing and difficult to accept the decision of Charles Dickens, in Dombey and Son (1848), to denominate a prizefighter character possessing (at best) morally dubious propensities as ‘the Game Chicken’. Although Dickens did have a tendency to conveniently misremember or reinvent his past experiences, or authors he was prepared to cite as being influential in his literary development, he was familiar with the sporting world of the Fancy, sections of his works sometimes featuring allusions to pugilism as well as its slang. Yet, having achieved an august position at the pinnacle of the literary world, Dickens was prone to ruthlessly slough off any connection with authors or illustrators he had enjoyed in his youth but now regarded as beneath his lofty reputation.

    Dickens may have been familiar with the flash jargon used in Boxiana but was irked whenever The Pickwick Papers (1837) was compared to Egan’s earlier metropolitan tour de force Life in London (1821), or that Egan’s characters were in any way ‘precursors of the Pickwick Club’. Dickens’ sensitivity, to what he perceived as an unflattering comparison with Egan, is evinced in his letter to Frederick Yates (who was producing and acting in a dramatic production of Nicholas Nickleby): ‘would you think me very unreasonable if I asked you not to compare Nicholas with Tom and Jerry?’ Corinthian Tom and Jerry Hawthorn were the two principal Life in London protagonists.

    Dickens’ attitude to pugilism could oscillate between seeming haughtiness and nostalgic fondness. His more condescending bursts rarely took the form of searing invective or cruelty, but rather the use of light-hearted ribbing. Ostensibly, the primary objective for Dickens’ selection of fighter sobriquets was humour but, arguably, they could also be perceived as belittling. An episode in The Pickwick Papers depicts an intervention by a magistrate (‘Beak’): “I rushed into a prize-ring […] attended by only sixty special constables; and, at the hazard of falling a sacrifice to the angry passions of an infuriated multitude, prohibited a pugilistic contest between the Middlesex Dumpling and the Suffolk Bantam”. These nicknames are comical, but also demeaning, as is the choice of the ‘the Nobby Shropshire One’ in Dombey and Son.

    The extent of Egan’s influence upon Dickens is a moot point, but it is interesting to briefly look at more of this celebrated author’s allusions to the pugilistic ‘science’. In an early episode from The Pickwick Papers, an irritated cab-driver commences ‘sparring away like clockwork’ before assaulting Pickwick’s party:

    '[He] knocked Mr Pickwick’s spectacles off, and followed up […] with a blow on Mr Pickwick’s nose […] and a third in Mr Snodgrass’s eye, and a fourth, by way of variety, in Mr Tupman’s waistcoat, and then danced into the road, and then back again to the pavement, and finally dashed the whole temporary supply of breath out of Mr Winkle’s body; and all in half-a-dozen seconds.

    No flash jargon is necessary for Dickens to provide a comical picture of a frenzied, whirling cab-driver meting out swift, yet relatively innocuous, physical admonishment. The same sense of over-excitable activity is later displayed by Sam Weller’s father:

    'His heroic parent had penetrated into a remote corner of the room, and attacked the reverend Mr Stiggins with manual dexterity […] and without further invitation he gave the reverend Mr Stiggins a preliminary tap on the head, and began dancing round him in a buoyant and cork-like manner'.

    Dickens’s ploy of applying the image of a bobbing cork to the elderly man is humorously inventive.

    The notion of pugilistic chastisement being an effective means of resolving disputes, or administering punishment, is perpetuated. In addition, it is implied that those holding the moral high ground are most likely to possess some degree of pugilistic ability. Essentially, honourable conduct is being associated with Fancy ideology, and Pickwick’s personal development can be couched in prize-ring terms.

    In an early scene from Hard Times (1854), Dickens portrayed a school inspector:

    'A professed pugilist; always in training, always with a system to force down the general throat […] ready to fight all England. To continue in fistic phraseology, he had a genius for coming up to scratch, wherever and whatever it was, and proving himself an ugly customer. He would go in and damage any subject whatever with his right, follow up with his left, stop, exchange, counter, bore his opponent […] and fall upon him neatly. He was certain to knock the wind out of common sense and render that unlucky adversary deaf to the call of time'.

    This excerpt is unequivocally couched in sporting parlance; Dickens uses his own brand of ‘fistic phraseology’ without quite embracing Egan’s authentic Boxiana style. Nevertheless, its effectiveness in conveying the persevering adherence to duty in this governmental official is convincing. The piece succeeds in humorously impugning the unrelenting officiousness of ‘a system’, thus imparting a degree of weighty social comment whilst simultaneously providing a comic analogy.

