Back to backswording

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May 13, 2017 by auntkatefirmin


Backswording by Richard Doyle from the novel The Scouring of the White Horse.

I’m always alert for references to the game of backsword so I was delighted to find this illustration on Victorian Web. (Thanks for the scan George P Landow!) The Blackford family were noted backsword players, particularly Robert Blackford. In 1859 Berkshireman Thomas Hughes attempted to draw attention to the local/rural customs in his novel The Scouring of the White Horse, especially the preservation of the famous white horse of Uffington. The book uses the dialog of the characters to explore the changing attitudes towards “gamesters.” Joe says “It does to me seem plaguy hard that women won’t let a man get his own head broke quietly, when he has a mind to it.” Later in the conversation the local pastor adds his opinion: “Then it seems that all that can be said against backsword is, that it is a harder trial of the temper than other games. Surely that’s no reason for stopping it, but only for putting it under strict rules. The harder the trial the better. I’m sure that’s good English sense.” Backsword has returned to some degree: the Wessex School of Arms in association with the English Country Backswording Association is sponsoring a “Blackford Prize” event to be held in Swindon, July 2017.

By 1859 Robert Blackford was long buried and single-stick bouts were few and far between; his grandson Robert would have been the only gamester in the family still alive at that time. While it’s difficult to say what Rebecca might have said about her husband (or any other family member) getting his “head broke” from time to time, I would guess that there was a mixture of pride in their skill and fame, relief that Robert was able to supplement the family finances, and worry that some day one of the family could be seriously injured.

It would be interesting to have more details about how their participation in backsword, or single-stick, competitions affected the Blackford family. From the research of cousin Liz we have one interesting fragment. In 1867 the Swindon Advertiser reported on a coroner’s inquest to investigate the death of Robert Blackford (1805-1867), grandson of the gamester Robert (1757-1802). The inquest came to the conclusion that Robert had died as a result of taking a self-administered overdose of tincture of opium “under a fit of temporary insanity.” Robert’s most recent injury was a result of an accident four or five months previously when he was thrown from his trap and broke his ribs, resulting in an inability to sleep lying down. The chemist’s testimony was that Robert had requested the laudanum (tincture of opium) to help him sleep. What is interesting in the context of Robert’s past history is the comment of his wife: “She believed deceased used to do a great deal at single-stick playing, and his head was one mass of cuts and scars.”

Modern medicine continues to claim that the long-term effects of blows to the head are more serious than once thought and the colloquial term “punchy” to refer to the behavior of long-term boxers displays the folk knowledge of this damage based on observation. Based on the testimony at the inquest, Robert Blackford’s behavior could be described as punchy. One doctor had observed Robert trying to unlock a neighbor’s door instead of his own when he was not drunk but “seemed to have no control over his actions.” The doctor stated his opinion that Robert was “not safe to be at large.” His wife’s testimony was that she believed he had been taking “some kind of drug for a long time past, but she did not know what it was.” In 1867 Robert would have been 62.

As I reviewed my (somewhat disorganized) files for this post it occurred to me that there is enough material for a further post on young Robert Blackford (1805-1867) as well as Thomas the “famous Wiltshire gamester,” and Harriet’s brother John (the only family member of her generation to remain in Swindon). It looks like I need to get to work.


Timeline of a FEW references to Blackfords as gamesters, and backswording in general

undated, Bucklebury, Blackford, the most noted player of his day. “who was known to break fourteen heads in succession”
1783, Salisbury, Blackford the “little Swindon butcher” (“a noted left-handed player was brought from London to pit against Blackford” but the outcome was not mentioned)
1784, Salisbury, “Blackford of Swindon,” head broken by Somersetshire man
1784, Warminster, “Blackford of Swindon,” 10 guinea match where he “compleatly cut up” his opponent
1808, Swindon, “renowned” John Blackford had his head broken
1809, Trowbridge, John Blackford among “Wiltshire gamesters who saved their heads”
1809, Frome, John Blackford & Thomas Blackford, “Somerset against All England”
1817, Holloway near Bath, Thomas Blackford “famous Wiltshire gamester”
1835, London, Thomas Blackford, “celebrated” singlestick player, in arranged match
1837, London, Thomas Blackford, lost to Andrews
1841, supposedly the last bout held in Swindon
1853, advertisements for backswording events held in Berkshire, Hampshire, and Oxfordshire still occurr



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