|Roman fencer, Madam Collie, showing her skill to Mr. Henry Angelo in his room on Old Bond Street, 1816.|
I will dispense with the biographies of the famous English boxer and the Italian who helped create the sport of fencing because they aren't important here. What is of far greater interest, to writers especially, is the boxing academy Jackson operated; a famous gymnasium style haunt where rich and well connected men learned to box, maintained their fashionable figures, and socialized. It was the country club before country clubs.
Despite being a setting in countless novels, we know virtually nothing about the place itself. Here is what we don't know:
- How big was it?
- How many floors?
- Was it like a modern gym with dressing rooms, or did gentlemen just remove their coats and spar in their street clothes? (some of this further down)
- How did one become a member?
- How much did it cost to use the facilities or undertake training?
- How often were dues collected? Quarterly? Yearly?
[In One Glimpse (#2, Indulgence), Samuel Shaw leaves the main room of Jackson's and goes to the dressing rooms to change his clothes before leaving. There is no historical evidence of such rooms, but I simply can't imagine there weren't adequate facilities for patrons sweating in a gymnasium.]
These questions may sound trivial, but writers require the trivia. A gentleman hero who has fallen on hard financial times would certainly care about the cost and frequency of membership dues, as would the writer creating him. How is our poor hero to keep up appearances in the cut-throat world of the ton if he can no longer afford his club memberships!? It would also stretch credulity to write a suddenly impoverished character who doesn't seem to suffer any changes in his daily schedule. That's just not reality.
[In One Kiss (#3, Indulgence), Julian pays his fees at Jackson's in order to continue going there and keep up appearances, despite his serious money troubles. In the book, I claim this payment to be quarterly, but there is no real evidence this was the case. The lack of information leaves me free to fill in the blanks as I wish, lol]
But, alas, there are no answers to these questions. Such minutia was rarely thrilling and thus not often mentioned in memoirs or surviving letters. The two memoirs written by Henry Angelo are hardly historically useful. They are--sorry, Henry--mostly name dropping anecdotes designed to show how well heeled and fashionable he was. So, unless some new documents come to light or some out of print memoir gets scanned into the Google Books mountain, there are no answers to such detailed questions.
But, here is what we do know:
1) The school was located at 13 Old Bond Street.
The building currently occupying the space of 13 Old Bond was built at the turn of the 20th century and today houses a Jaeger-LeCoultre Swiss watch boutique. There is no remaining sign of the 18th century structure, nor can I find any drawings or pictures relating to what stood there before the latest building. Even the famous London Street Views of Mr. John Tallis do not touch number 13 Old Bond (damn it!).
But, considering the row style structure of the area at the time, it is most likely the place was narrow, long, tall, and nondescript. Bird's eye maps of the time period confirm this.
2) Jackson's boxing saloon and Angelo's School of Fencing were the same place.
For many years until 1817, both clubs shared the same rooms at 13 Old Bond Street. The actual name of the place was The Bond Street School of Arms. Angelo and Jackson had a professional arrangement by which they had use of the premises on alternating days. Both Jackson and Angelo encouraged their students to study both disciplines in alternation like this. Illustrations of the rooms (see below) show boxing and fencing equipment in the same space, and this is verified by Lord Byron, who wrote in his memoirs of taking fencing lessons in their shared rooms, "...I was a pupil of [Angelo] and of Mr. Jackson, who had the use of his rooms in Albany on the alternate days...."1
It gets muddy when Byron refers to Angelo's rooms in Albany. The Albany was, and is, an exclusive apartment building in Piccadilly. Either Angelo had instruction spaces in more than one place at the same time, or these references to the Albany are actually referring to 13 Old Bond Street, as that address is barely a 3 minute walk from the Albany mansion. I just can't be sure, but it makes more sense to me that Angelo would be giving fencing lessons in a public space on Bond street rather than in an exclusive private residence (where one would assume people are trying to sleep!). Also, it was fashionable to refer to the Albany simply as 'Albany', as if the place and its immediate surroundings were their own town or country estate.
3) The rooms were very simple.
Various prints and artworks, such as those from Life in London, show a rather simplistic interior, a large room that could quickly and easily be converted to the necessary purpose. Most public spaces in the 18th century and through the regency were built on the 'any purpose' model like this.
Above we have a print showing the main room of the School of Arms. Jackson is giving a boxing lesson while the man standing at the far left is holding a foil and wearing a fencer's protective mask. As you can see, the room is rather home like. One could imagine it having been a private residence or easily turning into one. At the far right is even a little table and chair where someone might have been writing a letter. [In the days before phones or even the telegraph, it was common for ink and paper to be made available in public places for someone to jot off a note, most likely to be hand delivered by a servant. Can you imagine the local Starbucks today just having some paper and pens lying around for customer use? 'Hey, need to write a letter? Just next to the cream and sugar.']
4) The school was a social club as much as a training studio.
In the above image, the four men on the left are wearing matching buff jackets. These were the uniform, so to speak, of those engaging in training, much likely the quilted tunics of fencers. The three men on the right are still wearing their coats and hat, one even still carrying his cane. It seems they are merely there to observe and chat. Men routinely visited the school just to watch boxing and fencing matches, whether they took instruction or not. Though, gaining entry was most likely still on a "we know you" basis, not open to just anyone off the street.
This image, showing a gentlemen's fencing match, has the same atmosphere; some of the men are wearing fencing tunics and taking instruction, while others are simply there for the show.
[Allow me to take a moment and gush over just how much I love this print. It is my visual muse for Julian Garrott and one of my favorite scenes in One Kiss, which I am still writing. Julian an expert swordsman =D]
In the end, the school of arms Jackson and Angelo ran was just one place, and not even the only place of its kind. There were other instructors and other sporting clubs, but it was a mark of rank and prestige to get instruction for the two greatest. To an historian, it's always disappointing when culturally important places and people end up coming to us with so little information, but we take what we can. And, let's be honest, the holes allow the fictional writer a bit more freedom of movement ;)
[Note: If you see something inaccurate in this essay or have more information about the topics discussed, please leave a comment or sent an email =) I am always looking for more and better research materials]
1. Byron, George Gordon, Baron. The Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron, etc. Ed. Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Moore, and others. London: John Murray, 1860. p. 704.