    It is in such pieces, melding insightful gravitas and entertainment, where, in overall effect and literary worthiness, Egan is surpassed rather than simply imitated. When Dickens advanced the vicissitudes of Pickwick as a reflection of prize-ring fortunes, figuratively parrying and weaving against the blows of life, profound social concerns were thinly concealed behind a metaphorical image. This approach is more compelling than the more simplistic deployment of sporting flash, such as that used by the threatening Mr Flintwinch to his wife in Little Dorrit (1857): “Oh! You shall have a sneezer, you shall have a teaser”. And, in the piece ‘Main Line. The Boy at Mugby’: ‘Excitement was up in the stirrups’.ii Or, two examples from Martin Chuzzlewit (1844): ‘[Pecksniff] “Sir, you must strike at him through me […] and in such a cause you will find me, my young sir, an Ugly Customer!”’; ‘Martin was not a little puzzled when he came to an end, for the two stories seemed to have no connexion with each other, and to leave him, as the phrase is, all abroad’.

    Turning to Dickens’ shabby depiction of ‘the Game Chicken’ in Dombey and Son; while Hen Pearce is not named, Dickens deployment of the Chicken sobriquet leaves very little room to claim it is a totally fictional character with any similarity to persons past or present being coincidental. Dickens had a knack for conjuring a plethora of character names and, given his proven inventiveness on that score, he could have comfortably produced a glut of pugilistic epithets. It is baffling for him to plump for ‘the Chicken’ and proceed to, essentially, execute a partial character assassination which unavoidably taints the popular perception of the Boxiana ‘legend’ who had been dead for almost forty years.

    In Dombey and Son, the Chicken’s character flaws are magnified by the fact that his latest patron is the generous and honest Mr Toots. Having come into his inheritance, Toots initially appears to glean some cachet from having the Chicken as a sort of wily retainer. But, Dickens mocks Toots’ pretensions to be gaining an education in manly ways and fitness:

    'Mr Toots devoted himself to the cultivation of those gentle arts which refine and humanise existence, his chief instructor in which was an interesting character called the Game Chicken, who was always to be heard at the bar of the Black Badger, wore a shaggy white great-coat in the warmest weather, and knocked Mr Toots about the head three times a week, for the small consideration of ten and six per visit. The Game Chicken, who was quite the Apollo of Mr Toots’ Pantheon, had introduced him to a marker who taught billiards, a Life Guard who taught fencing […] and two or three other friends connected no less intimately with the fine arts'. (Chapter 22)

    Dickens’ undercuts Toots’ supposed acquiring of a range of accomplishments in the ‘fine arts’, and his host of new ‘influential’ acquaintances.

    At the doomed wedding of Mr Dombey and Edith, Toots indicates Dombey to his pugnacious companion who remarked: ‘that he’s as stiff a cove as ever he see, but that it is within the resources of Science to double him up, with one blow in the waistcoat’ (Chapter 31). Later, Toots explains to Captain Cuttle that the Chicken is ‘the celebrated public character who had covered himself and his country with glory in his contest with the Nobby Shropshire One’. Dickens manages to impart a sense of bathos to Toots’ compliment, before alluding to the pugilist’s uncouth and dissipated character:

    'The compliant Chicken spat out some small pieces of straw on which he was regaling himself, and took in a fresh supply from a reserve he carried in his hand. “There an’t no drain of nothing short handy, is there?” said the Chicken, generally. “This here sluicing night is hard lines to a man as lives on his condition”. Captain Cuttle proffered a glass of rum, which the Chicken, throwing back his head, emptied into himself, as into a cask'. (Chapter 32)

    Not content with impugning, by association, the real Game Chicken’s general bearing and disposition, that sporting hero’s all-conquering reputation suffers as Dickens observes his fictional man’s freshly-battered features:

    'Having been defeated by the Larkey Boy, his visage was in a state of such great dilapidation [...] The Chicken himself attributed this punishment to his having had the misfortune to get into Chancery early in the proceedings, when he was severely fibbed […] and heavily grassed. But it appeared from the published records of the great contest that the Larkey Boy had had it all his own way from the beginning, and that the Chicken had been tapped, and bunged, and had received pepper […] and had come up piping, and had endured a complication of similar strange inconveniences, until he had been gone into and finished'.

    Dickens' brief commentary on the recent contest is replete with authentic Boxiana expressions and terminology, but the blurring of fact and fiction constitutes a blemish on Pearce’s unbeaten record even if this is in the imagination of the reader.

