Explore Your Archive – Pride and Pugilists: Round Two

D5459/4/32/2 A Milling Match, Thomas Rowlandson, [1811]

D5459/4/32/2 A Milling Match, Thomas Rowlandson, [1811]

Jem Belcher had been left partially blind since 1803 after the ball struck his left eye during a game of rackets.  All too familiarly, he carried on after his 1805 defeat to Henry ‘Hen’ Pearce ‘The Game Chicken’, and suffered further losses against the future champion Tom Cribb in 1807 and 1809.  He seems to have been arrested after his last fight, and the Gell letters chart his misfortune that year.  

I have been fagging myself to death to settle the business of my ally Jim Belcher & what with Windham, Lord Archibald, Jackson, & Adam the Lawyer, I have at length got a letter for him to Mr Nolan the great Lawyer who attends at Guildford quarter sessions, who is to defend him for nothing.  That Brute Tom who ought to have gone with him is not only gone to Newmarket to Captain Barclay himself, but has taken with him or rather is taken by a Mr Shelton who should have been bail or security, but I will blow them both well up when they return, d— them.  If you have any of the guts of charity in your r*ctum send me some money for him and I will give it him from you, for he feels a great difference in not being the winning man.

D258/50/22, [2 July] 1809

An August letter to Phillip Gell provides an update on legal proceedings and financial woes, aswell as the latest news.

I hope to be with you by the first of October, for a fortnight.  Pray write to me at Lord Oxford’s, Eywood near Presteigne, Radnorshire directly.  If I had time I would get acquainted with all the young pugilists at Bristol, of which there is a fine young flock who will probably arrive in town in a year or two.  I have directed Jackson to get you a Barclay handkerchief.  Thank you about Mr Kinderley & James Belcher, but the people were so kind to me about it that he would have had all he wanted in court but it was put off till October at Kingston when by the blessing of God I will rout the beasts by the assistance of Mr William Adam & Mr Nolan at Kingston.  Why the devil don’t you write to Henry Raikes.  He does not object to the country & would have bought your living before this time had you managed properly.  I stopped the boat in my way here & landed at Boyle farm to know if Old Raikes had heard of you, no damn me no, so you will lose you living & I & Jim Belcher our regalo.  Lady Elizabeth Forbes has got some good naughty for you when you meet again…There is a fight this day between Richman the black & Maddox who is as you say a slow chap.  People think Richman will win & I have just sent James Belcher by the coach to second that Lilly hero hoping he will put a guinea or two into his pocket by it.     

D258/50/27, 11 August 1809

Unfortunately the court’s verdict did not go Belcher’s way.

Only think, I took Jem to Kingston, no causes tried that day.  He went the next Mr Nolan defended him 3 hours.  He was had up to day Oct 5 2 hours.  He was indicted on 4 charges.  Only guilty of fighting “verdict”.  But one of the jury stuck out & the rest wanted to lick him.  The consequence is that he is come home but is to go on Novr 5 to hear the Judge’s decision.  It is a d—-d shame I wish he had the thrashing of them all.  He is very grateful for your regalo, & Tom who has been sparring to night for Bittons benefit asked after you very kindly.  When you come a-Parliamenting I hope you will come to Benham.  Craven comes here on 11. I came on 1st.  Damn the Judge & Jury for he cannot see about a house with a sign while this hangs over him poor fellow.  

D258/50/29, 5 October 1809

The damned sons of B*****s have confined Jem for 28 days in the County goal Horsemonger lane from 2nd of November blast them.  I sent him a letter saying you, I & Keppel would be answerable for Jem & Mr Frowman has promised the license so on the 2nd or 3rd of December Jem will be out & in his old situation I hope.  I went twice to see him as I passed through Town.  He is very cheerful & merry poor fellow though only to be seen from 12 to 2.  Tom lives almost next door which wir virry good hearing for me.  I don’t think he wants anything, but he is so modest I cannot found out except by a trap so I have sent Richmond to find out.  Said Richmond has received forfeit from Cropley who won’t fight…Jem had a very poor benefit previous to his confinement there being nobody in town…Tom Belcher has a benefit soon after that, at which I shall be if possible…The Covent Garden gets worse & worse.  I saw the Lord Mayor’s show as I returned from seeing Jem in prison.  County gaol Horsmonger lane.  There is a man in the same place with him confined for some small offence of very genteel appearance who does every thing for Jem even to cooking as if he were his servant so well liked is he by every body.  I am very glad tis no worse, he sends his grateful regards to you and as I knew you would like to hear of him I write.               

D258/50/30, 11 November 1809        

Despite Gell’s efforts ( D258/50/31, December 1809 “…Jem is out & I am working to get him re-established.  I think I shall succeed…”), the elder Belcher brother slipped further into decline and died in London in 1811. 

