Smocks and Pugilism

Bare knuckle prize fighting was a huge sport in late Georgian England and patronised by the Prince Regent and elite society.  It was popular across classes and could make folk heroes of successful fighters.  Huge crowds were drawn to the brutal and violent fights, which often took place in the countryside, providing a spectacle for the local population, with the attendant circus that followed the fight including gambling.  Prize fighters were immortalized in cheap prints and books were written about the sport including Boxiana or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism by Pierce Egan published in the late 1820s, which detailed the career and fights of various boxers.



By the 1820s, the violence and spectacle attracted vast uncontrollable crowds and led to the clamp down on such matches by local magistrates, who prosecuted fighters for breaching the peace and encouraging gambling. It was no longer an aristocratic preserve but a free-for-all and opportunity for many to make money in any way possible. In May 1828, a match between Ned Neale and ‘Whiteheaded’ Bob was finally fought at Ascot Heath, near Windsor. Originally the fight had been planned to happen near Liphook, Hampshire, then at Bagshot, but the local magistrate or ‘beak’ in colloquial terminology, was Commissioner of the Peace for Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire and on their case, so a move to Berkshire was required. It was then a race against the clock to erect the stakes in a field to stage the fight, before the new local magistrate heard about it, the ‘panting crowd and foaming horses’ following closely, in their traverse across the southern counties.

Ned Neale was described as entering the ring in a smock frock and in the ‘finest condition’ and was the bookies favourite for the fight. After fighting sixty-six rounds which had lasted an hour and two minutes, the presence of a magistrate was announced. However, the magistrate couldn’t get through the crowd to stop the fight and it continued until the eightieth round and for another thirteen minutes, before the magistrate finally succeeded in halting the fight. Both fighters withdrew, neither side winning the £250 prize money.

Although the tone of the writing in the newspapers slightly frowned upon such sport, both the violence and, in particular, the type of crowd it attracted; pickpockets, coves, a motley throng, ‘the ladies’, the ‘great unpaid’, the fights obviously needed to be recorded in detail to satisfy their broad readership and perhaps a need for such salacious details across all classes.

In July 1827, a fight took place at Ruscombe Lake, near Twyford in Berkshire, between Jem Burn and Edward Baldwin, alias ‘Whiteheaded’ Bob, once more, who this time entered the ring wearing a white smock frock which was then taken off to fight. The seventy-six rounds fought were described in detail by the newspapers, Burn the probable victor although it was decided that a re-match should probably take place once the men had recovered, Bob’s face described as ‘actually hideous’, after the fight.

In 1820, at Mousley Hurst, a well-known fighting spot, Shelton and Cooper fought for 100 guineas, Cooper entering the ring wearing a smock frock.

It was still an immensely popular spectacle for working people although it was becoming increasingly difficult to outwit the magistracy. Why then did these prize fighters, folk heroes and the epitome of masculinity, enter the ring often in a long white embroidered smock frock? By wearing the dress of the majority of the crowd did it suggest solidarity with them – the idea that this supreme fighter was just like anyone else really? Did the whiteness add a degree of virtue perhaps, looking like a priest’s white surplice, and maybe suggest righteousness or perhaps divine intervention? Was it just a useful disguise to blend in with the crowd, especially if being chased by a magistrate?

I am not sure but it is interesting that such an example of violent masculinity, the prize fighter, men deified by the crowd and their followers, should choose the embroidered smock frock to parade their bravado before a fight. Presumably, the smock engendered the respect and status necessary to be a successful prize fighter, or maybe the fight itself was enough to show off their masculinity and strength. It is another example of nineteenth century clothing throwing a light on gender issues not being exactly how we imagined them. It is not the image of masculinity that we relate to today, particularly in the world of boxing where although showmanship still forms a large part of the experience, there seems to be a very different type of machismo present.


Football and the Smock Frock

Not a title I was expecting to write but research does take you to surprising places sometimes.  With multi-million pound transfers of footballers between clubs in the news, the football season not even started yet, maybe this is a chance to look back to the nineteenth century, when football was still much loved and very partisan, but perhaps not quite so glitzy.

Current premiership side Everton, playing as such from 1879, were in the news in 1894 when they contributed to the Theatrical Football Gala, to raise money for local hospital charities.  Starting off with a schoolboy football match, the two sides representing the north and south of Liverpool, the newspaper commented that this was the first time such a match had been played properly in Liverpool at school boy level and ‘if such matches as these were more often played there would be a distinct advantage in the football talent of this city’.  This match was followed by fun sporting events such as egg and spoon races and three-legged races before the main event, the football burlesque.

