Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - The Sporting Public-House

[back to menu for this book]

[-131-]

THE SPORTING PUBLIC-HOUSE

WAS instituted for the combined purpose of encouraging drinking, and what its admirers term the noble arts of self-defence. There was a time when boxing was in fashion; when but few of our noblemen and gentlemen did not take Lessons in the pugilistic art. "I can assert, without fear of contradiction," writes Pierce Egan, "that I furnished the present Duke of Buccleuch with a pair of boxing-gloves and all the volumes of 'Boxiana' during his studies at Eton College." Prince George of Cambridge learnt the rudiments of the art from young Richmond; the late Duke of Portland was a pupil of that Jackson whose name is familiar to all readers of Byron. At the first public dinner of the Pugilistic Society, held at the Thatched House Tavern, 1814, a baronet, Sir Henry Smith, was in the chair; and it is a fact, when the war with France was terminated, and the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia, [-132-] accompanied by Blucher and Platoff, visited this country, that not anything they had witnessed appeared to interest them more than the sparring matches between Jackson, Tom Crib, Belcher, Old Dutch Sam, at a déjeuner given by Lord Lowther at his mansion. Indeed, so delighted were those great masters of the art of war with the combats between those first-rate boxers, that Messrs Blucher and Platoff had a second exhibition by their own express desire at the Earl of Elgin's house. Actually even in the House of Commons Mr. Wyndham favoured the House with a description, warm and glowing, of a recent contest between Richmond and Maddox, of which he had been a spectator; and it is not long since Mr. Gully, a prize-fighter, represented Pontefract. The late George IV., when Prince of Wales, was also a spectator at the fight upon a stage on Brighton Downs between Tom Tyne, a distinguished boxer, with a publican of milling notoriety. The latter was killed by a blow on his temple, and died almost upon the instant. The royal debauchee never attended another, but his brother, the late William the Fourth, was often a spectator of the matches on Moulsey Hurst. In this respect the age has made pro-[-133-]gress. Our noblemen no longer patronize the prize-ring. Our young princes have a purer taste. Yet the institution, with all its brutality and blackguardism, still exists, and in the Advertiser, side by side with an article bewailing the spread of German neology in our dissenting colleges, or speaking evil of such earnest workers in the wide field of philanthropy as Maurice or Kingsley, you will read of one of the beastly prize-fights which still disgrace the land. But the Advertiser is the publicans' paper, and it is a fact easily understood, that the prize-fighter, when his day is over, generally keeps a public-house, which is generally called a sporting- house. A warm admirer of them writes, "Fun, civility, mirth, good-humour, and sporting events are the general theme of conversation to be met with over a cheerful glass at the above houses." Ben Caunt's, in St Martin's-lane, is perhaps the principal one, but there are some five or six besides in various parts of the metropolis. Let us enter one. In spite of the assurance of civility and good humour, I don't think you will stay long, but will feel on a small scale what Daniel must have felt in the lions' den.
    [-134-] We enter, we will say, Bang Up's hostelry, about ten on a Thursday evening; there is Bang Up at the bar, with his ton of flesh and broken nose. Many people think it worth while to go and spend one or two shillings at Bang Up's bar, merely that they may have the pleasure of seeing him, and consider him cheap at the money. I don't admire their taste. I once spent an evening with the Norfolk Giant, and I did not find him very witty or well informed. But let us walk up-stairs, having first paid six-. pence to a doorkeeper, by appearance a negro, for which we are to receive a certain amount of refreshment, if beer and grog come rightly under that denomination; at length we find ourselves in a very ordinary room, with very extraordinary people in it. First, there are the portraits - imprimis Bang Up, looking grosser and more animal than ever. Secondly, Mrs. Bang Up, the exact counterpart of her bosom's lord; then a tribe of Bang Ups junior, of all sizes and sexes, attract our astonished eyes. Then - for the room is a complete Walhalla - we have portraits of sporting heroes innumerable, with villanous foreheads, all "vacant of our glorious gains," heavy eyes, thick bull necks, [-135-] and very short croppy hair. Here Gully vanquishes Bob Gregson, "the Lancashire champion," one of the finest and most formidable men of the day. There Jack Randall and Ned Turner display "a fine science and capital fighting," almost unparalleled, and so on; for the list is long, and it is one we do not care to repeat. We seat ourselves at the further end of the room, with a few gentlemen drinking gin and smoking cigars. Twenty or thirty mean-looking men are seated along the side ; they are mostly dirty, and have broken noses; they are not very conversational, but seem chiefly to be deeply engaged in smoking. At length the waiter brings out some boxing gloves; one man takes off his coat and waistcoat, possibly his shirt, and puts them on; another does the same -  they stand up to each other, the gents at the table encourage them, and the seedy men with broken noses look on very knowingly; they spar for some time, till the one feels that he cannot touch the other, and throws down the gloves; a mall collection is then made for the noble art of se1f-defence, which, I presume, is divided amongst  the performers; other actors come upon the stage, and the friendly contests are  maintained [-136-] till Bang Up closes his public-house for the night. As I came out, it was a great consolation to me to think that there are not many such places in London. The style of men thus created are, I fear, neither useful nor ornamental. They have a nasty ticket-of-leave look, and I would fain dispense with their company in quiet back streets during the small hours. One other thought may console you; the sporting public-house, once popular, now attracts but a few, and that few a weak and vicious class. Is not this matter of encouragement?