    A mere in-ring beating is not enough as Dickens proceeds to reveal his pugilist’s ulterior scheming to make his current social position untenable:

    'The Chicken had registered a vow, in secret, that he would never leave Mr Toots (who was secretly pining to get rid of him), for any less consideration than the good-will and fixtures of a public-house; and being ambitious to go into that line, and drink himself to death as soon as possible, he felt it his cue to make his company unacceptable'. (Chapter 44)

    Thus, the character’s moral deviousness is laid bare but, even though the thrill of the pugilist’s company had palled, Toots’ honourable disposition means that he would remain loyal to his ‘minder’. It is also evident that, had he acted on his desire to sever the connection, the Chicken would have to be ‘fixed up’ with another wealthy patron or else be enticed to go away by being ‘paid off’. Although the fondness for drink contains a degree of historical accuracy, this Chicken is portrayed as a vulpine, mercenary figure.

    One redeeming, or at least useful, feature of Toots’ street-wise protector is his knowledge of the city’s ways and byways, as well as his general nous. The Chicken is a man, to use Egan’s flash expression, ‘UP to everything’. On locating Susan Nipper and successfully reuniting her with an overjoyed Florence Dombey, Toots declares, “I think that scarcely anything short of the sagacity of the Chicken, would have found her out in the time”. In fact, the ruffian is illustrated as a ‘visitor of distinction’ (above) by the pen of regular Dickens’ collaborator ‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne). The presence of the fighter also provides the reader with a sense of security that the physical wellbeing of the novel’s genial group of characters is safeguarded, and they enjoy some temporary protection from the machinations wreaked by the malevolent, shark-like James Carker. Toots sagely keeps the Chicken in attendance as he had ‘an idea that unforeseen circumstances might arise from without, in which the prowess of that distinguished character would be of service’ (Chapter 56). However, it emerges that a parting of the ways is soon to be wrought.

    One of the narrative’s prominent subplots is Toots’ unrequited love for Florence. She values their friendship extremely highly but is romantically attached to the equally commendable Walter Gay. Although rendered bereft with melancholic regret, Toots accepts the situation and sincerely wishes the devoted couple happiness for their forthcoming union. The opportunistic Chicken uses this as an opening to expedite his pay off:

    ' “Now, Master”, said the Chicken, doggedly […] “I want to know whether this here gammon is to finish it, or whether you’re a going in to win […] Are any on ‘em to be doubled up?” When the Chicken put this question he dropped his hat, made a dodge and a feint with his left hand, hit a supposed enemy a violent blow with his right, shook his head smartly, and recovered himself. “Come, Master […] Is it to be gammon or pluck"?'

    ‘Gammon’ was the flash term for humbug or plausible talk (to put it politely), and the pugilist is implying that Toots’ acceptance that he has loved and lost is a form of dishonourable weakness, equivalent to failing to ‘come up to the scratch’ in boxing parlance. Toots is initially puzzled by the slang (“your expressions are coarse, and your meaning is obscure”) before the Chicken roughly elaborates:

    “Wot! When you could go and blow on this here match to the stiff ‘un […] and when you could knock the winner all the kit of ‘em dead out o’ wind and time, are you going to give in? To give in? said the Chicken, with contemptuous emphasis. “Wy, it’s mean”.

    The scales fall from Toots’ eyes and for perhaps the only time in the narrative, speaks with asperity: “Chicken, you’re a perfect Vulture! Your sentiments are atrocious”. The farmyard bird has metamorphosed into a bird of prey with, appropriately enough, a concomitant capital ‘V’.

    The Chicken is unabashed and simply regards his standpoint as analogous with the tenets of the ‘Sporting World: “My sentiments is Game and Fancy, Master”. Incredibly, the prizefighter attempts to adopt some form of moral high ground: “I’m afore the public. I’m to be heerd on at the bar of the Little Helephant, and no Gov’ner of mine mustn’t go and do what’s mean”. So, now it is the respectable Toots who is being branded as an embarrassing associate for the sporting man to recognise amidst his dubious social venues. But, it soon becomes evident that this putative question of honour is a ruse to introduce the crux of the Chicken’s objective: “Never mind! Give me a fi’typunnote to-morrow, and let me go”. Toots regards the Chicken’s attitude as “odious” and is glad to acquiesce to the monetary request in order to unburden himself of his companion’s increasingly fractious and undignified behaviour.