Cropley & Power are to fight & they have matched T Belcher against Lilly White but as I was told the black would prove the best man I have given Tom a lecture about his brother losing his fame by over fighting & convinced him that unless he is sure of winning he ought not to try having left off with 5 victories since his defeat by Sam over Dogherty, Farnborough & Cropley.  He is convinced by my arguments & as 50£ is wanting in the purse Hi doant think it wull be a fite.  

D258/50/39, 16 July 1810

Tom Belcher seems to have fared better than his older brother.  Despite fighting a few more times after this, he was at one point owner of the famous boxing watering-hole the Castle Tavern in Holborn, and eventually died in 1854. 

As one of her chamberlains, Sir William Gell left England in 1814 to accompany the former Princess of Wales, now the exiled Queen Caroline.  He remained in Italy, continuing to publish topographies, with continual money problems, until his death in 1836.  His letters (D258/50/1-155) are available to view at the Record Office on CD 152.

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Explore Your Archive – Pride and Pugilists: Round One

Sir William Gell (1777-1836), archaeologist and topographer, author and illustrator, enjoyed a social circle that encompassed the royal court and the square ring.

…as I was to dine at the Princess of Wales’s to day at Kensington Palace I thought it proper as a specimen of rising & falling in poetry to send for Jim Belcher to go to Astleys on my return down the river, as there can be nothing more picturesque than to pass at once from the society of a Serene Highness to that of a serene boxer.  I should certainly on the same principle send for Tom to go to a lark somewhere to night but that her Royal Highness eats and drinks so much that dinner will probably last till 4 in the morning.

D258/50/20, c.1808

A series of letters (D258/50/1-155) written by William – mainly to his elder brother Sir Phillip Gell MP, of Hopton Hall, Wirksworth – offer glimpses into the world of Regency pugilism.

I should have told you my friend Perry has presented Dutch Sam to me, he was very civil, is half dead, quite drunk, and how he could beat Tom I cannot conceive.  I do not patronize him for I had an opportunity of seeing that he was a great blackguard very soon, so I hope he will die.

D258/50/20, c.1808

D258/50/37

D258/50/37

Yesterday I went with Tom to a bull bait & fight at a green one mile beyond Hampstead.  Byrne & Dogherty were to have fought, but them there Westminster chaps brought forward a Costarmonger named Silverthorne much less than Byrne who though seemingly very stout was compleatly wasted and cowed & gave in his defect is this for the dotted line is the right shape & those whose shoulders are so flat cannot as you observe hit out.

D258/50/37, 27 June [1810?]

Boxing was one of the most popular sports of the era, with both the gentry and the general  populace, and attracted big crowds and even bigger wagers.  William Gell appears to have patronized the Bristolian boxers Jem Belcher, the former all England champion, and his younger brother Tom.  Occasionally Gell writes part of a letter in the ‘style’ of Jem or Tom, and his patronage veers towards the patronising, as in the following extract.

D258/50/34, 4 January 1810

D258/50/34, 4 January 1810

Despite its public popularity, boxing was illegal, and bouts had to be furtively arranged out of view of local magistrates.

I am ordered by Matthews to give you an account of a larking party in which I was engaged on Wednesday the 19th ultimo at Comb wood near Wimbledon.  I copy the card of notice for your information.  “Sir) the fight is at Coum hood near Kingston at 12 o clock”.  This being my notice I was at breakfast when the two Belchers came to take me there.  I resisted a hackney coach as too slow & took them both in a chaise.  As we went along I was told to look in the common at a woman whom I saw & they told me it was Jerry Abershaw’s wife, in fact she was wandering near the spot where Abershaw the noted robber was hanged.  Soon after we passed several Chay carts in one of which, they saw some clergymen whom I found to be three chimney sweepers on enquiring how they could distinguish them at such a distance.  When we got to the place which was an open space in the wood there were not many people, but I found Jackson who patronized me & Payne, Sir Henry Smith & Green an untried man & Smith whom you have seen were to fight.  At length the company increased to about 1,000 people & the ring was made.  Of course as I am to be M.O. for Westminster I soon had a great circle round me & was insisting “that the bill do lie on the table” to the great entertainment of the mob when Tom Belcher every now & then came & ordered me away, as there were more than 60 pickpockets in the place, and this species of tyranny he practised several times for my benefit & to his own risque for the light fingered gentry would have half killed him if they had known it.  In short they all took so much care of me, that I think Lord Cochrane will have but little chance next time.  Tom betted on Green who lost by selling himself as they all said, for he was not much hurt.  After this there was a second battle between Little Lenox & a person named Cowpe, a young man who got very well thrashed, & a much better battle it was than the first.  To this succeeded a Bull baiting on which I was violently laid hold of by Power (for his name is not Powell) and taken in the spirit to the top of a Hackney coach that I might see the fun…after this I returned home and supped with the Princess of Wales according to the prophecy which sayeth “when thou larkest in the morning let thy evening be in the palace”.  By the bye I dine there to day & have sent to one of my Castors or Polluxes to breakfast here for I want to set him up again in the world and have engaged Windham in the business.

D258/50/25, July 24 1809

Continues tomorrow…

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