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Encounter in the paddock

Underground bare-knuckle prizefight in the Regency era
Author of the story and illustrations Paulina Goodwyn

Regency Era event reconstruction based on historical records and the documentary "Panorama" (Violent Britain - The Hurd Instinct, 1988).

Bare-Knuckled fight
Artwork by Pauline Goodwyn
Album DeviantArt

Русская версия



In Regency England bare-knuckle prizefighting reached its zenith coinciding with national obsession with gambling and betting. An amusement of the show's spectators was inseparable from gambling. Prizefighting promoters often used special underground manipulations and tricks in order to gain maximal profit from the betting.
A bout could last up to 50 rounds; each round lasted until one of the fighters was knocked off his feet. Breaks between rounds were 30 seconds. Bouts were fought with bare knuckles and bare chest. And it was a male only sport... usually but not always...

Most of the women that fought only had the clothes they stood up in which is why they stripped to fight, going bare chested was to protect what little clothing they had rather than for the gratification of the crowd, they didn't live very long either fighting in the animal pits left them open to all kinds of nasty diseases so the smallest cut could prove fatal. Not that the average life expectancy of the citizens of London's slums was great anyway. I think if they reached 30 they were incredibly lucky although the actual figures for life expectancy at the time are distorted by the high infant mortality rate.
There was a documentary called Violent Britain one episode focused of women's fights in the late 18th early 19th centuries they are where the term catfight comes from women being seen as only fit to fight in the dog fighting and bear baiting pits in the old London slums like St Giles and the Seven Dials. News reports described events occurred at such venues: "dogs and women fight there."


Scene of action: Essex Recruit Barracks

Time if action: 1809, Regency Era

Cast of characters:

Regency

Harris - recruiting sergeant.

Regency

Thomas Wilkins - patron of pugilistic arts and gambler.

Regency

William Smith, or Bill the Beard - patron of pugilistic arts, gambler and the referee of the female prizefight.

Regency

Rose - bare-knuckle prizefighter championess from rockeries of London.

Regency

Jenny - pony-tailed brunette, a bare-knuckle prizefighter, challenger against Rose.

Regency

Jim - private from Essex Fusilier Unit, Jenny's husband and her second.

Regency

Cavalry officer – Rose’s second.

Regency

Cavalry officer - gambler, the fight spectator.

Regency

Evans - guard and rifleman


Regency fistfight Its summer 1809 Sir Arthur Wellesley has just lead his army across the border from Portugal into Spain and defeated the French at the battle of Talevera whilst at home in England the recruiting sergeants are out roaming the countryside in search of much needed volunteers. In camps all over England men are being drilled and readied to be sent to reinforce Wellesley's small army.

Having lost their main source of income, a prize-fighter, to one of these recruiting parties, patrons of the pugilistic arts and gamblers Thomas Wilkins and William Smith decide to recoup their loss from the army by fair means or foul. Not wishing to risk losing another trained fighter to the army they hatch a cunning plan and recruit Rose a champion cat fighter (the term used for female bareknuckle fighters from the rookeries of London) and are moving from barracks to barracks setting up fights between Rose and the wives of the soldiers for a ten shilling purse. At a barracks in Essex the challenge is taken up by Jenny the wife of a private from the Essex Fusiliers.

The fight is arranged and they meet in small paddock by the stables where the officers horses are kept, the rules are simple they will fight until one is either unconscious or cannot make the scratch. There are no timed rounds a round is ended when a fighter hits the ground they then have one minute to recover or forfeit the match. They fight stripped to the waist not for the vicarious enjoyment of the watching men but simply because clothes are expensive to replace and why risk ruining your only blouse. William, Bill the beard as he is known around the rookery of St Giles, will act as referee. In an act of goodwill, a confident that it will be going to Rose and that if things go to plan they will make even more from side bets, Thomas hands the prize money to sergeant Harris.

The fight begins and pony tailed Jenny lunges forward throwing a left towards rose's face but is stung as the more experienced girl sways and twist out of the way to dig her own left in hard to the body.

Regency fistfight


Rose dances back and snaps a right into Jenny's face. Bill " the Beard" frowns if Rose beats this girl too easily the soldier boys might smell a rat.


Jenny misses with her left but knows a few tricks herself and pulls Rose in closer as she throws a right to the body.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Encouraged by the watching soldiers Jenny pulls Rose in close and digs short hurtful punches into the city girl's ribs and belly.