    Notwithstanding Pierce Egan’s tendency for flamboyant flourish and hagiographic treatment of the prime pugilistic characters, Hen Pearce’s traits had generally been observed as positive. Yes, he may have been illiterate, but that did not deflect from his noted bravery, good-nature, and generosity. Whether intentional or not, Dickens use of ‘the Game Chicken’ character name unavoidably stigmatises the reputation and memory of Hen Pearce. Did Dickens simply like the name and thought it would be relatively harmless to regurgitate it? Or, was it intentional; did the writer harbour a hidden agenda whereby he wished to besmirch the sport and its followers? If so, perhaps Pearce was unlucky to be selected as the token representative having been one of Boxiana’s revered champions. This is conjecture, but even if Dickens is not culpable of a premeditated and crafted attack, his naming of the Chicken is, at best, thoughtless. The discrepancy between the actual and fictional Chicken is also evident in accompanying illustrations for various editions of the novel that sketch a rough, surly-looking individual, possessing an air of the wicked Bill Sikes about them (as in the above illustration of the unscrupulous parting of the ways by Fred Barnard). Conversely, Hobday’s painting and George Sharples’ Boxiana portrait depict a yielding and humane aspect to soften the steeliness of the champion’s countenance.

    Having been disdainfully mocking in Dombey and Son, a rare major fight held in the Victorian era (between Sayers and Heenan at Farnborough, 17 April 1860) appears to conjure some deeply entrenched, long forgotten, admiration for the sport in Dickens’ psyche. The impact of this fight on public consciousness was extended by Dickens in a piece published the following month, ‘Shy Neighbourhoods’, which tells of stumbling across portraits of the two ‘illustrious’ fighters in a small shop. Dickens stated that they were depicted in ‘fighting attitude’, and then playfully suggests that the settings elicit ‘the pastoral and meditative nature of their peaceful calling’:

    'Mr Heenan is represented on emerald sward, with primroses and other modest flowers springing up under the heels of his half-boots; while Mr Sayers is impelled to the administration of his favourite blow, the Auctioneer, by the silent eloquence of a village church. The humble homes of England, with their domestic virtues and honeysuckle porches, urge both heroes to go in and win; and the lark and other singing birds are observable in the upper air, ecstatically carolling their thanks to Heaven for a fight'.

    This reverie possesses a certain poetical quality, although the incongruity of pugnacious protagonists amidst such a quaint, elemental backdrop is a jarring image, suggesting that the incongruity may constitute another Dickens gibe.

    It would be far-fetched to speculate that Dickens allowed connections made between Egan’s earlier works and his own to incite him to denigrate the sport most closely associated with his forerunner. Perhaps, it would be nearer the mark to surmise that Dickens’ consistent aptitude for tapping into what was fashionable, and being prone to court publicity, meant that he was never likely to endorse a pastime that by the dawn of the Victorian era had acquired a disreputable tenor. The decline escalated as prizefighting became increasingly riddled with bribery and corruption. Moreover, it had become unfashionable as royalty and the sport’s upper-class ‘Corinthians’ withdrew their patronage. Whilst not saying that Dickens harboured a vendetta because of some imagined shadow cast on his literary originality by Egan’s earlier work, he was not about to commit a self-harming career move by eulogising a louche, discreditable activity. Cynically speaking, maligning or ridiculing pugilism was ‘on trend’, and Dickens was never one to baulk at opportunity.

    It must be conceded that such a gifted and brilliant author as Dickens required no such artificial boost to his reputation, but he did have a propensity for ingratiating himself with his immediate audience. If the Pugilistic Club had remained at the height of its patronage and popularity, and Dickens had been invited to its dinners and invited to speak, then the famous writer would doubtless have deemed it natural and fitting to extol pugilism in an extravagant manner. The rhetoric employed by Dickens, in a speech delivered to the Playground and General Recreation Society (1858) to emphasise his belief of the ‘immense importance to a community’ of ‘children’s play’, has a familiar Boxiana-style ring:

    "A country full of dismal little old men and women who had never played would be in a mighty bad way indeed; and you may depend upon it that without play, and good play, too, those powerful English cheers which have driven the sand of Asia before them, and made the very ocean shake, would degenerate into a puling whimper, that would be the most consolatory sound that can possibly be conceived to all the tyrants on the face of the earth".

    Similarly, at a speech delivered in 1866, the mode of Dickens’ expression, when endorsing the invigorating pursuit of rowing could have been plucked straight from the pages of Egan’s 1832 Book of Sports, assuring his audience that ‘he regarded such clubs as these as a “national blessing” […and] were greatly indebted to all that tended to keep up a healthy, manly tone".

