Thursday

Part 13: An Orgy of Booze, Sex and Crime

In real life, though, the reformers eventually won the tug-o'-war over Dover's Games.

After a clean-up, they briefly became fashionable once again in the early 1800s, portrayed as the training ground for the kind of "muscular Christianity" that had built a global superpower.

From Wikipedia: In this illustration for the novel Hepsey Burke, an Episcopal rector gets little pay because of interference from the rich man at the right, so he shovels stone to support himself and his wife. Here the rector confronts the rich man. 
Within two decades, though, they had degenerated into a marathon orgy of booze, sex and crime.

The Victorian gentry quickly deserted the games (preferring to indulge in those sins privately), giving the lower orders run of the hill for an entire week around the Olimpicks.

Men from the mean streets of Birmingham preyed on country hospitality, ale booths sold alcohol round-the-clock, railroad workers started punch-ups, and "cardsharpers", pickpockets and thieves prowled the hill.

At least, that's the way critics portrayed it.

In 1846, a 25-year-old vicar fresh out of Oxford took over the parish.

George Drinkwater Bourne—surely a teetotaller—was shocked by the pandemonium. He estimated that 30,000 people descended on the area during Dover's Games, or roughly 83 outsiders per local.

A historian who interviewed Bourne wrote that "the games, instead of being as they originally were intended to be decorously conducted, became the trysting place of all the lowest scum of the population which lived in the districts lying between Birmingham and Oxford".

It's tempting to depict the Olimpicks as one of those quaint old festivals that fell victim to puritanical Victorians.

But based on descriptions of the games—from Hobbinol's slapstick brawls and "warm spouting gore" in the 1700s to the rampant crime and "trysting scum" of the mid-1800s—it's clear that they didn't conform to modern ideas of fun days out for the whole family.

In fact, there's nothing like them in Britain today: imagine Xtreme Fighting matches headlining Notting Hill Carnival with a contingent of Hell's Angels thrown in, and you might get some idea of the roughneck Olimpicks.

Oh—and instead of hundreds of police, picture a handful of bobbies trying to control the crowd.

Amid this mayhem, shin kicking and backswording were probably some of the tamer displays of violence on Dover's Hill; at least they had rules and referees.

The most balanced portrayal of the event comes from a man whose mother profited from the chaos—all the while fearing for her life.

Mrs. Stratton was the landlady of a pub in Evesham who sold alcohol and food at Dover's Games every year. She never left her serving tent and always kept a couple of loaded revolvers under the table. Her son explained why:

"No one was safe from the lawlessness… During the daytime the turmoil was terrible, but all night long it was a perfect pandemonium. Cries of murder were often heard, and disorder and rapine held full sway. If the shadow of a person showed through the sheeting of the tent at night, he would almost sure to be struck with a heavy bludgeon from without, and the miscreant would crawl underneath and rob his victim."

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