Football burlesque was a similar idea to the charity matches played by clubs today.  The home team of Everton was pitted against a team made up of music hall and theatre artistes in Liverpool, who seem to have played it for laughs as much as possible.  Although the ‘rain poured pitilessly down’, not unusually for February, the game was played in high spirits.  To give a comic air, the Everton team all wore smock frocks and top hats. The theatre team was in their own costumes.  Falls were numerous and amusing, there were ‘piles of struggling humanity…for no apparent reason’ and no one was sure how many goals were scored.  Nobody paid any attention to the referee’s whistle, off-side was given and a board bearing the title was placed around the offenders neck, and, by the end, the ‘mutual scores were enormous’ although no one was counting or seemed to care who had won.  It seems that a good time was had by all raising money for worthy causes and with a certain degree of abandonment, despite the weather. The smock frock took its place to add a comic dimension to the Everton footballers.

The comic potential of wearing essentially a knee-length skirt to play football in had also been seen the previous year in 1893 when the Derbyshire Courier reported on the defeat of the Riddings by South Normanton, a club still in existence today.  It was suggested, perhaps unkindly, that Harry Street, the goalkeeper, should dress in women’s attire or a farmers’ smock frock so there would be less probability of scoring goals between his legs.  The writer suggested that this could become an attraction in itself, spectators coming to see the ‘frock smocked goalkeeper’, implying the humiliation of Street.

Women’s football was a developing sport at the time, and would become huge in the early twentieth century.  However, it seems that they too chose to wear knickerbockers for ease of movement and practicality, risking scandal, rather than any skirted garment.  The smock frock in the 1890s was seen at outdated, comic and embarrassing to wear, especially for footballers!



The Cricket Season

The cricket season is well and truly on us again and it seems that a century or so ago, the smock frock played its part in the game, although not as a stand in for cricketing whites, even if it might have been suitable, if a little voluminous.

In July 1895, the Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser reported the death of Isaac Baxter, aged 77, who was the blacksmith for the villages of Beare Greene and Capel Street, working his trade for over fifty years in a smock frock.  He was a renowned cricketer, living opposite the ground, and known for:

The vigour of his batting, as became the wielder of a sledgehammer, and as one of the swiftest over-hand bowlers in the South of England. Demur was frequently made as to whether his was fair bowling, or was throwing.  Eventually the question was submitted to some Surrey County players, who decided that it was fair bowling.  Once it was said his ball knocked a bail a distance of forty yards.

He would have seemed a formidable opponent with his upper body strength!

In 1890, a single wicket match was played in Cranbrook, Sussex, in the dress of ‘ye olden times’, the cricketers wearing ‘box’ hats.  I am not sure what they are, but the umpires had tall white hats and white smock frocks.  The smock frock was the right colour and added a certain gravitas to those charged with keeping order.

The inhabitants of Cranbrook certainly liked their sport.  A year later, Cranbrook Athletic Sports contest was revived after a ten year gap.  Half day holidays were granted by businesses to allow attendance with cheap fares on the railway to Staplehurst too.  Most of the events seem fairly similar to modern athletics competitions including running races, long jump, high jump and a mile bicycle race.  The one which drew my attention, however, was the ‘300 Yards Walking and Smoking Race, the competitors smoking veritable “Churchwarden” clays [pipes], and wearing smock frocks with high hats…Time 1 min. 41secs.’  Dressed similarly to the cricket umpires, I think that that competition might possibly just be frowned upon today and certainly in the context of athletics!

Cricket and smock frocks were also used to entice inhabitants of Chapel Row in Berkshire, to come to the local fair in August 1830.  Cattle were to be bought and sold and men hired for harvest work, but there was also prize money for a cricket match, with hats and smock frocks for good bowling, which might have been appealing to local labourers.

Order was to be kept at the fair with no fighting of any sort allowed though other amusements were provided.  Jingling was apparently a game where players were blindfolded and had to try and catch another who wasn’t but carrying a bell, hence jingling.  And I would love to try a treacled cake.  I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly what these were, but as treacle was a by-product of sugar refinery and this was before golden syrup was invented, I imagine that they were cheap sweet treats for the locals, who would have had very little other sugar in their diets.

chapel row

The Chapel Row Fair is local to me and sadly not on this year.  Maybe next year it will be back – perhaps a revival of jingling and treacled cakes might help!