Robert Blackford, noted backsword player

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February 8, 2016 by auntkatefirmin

Boxer James Figg below crossed single sticks.

James Figg, a boxer in the early 18th century. Note the crossed singlesticks at the top of the figure.

Boxing is an Olympic sport. Fencing is an Olympic sport. Backsword is not; unless you count the Cotswold Olympick games where in modern times it is a demonstration sport. Backsword, or single-stick, mostly dropped out of fashion after the time of Aunt Kate’s ancestor Robert Blackford. Like many other “rural” sports and pastimes, it came to be viewed as unsophisticated and only of interest to those whose tastes had not been shaped by entertainments and sports that were, at the time, held to be morally superior. Certainly by 1820, writers did not hesitate to include backsword as one of the “primitive customs” of Wiltshire. By the mid 18th century many fairs and revels where these competitions occurred came to be seen as unworthy of the patronage of the gentry, and as leading to drunkenness and other unsuitable behaviors by the participants, so they were eventually eliminated.

Essentially, single-stick is a type of duel with a wooden weapon and is related to the use of staffs and wooden training swords as preparation for fighting with edged weapons like broad swords or long swords. In the context of fairs & revels, contests were held with multiple pairs of opponents fighting simultaneously on specially built stages. The term backsword can refer to a particular weapon with one cutting edge and one blunt edge, but it came to be an alternate name for the game of single-stick. Cudgeling can mean a particular fighting style involving two sticks but many articles do not distinguish between cudgeling and single-stick. Very broadly, cudgeling gave way to single-stick which was replaced in popularity by boxing, and later fencing; the changes coming first in the larger cities, then more slowly in the countryside but all these styles changed and co-existed over centuries, are still enjoyed today (if perhaps by smaller audiences), and many articles do not clearly define their use of each term.

Through the 18th century, and as late as the 1850’s, in Southern England single-stick contests were a popular entertainment at fairs, revels, and even horse-races. The players in these contests were not from the upper classes; those with sufficient social status were able to carry a sword rather than a cudgel or wooden staff and mostly considered themselves above such entertainments, though they provided the financial support for the prizes. However, weapons instructors and similar celebrities might use a wooden weapon in entertainments attended by many social classes, especially in larger cities with public amphitheaters, even through the 1890’s. The Cotswold Games were said to have attracted crowds of 30,000 in the 1830’s and were intended to appeal to all classes of society.

Woodcut showing activities at the Cotswold Olimpick Games circa 1636.

The Cotswold Games as depicted in 1636, with the founder, Robert Dover, on horseback, via wikimedia.

It’s true that single-stick, like boxing, involves hitting other people. Unlike fencing, there is no fancy gear involved. As played in Wiltshire in Robert Blackford’s day a fair level of skill was involved and a bout might last an hour before a winning blow was struck. The objective was to strike the skin on the head above the lower jaw so that at least an inch of blood ran from the wound, ending the bout. Other strikes were probably allowed (possibly including below the waist) and the opponents generally removed their coats and did not wear masks or padding. Robert’s weapon was probably made of ash or willow, about 36-40 inches long, and had a basket hilt to protect the hand (as seen in the illustration at the top of the post). Wiltshire rules allowed a player to block blows with the left arm or elbow; the left hand was tied to the left leg with a belt or handkerchief which limited the range of motion. In some areas and in some eras, the left hand was tied so as to allow no range of motion. The stance, the attitude of the stick, and other aspects of the game were governed by conventions that were often regional, rather than based on a official rule-book covering a wide region, and changed over time; in Robert’s day the players did not usually move their feet from a fixed stance. While individual players used different tactics, mainly the blows were aimed at the head with a whipping motion of the wrist; generally no jabs were allowed. A player could yell “hold” to stop the play for a minute. Like any other martial art, the best players of single-stick moved beyond strength and stamina to strategy.

The deciding factor in a single-stick contests was whether blood was drawn or not. It certainly could be brutal and I have no doubts that players would have been scarred. The full extent of serious and permanent injuries (loss of an eye, for example) is difficult to determine given that many of the more detailed accounts of injuries I have found were given by those hoping to banish the sport. Seen from a modern perspective and played with protective gear, it’s a sport potentially not that different from other martial arts – when played as an exercise for agility, control, and awareness. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Attitudes toward safety and what is entertaining constantly change.

Robert Blackford (1757-1802) was “the most noted player” of his day; Wiltshire, and the fair in Purton in particular, were considered to be notable as the home of good players. Thanks to materials uncovered by cousin Liz, I hope to create a follow-up post about Robert’s children who were gamesters, but for now my questions is: what does this tell us about Robert?

-He would have traveled to participate in distant events; good players were known to travel as much a sixty miles to a contest and Robert is said to have traveled to London, Bath, Gloucester and Bristol.

-As the winner, he would have received prize money or items of value such as a hat, ring, or clothing. This would supplement his regular income. I imagine that a player in Robert’s situation with a large family to support would not keep such items for the long term; instead he could have sold them for income. Robert probably did not need to wear a be-ribboned hat to be recognized.

-He certainly received a number of head injuries and may have suffered from the effects of the injuries as he grew older.

-He had good endurance, and was probably strong, agile, and clever. To maintain his position at the top he needed to devote time to practice.

-He was a local celebrity; certainly those in the area were proud that he represented them. Whether they liked him or enjoyed his company is unknown.

As not all matches were covered by newspaper accounts, it is difficult to know how often Robert participated in matches and how much money he might have received in any given year. As more newspapers are digitized and indexed, more records continue to be discovered. Robert appeared at the Chapel Row Revel in Bucklebury, and a later Blackford played in the Hungerford Revel but I’m not positive whether Robert did. The fair at nearby Purton was held twice a year and Robert could have attended frequently. Certainly at the larger matches, such as one at Warminster in 1784 where the prize was 10 guineas, the winnings could be substantial.

Because our perspective has changed, it is easy to fall into the cliché that people of Robert Blackford’s era were “simple” folk with “primitive” pastimes. This marginalizes the world of Robert’s family and the other inhabitants of Swindon whose lives were certainly as complex as our own despite superficial differences. The modern and Victorian emphasis on the importance of intellectual activities over craftsmanship or physical skills, also places less value on the knowledge and skills learned in a non-academic setting and thus we often dismiss the extent of the training involved. Both as a butcher and as a single-stick player, no doubt Robert Blackford had a wide-variety of skills and knowledge that took years to master.

PS: Backswording and single-stick are experiencing a revival. For an example see:

Dickens Fair demo with a pair of players





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