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



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…


Rain Stops Play?

Grounds of Smedley's Hydro, Matlock, c.1930 (D2618 Z/Z 1/3)

Grounds of Smedley’s Hydro, Matlock, c.1930 (D2618 Z/Z 1/3)

Now that Wimbledon is well under way, here’s a sprinkling of Derbyshire tennis-themed items from our collections for those hoping the covers keep off the courts of SW19.

Smedley's Hydro tennis courts, c.1930 (D2618 Z/Z 1/4)

Smedley’s Hydro tennis courts, c.1930 (D2618 Z/Z 1/4)

Hayfield Church Sunday School Tennis Club membership cards, 1930s (D2426 A/PI 35/3/2)

Hayfield Church Sunday School Tennis Club membership cards, 1930s (D2426 A/PI 35/3/2)

Wirksworth Grammar School girls' tennis team, 1926 (D271/10/6/10)

Wirksworth Grammar School girls’ tennis team, 1926 (D271/10/6/10)



Detail from Buxton tennis tournament supplement titled 'Ease + Elegance' (D5679/1)

Detail from Buxton tennis tournament supplement titled ‘Ease + Elegance’ (D5679/1)

Amongst many other tennis images on Picture the Past, I spotted this photo of the Goodall family of Ockbrook c.1896 (ref: DCER 001172).

The chap at top left is giving a classic (and early?) demonstration of the tennis racquet-as-guitar!