Part 38: Robinson Crusoe's Connection to Shin Kicking

Dover returned to England a very rich man, and Selkirk also did well for himself.

According to one story, Dover took Selkirk to a tavern in Bristol and introduced him to a 60-year-old journalist by the name of Daniel Defoe.

The penniless hack crafted Selkirk's story into his first novel, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

(Defoe also tried to cash in with two sequels, The Farther Adventures of… and The Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe; for his part, the real Robinson Crusoe tired of the high life, returned to the high seas, and died off Africa, probably of yellow fever.)

Meanwhile, Dover's success stirred up speculation around the newly-formed South Sea Company.

Ironically, the buccaneering doctor lost much of the money he stole in South America by gambling it in the subsequent South Sea Bubble. (Defoe also lost his shirt in the stock market debacle.)

However, Dover made up his losses by penning a bestseller of his own, a controversial do-it-yourself guide called The Ancient Physician's Legacy to His Country.

In the book, which ran to eight editions plus a French translation, the old buccaneer defended his use of mercury and gave readers the recipe for his famous Dover's Powders, a gout remedy that was still used as a painkiller in Europe well into the 20th century.

"In two or three hours, at farthest, the patient will be perfectly free from pain," the "Ancient Physician" promised.

Which isn't that surprising, considering the key ingredient was large doses of opium.

Men of the world like Dover and Defoe would have been familiar with "The Campden Wonder," a real-life tale of kidnap, murder and witchcraft that captivated their contemporaries and still fascinates true-crime buffs.

The mystery centres on William Harrison, a trusted servant of Sir Baptist Hicks' family ever since the tycoon took over as Campden's lord around 1610.

The family mansion had been destroyed during the Civil War, so Sir Baptist's daughter and heir, Lady Juliana Noel, had the stables converted into a comfortable home called Court House (still inhabited by her descendants).

Harrison lived nearby, possibly in one of the mansion's old banqueting houses, known as the recently-restored east pavilion.

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 37: A Brilliant Tale

Dover's critics pointed out that the human body doesn't actually absorb liquid metal when it is swallowed.

One told of a patient who downed 16 pounds of mercury and recovered all but one and a half ounces of it… from his faeces:

"It is doubtless the case of many, who thinking the remedy is working miracles in the blood, might find it in their breeches," he said, adding:

"I have heard a pleasant story of a mercurial lady, who in Dancing at a Public Assembly, happened to let go some particles of the quicksilver she had taken in the morning; which, shining on the floor in the midst of so great an illumination like so many brilliants, there were several stooping down to take them up; but finding themselves deceived, it affected matter for much laughter among the gentlemen, and blushing amongst the ladies, especially she that was most concerned; for the cry went through the room, that some lady had scattered her diamonds."

Ridiculed by his peers—and possibly suffering an acute midlife crisis—Dover risked everything he had in his late forties to become a privateer: a legalised pirate on a mission to steal from the old enemy, Spain.

In 1708, Dover and his colleagues backed an expedition to the South Seas--the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. Not only did the doctor invest in the adventure, he also helped lead it, even though he had no nautical training.

With "Captain" Dover leading the charge, the English sacked Ecuador's main port, Guayaquil. Between their looting and pillaging, the buccaneers slept in the local churches, disregarding the stench of the scores of plague victims recently buried beneath the floorboards.

Wisely, Dover stopped his men from frisking the corpses for valuables.

Even so, more than half the crew—180 men—fell ill in a catastrophic outbreak that threatened the expedition. Somehow, though, Dover's unconventional doctoring saved the venture: only eight men died.

One survivor was a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk.

Earlier that year, the expedition had stopped at a seemingly deserted island hundreds of miles off the coast for some much needed R&R before attacking the mainland.

Dover had volunteered to reconnoitre the island, and to his amazement, he found "a man clothed in goat skins, who seemed wilder than the original owners of his apparel".