As they struggle Rose uses her strength to twist Jenny's body and make space to drive a crunching right into the middle of her face

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Before she can recover from the blow to her nose rose lands a lusty left to the side of Jenny's head


Jenny crashes to the grass and Bill moves in to make Rose stand back. Meanwhile Thomas can't wait to collect on the first bets and is taking coin from a cavalry officer. Generally regarded as being dumber than the horses they rode and only marginally more intelligent than one of the paddock fence posts the officer is already upping his bet on the next knockdown.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight

Jenny is quickly to her feet but made to sit and catch her breath whilst her husband Jim gives her advice. No fancy stools like modern boxing to sit on between rounds so Jenny has to make do with an old plank shoved across the angle of the paddock fence. As Jenny waits out her allowed one minute rest sergeant Harris details one of the watching men to run a small errand for him. Knowing better than to argue with the grizzled NCO the man reluctantly heads off towards the camp.


Bill "The Beard" calls the girls back to the scratch

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight



The battle resumes with an exchange of lefts.


Jenny slips a right from Rose
and digs her fist hard into Rose's body.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight



Jenny keeps in close working her hard fists into Rose's body.



Some grappling and shoving ensues but it is Jenny that seems to be landing the more hurtful blows swinging her right fist into Rose's kidney.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Rose tries to break away but Jenny keeps on her cracking her in the cheek with a left


As Jenny's right smacks hard into the other side of her face Rose staggers back.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Rose drops to the grass, Wilkin's rolls his eyes heavenwards muttering, "Don't make it look too easy didn't mean let her put you on your arse you stupid cow!"


Rose gets to her feet and makes her way to her corner and sits on an empty powder barrel as her second, another cavalry officer, gives her the benefit of his limited advice. Meanwhile a clearly disturbed Thomas has words with Bill "the Beard".

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


The fight restarts and Jenny tries to repeat her success working Rose's body but Rose has not survived the fights in the rookeries without a vicious streak. Missing Jenny's head with her left fist as she moves in close Rose follows through with her elbow.


As Jenny recoils from the elbow to the face Rose attacks slamming her fist into Jenny's unprotected left breast

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Jenny is forced backwards towards the fence as Rose presses her attack.


Jenny tries to smother Rose's attacks as she attempts to clear her head but Rose manages to keep her right arm free and punishes Jenny's body with short sharp punches.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Rose shoves Jenny off and slams another sharp left into Jenny's now bloody mouth as she stumbles back towards the fence rail.


Twisting trying to escape Jenny is caught as Rose piles on the pressure with another shot to the body and a sneaky but perfectly acceptable punch to the back of the neck.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Jenny grabs for the fence rail as Rose rains blows on the back and side of her head, driving her down onto the grass.


Sergeant Harris shouts in protest as Rose stamps her foot on Jenny's back before stepping away.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Jenny is helped to her corner and as she tended by Jim, sergeant Harris offers her words of encouragement.



Back to the scratch and Rose is on the offensive once more. Encouraged by the sight of Jenny's bloodied mouth she pops a sharp right into Jenny's face.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Jenny retreats as Rose presses her attack, then suddenly as Rose throws a hard left she ducks her head forward taking the blow full on the top of her head.


Despite the slight cushioning effect of her hair Jenny feels the punch right down to her toes and stumbles to the grass once more as Rose turns away clutching her left hand and crying out in pain.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Back to the scratch again Rose now holding her injured left hand close to her body starts to circle looking for an opening for her leading right, she is acutely aware that she needs to press her attack on her tiring and shaken opponent but is reluctant to risk injuring her left hand further.


Rose steps in throwing her right but Jenny manages to sway and twist inside the blow to deliver a right of her own just below Rose's ribs.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Trying to grab and hold to catch her breath Rose is caught again as Jenny throws short sharp lefts into her body.


Finding her punches smothered as Rose clinches, Jenny braces herself, then suddenly and shoves as hard as she can sending the taller girl staggering backwards.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Before Rose can get her hands in defence Jenny lunges forward driving her left fist into Rose's cheek.


Bleeding from a cut on her cheek Rose tries to hold Jenny off throwing her right towards the dark haired girl's face but getting punished as Jenny's right fist slams into her breast pancaking it into her ribcage.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Rose clutches at her throbbing breast and steps back but Jenny is not going to let her escape slamming another left into her bloodied cheek.


Bill "The Beard" moves in quickly to back Jenny off as Rose drops to her knees.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Rose takes her time rising as Jenny is led back to her corner by her young husband. Meanwhile to the relief of sergeant Harris the rifleman seems to have returned from his errand.


