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Chapter 12. Fighting. - John Ashton 1888

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Still continuing the downward course of the Fleet, an historical place is reached, "Hockley-in-the-Hole," or Hollow, so famous for its rough sports of bear baiting and sword and cudgel playing. The combative nature of an Englishman is curious, but it is inbred in him; sometimes it takes the form of "writing to the papers," sometimes of going to law, sometimes of "punching" somebody's head; in many it ends in a stubborn fight against difficulties to be overcome--but, anyhow, I cannot deny that an Englishman is pugnacious by nature. Hear what Misson, an intelligent French traveller, who visited England in the reign of William III., says: "Anything that looks like fighting is delicious to an Englishman. If two little Boys quarrel in the Street, the Passengers stop, make a Ring round them in a Moment, and set them against one another, that they may come to Fisticuffs. When 'tis come to a Fight, each pulls off his Neckcloth and his Waistcoat, and give them to hold to some of the Standers by: then they begin to brandish their Fists in the Air; the Blows are aim'd all at the Face, they Kick at one another's Shins, they tug one another by the Hair, &c. He that has got the other down may give him one Blow or two before he rises, but no more; and, let the Boy get up ever so often, the other is obliged to box him again as often as he requires it. During the Fight, the Ring of Bystanders encourage the Combatants with great Delight of Heart, and never part them while they fight according to the Rules. The Father and Mother of the Boys let them fight on as well as the rest, and hearten him that gives Ground, or has the Worst."

This was about 1700; and, if it was so in the green tree (or boy), what would it be in the dry (or man)? I am afraid our ancestors were not over-refined. They did not all cram for examinations, and there were no Girton girls in those days, neither had they analytical novels: so that, to a certain extent, we must make allowances for them. Tea and coffee were hardly in use for breakfast, and men and women had a certain amount of faith in beer and beef, which may have had something to do in forming their tastes. Anyhow, the men were manly, and the women not a whit worse than they are now; and woe be to the man that insulted one. A code of honour was then in existence, and every gentleman carried with him the means of enforcing it. Therefore, up to a certain limit, they were combative, and not being cigarette-smoking _mashers_, and not being overburdened with novels and periodicals, and club smoking and billiard rooms being unknown, they enjoyed a more physical existence than is led by the young men of the theatrical stalls of the present day, and attended Sword and Cudgel playing, and Bull and Bear baiting, together with fighting an occasional main of Cocks. It might be very wrong; but then they had not our advantages of being able to criticize the almost unhidden charms of the "chorus," or descant on the merits of a "lemon squash," so that, as man must have some employment, they acted after their lights, and I do not think we can fairly blame them.

For Londoners, a favourite place, early in the eighteenth century, for rough sports, was Hockley-in-the-Hole. Here was bear and bull baiting for the public, a fact that was so well known, according to Gay,[55] that

"Experienc'd Men, inur'd to City Ways, Need not the _Calendar_ to count their Days. When through the Town, with slow and solemn Air, Led by the Nostril walks the muzzled Bear; Behind him moves, majestically dull, The Pride of _Hockley Hole_, the surly Bull; Learn hence the Periods of the Week to name, _Mondays_ and _Thursdays_ are the Days of Game."

Even earlier than Gay, Hockley-in-the-Hole is mentioned by Butler in his "Hudibras"[56] in somewhat gruesome fashion:--

"But TRULLA straight brought on the Charge, And in the selfsame Limbo put The Knight and Squire, where he was shut, Where leaving them in Hockley-i'-th'-Hole, Their Bangs and Durance to condole."

But Butler also talks of Bear baiting, both in the first and second cantos of "Hudibras," especially in canto the first, where, beginning at line 675, he says:

"But now a Sport more formidable Had rak'd together Village Rabble: 'Twas an old Way of recreating-- Which learned Butchers call Bear-Baiting: A bold advent'rous Exercise, With ancient Heroes in high Prize; For Authors do affirm it came From Isthmian or Nemean Game; Others derive it from the Bear That's fix'd in Northern Hemisphere, And round about the Pole does make A Circle like a Bear at Stake. That at the Chain's End wheels about, And overturns the Rabble Rout. For, after solemn Proclamation In the Bear's Name (as is the Fashion According to the Law of Arms, To keep men from inglorious Harms) That none presume to come so near As forty Foot of Stake of Bear; If any yet be so foolhardy T' expose themselves to vain Jeopardy; If they come wounded off, and lame, No honour's got by such a Maim; Altho' the Bear gain much; b'ing bound In Honour to make good his Ground, When he's engag'd and takes no Notice, If any press upon him, who 'tis, But let's them know, at their own Cost, That he intends to keep his Post."

