Boxing with Byron

 by David Snowdon

To day I have been very sulky – but an hour’s exercise with Mr. Jackson of pugilistic memory – has given me spirits & fatigued me into that state of languid laziness which I prefer to all other.

Lord Byron, letter 8th April 1814

The ‘exercise’ referred to is pugilistic sparring, and Byron regularly attended lessons at the Bond-Street rooms of former prizefighting champion John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson.

 John Jackson

John Jackson

Writing to Thomas Moore the following day, Byron claimed to have been ‘boxing for exercise, with Jackson for this last month daily’, and appeared to revel in these invigorating-cum-fatiguing sessions with ‘the Emperor of Pugilism’. The foremost sports-writer of the period, Pierce Egan, portrayed Jackson as the ‘fixed star’; other pugilists being ‘the many satellites revolving around … his dominion’ (Boxiana I, 1813). Byron invited Jackson to Cambridge, Brighton, as well as Newstead.

Byron’s pugilistic fascination was not some short-lived mania. In 1808, he declared that he would willingly ‘advance any sum necessary for the liberation of the captive’, Bob Gregson, the boxer, from debtors’ prison. Thus, in October, Gregson was free to fight national hero Tom Cribb for the ‘championship of England’. A snippet from Pierce Egan’s commentary of that fight’s second round reveals Gregson’s uphill task:

CRIB full of activity, put in two body hits … Gregson endeavoured to return the compliment, but CRIB dexterously avoided it by shifting, and put in a severe blow … which made the claret flow most profusely.

Apart from journalism, Egan’s principal publications were the Boxiana series, which comprised ‘sketches’ of pugilism (1812-29), and a metropolitan tour, Life in London (1821). He was a member of various sporting and drinking clubs and had the ‘inside line’ on sporting affairs.

 Pierce Egan

Pierce Egan, National Portrait Gallery

In the initial volume of Boxiana (1813), the reader is guided by ‘ONE OF THE FANCY’ through Egan’s predominantly London-based ‘pugilistic hemisphere’. Collectively, ‘the Fancy’ comprised those who followed sporting events, but the term was particularly applied to prizefighting votaries. This sporting set embodied much of pugilism’s inherent shadiness, exacerbated by Egan’s use of their ‘flash’ city slang.

Byron was already ahead of the game, urging Moore to ‘go to Matlock … and take what in flash dialect, is poetically termed “a lark”, with Rogers and me for accomplices’. Moore would later record: ‘It was not a little amusing to observe how perfectly familiar … with all the most recondite phraseology of “the Fancy”, was the sublime poet of Childe Harold’.
A common interest in the prizefighting scene found Lords and MPs mingling with coal merchants and costermongers. For the wealthy, being ‘seen in the ring’ predominantly involved occupying the role of patron, but  such knowledge was considered essential for gentlemen who wished to be part of the fashionable world. Moreover, the practise reinforced a sense of masculinity, and countered the perceived insidious spread of ‘effeminacy’. The notion of pugilistic exercise as a ‘manly’ activity, boosting vitality and hardihood was one persistently promoted by Egan, and Byron noted in his journal on 17 March 1814:

I have been sparring with Jackson for exercise this morning … My chest, and arms, and wind are in very good plight, and I am not in flesh. I used to be a hard hitter, and my arms are very long for my height (5 feet 8 ⅓ inches). At any rate, exercise is good and this the severest of all.

‘Fatigue’ is, again, ascribed with positive connotations; purging bodily and mental impurities.

Daffy Club
In Boxiana I, Egan recalled an ‘insolent’ Venetian Gondolier threatening to ‘take the shine out of Englishmen’, but he was soundly ‘punished’ and ‘the conceit was so taken out of him’. This latter phrase, essentially, expressed knocking the arrogance out of an opponent. It was a staple Boxiana expression and flows quite naturally from Byron in an August 1814 letter to Moore as he mocks literary rivals:

Half of the Scotch and Lake troubadours, are spoilt by living in little circles and petty societies. London and the world is the only place to take the conceit out of a man – in the milling phrase.

‘Milling’ was a term appropriated by the Fancy as a verb to denote fighting. Byron’s Don Juan provides instances of the writer incorporating flash idiom into his work (in 1819, Keats specifically referred to it as a ‘flash poem’). In Canto VIII, Byron commends the resistance of the Tartar Sultan’s sons before they ‘died all game and bottom [a sporting term signifying stamina]’. Canto XI is relatively awash with slang, including a footnote tribute to Jackson.

Egan regularly commented on the social diversity of spectators rubbing shoulders ringside or in popular sporting meeting places such as the Castle Tavern, Holborn: ‘The groupes to be met with … are highly characteristic of the different grades of life – abounding with ORIGINALS of all sorts’. Byron’s interest is evident in his journal entry of 23 November 1813: ‘Jackson has been here: the boxing world much as usual … I shall dine at Crib’s to-morrow. I like energy – even animal energy … and I have need of both mental and corporeal’. Note Byron’s emphasis on the dual nature of the benefit to be derived.

