Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
Being close to town, yet sequestered enough to be undisturbed, 'the duel-stained sod of Moulsey Hurst', as Martin Tupper called it, was a favoured spot for 'affairs of honour.
Perhaps the most famous duel to be fought here was one arranged between the fourth Earl of Tankerville, who lived at Mount Felix at Walton, and Mr Edward Bouverie, son of the Earl of Radnor. It seems that Mr Bouverie, a married man, took a house near the Earl's in order to pay attention to one of his five daughters. His lordship tried to warn him off and, when this failed to produce the desired effect, challenged him to an appointment on Mousley Hurst. They met at dawn on 1 July 1794 with their seconds, and took their stations at a distance of twelve paces. Mr Bouverie declined to fire, but the Earl had no such compunction. He pointed his pistol, took aim, pulled the trigger and wounded his opponent in the abdomen so severely that his life was endangered. In fact, his death was reported in The Times, which in the following week printed a retraction: 'We are happy to learn', they said, 'that the accounts which have been published in this and other newspapers, concerning the Hon. Mr. Bouverie, have been founded in error; so far that they announced his death. We are requested to state that Mr. Bouverie, though very severely wounded, is now in a fair way of recovery'. The seconds published a further announcement to the effect: 'We cannot omit our testimony of the coolness and good conduct displayed by both on this occasion'.
In 1810 a Captain Hants did not enjoy quite such good luck. His engagement on the Hurst produced such a dangerous wound that, although immediately moved to London, where a surgeon extracted the pistol ball from his left breast, he lingered and died in great pain after a few days. The Gentleman's Magazine, in reporting this event, says: 'He fell a dreadful sacrifice to a punctilious regard to those false principles of honour, which have so long, and so often, disgraced humanity. His antagonist has absconded'.
In fact there seems to have been a deliberate cover-up in high places to shield the antagonist, whose name was Coleshall. Although his identity was widely known, in fact he was even named in The Times, it was never mentioned at the coroner's inquest, and the jury was merely told 'that four gentlemen alighted from chaises on the Hurst, accompanied by another on horseback, and that two fires were exchanged, when the deceased fell, and was put in a chaise and driven off'. The verdict delivered was one of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.
The sport (if such blood-lust really can be called sport) for which the Hurst achieved most contemporary renown, however, was prize-fighting. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, when the Prince Regent and his bucks held sway, bare fist fighting was, according to Professor Trevelyn, 'the chief national interest', and more pugilistic encounters were settled on Molesey Hurst than in any other single place in England. Almost half of the recorded prize-fights between 1805 and 1824 were fought out on its turf. And what a scene it presented! From all corners of the country crowds came and poured onto the Pugilistic Waterloo', as it came to be called. Prints of the day show the ground packed tight with carts, coaches, horses, tents, and a milling throng of humanity, sometimes as many as ten thousand of them, all jostling for a place near the ringside. The scene was vividly described in the lines:
'To see the Hurst with tents encamped on,
Yet it was quite by accident that this ground came to such prominence. There had been one minor bout here back in 1797. Then, on Monday 11 March 1805, one Elias Spray, a coppersmith, was due to engage in fistic combat with Henry Pearce, nicknamed 'Hen' or 'The Game chickhen'; and Hampton was selected as the spot for the encounter. The Middlesex magistrates, however, had other views, for prize-fighting was illegal and, fearing an interruption from the authorities, the organisers decided to cross over into Surrey, where it seems the justices were thought to take their responsibilities in lighter fashion.
The Morning Chronicle says: 'Considerable confusion took place in procuring boats to convey the numerous followers across the river, where several not only experienced a good ducking, but some narrowly escaped drowning in their eagerness to reach the destined spot'. Another account described the scene: 'By hook or by crook the vast assemblage found themselves on the other side of the Thames and were on Moulsey Hurst, that place destined to see so many engagements in the ring afterwards. This occasion, however, was the very first time that the ropes and stakes were pitched upon that now classic spot; the most celebrated of trysting places connected with the prize ring'.