Bear baiting was so identified, as a sport, to the London Citizens who frequented Hockley-in-the-Hole, that we read that in 1709 Christopher Preston, who then kept the Bear Garden, was attacked and partly eaten by one of his own bears.

Bear Gardens are proverbially rough, and this place was no exception; but there were two others in London where bears were baited, one at Marrybone Fields (at the back of Soho Square), and at Tuttle or Tothill Fields, at Westminster--thus showing the popularity of the Sports, which was not declared illegal until 1835.

Of course in these our days, we know nothing of bear baiting, and if a Pyrenean bear were now taken about the country, as I have frequently seen them, even if he "danced to the genteelest of tunes," his proprietor would be in danger of the judgment--some dear mollycoddling old woman in trousers, belonging to some special "faddy" society, being always ready to prosecute.

Bears not, at present, being indigenous to Britain, were naturally scarce, so the homely and offensive Bull had to afford rough sport to the multitude, and several towns now bear testimony to the popularity of the sport of bull baiting in their "Bull rings" (Birmingham, to wit). In the fourteenth century we know that even horses were baited with dogs, and as long as fox hunting, coursing, or wild stag hunting, are recognized as sports among us, I fail to see the superior cruelty of our ancestors. It may be that people imagine that the larger the animal, the greater the cruelty; but I cannot see it. Anyhow, far earlier than the Bear garden of Hockley-in-the-Hole, both bear and bull baiting were not only popular, but aristocratic amusements. Erasmus, who visited England in Henry VIII.'s time, speaks of many herds of bears being kept for baiting; and when Queen Mary visited her sister the Princess Elizabeth, they were "right well content" with the bear baiting. Nay, when she became Queen, Elizabeth was a great patron of the _sport_; for when, on May 25, 1559, she entertained the French Ambassadors, as an after-dinner spectacle, she gave them some bull and bear baiting. Her delight in this diversion did not decrease with age, for, twenty-seven years later, she provided the same amusement for the delectation of the Danish Ambassador. Paul Hentzner, who visited England in 1598, speaking of this sport, says:--"There is still another Place, built in the Form of a Theatre, which serves for the baiting of Bulls and Bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by the great _English_ Bull dogs; but not without great Risque to the Dogs, from the Horns of the one, and the Teeth of the other; and it sometimes happens they are killed upon the Spot; fresh ones are immediately supplied in the Place of those that are wounded, or tired. To this Entertainment there often follows that of whipping a blinded Bear, which is performed by five or six Men standing circularly with Whips, which they exercise upon him without any Mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of his Chain; he defends himself with all his Force and Skill, throwing down all who come within his Reach, and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the Whips out of their Hands, and breaking them."

And, again are we indebted to a foreigner for a description of a bull baiting, thus realizing Burns' aspiration seeing "oursen as others see us," _vide Misson_.

