By Dr Guy Woolnough
In researching the primary sources for my doctorate at Keele, I found many fascinating details which were peripheral to my main narrative, but were too good to forget. Completion of my thesis has given me the time to revisit some of these stories. The Journal of Victorian Culture has published the resulting article. I was intrigued by the policing of two bare-knuckle fights in rural Westmorland (Cumbria). Jem Mace, a celebrated ‘world champion’ of prize-fighting, brought on two occasions a train with two pugilists and a full complement of supporters from Manchester to a match held ‘in the middle of nowhere’, hoping no doubt that the event would escape the notice of the Cumbrian police. Not at all: the events were policed with extreme diligence and rigour.
I decided to look at other sporting events in Victorian Cumbria. Cock-fights had many of the same elements as a prize-fight: crowds of men, drinking, betting, one-on-one bloody combat. Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling was very popular, attracting even larger crowds. The only significant differences were that wrestlers were not bloodied and wore more clothes. Wrestling offered large prizes and matches were reputedly often fixed to suit the bookies.
|The Cock-fight’, c.1844-55. At Compton Verney House|
Although prize-fighting was not in itself illegal, matches were raided by the police and participants were arrested for breach of the peace. But wrestling matches, with (in Cumbria) larger crowds and more betting were not policed at all and were regarded as a highly respectable recreation. Cock-fighting was more complicated. The ‘sport’ was illegal in itself by 1849, but the many well-supported events and their ‘results’ were routinely reported in the local paper, the Westmorland Gazette until the late 1880s.
The rival Kendal Mercury did not report cock-fights, except for those which ended with men appearing before the magistrates. Some Cumbrians deplored cock-fighting as thoroughly disreputable and morally wrong, others saw it as another country sport, on a par with hunting and as a respectable recreation. The police did intervene when they could, but organised cockers developed stratagems to evade the police, and some court cases ended in acquittal by magistrates who seem to have been far from impartial. Cockers appearing in court often enjoyed the service of professional counsel and the police in court were invariably challenged by an aggressive defence and a jeering public gallery. Hear-say evidence asserted that some policemen were supporters of cock-fighting.
In my article I theorise that the striking differences in the way the criminal justice system handled each of these sports is explained by the local plebeian cultures of Victorian Cumbria. The police, who were of the working classes, were the crucial agents in the policing of these events. Whereas policemen were implacably opposed to outsiders bringing boxing matches into Cumbria, they shared the general enthusiasm for Cumbrian wrestling, and were divided on cock-fighting. Cock-fighting continued in Cumbria well into the twentieth century, but the determination to police it diminished. Cultural change in these sports was negotiated at the local, plebeian level.