The Gas-man cometh


'His attack is truly terrific. His head and body seem as if secured by a coat of mail, insensible to punishment. His game is unquestionable; and his course not to be impeded.
[He] contended for victory as if the fate of an empire hung upon the event’.

(Pierce Egan, describing Hickman's defiant approach, Boxiana III, 1821)

Tom Hickman, ‘The Gas-Light Man’ (1795-1822), by Sharples.
This portrait appears in Annals of Sporting and Fancy Gazette, Vol. III (1823).
Copyright British Library Board. All Rights Reserved, L.R.226.a

Tom Hickman was a controversial fighter who provoked ambivalent emotions within Fancy circles and, by natural progression, amongst the writers recording confrontations in and out of the prize-ring. His volatility could be deployed for either censure or heightening interest. He was dubbed ‘the Gas-Light Man’ primarily because he had been ‘sent up to London with other workmen to construct the boilers and retorts of the new gaslight factories’ (Annals of Sporting III, 45). Whilst hot-headed arrogance was a self-defeating trait for any pugilist, Hickman’s excitable unpredictability also served as an attraction for spectators. Hickman’s charged reputation was fuelled by typically outlandish Boxiana publicity dubbing him ‘A SECOND Hotspur’: ‘Impatient – fiery – daring […] His fist possessing the knocking-down force of the forge-hammer – his brow contemptuously smiling at defeat’. Bee called Hickman ‘this Meteor of the Prize Ring’ (44).

Bee refers to Egan as an ‘apologist’ for Hickman (Boxiana IV, 177), but this appears unfair. Egan consistently condemned Hickman’s hubristic attitude, and the only charge against the author that might be substantiated is his neglect of reporting unsavoury incidents, such as an after-hours incident at the Bear and Staff tavern:

'GAS gave himself airs […] abusing the persons present in coarse and repulsive terms […] Unable to bear a check, GAS hereupon seized the poker and broke the back of a dog that slept before the fire […] As a public man he deserved the most public reprehension […] One single goodly paragraph, sufficiently keen and castigatory, in the last column of the Dispatch, would undoubtedly have operated as to prevent the death-blow given to ould Joe Norton'. (161-2)

The elderly Norton died a week after being ‘pitched’ into by Hickman, who had reacted petulantly to some jesting and, ‘dropped the feeble old fellow off his perch’ (163). One question prompted by this to what extent preconceptions would have been triggered in readers of Hazlitt’s 'The Fight' by such information, and would they have been predisposed to reject the heroic imagery being deployed in such accounts. Hickman becomes a discordant figure obtruding upon Hazlitt’s idealisation of an ‘honourable and unbiased’ arena. Boxiana’s ‘insider’ anecdotes jar with the vision conjured by Hickman’s portrait [above]. This image of a dark-haired, dashing young man evokes notions of gallantry rather than cruelty. Prior publication of this illustration may have elicited greater anticipation of the fight, but the idealised figure of the noble fighter is undermined by tales of deplorable behaviour.

Credibly, Bee apportions a large degree of the blame for Hickman’s demeanour on the Fancy, who had ‘exalted him’ (Boxiana IV, 174):
'Such was the general acclaim with which Hickman’s achievements were now received, that he and his backer were not a little puffed up […] He was, therefore, praised through fear, and bespattered to a fulsome degree by all who came near him' (160).

Bee claimed that misguided adulation drew out ‘the latent qualities’ of Hickman’s ‘soul’, candidly conceding ‘that many of his misdeeds deserved the visitation of the law’ (Annals of Sporting III, 45). Bee’s earlier reference to the Weekly Dispatch leaves little doubt that Egan (a reporter for that newspaper) is deemed a prime culprit.
Bee firmly rebuked some thoughtless bragging from Hickman: ‘Gas is reported to have declared his intention of “killing Oliver in ten minutes” […] The words are to be reprobated’ (Boxiana IV, 164).

Hickman split opinion, and flattering comparisons with military figures provides one of the more curious aspects within the Boxiana series: ‘HICKMAN possesses all the confidence of a NELSON, united with the desperation of a Paul Jones’. (Boxiana III, 291)

In December 1822, there was much public sorrow exhibited upon news of Hickman’s death (in a road accident): 'Crowds pressed around [...] wherever a glimpse might be caught of the procession [...] The funeral, as a spectacle, was singularly imposing and neat; the 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 not a modern phenomenon.