"Here follows the Manner of those Bull Baitings which are so much talk'd of: They tie a Rope to the Root of the Ox or Bull, and fasten the other End of the Cord to an Iron Ring fix'd to a Stake driven into the Ground; so that this Cord being 15 Foot long, the Bull is confin'd to a Sphere of about 30 Foot Diameter. Several Butchers, or other Gentlemen, that are desirous to exercise their Dogs, stand round about, each holding his own by the Ears; and, when the Sport begins, they let loose one of the Dogs; The Dog runs at the Bull: the Bull immovable, looks down upon the Dog with an Eye of Scorn, and only turns a Horn to him to hinder him from coming near: the Dog is not daunted at this, he runs round him, and tries to get beneath his Belly, in order to seize him by the Muzzle, or the Dew lap, or the pendant Glands: The Bull then puts himself into a Posture of Defence; he beats the Ground with his Feet, which he joins together as close as possible, and his chief Aim is not to gore the Dog with the Point of his Horn, but to slide one of them under the Dog's Belly (who creeps close to the Ground to hinder it) and to throw him so high in the Air that he may break his Neck in the Fall. This often happens: When the Dog thinks he is sure of fixing his Teeth, a turn of the Horn, which seems to be done with all the Negligence in the World, gives him a Sprawl thirty Foot high, and puts him in danger of a damnable Squelch when he comes down. This danger would be unavoidable, if the Dog's Friends were not ready beneath him, some with their Backs to give him a soft Reception, and others with long Poles which they offer him slant ways, to the Intent that, sliding down them, it may break the Force of his Fall. Notwithstanding all this care, a Toss generally makes him sing to a very scurvy Tune, and draw his Phiz into a pitiful Grimace: But, unless he is totally stunn'd with the Fall, he is sure to crawl again towards the Bull, with his old Antipathy, come on't what will. Sometimes a second Frisk into the Air disables him for ever from playing his old Tricks; But, sometimes, too, he fastens upon his Enemy, and when he has seiz'd him with his Eye teeth, he sticks to him like a Leech, and would sooner die than leave his Hold. Then the Bull bellows, and bounds, and Kicks about to shake off the Dog; by his Leaping the Dog seems to be no Manner of Weight to him, tho in all Appearance he puts him to great Pain. In the End, either the Dog tears out the Piece he has laid Hold on, and falls, or else remains fix'd to him, with an Obstinacy that would never end, if they did not pull him off. To call him away, would be in vain; to give him a hundred blows would be as much so; you might cut him to Pieces Joint by Joint before he would let him loose. What is to be done then? While some hold the Bull, others thrust Staves into the Dog's Mouth, and open it by main Force. This is the only Way to part them."

But the dogs did not always get the best of it--many a one was gored and killed by the bull. Cruelty, however, would scarcely rest content with simple bull baiting. It was improved upon, as we see in the following advertisement. "At the _Bear Garden_ in _Hockley in the Hole_, 1710. This is to give notice to all Gentlemen, Gamsters, and Others, That on this present _Monday_ is a Match to be fought by two Dogs, one from _Newgate_ Market against one of _Honey Lane_ Market, at a Bull, for a Guinea to be spent. Five Let goes out off Hand, which goes fairest and farthest in, Wins all; like wise a _Green Bull_ to be baited, which was never baited before, and a Bull to be turned loose with Fire works all over him; also a Mad Ass to be baited; With variety of Bull baiting, and Bear baiting; and a Dog to be drawn up with Fire works."[57]

I cannot, however, consider this as an ordinary programme, and it was evidently so considered at the time; for a book was advertised in the _Tatler_, January 3-5, 1709 (1710):--"This Day is published The Bull Baiting or Sach----ll[58] dressed up in Fire works; lately brought over from the Bear Garden in Southwark, and exposed for the Diversion of the Citizens of London: at 6d. a piece." But Steele in No. cxxxiv. of the _Tatler_, condemns the cruelty of the age, and says he has "often wondered that we do not lay aside a custom which makes us appear barbarous to nations much more rude and unpolished than ourselves. Some French writers have represented this diversion of the common people much to our disadvantage, and imputed it to natural fierceness and cruelty of temper, as they do some other entertainments peculiar to our nation: I mean those elegant diversions of bull baiting and prize fighting, with the like ingenious recreations of the Bear-garden. I wish I knew how to answer this reproach which is cast upon us, and excuse the death of so many innocent cocks, bulls, dogs, and bears, as have been set together by the ears, or died untimely deaths, only to make us sport."

Of all the places where these cruel pastimes were practised, certainly Hockley-in-the-Hole, bore off the palm for blackguardism; and it is thus mentioned in an essay of Steele's in the _Tatler_ (No. xxviii.),

"I have myself seen Prince Eugene make Catinat fly from the backside of Grays Inn Lane to Hockley-in-the-Hole, and not give over the pursuit, until obliged to leave the Bear Garden, on the right, to avoid being borne down by fencers, wild bulls, and monsters, too terrible for the encounter of any heroes, but such as their lives are livelihood." To this mention of Hockley-in-the-Hole, there is, in an edition of 1789, a footnote (p. 274), "There was a sort of amphitheatre here, dedicated originally to bull-baiting, bear-baiting, prize fighting, and all other sorts of _rough-game_; and it was not only attended by butchers, drovers, and great crowds of all sorts of mobs, but likewise by Dukes, Lords, Knights, Squires, &c. There were seats particularly set apart for the quality, ornamented with old tapestry hangings, into which none were admitted under half a crown at least. Its neighbourhood was famous for sheltering thieves, pickpockets, and infamous women; and for breeding bulldogs."