As the clock on the tower of Hampton Church struck one, the antagonists entered the ring and battered each other for thirty-five minutes and twenty-nine rounds, before Spray's seconds considered he had received enough punishment, and threw in the towel on his behalf.
The records of The Ring contain accounts of something like a hundred affrays which took place on the Hurst, and there were certainly dozens more of which reports never found their way into the journals.
Some of the pugilists who fought here were bestowed with the most enchanting of nicknames or noms de guerre — Alexander the Coalheaver, the Master of the Rolls (a baker by trade), the Streatham Youth, Holt the Duffer, the Chelsea Snob, the Phenomenon, Scroggins the Sailor, Dutch Sam, the Gaslight man.
The people who really profited whenever one of these fistic encounters took place were the ferrymen, the local innkeepers, and the toll collectors on the bridge. An expressive account tells us how the thousands rush to get home when the boats were over: 'The night fast approaching, the proverb of the "devil take the hindmost", seemed to be uppermost. The toddlers brushed off by thousands to the water's edge, and, in spite of the entreaties of the ferrymen, the first rush jumped into the boats in such numbers as nearly to endanger their own lives. However, the watermen soon got the best of it by demanding a bob or more to carry over in safety select companies. Yet so great was the pressure of the crowd, and so eager to cross the water to Hampton, that several embraced Old Father Thames against their will, amidst the jeers and shouts of their more fortunate companions. A nice treat, by way of a cooler, in an afternoon in November, sixteen miles distant from home. The other side of the Hurst produced as much fun and laughter, from the barouches, rattlers, gigs, heavy drags, etc., gallopping off towards Kingston Bridge through fields covered with water to save time. Several were seen sticking fast in the mud, the proprietors begging assistance from those persons whose horses were strong enough for the purpose. One block up of this kind operated on a string of carriages upwards of half a mile in length. The vehicles were so numerous, that two hours had elapsed before the whole of them had passed over Kingston Bridge, to the great joy and profit of the proprietors of the gates. For miles around Moulsey Hurst it proved a profitable day for the inns; and money that otherwise might have remained idle in the pockets of persons who could afford to spend it, was set to work in the consumption of articles tending to benefit hundreds of tradesmen, who otherwise might have been on the lookout for a customer'.
The greed of the ferrymen was the cause of at least one prize fight being lost to Molesey. It happened in June 1819, when Tom Shelton, 'The Navigator', was due to 'have a mill' with Ben Burn. The local ferrymen, who had a legal monopoly of the ferry across from the Hurst to Hampton, refused to share their pickings with the London watermen, and would not let them take people across the river. In fact, at a previous bout they had had several of them fined for so doing, whereupon the metropolitan men had their revenge by laying information before the magistrates that a fight was going to take place. This spoiled Molesey as a venue for the mêlée and Hounslow Heath was substituted, thereby denying to the ferrymen rich reward they undoubtedly would otherwise have reaped.
The end of the Hurst's flirtation with prize fighting came swiftly and decisively. By the mid 1820s the golden age of the Regency era had passed away. The affluent upper classes had withdrawn their support, and with it the rich purses they had lavishly contributed. The ring was taken over by sordid entrepreneurs, and corruption and bribery became rife. Without the countenance of Royal and aristocratic patrons, local magistrates were able to take positive action against the competitors and those who encouraged them.
In 1824 two pugilists, named Jem Burns and Ned Neale, pummelled each other on the Hurst, and were prosecuted for a breach of the peace. At Kingston Assizes Mr Justice Burroughs proclaimed that prize-fighting was contrary to the laws of the country, to be mercenary in origin, made up for the purpose of indulging the propensities of the vicious and encouraging the betting of the gamblers.
This judgement tolled the death-knell not only of fisticuffs on the Hurst, but of bare-knuckle fighting in general. For, as one writer has put it, 'the end of Moulsey precipitated the end of the prize ring. Many more fights took place but it was never again to enjoy the wide measure of patronage it had enjoyed in its Regency heyday'. Soon afterwards it could be said 'Now that the glory of pugilism is departed Moulsey Hurst has become a lonely place, it is a quiet spot enough, and void of offence'.
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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