18th Century Bloodsport – Cockfighting

The ancient sport of “cocking” or cockfighting while now prohibited in most of the “civilized world,” was once not only considered a perfectly respectable gentleman’s diversion, but reached its zenith in popularity in the mid 18th century with matches held regularly at cockpits established in almost every town, as well as at all the major horse races. A knowledge of and taste for cocking were essential parts of the training of a gentleman who wished to be called a sportsman.

A typical event was a Welch Main – an elimination contest to leave the last cock standing usually commencing with at least 16 pairs of combatants. The next round would comprise the eight winners, and so on until only one cock remained as the winner. The birds themselves were fitted with expensive silver spurs designed to inflict damage to the opponent. The contests usually coincided with local horse races when there was an influx of Gentlemen inclined to bet heavily on the outcome of the battles.

 “The great racing town (Newmarket) served also as head-quarters for another and very different sport. Cock-fighting under Newmarket rules, was an indispensable accessory to the nobler contests on the Heath; and the sportsmen of olden times spent their mornings and evenings at the cockpit…

Though cock-matches were going on all the year round, the race-time was the favourite occasion for one landed gentleman to take his revenge upon his neighbor, or for one county to pit itself against another… The stakes in good matches were ten guineas a battle and four or five hundred on the main. But the stakes represented a very small interest compared with the bets, which appear to have been controlled only by the purses or credit of the bettors. – History of the British Turf from the Earliest Times to the Present day by James Rice, London 1879


“Cocking is a Sport or Pastime so full of Delight and Pleasure that I know not any Game in that respect that is to be preferr’d before it; and since the Fighting Cock hath gain’d so great an Estimation among the Gentry in respect to this noble Recreation, I shall here propose it before all the other Games of which I have afore succinctly discoursed, and therefore I may methodically give instructions to such as are unexperienced, and add more Knowledge to such who have already gain’d a competent Proficiency in this Pleasing Art… “

What follows is Seymour’s a very enthusiastic treatise on “chusing, breeding, and diet the Fighting Cock, with whatever choice Secrets are thereunto belonging…”

A scene at the Cockpit 

from FORTUNE’S SON by Emery Lee

The cockpit at Grey’s Inn Walk dated back to the Restoration, when the Merry Monarch seemingly made it his life’s purpose to restore all of the pleasures prohibited under the former Commonwealth. It was circular in design and built for the singular sport of cocking. Laid out much in the manner of an anatomical theatre, it featured a raised platform surrounded by a railing with semi-circular benches rising in tiers to accommodate a multitude of spectators.

Entering the theatre, Philip’s nostrils flared in affront at the mixed redolence of whiskey, pipe tobacco, stale sweat, chicken dung, and blood.

Unfazed by his surrounds, George pointed eagerly to the front where the next bout was set to commence. “What a stroke of luck! We haven’t missed it. They say ’twill all end in a match between that blinkered claret, Sir Robin, and the bloody-heeled bantam, Billy Pitt.”

“I’ll wager twenty pounds on bantam Billy, for surely Sir Robin’s reign is nearing its end.”

“Do you now speak politics or cocking?” George asked as they elbowed through the socially mixed throng.

“Devil take me if I ever become political! I’ve no such leanings, I assure you.”

“So you say, but what else is a younger son to do but support the elder in his political endeavors, and serve as a spare lest some mishap befall the golden one. You are no different in your family’s expectations of you, Drake—placeman politics, later rewarded by some comfortable sinecure.”

“Is that all you aspire to Mr. Selwyn?” Philip’s tone was laced with derision. “To place yourself in the pocket of some lord? To be only a greater man’s puppet in Parliament?”

“Every man has his price, you know,” George answered just as cynically. “But I shan’t be bought cheaply. No. My support will require a number of perquisites and emoluments. As a matter of fact, now I’ve reconciled with m’ father after that unfortunate incident that sent me down from Oxford, my name has been put forth as a nominee for the Clerkship of the Irons and Surveyor of the Meltings.” He puffed his chest visibly with the pronouncement.

“Has it indeed, George? That’s quite a mouthful too. I stand duly impressed. But what the devil does the Clerk of the Irons and Surveyor of Meltings actually do?”

“Hell if I know.” George grinned. “Aside from attending the weekly dinners provided at the public expense, I fully expect that any actual duties assigned to my position will be cheerfully dispatched by my clerk.”

“The clerk to the clerk?”

“Indeed. All of these government positions include an underling of some sort to do the dirty work. I don’t suppose you are disposed to consider such a position?” he offered cheekily.

“Your personal lackey? I’d rather be hung… by my bollocks.”

George affected affront and then laughed, “So you say now, but you’ll come around just like the rest of us, once you’ve done with your bout of rebellion.”

Philip frowned. “Of that you are gravely mistaken, my friend. I desire nothing more than to be completely free of my family’s hold. I’ve already told you, I’ve no liking for politics, nor do I adhere to my family’s particular leanings.”

“Jacobite sympathies, you mean?”

Philip shot his friend a warning stare.

“Now don’t look so surprised, Drake. It’s a poorly kept secret after all, though your brother would try to play both sides.”