Bull baiting died hard, and in one famous debate in the House of Commons, on 24th of May, 1802, much eloquence was wasted on the subject, both _pro._ and _con._, one hon. gentleman (the Right Hon. W. Windham, M.P. for Norwich), even trying to prove that the bull enjoyed the baiting. Said he, "It would be ridiculous to say he felt no pain; yet, when on such occasions he exhibited no signs of terror, it was a demonstrable proof that he felt some pleasure." Other hon. gentlemen defended it on various grounds, and, although Wilberforce and Sheridan spoke eloquently in favour of the abolition of the practice, they were beaten, on a division, by which decision Parliament inflicted a standing disgrace, for many years, upon the English Nation.

Hockley-in-the-Hole was not only the temple of _S. S. Taurus et Canis_; but the genus _Homo_, type _gladiator_, was there in his glory. It was there that sword play was best shown, but we do not hear much of it before William the Third, or Anne's reign, or that of George I., when the redoubtable Figg was the Champion swordsman of England. As Hockley-in-the-Hole belongs to the Fleet River, so do these gladiatorial exhibitions belong to Hockley-in-the-Hole. I have treated of them once,[59] and on looking back, with the knowledge that many of my readers may not have seen that book, and having nothing better in the space allotted to this peculiar spot, to offer them (for I then drew my best on the subject) I quote, with apologies, from myself.

"In those days, when every one with any pretensions to gentility wore a sword, and duelling was rife, it is no wonder that exhibitions of skill in that weapon were favourites. Like modern prize fights, they drew together all the scum and riff-raff, as well as the gentry, who were fond of so-called _sport_. They were disreputable affairs, and were decried by every class of contemporary. The preliminaries were swagger and bounce, as one or two out of a very large number will show.[60]

"'At the Bear Garden in Hockley-in-the-Hole.

"'A Tryal of Skill to be Performed between two Profound Masters of the Noble Science of Defence on _Wednesday_ next, being this 13th of the instant July, 1709, at Two of the Clock precisely.

"'I, _George Gray_, born in the City of Norwich, who has Fought in most Parts of the _West Indies_, viz., _Jamaica_, _Barbadoes_, and several other Parts of the World; in all Twenty-five times, upon a Stage, and was never yet Worsted, and now lately come to _London_; do invite _James Harris_, to meet and Exercise at these following Weapons, viz.:

_Back Sword_, } {_Single Falchon_ _Sword and Dagger_, } {_and_ _Sword and Buckler_,} {_Case of Falchons_.'

"'I, _James Harris_, Master of the said Noble Science of Defence, who formerly rid in the Horse Guards, and hath Fought a Hundred and Ten Prizes, and never left a Stage to any Man; will not fail, (God Willing) to meet this brave and bold Inviter, at the Time and Place appointed, desiring Sharp swords, and from him no Favour.

"'_Note._ No persons to be upon the Stage but the Seconds. _Vivat Regina._'"

This is not the only available advertisement, but it is a typical one, and will serve for all.

"The challenger would wager some twenty or thirty pounds, and the stakes would be deposited and delivered to the Challenged: the challenger receiving the money[61] taken at the door, or as we should term it, _gate money_; which, frequently, twice or thrice exceeded the value of the stakes.

"There is one remarkable exception, I have found, to this monetary arrangement, but it is the only one in my experience. For, in an advertisement of the usual character, there comes: 'Note.--That John Stokes fights James Harris, and Thomas Hesgate fights John Terriwest, three Bouts each at Back Sword, for Love.'

