Tuesday 1 March 2016

Hen Pearce: A Pugilistic Hercules

I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Lucienne Boyce to the salon in the company of Hen Pearce, pugilist extraordinaire.

Lucienne is the author of Bloodie Bones, a fantastic detective novel featuring Bow Street Runner, Dan Foster. Rich in 18th century detail, with a fascinating and chilling mystery at its heart, I recommend this book heartily and look forward to seeing Dan again in the future!



“...their figures were bloody in the extreme; but Gulley was literally covered from the torrents which flowed down from his ear...his head was truly terrific, and had a giant-like appearance, from being so terribly swelled, and the effect was most singular, from scarcely any of his eyes to be seen.” 

Pierce Egan, Boxiana, describing the fight between Henry Pearce, the Game Chicken, and John Gulley on 8 October 1805.

“[Nature]...in giving [Henry Pearce] a fine athletic form, strength, wind, and agility, had finely tempered those rare requisites with the most manly courage and sublime feeling...”

Pierce Egan, Boxiana.

Bloodie BonesPierce Egan’s Boxiana (1812) provides perhaps one of the most telling illustrations of the contradictions between the eighteenth-century image of the pugilist as hero and the brutal realities of the sport which made his name. The fight between Hen Pearce, known as the Game Chicken (who features in my novel Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery), and John Gully in October 1805 lasted for fifty nine rounds and ended after an hour and ten minutes when Gully, who could hardly stand, was begged by his friends to cede defeat. Pearce wasn’t in a much better state. He couldn’t see out of one eye and he too was covered in blood. 

Many of these battles left the contestants so battered that they appeared scarcely human. William Hazlitt’s 1822 essay The Fight about the match between Thomas Hickman (the Gaslight Man) and Bill Neate on 11 December 1821 recorded how at the end Hickman looked “not like an actual man, but like a preternatural, spectral appearance.” At the close of the contest between American John Carmel Heenan and England’s Tom Sayers (the Brighton Titch) on 17 April 1860, Heenan’s features were so bloody and swollen that he was, according to The Times (18 April 1860), “almost unrecognisable as a human being”. 

Yet these men who beat one another to the point that they were scarcely recognisable as human were regarded by many as the epitome of manly virtue and courage. Egan described Pearce as “one of the most heroic and humane Champions of England” and attributed him with god-like qualities. He is “almost Herculean”; brave, noble and daring; generous and magnanimous. 

It seemed that Hen Pearce lived up to the image outside the ring. Born in Bristol in 1777, Pearce was apprenticed to a butcher and started boxing as a boy. He was a friend of the British champion, fellow-Bristolian Jem Belcher, who encouraged him to move to London to pursue a boxing career. By 1805 Hen was the Champion of England. His health undermined by a too enthusiastic sampling of the sexual and alcoholic pleasures of the capital, he returned to Bristol in 1807. In the same year his reputation for heroism was confirmed when he climbed onto the roof of a blazing house in Thomas Street to rescue a servant girl from a fire. It showed, enthused Egan, that Pearce was “more than mortal...inspired with a god-like spirit...never did human nature appear with so much real grandeur and unaffected dignity”. 

The story was retold in newspapers from the Exeter Flying Post to the Aberdeen Journal. It even inspired a verse, quoted by Egan: 

“Oh! glorious act! Oh! courage well applied!
Oh! strength exerted in its proper cause! 
Thy name, O PEARCE! be sounded far and wide, 
Live, ever honor’d, midst the world’s applause.” 

A second, equally stirring story was soon circulating of a battle Hen Pearce had with three gamekeepers on the Bristol Downs in 1807. According to newspaper reports, it left two of his opponents “in a most mangled state”; the third ran away before the end. The dispute arose when Pearce resisted the gamekeepers’ attempt to search a basket of apples he was carrying in the belief that it contained game. Given the widespread resentment of gamekeepers and the Game Laws, it was a resistance that would have been popular. 

Egan, however, has a different version of events. In his retelling, Pearce was “rescuing one of the fair sex from insult and danger”. He saw the three gamekeepers attacking the young woman and “remonstrated with them upon their unmanly conduct”, at which they turned on him. The two who stayed to fight were “left...prostrate on the earth, begging for mercy”. 

Pearce is the perfect man: strong yet sensitive. Egan credited the pugilist who battered Gulley to a pulp with “sublime feeling”. When Hazlitt described how he caught one of the friends with whom he saw the Hickman v Neate match reading Rousseau’s sentimental novel La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), he declared: “Ladies, after this, will you contend that a love for the FANCY is incompatible with the cultivation of sentiment?”

