Tag Archives: National Gallery

A Set-to at the Fives Court


“FIVES-COURT. A place distinguished (in addition to the game of fives) for sparring matches between the pugilists. The combatants belonging to the prize-ring exhibit the art of self-defence at the Fives-Court with the gloves; and it is frequently at this Court where public challenges are given and accepted by the boxers. The most refined and fastidious person may attend these exhibitions of sparring with pleasure; as they are conducted with all the neatness, elegance and science of FENCING. Admission, 3s. each person. It is situated in St. Martin’s Street, Leicester-fields.”

(Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, revised and corrected…by Pierce Egan. 1823)

I was comparing the first, 1785, edition of Francis Grose’s Vulgar Tongue with the 1823 edition edited by that aficionado of ‘Boxiana’, pioneer sporting journalist and creator of Tom and Jerry, Pierce Egan, when I came across this reference to the Fives Court, obviously added by Egan.

The print at the top of this post is from my collection and I had wondered where the Fives Court was located – it was obviously a very large structure, judging from the light streaming in from a high window. It was built as a court for the game of fives, a sort of hand-ball, or hand-tennis, originally thought to have been played against church buttresses, but then adopted at the public schools of Rugby and Eton and refined. Like Real (Royal) tennis it is played on an indoor court with high walls and various slopes and ledges.

In 1802 a sparring exhibition was held between Mendoza and Bill Warr – two boxing superstars. It was held on the floor of the court, not on a removable platform ring as shown in my much later (1823) print, that was introduced at the suggestion of black pugilist Bill Richmond.

Initially the admission was two shillings or two and six pence up to three and six, but, as Grose states, it was soon standardised at three shillings. Vincent Dowling, another sports writer, noted that there was a small dressing room at one end that had a window looking down on the Court and this was set aside for “…some dozens of noblemen and persons of high rank, whose liberal contributions (many of them giving a guinea for a ticket) added greatly to the receipts of the beneficiary.”

Bill Richmond (left) & Dutch Sam - two boxers whose physique drew artists to the Fives Court

The quote reminds us that most of these exhibition bouts were benefit performances for one of the pugilists who would stand at the door with a collecting box soliciting further donations in advance of the bout. Bill Richmond (shown above, left), like many retired pugilists, owned a pub. His was the Horse and Dolphin, located strategically next to the Fives Court, and tickets for bouts were sold there as well as in other sporting taverns.

The Court could accommodate an audience of up to 1,000 and, if full, admission might raise £200. The chief beneficiary would have to pay a fee for the court and to the referee and Master of Ceremonies. Lesser fighters, who would appear earlier on in the programme as warm-up acts, also got a payment from the takings. The great ‘Gentleman’ Jackson controlled who could have bouts at the Court and appears to have done so with few complaints, although in 1821 he refused the application of his bitter rival, Mendoza.

The bouts were for exhibition purposes, which is why gloves were worn, and Richmond was the first to strip to the waist, sparring without vest or shirt, so that his musculature could be admired by the fans. This display attracted artists including Benjamin Haydon, Joseph Farington (President of the Royal Academy) and John Rossi the sculptor who ‘much admired Dutch Sam’s [shown above, right] figure on account of the symmetry and the parts being expressed.

The 1823 print at the top of the post, ‘ “A Set-to” at the Fives-Court for the benefit of “One of the Fancy”’ is by Samuel Alken. The crowd is orderly and the gentlemen to either side in the foreground are very fashionably dressed. Respectably-dressed tradesmen can also be seen – one in an apron is in the audience sitting up on the right. The central figure facing us wears an apron and his arms are full of what look like giant cream horns. Close inspection shows that the contents are within conical containers stitched up the side – my guess is that these are some kind of bread roll, perhaps with a filling. I’d love to hear any other suggestions.

Fives red

The Fives-Court operated as a boxing venue from 1802 until it closed in 1826 and was demolished as part of the redevelopment of the Royal Mews area into what became Trafalgar Square. The site is now under the northern edge of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery and it is possible to pass this rather dreary location without the slightest inkling that it was once one of the sporting hot-spots of London. It is marked on the map in red.


Filed under Art, Buildings, Entertainment, Gentlemen, Sport

Jane Austen Visits Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is one o1-Scan0013cropf the most recognisable London landmarks, a major tourist destination redolent with history, yet it is a relatively modern feature, only about 175 years old.

If Jane Austen were to find herself in Trafalgar Square today, I wondered, would she recognise anything at all? There are, in fact, only two landmarks she would be familiar with and one is the statue of Charles I which stands at the western end of the Strand looking down Whitehall to his place of execution. It was the work of Hubert Le Sueur in 1633 but was not erected here until 1675 after a perilous time buried to avoid being melted do1-Scan0005cropwn by the Parliamentarians. Eventually it was purchased by Charles II and the pedestal was designed by Christopher Wren.  You can see it here in this print from Ackermann’s Repository (1811) which looks eastward down the Strand.

The other landmark she would be familiar with is the church of St Martin in the Fields (built 1722-6) which is clearly recognisable in another Ackermann print of 1815. If Jane stood on the steps, what would she have seen?

The road was called St Martin’s Lane, as it is now, but the buildings on the left of the picture formed a frontage to the vast St Martin’s Workhouse which covered the space now occupied by the National Portrait Gallery.

Directly in front of her would have been a jumble of small buildings and lanes and then the yard of the Queen’s Mews. The King’s Mews occupied the site of the National Gallery.

The royal mews for falcons, horses and carriages, along with lodgings for grooms,  and all the associated workers, had been here since the reign of Edward I . The name of nearby Haymarket is explained by the huge requirements for fodder and bedding. William Kent rebuilt the main stable block in 1732 and a detail from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London shows something that looks more like a palace for horses than a stables.Roayl mews

The land sloped to the south – the flatness of the square is due to terracing by Charles Barry in 1840 – and around the mews other buildings grew up like coral on a reef. Many of the buildings were let to private individuals for lodgings or shops, there was a menagerie, a store for public records and in the south-west corner, facing onto Cockspur Street, was the Phoenix fire engine, ready to gallop off to deal with fires – provided the buildings bore the mark of the phoenix showing that they had been insured with the company.

The most notable inn in the area was the Golden Cross, a major coaching establishment with a large yard. It lay under what is now South Africa House at the point where Strand meets Trafalgar Square.

Opposite was Northumberland House which can be seen in the print showing the Charles I statue. It was built in the 17th century for the Earl of Northampton before passing into the hands of the Percy family – the earls of Northumberland. Despite its antiquity and splendour it was demolished in 1874. The site now lies between Craven Street and Northumberland Avenue.

The area would have remained much as Jane Austen knew it until 1830 when demolition began to create John Nash’s Charing Cross Improvement Scheme. The National Gallery was built 1833-7 and includes one feature Jane must have seen in her lifetime but may not have recognised again – pillars from the recently-demolished Carlton House. Nelson’s Column was erected between 1839-43 and the statue added in 1843. The fountains and basins came next in 1845 (remodelled in 1939) and the four lions arrived in 1867.Nat Gallery

The National Gallery

So what would Jane have made of the changes? Probably she would be most upset by the disappearance of Spring Gardens just to the south of the square and now under Admiralty Arch. Once the home to picture galleries that she visited and charming tea shops and amusements, it now survives as a few yards of truncated street, a sad relic of Jane Austen’s London.


Filed under Buildings