Selkirk had been marooned on the island for nearly four and a half years after quarrelling with the captain of another ship (which ship later sank off Peru, killing all but a few survivors who were then locked up by the Spanish in Lima).

Dover's navigator happened to know Selkirk and vouched for his skills. With the Scotsman on board, the privateers raided ports and captured galleons from Ecuador to California, reaping a profit of £170,000—or nearly £12 million today.
©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 36: The Agony of the Feet... and a Literary Detour

Before recounting my own sorry shin kicking experience, I can't resist a detour into Campden's little-known literary connections.

The Cotswolds are mostly associated with Aga sagas and bonkbusters today, but Campden's writerly pedigree goes back much further, encompassing classic works of English literature and Nobel-calibre authors.

Bizarrely, most guidebooks (and the tourist office) fail to capitalise on these artistic connections.

If they mention them at all, they gloss over Campden's links to The Canterbury Tales (especially the X-rated film adaptation)… or the fact that Robert Dover's grandson rescued the real-life Robinson Crusoe… or that a Campden play put the Bs into the BBC… or that the area inspired TS Eliot to write a masterpiece of the 20th century (and indulge in a rare moment of passion)… or that Graham Greene kick-started his career in Campden (while lusting after American girls at a local pub)… or that Salman Rushdie supposedly took refuge in town, hiding out from the Ayatollah.

In the absence of any alternative, I offer my own literary ramble, entitled "Murderers, Castaways and Copulating Flies"…

Had it not been for the grandson of the Cotswold Olimpicks' founder, for instance, Robinson Crusoe may never have been written.

Thomas Dover was a doctor-turned-buccaneer who makes modern adventurers—let alone celebrities—seem stupefyingly dull by comparison.

Born around 1660 and based in Bristol, he became known as "The Quicksilver Doctor" after his favourite remedy.

Mercury had been used as a medicine for centuries, and many physicians used to prescribe powders made from mercury salts.

But "The Quicksilver Doctor" scandalised his peers by dishing out crude mercury, telling patients to drink massive amounts of it straight up, claiming that the liquid metal would cure everything from asthma to elephantiasis.

In cases of appendicitis, for instance, he prescribed downing a pound and a half of the slippery stuff.

Thanks partly to him, mercury was as common in British households as tobacco—and probably just as healthy. Even with the relatively limited medical knowledge of the day, many doctors suspected that mercury could be toxic, arguing that Dover's cure-all benefited only nurses and gravediggers.

In one notorious case, Dover used mercury to treat the top tragic actor of his day, Barton Booth. The doctor promised that it would not only prevent him from suffering a relapse of fever, "but would also effectually cure him of all his complaints".

Sure enough, Booth died a week later. A post-mortem found his intestines and rectum blackened and lined with mercury.

Another of Dover's patients died after treatment for syphilis.

"At first he improved but later the patient had a violent dysentery which made an end to all his complaints, and his life also: To the great disappointment of all parties," one wit reported.

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 21: We Were Some Ignorant Little B's

"They took it serious, y'see. Tough as hell—all of 'em were, in those days," an Old Campdonian tells me.

Shin kicking had all but disappeared by the time Fred Coldicott was born in 1910, but he remembers playing just for fun as a boy: one of the kids in his gang, Wilfred "Guthram" Plested, was the nephew of the backswords champ who lost an eye and killed a man in the fatal bout held during the last years of Dover's Games.

In their flat caps, pullovers, long shorts and socks, the kids would play games like leapfrog, noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe)… and shin kicking.

"Very often, you'd get one who'd cry—the weak-hearted ones. I don't think I ever come under that category," laughs Fred, whose nickname was Tiger.

"We were some ignorant little b's in those days. We were little brutes. It was nothing to have a good stand-up fight. You never see that nowadays, do ya? You'd run home with a bloody nose to your father, and he'd say, 'Serves ya damn right, go back and give 'im another go, and give 'im a nose bleed!' I got no sympathy from dad. It was a funny old world."