"Preliminaries arranged, handbills printed and distributed, the Combat duly advertised in at least one newspaper, and the day arrived; like the bull and bear, the combatants paraded the streets, preceded by a drum, having their sleeves tucked up, and their Swords in hand. All authorities agree that the fights were, to a certain extent, serious.[62] 'The Edge of the Sword was a little blunted, and the Care of the Prize-fighters was not so much to avoid wounding each other, as to avoid doing it dangerously: Nevertheless, as they were oblig'd to fight till some Blood was shed, without which no Body would give a Farthing for the Show, they were sometimes forc'd to play a little ruffly. I once saw a much deeper and longer Cut given than was intended.' "Ward[63] gives a short description of one of these fights: 'Great Preparations at the Bear Garden all Morning, for the noble Tryal of Skill that is to be play'd in the Afternoon. Seats fill'd and crowded by Two. Drums beat, Dogs yelp, Butchers and Foot soldiers clatter their Sticks; At last the two heroes, in their fine borrow'd _Holland_ Shirts, mount the Stage about Three; Cut large Collops out of one another, to divert the Mob, and Make Work for the Surgeons: Smoking, Swearing, Drinking, Thrusting, Justling, Elbowing, Sweating, Kicking, Cuffing, all the while the Company stays.'

Steele gives a good account of a prize fight:[64] 'The Combatants met in the Middle of the Stage, and, shaking Hands, as removing all Malice, they retired with much Grace to the Extremities of it; from whence they immediately faced about, and approached each other. _Miller_, with an Heart full of Resolution, _Buck_, with a watchful, untroubled Countenance; _Buck_ regarding principally his own Defence, _Miller_ chiefly thoughtful of his Opponent. It is not easie to describe the many Escapes and imperceptible Defences between Two Men of Quick Eyes, and ready Limbs; but _Miller's_ Heat laid him open to the Rebuke of the calm _Buck_, by a large Cut on the Forehead. Much Effusion of Blood covered his Eyes in a Moment, and the Huzzas of the Crowd undoubtedly quickened his Anguish. The Assembly was divided into Parties upon their different ways of Fighting: while a poor Nymph in one of the Galleries apparently suffered for _Miller_, and burst into a Flood of Tears. As soon as his Wound was wrapped up, he came on again in a little Rage, which still disabled him further. But what brave Man can be wounded with more Patience and Caution? The next was a warm eager Onset, which ended in a decisive Stroke on the Left Leg of _Miller_. The Lady in the Gallery, during the second Strife, covered her face; and for my Part, I could not keep my thoughts from being mostly employed on the Consideration of her unhappy Circumstances that Moment, hearing the Clash of Swords, and apprehending Life or Victory concerned her Lover in every Blow, but not daring to satisfie herself on whom they fell. The Wound was exposed to the View of all who could delight in it, and sowed up on the Stage. The surly Second of _Miller_ declared at this Time, that he would, that Day Fortnight, fight Mr. _Buck_ at the Same Weapons, declaring himself the Master of the renowned _German_; but _Buck_ denied him the Honour of that Courageous Disciple, and, asserting that he himself had taught that Champion, accepted the Challenge."

In No. 449, of the _Spectator_, is the following letter _re_ Hockley-in-the-Hole:--

"MR. SPECTATOR,--I was the other day at the Bear-garden, in hopes to have seen your short face; but not being so fortunate, I must tell you by way of letter, that there is a mystery among the gladiators which has escaped your spectatorial penetration. For, being in a Box at an Alehouse, near that renowned Seat or Honour above mentioned, I overheard two Masters of the Science agreeing to quarrel on the next Opportunity. This was to happen in the Company of a Set of the Fraternity of Basket Hilts, who were to meet that Evening. When that was settled, one asked the other, Will you give Cuts, or receive? the other answered, Receive. It was replied, Are you a passionate Man? No, provided you cut no more, nor no deeper than we agree. I thought it my duty to acquaint you with this, that the people may not pay their money for fighting, and be cheated.

"Your humble servant,


It was not sword play alone that was the favourite pastime at Hockley-in-the-Hole, there was cudgel playing--and fighting with "the Ancient Weapon called the Threshing Flail." There is an advertisement extant of a fight with this weapon between John Terrewest and John Parkes of Coventry, whose tombstone affirms that he fought three hundred and fifty battles in different parts of Europe. Fisticuffs also came prominently into vogue early in the eighteenth century, and it is needless to say that Hockley was a favourite place with its professors. The site of the Bear Garden is said to be occupied by the "Coach and Horses," 29, Ray Street, Farringdon Road.