Ignoring the nagging throb from her damaged left hand Rose comes back to the scratch within the allotted time and immediately tries to take the fight back to Jenny. Slipping inside Jenny's looping left she fires her right fist against the pony tailed girl's jaw.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Stung and more than a little surprised by Rose's attack Jenny backs off bringing her hands up to protect her face her eyes fixed on Rose's right fist waiting for her to launch it again and ready to counter. Rose feints with her right and despite the pain drives her left beneath Jenny's protective arms and up at her right breast.


Jenny fights back but misses with her left as Rose presses forward driving her right fist hard under Jenny's ribs.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Gasping Jenny lashes out with her right this time connecting and rocking Rose's head back.


Both are hurt, Jenny lurches in to try and hold to catch her breath. Rose gritting her teeth and fighting off the urge to just hold, stabs her right fist deep into Jenny's left breast.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Wincing in pain Rose slams her injured left hand into Jenny's cheek as Jenny drops her arms across her chest and tries to retreat.


Before Jenny can recover she is sent reeling towards the fence by a wicked right to her jaw.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Jenny staggers ever closer to the rail somehow managing to keep on her feet as Rose presses forward slamming another punch into unprotected chest.


As her back touches the fence rail Jenny lurches forward straight into Rose's right fist.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Jenny crumples to the grass and Rose stands over her for a moment before retreating to her corner.


As Jenny struggles to rise sergeant Harris shares a drink with Thomas. Not one to miss out on a free drink Bill "The Beard" accepts the offer as well.

Regency fistfight

"What's this?" Thomas says as he drains his cup.
"Something in mine too!" Bill exclaims tipping the object into his hand.

Regency fistfight "That my lovely boys is the King's shilling," replies sergeant Harris. Both men look at the sergeant puzzled, then the penny (or should I say shilling) drops. Thomas's cup falls from his suddenly nerveless hand as he hears the ominous double click of a rifle's hammer being drawn back to full cock, "That's right boys you just volunteered, welcome the Essex Fusiliers!" The two crooks think briefly about making a break for freedom but the sight of rifleman Evans gun raised and ready persuades them otherwise.
"Oh I say well done chaps," The cavalry officer congratulates Bill and Thomas on volunteering blissfully ignorant of the trick* used by sergeant Harris, "Once this match is over the sergeant can introduce to the other recruits."
The fact is that it was common practice at the time for the recruiting sergeants to hide a shilling in a prospective recruits drink and the moment he fished it out he was deemed to have accepted the King's shilling and volunteered for the army. The drinking vessels of the day were mostly pewter mugs and the shilling would be invisible at the bottom, this led to pub landlords having mugs made with glass bottoms as they were not happy at having their customers spirited away by the army and a shilling dropped in a glass bottomed mug would be visible to the drinker and they would unless completely drunk know not to take it out.
...Jenny pulling herself using the fence rail shakes her head as Jim asks if she wants to quit and taking a deep breath turns back to come to the scratch.

Regency fistfight


Leaving his new recruits under the watchful gaze of rifleman Evans, sergeant Harris takes over the duties of the referee and restarts the contest.


Swinging wildly with her left Jenny tries to attack but is punished as Rose ducks inside and drives her left deep into Jenny's belly.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


As Jenny gasps for air Rose mercilessly rips her right fist upwards slamming the soldier's wife's head back.


Jenny's legs betray her and as she wobbles backwards out of control Rose drives another right into her face.

Regency fistfight
Regency fistfight


Jenny falls onto her back her arms flopping out to the sides as her body goes limp.


The fight over. Sergeant Harris hands Rose her winnings "Well fought lass you earned this." Meanwhile Jenny's husband tends to his defeated wife.

Regency fistfight

Bare-Knuckled fight
"Bare-knuckle bare-chested prizefighting was a male only sport... usually but not always..."


Afterword

What happened with the characters after this.

Thomas and Bill "The Beard" are marched off to join the rest of the recruits in a couple of months they will be shipped off to Spain to join The Duke of Wellington's army. Thomas's army career is cut short, caught looting on the march to Salamanca he is hanged by the Provosts as a warning to others. Bill however turns out to be an excellent soldier and distinguishes himself in action in the battles of Salamanca and Vittoria returning to England wounded he becomes a recruiting sergeant.

Jenny follows her husband to Spain but is widowed when Jim falls storming the breach at the siege of Badajoz.

Rose miles from home and without her patrons stays at the barracks and eventually becomes Mrs. Harris and an integral part of his recruiting team.

Bill and Harris met again and at the initiative of Rose; they formed a team of young female prizefighters trained and coached by experienced fighter Rose. By the way, Jenny’s daughter found herself among the team and turned out to be one of the best fighters – her mother brought her up as tomboy. Although female prizefights were held mostly underground, Harris, Bill and Rose made good money out of them.

Author of the story and illustrator Paulina Goodwyn


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