Outsiders came away with much the same impression.

"There is no imbecility nor barbarity that human beings will not practise and even exalt, so long as it be sanctified by custom," Massingham wrote of shin kicking on Dover's Hill.

"Only a traditionalist or a good old Englander could regret the blessed silence and solitude that have come in the wake of the turbulent ways of men."

* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 20: "Satan's Abominations"

Back in the Cotswolds, shin kicking—and backswording—continued long after Dover's Games came to an end.

One famous venue was Cooper's Hill Wake: when locals weren't chasing cheeses, they were kicking shins.

As one critic recalled: "The wrestling was not a pleasant spectacle, despite its ardent admirers and votaries… I have seen stalwart fellows, with sinew and tendon of iron, struggle fiercely, not to say ferociously for the mastery. It was surprising how human limbs could be strained and kicked without the sinews cracking and the bones breaking."

One old gamester and past champion of Cooper's Hill blamed his crippled leg on "The follies o' my youth. If I had my days to go over agen, I'd never stond up to ha' my legs kicked to pieces. I ha' learned this, thot our blessed Meeker nivver made our precious limbs to be kicked at vor other volks' amusement."

Another old-timer with a thick West Country accent described similar injuries.

"How thoy did maul one another. All of a zudden I yurd summut snop loike a stick. One on um fell down like a hos, ond thur waur a cry thot his leg waur bro-ock, ond a vot lot they cared about it".

His own father had given up backsword fighting and become a Christian after a particularly vicious beating.

"All those old wakes, develrus wonderments, ond Sayton's abominations be all done away wi," he concluded, "and in the main we ha to thank the Methodies for't."

The hapless hero of The Spiritual Quixote would have been pleased.

T-shirt design by Button Lore
Shin kicking and backswording finally died out by the early 1900s.
Travel writer H.J. Massingham collected some of the stories about the bad old days for his book, Wold Without End, in 1931.

Locals told him about an old stonebreaker in the Vale of Evesham whose shins looked like corrugated iron from his wounds back when "Broddy fowt Kyanden" (Broadway fought Campden) and how the captain of the Campden team would "thrape" the soft parts of his shins with a coal hammer every night at The Eight Bells pub; other men used wooden planks to deaden the nerves in their legs or vinegar as an astringent to keep the skin from splitting.
©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 19: Shin Kicking in America

Rather than Australia, he might have been more at home in America.

The most gruesome account of shin kicking comes from the US, where Welsh coalminers introduced "purring" to Pennsylvania.

The New York Sunday Mercury described a "purr" outside Philadelphia between two fighters known as Grabby and McTevish in 1883.

(And if you're at all squeamish, I suggest you look away now…):

"At two o'clock the men appeared, wearing Lancashire shoes toed with copper, having submitted their feet for inspection to show that there were no protruding nails. Grabby advanced cautiously and…took hold with apparent unwillingness, and then began the most brutal and savage contest that two men could engage in.

For fully five minutes they sparred with their feet in a manner that was simply wonderful. Blows were countered and returned with the same skill and rapidity as shown by men fighting with their fists. Not once in that time did either man more than touch his opponent's skin.

Then McTevish, taking a firmer hold on his opponent's collar, lifted his left foot and, after keeping it poised for a moment, made a straight toe kick for his opponent's right knee.

Grabby deftly avoided the blow by spraddling his legs far apart, and with almost inconceivable quickness brought his left foot around and caught McTevish on the outside of the right calf.

The flesh was laid open almost to the bone, and the blood spurted out in streams.

McTevish never uttered a word. At the same instant that his own leg was cut he gave Grabby what is known as the sole scrape. Beginning at the instep and ending just below the knee pan, Grabby's left shin was scraped almost clear of skin.

Both men were evidently in pain, and angry. They kicked and countered a dozen times again without doing any damage. Then Grabby, by some mishap, lost his hold… In attempting to grasp it again he lifted his eyes for a moment, and before he could recover himself the calves of both of his legs were laid open by a double-foot kick.