Still a national hero, Cribb was at this time landlord of the King’s Arms, Duke Street, and Byron’s ‘animal’ reference assumes a complimentary aspect, not implying brutishness but, rather, a vitality that he feels is preferable to an enervated state of lethargy and overindulgence. Following his ‘audience’ with Cribb, Byron’s ‘Mezza Notte’ journal entry is almost unstinting in affectionate admiration: ‘A great man! … Tom is an old friend of mine; and I have seen some of his best battles’.

Egan consistently arraigned the capability of foreign foes to ‘meet our brave sons on equal terms in the field or on the wave’ (Book of Sports). A street altercation abroad might result in a concealed dagger being wielded to inflict lethal revenge, but an argument between two Englishmen could be resolved openly in the ring in a somehow civilised ritual that was expressive of national character. Byron, writing from Pisa to Walter Scott (May 1822), told of a tussle with an Italian dragoon: ‘he got his paiks – having acted like an assassin’. Byron selects this Scottish term for blows to describe the physical admonishment he claims to have meted out.

Egan extensively quoted a ‘Mr. M’ who proposed pugilism as a ‘cure’ for social unease: “We must allow passion to work itself off … We must have a safety-valve” (Boxiana III). The notion of sparring as a therapeutic activity, a cathartic outlet, corresponds with Byron’s comments implying that his body has been reinvigorated, his mind exorcised of ‘demons’, and passionate desires sublimated. Byron’s preoccupation with his intermittently bulging waistline might be placed at the head of any list of motivating factors. He would doubtless also have wished that all memory of another aberration (‘wedlock’) could have been pummelled out of his system.

Egan argued that a mutual interest shared across a broad spectrum of society meant that, at boxing matches, distinctions of rank were temporarily blurred in an air of sporting unity. His remark: ‘the love of claret levels all distinctions’ is simple but intuitive. The ethos of uninhibited sporting fraternisation was one that Byron savoured, but ultimately his social status appears to have precluded an appearance on the prizefight bill. The enticing prospect of seeing ‘Battling Byron, the Newstead Nailer’ going through his paces competitively at a showpiece event was always going to be a purely fantasy scenario.

Several years after Byron’s death, Egan reflected that this literary heavyweight had consistently ‘mixed with society in all its different shades’ (Book of Sports), and this is underscored by Byron’s partiality for mixing with the loungers at certain coffee-houses such as Limmer’s, which as Venetia Murray puts it in High Society, was ‘the rendezvous for the sporting world, in particular the boxing fraternity and men of the turf ’. Naturally, Egan particularly lauded Byron’s interest and ability in the ‘noble art’:

His Lordship, like his poetry, always entered into the spirit of the thing; – he viewed boxing as a national propensity – a stimulus to true courage…In setting-to … he received with coolness from his antagonist, and returned upon his opponent with all the vigour and confidence of a master of the art. (Book of Sports)

Throwing oneself ‘into the spirit of the thing’ is the pivotal element here, sparring offering Byron a physical and psychological outlet. Ultimately, Byron’s absorption with vigorous exercise may have simply been an attempt to reconcile his conscience for past and ongoing dissolute behaviour, and his aforementioned boast of an intensive sparring timetable went on to record:

I have also been drinking, – and, on one occasion, with three other friends at the Cocoa Tree, from six till four, yea, unto five in the matin. We clareted and champagned till two – then supped, and finished with a kind of Regency punch.

Following one late night out with its accompanying heavy drinking, Byron chronicled his penitent exercise regime the following day: ‘Got up, if any thing, earlier than usual – sparred with Jackson ad sudorem, and have been much better in health than for many days’.

Towards the end of these month-long exertions, on 10th April 1814, Byron reaffirmed his new-found credo: ‘The more violent the fatigue, the better my spirits for the rest of the day; and then my evenings have that calm nothingness of languor, which I most delight in’. It was a question of discipline versus dissipation. To fully embrace the flash and Fancy culture involved exposure to an ambivalent societal group replete with its conflicting qualities: probity yet dishonesty; salutary yet pernicious. Strenuous sparring could negate or partially offset perceived physical and moral degeneration. Crucially, it also fended off ennui. Pugilistic exertion induced fatigue and, for Byron, this constituted an elevated state of bodily health and psychological consciousness.

‘This sporting piece of furniture, in the possession of LORD BYRON, and so much admired by the higher flights of the FANCY, from the numerous portraits and anecdotes it contained … was made principally from the first volume of BOXIANA. At his Lordship’s sale it proved a good sporting lot, and produced a handsome sum. It originally cost his Lordship £250.’ (Boxiana II, 1818) It was bought by John Murray at the 1816 auction.

‘This sporting piece of furniture, in the possession of LORD BYRON, and so much admired by the higher flights of the FANCY, from the numerous portraits and anecdotes it contained … was made principally from the first volume of BOXIANA. At his Lordship’s sale it proved a good sporting lot, and produced a handsome sum. It originally cost his Lordship £250.’ (Boxiana II, 1818) It was bought by John Murray at the 1816 auction.

David Snowdon is the author of Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan’s SnowdonBoxiana World, which won the BSSH Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History in 2014. He runs the  website www.pierce-egan.co.uk