You have to wonder if these men actually believed all these high-flown sentiments. Bare-knuckle boxing was big business. It attracted thousands of spectators, and in the associated betting the stakes were often high. Hazlitt estimated that £200,000 was riding on the Hickman v Neate match. Indeed, betting on blood sports was a national pasttime, and gamblers also put money on dog fights, cock fights and other cruel games.

Boxing matches left fighters brain-damaged and broken in health. It was a sport hungry for the next “big thing”, as Egan acknowledged when he contrasted the “fame, riches and patrons” that victory brings with the downhill spiral of “poverty, wretchedness, and misery” that follows defeat. It was rife with accusations of bribery and cheating – even the Hickman v Neate match was thought by many to have been fixed. 

It also suited a government hungry for sailors to man its ships and soldiers to populate its battlefields to tolerate a sport which instilled militaristic values. William Cobbett in his 1805 essay “In Defence of Boxing” argued that pugilistic qualities were essential to the survival of the nation. Without them there was a danger of men becoming effeminate; this would ultimately lead to “submission to a foreign yoke”. It was an idea Egan elaborated upon in his claim that sports like boxing made the British soldier daring and intrepid, and Jack Tar quick to man the guns when called upon. What was more, boxing gave Britons “generosity to their disposition – humanity to their conduct...courage to their national character.” 

The men of the Fancy weren’t the first or the last to attempt to marry two essentially contradictory notions: the brutal bloodletting of the ring with the idealised heroism of the pugilist. For Hazlitt the gore and the sensibility were utterly compatible. Let his be the last word: “to see two men smashed to the ground, smeared with gore, stunned, senseless, the breath beaten out of their bodies; and then...to see them rise up with new strength and courage...this is the high and heroic state of man!” 


William Cobbett, On Boxing in Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 10 August 1805, on line at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044106508153;view=1up;seq=111

Pierce Egan, Boxiana: Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, July 1812 (Facsimile Edition, Vance Harvey Publishing, August 1971)

William Hazlitt, The Fight and Other Writings, eds David G Chandler and Tom Paulin   (Penguin Classics, 2000)

Accounts of Hen Pearce’s dramatic rescue of the serving girl are to be found in The Exeter Flying Post 26 November 1807, The Aberdeen Journal 2 December 1807, and other newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

About the Author
LucienneLucienne Boyce writes historical fiction and non fiction. Her first historical novel, To The Fair Land (SilverWood Books) an eighteenth-century thriller set in Bristol and the South Seas, was published in 2012. Her second novel, Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery (SilverWood Books, 2015), is the first of the Dan Foster Mysteries and follows the fortunes of a Bow Street Runner who is also an amateur pugilist. Bloodie Bones has been short-listed for the Historical Novel Society Indies Award 2016. 

In 2013, Lucienne published The Bristol Suffragettes (SilverWood Books), a history of the suffragette movement in Bristol and the west country. 

Lucienne is currently working on the second of the Dan Foster Mysteries, and a biography of a married couple who were involved in the suffragette, socialist and pacifist movements. 

Twitter: @LucienneWrite

Buy the Books

Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery (Short listed for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016)
Preview Bloodie Bones (Biblet) http://www.lucienneboyce.com/dan-foster-bsr/
Available in paperback and for a range of ereaders.

The Bristol Suffragettes 
Available in paperback

To The Fair Land
Available in paperback and for a range of ereaders.

For further buying options visit Lucienne’s website http://www.lucienneboyce.com/

Written content of this post copyright © Lucienne Boyce, 2016.


Sarah said...

a very interesting article on boxing, thank you. I researched the Jackson/Mendoza fight for a fanfiction [Scarlet Pimpernel] work and was shocked at what was permitted then.

Author Gail Eastwood said...

Eloquent article. Nicely done! Especially dealing with the concepts of brutality and heroism that to our modern sensibilities seem contradictory. We are squeamish today compared to that period, which I think presents a challenge writing for modern readers! I've been wrestling with that, working on a series with aristocratic heroes who practice the pugilistic arts. Thanks for the post!

Lucienne Boyce said...

Hallo Gail, very belatedly I've just read this, thank you for the comment. Your work sounds interesting and yes it is a challenge writing about pugilism for modern readers - and many other aspects of 18th century history...

Lucienne Boyce said...

Hallo Sarah, I've very belatedly read this - thanks for your comments. Yes, it is amazing what was allowed - and of course many think Mendoza would have won if Jackson hadn't held his hair in one hand and hit him with the other!

Sarah said...

The rules were then changed, but the win was legal at the time. And Mendoza wasn't averse to a bit of cheating [gouging] or interfering in the match of his principal if he was a second! I've been digging deeper recently, as I'm writing a novel in which the hero shrugs off his title to become a pugilist - for excellent reasons!- and I wanted an accurate background.