In return for this he succeeded in delivering a terrific kick on McTevish's knee, causing him to drop to the ground like a log, pulling the other kicker on top of him.

The seconds rushed forward and separated the men and took them to their corners to bind up their wounds. The first go or round occupied sixteen minutes.

When the call of purr came again the purrers hobbled to the centre and took another hold. They were, indeed, a pitiable looking affair. McTevish's legs, although bound up in plaster, were bleeding freely, and the exposed places looked like beefsteak.

His opponent's shins had both been scraped clean of the flesh, and the blood was oozing out from between the strips of plaster…"

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 18: Naked Shin Kicking and Drunken Orgies

Even so, shin kicking lived on in gory incarnations throughout the West Country and the rest of the country—as well as America.

Hobnailed boots and metal toecaps weren't enough for some fighting Welshmen; they wore thick shoes with nails sticking out the sides.

Shin kicking was so popular it made it into one of the first Welsh dictionaries in 1793 as 'crimmogiaw' ('crimog' meaning 'shin').

Eventually, though, the Welsh adopted the incongruously gentle term used by their coalmining counterparts in the northwest of England: "purring" (possibly related to "pare" in English or the Scots Gaelic piorr, meaning "to scrape or stab").

In Lancashire, the locals enjoyed clog dancing—a forerunner of American tap-dancing—as well as clog fighting. Only they didn't use the quaint, carved klompen worn by the Dutch; their shoes and boots had horseshoe-like irons hammered to their wooden soles to make them hardwearing.

The leather uppers were fastened with brass nails, and metal toecaps were often added for dancing and fighting.

So "clog toe pie" wasn't a regional delicacy, and "a leather 'n' timber kiss" wasn't a sign of affection; they both meant that you were about to receive a good kicking.

What's more, miners would grapple against each other stark naked, wearing only their clunky, metal-trimmed clogs.

This may have been in imitation of the Greeks, or it simply may have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Whatever the reason, naked shin kicking was common throughout Greater Manchester, when "hot and rebellious liquors were indulged in to excess, and the Sabbath was desecrated and made hideous by drunken orgies".

Miners from Oldham, Bacup and Ashton would pit themselves against quarrymen from Whitworth.

The Oldham "rough heads" were renowned for being as slippery as "snigs," or eels, but their winning streak ended after they were caught cheating by rubbing soap all over their bodies.

Another report tells of a clog fight near Manchester in 1843 between two young men named Ashworth and Clegg—"(both in a state of nudity with the exception of each having on a pair of strong boots)".

They kicked each other for 45 minutes… all for one pound. Both wound up severely injured.

In another fight, Ashworth went on to kill another opponent and emigrate Down Under (aptly enough)—though it's unclear whether this was his choice or Her Majesty's Pleasure.

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 17: Devious Devonians

What with all the kicking, injuries were inevitable.

"After the wrestling match is over… the wrestlers ought to have room for themselves… to dress one another's legs," he recommended.

But some wounds were beyond doctoring. In an accompanying poem, he recalled seeing a particularly vicious bout as a boy: "One man got kick'd so in four rounds,/That in very few days died of his wounds."

In the West Country, the only place that frowned on shin kicking was Cornwall, home of what may be England's oldest wrestling style.

Originally, Cornish combatants were allowed to use their feet and legs, but only to trip their opponents or hit them with their heels and insteps.

Frontal toe-to-tibia attacks were forbidden, not least because wrestlers usually fought barelegged from the knees down.

Trust their archrivals from the next county over to twist the rules to their advantage.

By the early 1800s, wrestlers in Devon had made two vicious innovations: not only did they trip their opponents, they also whacked them in the shins.

What's more, the devious Devonians took to wearing heavy shoes and hobnail boots—sometimes even baking the soles to make them extra hard.