    Of course, one can only speculate on the precise extent of Dickens’s sincerity as the reported snippets from his public speeches reveal more than a few traces of gushing praise for the hosts whose hospitality he appears to be whole-heartedly relishing (the above extract is from ‘a dinner of the Metropolitan Rowing Club at the London Tavern’). Notwithstanding his undoubted sporting sympathies Dickens often appeared to be playing to a particular audience for a particular evening, and generally fuelling mass adoration at his sound judgement in supporting their cause.

    It is perhaps ironic that the man Pearce had defeated in the momentous 1805 encounter, John Gully, lived to see his eightieth birthday. Having prospered as he progressed from bookmaker to successful racehorse owner (his horses won the Two Thousand Guineas, the Oaks, and the Derby), Gully also became the MP for Pontefract and a colliery owner near his County Durham residence – a far cry from debtors’ prison. Unlike Pearce’s reputation for moral probity, it was believed that Gully’s meteoric rise through the social strata may have been expedited by ‘many devious and dishonest practices’.v Gully did not die until 1863, well after the publication of Dombey and Son, and had Dickens chosen to malign his reputation (instead of the Game Chicken’s) with unflattering allusions, then the author may well have received a summons to answer a charge of slander, with a personal visit from a couple of Mr Gully’s heavyweight ‘representatives’ thrown in for good measure.

    By contrast, the figure of Hen Pearce, lacking social influence and long dead, offered a soft target. For Dickens, expediency and self-aggrandisement often sauntered hand in hand but, ultimately, the tarnish he applied to the memory of the former Boxiana champion by using a sobriquet synonymous with that fighter might be labelled a slipshod or short-sighted act of composition. In pugilistic language, to ‘serve out’ an opponent was to inflict heavy physical ‘punishment’ and, although it might be presumed to have been inadvertently inflicted, Dickens’ 1848 novel had metaphorically ‘served out’ the memory of the Game Chicken.



  • Sports-Book Review

    High Expectation Levels Met by The Odd Man Out (2017)

    The subtitle of Graham Denton’s fine sporting exploration is The Fascinating Story of Ron Saunders’ Reign at Aston Villa but, as comprehensive as it is, the narrative encompasses so much more than a one-club, one-man portrait. The book provides an intriguing read for anyone interested in 1970s/80s football, or sports-history generally. It is also a satisfyingly substantial length, allowing the reader to savour the detail as they progress through an odyssey of what is indeed a ‘fascinating’ course of events and period in football history.

    The depth of research undertaken is evident throughout with episodes and names undoubtedly drawing nods of appreciative recognition from engrossed readers, as well as flashes of enlightenment or surprise at previously unknown or forgotten nuggets of information being revealed or revisited. Memories proffered by former players, backroom staff, and journalists are predominantly insightful, enhancing the narrative and, whilst some snippets of their recollections and opinions appear laced with traces of ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ (or selective memory), Denton does not wallow in unrealistic legend-building as he offers a balanced perspective that underscores shortcomings and failure as well as the inspirational leadership and glory days. The conflicting and fluctuating nature of the central protagonist is effectively conveyed; superlatives are tempered with brickbats. The author also avoids getting bogged down in excessively prolonged discussion of a football club’s internal power struggles; the issue is addressed but not laboured to the extent of displacing the primary focus.

    Perhaps the finished product would have benefited from the inclusion of a greater array of archive photographs, and several errors will be remedied in the reprint. However, these are relatively minor quibbles as, crucially, the fluent writing style combines with the topic’s rich fund of material to supply an entertaining and accessible tale. This sturdy platform is complemented by the well-researched facts, compensating for the paucity of exciting images, to transport the reader back in time.

    Ultimately, Denton delivers a high-quality study packed with interest, and oozing class. The Odd Man Out embraces an extensive range of characters and clubs, containing appeal for a wide readership, and the book deserves to be a contender for some of the more prestigious forthcoming sports-writing awards. During his managerial career, Ron Saunders had a fondness for applying pugilistic analogies, and it might be apt to observe that this book is a ‘heavyweight’ in the field of sporting literature.

    David Snowdon (author of award-winning Writing the Prizefight)



  • Sports-Book Review

    High Expectation Levels Met by The Odd Man Out



  • The Earl, the Coppersmith, and the Writers; A Very Pugilistic Affair

    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)

    The Fight:

    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)

    Post-Fight Observations:

    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.



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