“I’d rather not discuss my bastard of a brother if you don’t mind. Besides, you couldn’t understand anyway. While your family survived the viper’s nest of two courts and even thrived, mine, having never fully accepted the Hanoverian crown, has fallen completely from grace.”

“But what are your aspirations, if not politics? Don’t say you are bound for the church?” George gasped in mock horror.

Philip laughed at the absurdity. “You know how I despise the hypocrisy of the church, with its deans and bishops who defile on Saturday the very law they would impose upon others every Sabbath. You only need look around this very place for the evidence.” Philip gestured broadly.

Surveying the crowded cockpit, George knew he couldn’t argue the truth of it. “I had no notion you suffered from such idealism.”

“Idealism? No such thing!” Philip replied. “I simply deem that if one chooses to sin openly and without shame or remorse, he is more virtuous than one who hides his sins behind acts of piety.”

“Apostasy!” George barked with laughter, but recovered enough to ask, “Then if not the church or the House of Commons, do you look to the Inns of Court?”

“Gad no! I’ve neither love for the law, nor talent for academia.”

“So we may safely rule out any career as a barrister. Then what are your plans, Drake? You cannot think to continue indefinitely on your feckless adventure as the prodigal son.”

“My life of independent indolence has suited me well enough these past four years, but if you really wish to pry like an old women, I expect to soon adopt the life of a respectable gentleman.”

George was incredulous. “You what? Just how do you propose to manage the ‘respectable’ part when you make you living by frequenting gaming rooms, late-night drinking dens, and the occasional horse race? How will you come by the funds? Though you’re no doubt one of the luckiest bastards I know, you’ve lived fairly hand-to-mouth since we’ve been acquainted. Have you begun playing deep of a sudden? Broke the bank at basset?”

“Let’s just call it a long-anticipated windfall.”

“Windfall? What sort of windfall?”

“I am soon to come into a very adequate competence. Not a fortune, but shrewdly invested, it should provide sufficient income for me to set up a modest establishment.”

“How is this, Drake? You’ve never spoken a word of it.”

“It is a trust left by my mother, part of her original marriage settlement. I have not mentioned it before, because I shan’t come into the bequest until my twenty-first year. I also did not care to advertise the fact and become prey for scoundrels.”

“You may trust me to keep mum then. But we’ll surely celebrate the event, eh?”

The peal of the bell, indicating the start of a new match, diverted George’s attention. “We’d best find a position on the rail. We’ll see nothing of the real sport from here,” George said, and began edging closer toward the stage where the setters-on were already applying the gaffs to the legs of their respective cocks.

“Nothing of sport, or just not enough blood for your fancy?” Philip asked.

George held his reply until they had threaded and wedged through the stinking throng for a better view at the center of the amphitheatre. “It’s the purpose of the sport, after all.”

“What is the purpose?”

“The blood, of course, the sight of which fires the passions of any true Englishman.”

“I fear you are endowed with a much heightened lust for it, my friend,” Philip said.

“Mayhap you are right, but look how much more easily my lust may be sated compared with yours.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve been strangely abstracted since encountering a certain female at Marylebone, is all.”

Philip ignored the intimation, knowing his friend right, but refusing to admit it. He was glad of distraction. “Dog’s bollocks! What is he doing?” Philip exclaimed, upon observing the trainer’s final preparations for the match.

George chuckled his reply, “I see we have at least one adherent of the Richard Seymour school of cocking.”

“Is he actually sucking on that bird’s head?”

“Both the head and the eyeballs, to be precise.”

“Good gad, what for?” Philip exclaimed.

“’Tis one of the more mysterious and amusing of Seymour’s famed training practices, to include bathing a wounded cock in warm urine. After battle, many suck on the bird’s head to draw out blood. At least they shave the fowl’s head first. Can’t say I’d relish a mouthful of feathers.”

They turned their attention back to the pit, where the masters, having strapped on their respective warriors’ sharpened spurs, handed them off to the respective “setters-to,” who brought their birds, well-in-hand, to the center of the pit. Holding the birds face-to-face, they allowed the cocks to eye one another, until Bantam Billy nearly leaped from his handler’s grasp to get in the first peck.

“Do they use silver or steel, I wonder?” George asked.

“The spurs? What does it matter?”

“You really know little of this sport, don’t you, Drake?” George remarked impatiently.

“I’ve spent far more time at dice, cards, and horse races, than at cocking matches,” Philip said. “You are by far the greater votary of bloodsport than I.”

“And yet, I do not yet despair of converting you. Just look at them facing off!” George cried as the two birds, now released, began to circle around one another with feathers fanned and puffed out to intimidate. In a sudden flurry of beating wings, the combatants assailed one another, but Philip’s mind was far from the spectacle.

He was distracted. Without warning, some shift had occurred in the precarious scales of his life that he couldn’t quite comprehend. While he tried to occupy his mind, all of a sudden his normal diversions simply failed to amuse. It had all begun with that one damned kiss.




One thought on “18th Century Bloodsport – Cockfighting

  1. Pingback: Interview with Emery Lee « Reading Romances

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