- 22 Feb 21
Boxing writer Pierce Egan’s accounts of the Regency era eclipse even the mighty Bridgerton.
Watching Derry Girl sex-bomb Nicola Coughlan flounce and strut towards the close of Series One of the sumptuous Bridgerton, my thoughts turned unbidden to the Day of the Big Mill.
That’s “Mill” as in, “There was a right mill and the pub was wrecked” – quoted in the Derry Journal in a report of an outbreak of closing-time liveliness at Dalton’s pub in Rossville Street.
The only report of the Big Mill of 1812 which seems to have survived was penned by Pierce Egan in the monthly paperback which he’d founded and edited, Boxiana: or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, from the days of Broughton and Slack to the Heroes of the Present Milling Aera.
That’s “Hero” as in Will Mondrich, the black bare-knuckler in Bridgerton who is bribed by seedy Lord Featherington to throw a bout against The Beast in order to bring off a betting coup. Mondrich’s character is squarely based on Bill Richmond, whose fists earned him a fortune and a high place in Regency society, and who was much admired by Pierce Egan.
The swash and bawdy ambience of fist fights and Bridgerton scarcely conforms to the elegant style and dainty quadrilles of the writer we most associate with the Regency period, Jane Austen. There wasn’t a lot of rumpy-pumpy around Mansfield Park, as I recall.
So, which represents the reality of the Regency, Austen or Bridgerton? Neither, as it happens. The most accurate picture of the Regency age was painted by the man who’d told the millers’ tale, Pierce Egan.
I discovered Egan’s writings when somebody gave me a copy of The Sweet Science at Xmas, a compendium of the boxing rapportage of A.J. Liebling, chronicler of the careers of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles and other 20th century Heroes. (I was a big fan of Charles at primary school, not because he was, briefly, the heavyweight champion of the world, but because he had the best first name ever. Ezzard!)
There was the width of a century between Egan and Liebling, but they echoed each other’s love of boxing across the void.
“‘Boxiana…’ is no mere compilation of synopses of fights”, writes Liebling. “Egan’s round-by-round stories are masterpieces of technical reportage, but he also saw the ring as a juicy chunk of English life in no way separable from the rest. His accounts of the extra-annular lives of the Heroes, coal-heavers, watermen and butcher’s boys, are a panorama of low, dirty, happy, brutal, sentimental Regency England that you’ll never get from Jane Austen.”
The Regency refers to the period around the removal of George III from the throne in 1811 to the ascendancy of George IV in 1820.
George III had been impeached for scandalising the Throne by stepping down from his carriage in Windsor Park - not to be confused with the home ground of Linfield FC - and offering to shake hands with an oak tree, under the impression that it was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. It might have been possible to hush that one up if he hadn’t begun his address at the Opening of Parliament later in 1811 with the greeting, “My Lords and peacocks.”
He was locked away in opulent isolation until his death in 1820 while the future George IV took on the role of Regent. There was a nursery rhyme we sang about it while swinging around a lamppost outside Maggie Friel’s chip shop.
“George the First a fool was reckoned/Little better was George the Second/Has anyone ever heard anything good about George the Third?/George the Fourth to hell descended/Thank god the rule of George is ended.”
Liebling never came to Derry, but a Derryman gave him a night in Dublin. He was passing through London when he learned that a fight for the British and Empire Featherweight title was to be held in a garage in Donnybrook. “Donnybrook,” he pondered, knowing the word only from “Donnybrook Fair”, the fabled occasion of mighty mills when rough provincials came to town. He’d never realised it was a district in Dublin. So off to Aer Lingus he went.
Liebling’s account of Billy “Spider” Kelly’s title fight with French champion Ray Famechon deserves the reverence accorded Ms. Austen’s oeuvre. He had dinner at the Shelbourne - “the Irish salmon was exceptional” - and was then given a lift to Donnybrook, noting that “The streets were full of automobiles from the North of Ireland and the three free counties of Ulster.”
Seven thousand seats borrowed from restaurants, bars, dance halls and anywhere else had been laid out in rows in the vast CIE garage. On either side of Liebling in the press seats were the novelist Ben Kiely and Irish Times political correspondent John Healy.
Famechon won the fight. Or, to be more accurate, stole it, aided and abetted by a referee from another continental country, Holland.
“They were still booing and cheering Billy when he was escorted from the ring. All along the long avenue of jam-packed people they screamed their admiration. ‘You’re the winner, Billy!’ Grown men cried their rage in the sea of faces.”
Billy came from along our street. There were tears of bewilderment and dismay at every doorstep when the Radio Eireann commentary ended with the dread announcement, “The winner, and still European…” That “still” broke our hearts.
Such are the times which have shaped our souls, from the days of Egan’s erudition to Spider’s tilt at the European crown.
We have more or less adopted Nicola up here. She should know these things.