You are in [Events] [Bare Knuckle Fight, 1821]
One of the great fights of the age!
On 11 December 1821, those of a sporting inclination would have enjoyed attending one of the great fight events of the age when 22,000 people gathered on Hungerford Common to witness a bare knuckle prize bout between one of the "Bristol Boys", one Bill Neat, a butcher of that city, and Tom Hickman ("The Gas Man"). We know of another bare knuckle fight on the Common in 1827.
- The cover of Jim Davis's book "The Great Fight on Hungerford Common"
- The medal made to commemmorate Bill Neat's victory over Tom Hickman. (Kindly sent by Mary Oliver, a descendant of Bill Neat, 2012)
The lead-up to the fight:
Neat weighed thirteen and a half stone and at 5 feet eleven and a half inches was 2" taller and 10lbs heavier than his opponent. However, among the betting fraternity, Neat was the favourite at 5 to 4 against. Some £200,000 is said to have been wagered on the outcome.
William Hazlitt, the critic and essayist, came down from London especially for "The Fight", which was subsequently to feature in one of his essays of the same name which was published 3 months later. Hazlitt describes the journey down from the metropolis, first by the Brentford coach, and then on the Bath Mail to what he calls the Crown Inn (but is believed to be The Dower House) at Newbury.
After an early shave at a local barber's shop, he and a friend then walked the 9 miles to Hungerford Common, where they found a multitude of people, carts, gigs and carriages surrounding the ring.
The rules of the contest were according to the Pugilistic Club, which allowed wrestling, throwing, tripping, holding, butting and hair pulling as part of the contest. Rounds only ended when a man was knocked or thrown to the ground. Half a minute was allowed as a break between rounds.
The fight starts:
At one o'clock, Neat arrived, swathed in a great coat, threw his hat in the ring and began to strip for the contest. Hickman soon followed, sucking an orange. They finally stood "up to scratch" at the scratch line in the centre of the ring and commenced the fight after Hickman had won the toss to claim the sun behind him.
The contest lasted for 18 bloody rounds before Neat reduced Hickman to senselessness and won the bout. He shook his beaten opponent by the hand and carrier pigeons were released to take the good news to Mrs Neat in Bristol.
Tom Cribb, the famous pugilist and (by then) the retired Champion of England who attended the fight, said that Neat had done "Pretty well".
A medal was struck to commemorate the fight, the Cockneys who had supported Hickman returned disconsolately to London with empty pockets, and Hazlitt spent the night at Woolhampton, before returning to the White Horse Coach Yard in Piccadilly on the Bath Mail. A piece of verse was also composed to celebrate Neat's victory:
In eighteen rounds the Gas was spent
His pipes lay undefended
When Gas light shares fell cent by cent
And thus the battle ended.
Bare knuckle fights, like cock-fighting and bull and badger baiting were very much sports of the age, brutal by comparison with more enlightened times today. As a spectator sport, it was deemed illegal in 1831 by a decision at Oxford Assizes which held that persons attending such an event were principals in a breach of the peace and indictable for assault.
William Hazlitt's account:
SDC wrote an article in the NWN of 7 Nov 1985 about the prize fight, based on William Hazlitt's brilliant eyewitness account:
Hungerford fight so brilliantly described:
On Monday, December 10, 1821, William Hazlitt, artist, essayist, brilliant reporter and, on his own saying, a metaphysician who could be hurt only by an idea, set off from London for Hungerford to attend the fight between Thomas Hickam, the Gas-man, and Bill Neate, a Bristolean and butcher.
It was Hazlitt's first fight and he tells us that it more than answered his expectations.
According to a contemporary, Hazlitt for all his straightforward, hard-hitting, direct-telling manner, both in writing and speaking, had a depth of gentleness - even tenderness. How can one square this with his enjoyment of the bloody fight which he so brilliantly and vividly reported?
The sentiments and values of the present are no basis for judging a man of another age who in other respects was far ahead of his time. We must allow Hazlitt his blind spot; no age or individual is without them. Suffice to say that this is a story with a local setting, told with great gusto in the original, and despite the blood which flows, well worth the recounting, though one cannot do better than go to the primary source for the full clout.
We join up with Hazlitt accommodated with his great-coat and umbrella on the top of the Bath Mail between London and Reading:
With a Scotch mist drizzling through the cloudy air he should have been cold, comfortless, impatient, and, no doubt, wet through, but he says he felt warm and comfortable. The air did him good, the ride did him good and he was pleased with the progress they made.
At Reading he exchanged his outside seat for one inside and fell into conversation with other followers of the Fancy, including a stout valetudinarian who had got up from a three-month's sick bed to see the fight. Present also was Tom Turtell (John Thurtell), a trainer, who succinctly put the art of training as exercise and abstinence, abstinence and exercise , repeated alternately and without end.
Newbury's hostelries, when they arrived, were full, and any move in the direction of private houses whose inmates happened to be looking out to see what was going on was met with hastily drawn windows and extinguished lights.
However, after much thundering by their guard and coachman on the outer gate of the Crown they were allowed into the crowded kitchen of that establishment. Here. Hazlitt spent the night, vastly intrigued by a tall fellow who dominated the drinking, drowsing company and whose turn of phrase was such that Hazlitt said he talked as well as Cobbett wrote, and were pen and, paper available he would get it down to pass it off as the Political Register.
