Early Eighteenth-Century Newspaper Reports compiled by Rictor Norton

A Trial of Skill

NOTE: James Figg (born before 1700, died 1734) was a famous prize-fighter who set up his own amphitheatre on Oxford Road, London, where many boxers demonstrated their skills. Prize-fighting during this period included not only fighting with bare fists, but fighting with short swords and clubs. His most famous opponent was Edward Sutton, a pipe-maker from Gravesend. The author of the following poem is John Byrom, who wrote it after seeing their first fight on 14 April 1725. Men like Figg and Sutton were called “stage gladiators”.

To the Author of the British Journal.
THE following excellent copy of verses were printed about a year or two ago in another weekly paper: As they have been so scarce a great while, that a copy of them could hardly be obtain’d; and as the two heroes, who are the subject of them, have this week had another perillous [sic] rencounter; you will very agreeably oblige the public, by republishing them in your paper. The world is so much obliged to the ingenious author, that in justice we cannot keep ’em ignorant, that ’tis to the same hand they owe the admired pastoral in the SPECTATOR, beginning
          My Time, O ye Muses, was happily spent.

Extempore VERSES upon a late Tryal of Skill between the Two Great Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, Messrs. Figg and Sutton.

LONG was the great Figg, by the Prize fighting Swains,
Sole Monarch acknowledg’d, of marrow-bone Plains;
To the Towns, far and near, did his Valour extend,
And swam down the River from Thame to Gravesend;
Where liv’d Mr. Sutton, Pipe-maker by Trade,
Who hearing that Figg was thought such a stout Blade,
Resolv’d to put in for a Share of his Fame,
And so sent to challenge the Champion of Thame.

With alternate Advantage two Tryals had past,
When they fought out the Rubbers on Wednesday last.
To see such a Contest, the House was so full,
There hardly was Room left to thrust in your Skull.
With a Prelude of Cudgels we first were saluted,
And two or three Shoulders most handsomly fluted;
Till wearied at last with inferior Disasters,
All the Company cry’d, Come, The Masters, The Masters.

Whereupon the bold Sutton first mounted the Stage,
Made his Honours, as usual, and yearn’d to engage;
Then Figg, with a Visage so fierce and sedate,
Came and enter’d the List with his fresh shaven Pate;
Their Arms were encircled by Armigers Two,
With a Red Ribbon Sutton’s, and Figg’s with a Blue.
Thus adorn’d, the Two Heroes ’twixt Shoulder and Elbow,
Shook Hands, and went to’t, and the Word it was Bilboe.

Sure such a Concern in the Eyes of Spectators,
Was never yet seen in our Amphitheatres:
Our Commons and Peers from their several Places,
To half an Inch Distance all pointed their Faces,
While the Rays of old Phoebus, that shot thro’ the Skylight,
Seem’d to make on the Stage a new kind of Twilight;
And the Gods, without doubt, if one could but have seen ’em,
Were peeping there thro’ to do Justice between ’em.

Figg struck the first Stroke, and with such a vast Fury,
That he broke his huge Weapon in Twain I assure you;
And if his brave Rival this Blow had not warded,
His Head from his Shoulders had quite been discarded;
Figg arm’d him again, and they took t’ther Tilt,
And then Sutton’s Blade run away from its Hilt.
The Weapons were frighted, but as for the Men
In Truth they ne’er minded, but at it again.

Such a Force in their Blows, you’d have thought it a Wonder,
Every Stroke they receiv’d did not cleave them asunder;
Yet so great was their Courage, so equal their Skill,
That they both seem’d as safe as a Thief in a Mill.
While in doubtful Attention Dame Victory stood,
And which Side to take could not tell for her Blood,
But remain’d like the Ass ’twixt the Bottles of Hay,
Without ever moving an Inch either Way.

Till Jove, to the Gods, signify’d his Intention
In a Speech that he made them, too tedious to mention;
But the Upshot on’t was, that at that very Bout,
From a Wound in Figg’s Side the hot Blood spouted out.
Her Ladyship then seem’d to think the Case plain,
But Figg stepping forth with a sullen Disdain,
Shew’d the Gash, and appeal’d to the Company round,
If his own broken Sword had not given him the Wound?

That Bruises and Wounds a Man’s Spirit should touch,
With Danger so little, with Honour so much!
Well, they both took a Dram, and return’d to the Battle,
And with a fresh Fury they made the Swords rattle;
While Sutton’s Right Arm was observed to bleed,
By a Touch from his Rival; so Jove had decreed;
Just enough for to shew that his Blood was not Icor,
But made up, like Figg’s, of the common red Liquor.

Again they both rush’d with as equal a Fire on,
That the Company cry’d, Hold, enough of cold Iron,
To the Quarter-Staff, now Lads.
So first having dram’d it,
They took to their Wood, and i’faith never sham’d it:
The first Bout they had was so fair and so handsome,
That to make a fair Bargain, ’twas worth a King’s Ransome;
And Sutton such Bangs to his Neighbour imparted,
Wou’d have made any Fibres but Figg’s to have smarted.

Then after that Bout they went on to another,
But the Matter must end on some Fashion or other;
So Jove told the Gods he had made a Decree,
That Figg shou’d hit Sutton a Stroke on the Knee.
Tho’ Sutton disabled, as soon as it hit him,
Wou’d still have fought on, but Jove wou’d not permit him;
’Twas his Fate, not his Fault, that constrain’d him to yield,
And thus the Great Figg became Lord of the Field.

(SOURCE: London Journal, 27 May 1727)

(Texts have been modernized with regard to capitalization, italicization, and punctuation, but original spelling has been retained. This edition copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. These extracts may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the compiler.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, Early Eighteenth-Century Newspaper Reports: A Sourcebook, "A Trial; of Skill, 1727", 30 March 2007 <http://grubstreet.rictornorton.co.uk/figg.htm>

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