"By the abuse of this latitude of rules (for it cannot be otherwise regarded than as an abuse) the shoes had been allowed to develop into a hideous weapon armed with a thick sharp-edged sole," a Victorian wrestling expert wrote.

In their defence, Devon's bruisers claimed that kicking had a long pedigree in wrestling: the Greeks had allowed it in their ancient Olympics; unlike Devon's wrestlers, though, the Greeks had fought in the nude.

If Cornish wrestling was brutal, the Devon style could be lethal.

In 1840, a Devon wrestler threw his rival "with so much violence to the ground, that his neck was dislocated and his back dreadfully injured, so that his life for some time despaired of, and he now lies in a precarious state," a newspaper reported.

On another occasion, a 22-year-old died from his wounds.

Not surprisingly, Cornish wrestlers were somewhat… reluctant to fight the Devonians.

But they couldn't walk away from a challenge—especially not from those scoundrels across the River Tamar.

Women wrestling in Devonshire, circa 1898

One of the earliest known showdowns between the two styles took place in 1826 in Devonport, on the county line.

Devon champ Abraham Cann fought Cornwall's James Polkinghorne, a pub landlord.

Whereas the barefoot Cornishman reputedly had a neck like a bull, Cann's boots were soaked in bull's blood.

The match ended in a draw, but Cornwall won out in the long run: although Cornish wrestling has survived to this day, its Devonian pretender eventually died out.
©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 16: America's Founding Shin Kicker

In the interim, though, good old sports like shin kicking and backswording also faced growing opposition.

A small print tucked away in Campden's town hall commemorates a famous backsword match held at Dover's Games, possibly the same year they were shut down.

The local champion, Ebenezer "Nezzy" Plested, and a man called Spiers are locked in combat, wearing breeches and blousy shirts, with one hand bound to their thighs.

The bout lasted a long time—maybe up to an hour and a half. In the end, Plested won the match but lost an eye, while Spiers was "incapacitated for further work" and died two weeks later.

Fatal encounters like that triggered calls to ban the sports.

Thomas Hughes defended backswording but drew the line at shin kicking: "I suppose there are more unsettled points in wrestling, or it is harder to see whether the men are playing fair," he wrote after watching a bout in his home village in 1857.

"Besides, the kicking, which is allowed at elbow and collar wrestling, makes it look brutal very often."

Nevertheless, shin kicking was a crowd-puller.

In the wrestling style that Hughes refers to, competitors gripped their opponents' jackets by the collar and elbow while kicking and throwing each other. Collar and Elbow wrestling--still the national style in Ireland--was even exported to America.

As a teenager, George Washington had been a champion Collar and Elbow wrestler (and at least two other presidents followed his example).

During the War of Independence, Washington supposedly took time out to wrestle seven of his soldiers, throwing them one after the other; not bad for a man of 47.

It's unclear whether America's Founding Father stooped to shin kicking, but Collar and Elbow wrestling did allow tibial attacks in Britain.

George Washington: Shin Kicker... and Zombie Hunter

While Hughes frowned on kicking in the West Country, on the east coast of England, "Collars and Elbow men" would batter each other in a now-extinct style known as Norfolk wrestling.

(Incidentally, Norfolk was the birthplace of Cotswold Olimpicks founder Robert Dover.)

A veteran gamester wrote a pamphlet on "The Whole Art of Norfolk Wrestling" in the 1830s.

In it, Charles Layton, nicknamed "The Celebrated Game Chicken" (roosters attack with their claws in cockfights), described the wrestlers' footwear as long socks and genie-style shoes with curled-up toes to help them hook each other's ankles.

Officials would check combatants' legs and feet beforehand to prevent cheats from using shin pads or shoes with nails in them.

"It requires a good temper and a great deal of caution" to avoid "getting desperately kicked," Layton wrote. "Kick sharp or faint, kick high, kick low, to kick certain is the main thing."

©J.R. Daeschner

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