The first light of dawn weighed 'like solid bars of metal' on their sleepless eyelids. But it was up and out on the stroke of seven to find a barber and then to face the nine-miles march to Hungerford. The day was fine, the sky blue, the way tolerably dry, and sitting up all night had not done much harm.
They were in high spirits. A mile or so from Hungerford, on a gentle eminence, they saw the ring surrounded by covered carts, gigs and carriages of which hundreds had passed them on the road.
Joe Parkes, a sporting and social acquaintance of Hazlitt's from London, gave a youthful shout, and they hastened down a narrow lane to the scene of action. There can be little doubt about the precise site. It was Hungerford Common and the lane they had hastened down was that which leads from the A4 past Denford Mill.
Music was playing, streamers were flying and the country people pouring in over hedge and ditch from all directions.
About £200,000 was pending (i.e. owed one way or other in bets). Gully, a noted punter and wise, in the ways of the Fancy, had been down to give Neate the once over and had backed him heavily to the chagrin of the Gas-man who said various gentlemen who had promised him £3,000 if he won had now backed off.
Anyway the odds remained on Gas-man and he vapoured and swaggered as if he wanted to grin and bully his adversary out of the fight. Meeting with Neate for the first time he had threatened him " ... I'll knock more blood out of that great carcass of thine, this day fortnight, than you ever knock'd out of a bullock's." "It was not manly - 'twas not fighter-like," comments Hazlitt. "If he was sure of the victory (as he was not), the less said about it the better ... a boxer was bound to beat his man, but not to thrust his fists, either actually or by way of implication, in everyone's face. Even a highwayman, in the way of trade, may blow your brains out, but if he uses foul language at the same time, I should say he was no gentleman." There is much more in this vein which is worth pausing on ("Modesty should accompany the Fancy as its shadow. The best men are always the best behaved, "), because it indicates a code of behaviour had emerged though, as ever, some abused it.
But the fateful hour drew near. The swells were still parading in their white box-coats when the outer ring was cleared with many a thwack on the heads and shins of the rustics. Bill Neate appeared first, between his second and bottle-holder, 14 stone and six foot, knock-knees bending under his bulk. With a modest, cheerful air, he threw his hat into the ring and began quietly to undress. There was an opening on the other side and in strutted Tom Hickman, 12 stone and five foot nine, sucking an orange, the skin of which he threw away with a toss of his head. Going up to Neate he looked him up and down - 'an act of supererogation,' says Hazlitt. They tossed for the sun; Gas-man won. They were led to scratch, shook hands - and the fight was on.
In the first round the Gas-man's blows played with the rapidity of electricity or lightning about the Bristolean. It was as if he held a sword or fire in his right hand and directed it against the unarmed body of Neate. He flew at him like a tiger, struck five blows in as many seconds, three first, and then following him as he staggered back, two more, right and left, and down fell Neate, a mighty ruin. There was a shout. "There is no standing this," said Hazlitt. But Neate came up to hold his guard, both arms at full length straight before him, like two sledge-hammers, the left an inch or two higher. It was this reach which was to prove Hickman's undoing. He had literally to hurl himself at Neate to reach him, and could not strike from his feet. They were ill-matched.
In the second round, Hickman over-reaching himself in a mighty swing at Neate's neck was countered with a tremendous blow on his cheek-bone and eyebrow. It made a red ruin of that side of Gas-man's face. Down he went. It was a settler, it seemed. But the Gas-man got up, 'grinned horrible a ghastly smile' and now proceeded more cautiously.
However, receiving nothing as bad in the next round or so, he reverted to his former impetuosity in attack, and the slogging match continued. There was little sparring - no half-hits, tap- ping and trifling. All blows were knock-down blows or attempts, at such. That either stood up to; the punishment meted out was I a wonder, but with each round he result became more certain.
In the twelfth Neate caught Hickman full in the face. "It was doubtful whether he would fall backwards or forwards; he hung suspended and then fell backwards, throwing his arms in the air, his face to the sky ... All traces of life, of natural expression were gone from him." There was a crucifixion in Hickman's face, if I may borrow from quite another context, but I must draw the line at further details.
The end of the fight:
Unbelievably, Hickman, still trying for the first blow, fought on till the 17th or 18th round, when his senses left him and he could not come to time. The battle was declared over. Coming to, the bewildered Gas-man asked: "Where am I? What is the matter?" "No- thing is the matter, Tom, you have lost the battle, but you are the bravest man alive," was the consolation of Jackson, his second. Bill Neate instantly went up and shook him cordially by the hand.
"The carrier-pigeons now mounted the air, and one flew with the news of her husband's victory to the bosom of Mrs Neate. Alas for Mrs Hickman!"
Some might add – alas, for the whole business; but I am not ashamed to have "played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt . . . Though we are mighty fine fellows nowadays, we cannot write like Hazlitt," – a compliment from Robert Louis Stevenson no less. But to test that you must go to the original. "
S D C NWN 7 Nov 1985.
A medal was made to commemmorate Bill Neat's victory over Tom Hickman. (See Photo Gallery)
- Jim Davis "The Great Fight on Hungerford Common" (1987) [HHA Archive P]
- "The Essays of William Hazlitt" includes his essay on "The Fight"
- Bare Knuckle Fight on the Common, 1827 - "The Battle between Marten and Gybletts".