english victorian working class pugilists

lest you think it was only the nineteenth century irish boxing each other’s ears, check out the pugilistic tendencies of english victorian miners (these are some of john derbyshire’s folks, don’t ya know! (~_^) ).

from Leisure And Recreation In A Victorian Mining Community: The Social Economy of Leisure in North-East England, 1820-1914 [pgs. 111-112]:

“Fighting and boxing

“It is critically important to emphasize how important fighting was in mining society. It was fundamental to life itself — miners always fought, down the mine, in the street and, in particular, on Friday and Saturday nights. It was deeply engrained in the very fabric of mining life. It was one of the most visible elements of the whole concept of masculinity. Life down the mine was dangerous and brutal — only the fittest survived. A ‘man’ was one who could stand up for himself and was always willing to test himself against anyone else. It is important to emphasize the pervasiveness and importance of fighting in the mining villages. More than anything else fighting spoke to questions of manhood. Physical prowess defined who a man was and fighting was a manifestation of manhood.

“Evidence as to the popularity of fighting flowed through the nineteenth century. The Commission on Mining Districts in 1842 reported on the prevalence on fighting. In the first half of the century some colliery owners place a prohibition of fighting within the bond. Several court cases were brought against miners for fighting in the mine. Comments were made as to the frequency of ‘pitman fights’ in the 1860s. Without exception these took place on pay Fridays or pay Saturdays. The pay weekends became the times when grudges were worked out and money was bet. This remained the same throughout the century. Jimmy Tabarar, a miner from New Hartley, commenting on the second decade of the twentieth century, stated that there ‘always was a battle on Saturday afternoon. Bare fist. Strip to waist.’ Talking about the same time, James Wilson, from Ashington, commented that there were ‘rough nights on pay weekends…Fights were frequent. Used to lay into one another, stripped to the buff, bare knuckled — until the police intervened.’ That these were, in some sense, organized affairs is implicit in a comment made about the 1850s. ‘I once heard of a pitman who always gave himself an extra clean wash on pay Friday, because he wanted to look “decent” when he put his shirt off to fight.’ It was this semi-organized fighting that provided the foundations of the organized boxing that developed in the 1890s.”

notice, though, the key difference between the faction fighting in 1800s ireland and the fist fights in 1800s england: in ireland you had literally hundreds of men involved in these fights, and the “factions” typically revolved around families or sets of families (the connors, the delahantys, the maddens) — in england, it was one man vs. one other man. two individuals duking it out for their individual honor, not great hordes fighting for their families’ honors.

and the women waiting at home for the pay packet (which was spent in the pub!) in order to buy milk for the kids. men! (~_^)

(p.s. – if anyone can give me any example of “faction fighting” in england, please lemme know!)

previously: english individualism and english individualism ii and english individualism iii

(note: comments do not require an email. put ’em up!)


  1. 2008


    “In 2008 a faction fight riot broke out in D’Alton Park, Mullingar involving up to 65 people of the Nevin, Dinnegan and McDonagh families. The court hearing in 2010 resulted in suspended sentences for all the defendants.[49][50] The cause may have been an unpaid gambling debt linked to a bare-knuckle boxing match.”

    “(p.s. – if anyone can give me any example of “faction fighting” in england, please lemme know!)”

    There are immigration related examples but the only entirely *internal* thing i can think of is football crews – which is what you might expect. They could/can be just as violent but it’s *associational* rather than familial.


  2. @grey “…but it’s *associational* rather than familial.”

    well, exactly! that’s the thing.

    it’s a parallel to a tribal-based state (like saudi arabia) vs. a nation-state (england).

    you’ve got faction fighting (extended family/”clan” based) vs. football hooligans (associational).

    faction fighting : tribal-based state :: football hooligans : nation-state.

    or something like that! (^_^)


  3. @hbd chick,
    I’ve been reading a lot of old English classics again. One thing stands out is how much English are bound to their ‘class’. Their friends, potential spouses, and extended family is all based on ‘connexions’ (with ‘x’ as Jane Austen writes) within the class.

    Just a thought based on this class system of English, may be it frees them to be more ‘individualistic’?

    A parallel to this is the Indian caste systems which don’t allow marriages within clans. They can leave their child alone since there is some faith in knowing that anywhere in the world, if they meet a fellow ‘caste’ member, they will be helped.

    This is seen a lot in English novels, whether it is Jane Eyre getting refuge at her (then ‘unknown’) cousins’ place, or Miss Marple helping her ‘school’ friends, or P.D.James writing sympathy between persons of same ‘class’.

    May be it is societies without the distinct hierarchy of ‘class’ (or ‘caste’) that suffer from more ‘clan’ behaviour? What is the ‘class’ structure of Ireland and how fluid was it?


  4. @violet – “Just a thought based on this class system of English, may be it frees them to be more ‘individualistic’?”

    yes, i think you’re right. well, i think that the individualism came first (as a result of the outbreeding) and then you got the class system because the clan system was gone — but i think that the whole system probably feeds back into itself — the individualism creates the class system which feeds back into more individualism, etc., etc.

    @violet – “A parallel to this is the Indian caste systems which don’t allow marriages within clans.”

    maybe the indian caste system should just be viewed as a really complex class system?

    @violet – ” What is the ‘class’ structure of Ireland and how fluid was it?”

    in medieval ireland? oh, hardly fluid at all. and in early medieval ireland, while there were classes in the sense that some people in society had more wealth/power than others, everyone was tied into their clan (their *fine*) — so although you might’ve be able to move up economically through working hard and acquiring more cows (or whatever), you’d still only move up within your clan. and you certainly wouldn’t have been able to just pick up and move to another part of the island — you were tied to your clan which was more-or-less stuck to a territory (although sometimes sub-clans would break away and set up on some new territory, but then you might have to fight some other clan over it — if you were encroaching on their territory, i mean).


  5. I don’t think the tradition of miners fighting each other really ended until the middle of the 20th century. One of the older senators (I want to say Alan Simpson) mentioned that when he was young the miners would just fight in the middle of the street, more or less for the hell of it. That would have been 1940s Colorado…


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