Pre-Fight, setting the scene
‘The Daffy Club, or a Musical Muster of the Fancy’, by Robert Cruikshank (1789-1856).
From the ‘Metropolitan Sketches’ section of Charles Molloy Westmacott’s The English Spy I (1825).
The language, and narrative style, deployed by Egan frequently displaced reality. The prizefighting action is often a secondary concern within the author’s desire to entertain and, consequently, language and stylistic devices often supplanted actual events, which could frequently prove relatively devoid of excitement, or downright mundane. Egan’s blend of inventive imagery and linguistic exuberance that contributed to the prizefight commentaries of the Boxiana series (1812-29) can be identified as the ‘Boxiana style’.
By its very nature a violent sport, the pugilistic world was inextricably associated with gambling, drinking, and the demi-monde. Unlike horseracing and cock-fighting, bare-knuckle prizefights often depended upon the inconsistent leniency of local magistrates. Consequently, there was an opportunist element about the arrangement of fights. Collectively, ‘The Fancy’ comprised those who followed sporting events, but the term was particularly applied to prizefighting votaries. It was a lost bet, in 1750, by the volatile Duke of Cumberland that exacerbated pugilism’s slump into illegality. He ordered the closure of the principal amphitheatre and exerted influence on the magistracy to adopt an unfavourable stance against the sport. Prizefighting supposedly ‘attracted the idle, the criminal and the cheat’ and it ‘became exposed to the laws on breaches of the peace, creating an affray, and by the 1760s on duelling; while a death in the ring could bring a manslaughter charge’. Nevertheless, a groundswell of popularity enabled the sport to operate amidst its supposed prohibition. A common interest in sport encouraged the dissolving of social barriers, and a heterogeneous assortment of characters were to be found attending the prize-ring. Lords and M.P.s would mingle with coal merchants, caulkers, and costermongers. Sport, and particularly prizefighting, played a major role in society during this post-Napoleonic wars period.
Humphries v Mendoza (January 1788)
'The above battle brought BOXING into general notice; and the abilities of the two pugilists occasioned considerable conversation […] both in the BIG and Little world! The newspapers teemed with anecdotes concerning them – pamphlets were published in favour of pugilism – and scarcely a print shop in the Metropolis but what displayed the set-to in glowing colours, and portraits of those distinguished heroes of the fist. HUMPHRIES and MENDOZA were the rage – the Modern comedies glanced at their exploits – and the sporting hemisphere was quite charged with it […] they rose up like a NEW FEATURE of the TIMES! Boxing became fashionable – followed, patronised, and encouraged' (Pierce Egan, Boxiana I, 1813).
The Fives Court, London.
The top prizefighting, exhibitions, and benefits venue. It was a favourite gathering place for 'The Fancy' in Egan's 'Pugilistic Hemisphere'.
Ding-Ding --- Seconds Out
These are merely the opening sparring feints. Here comes 'the Fancy', and the idiosyncratic meanderings of the 'flash' writers.
'We have a sense of plethora upon us, that may perhaps scare us into dullness, or eventually reduce us to meagreness of detail. How shall we break cover?'
('A Young Gentleman of the Fancy' writing in Egan's Book of Sports, 1832)