A Singlestick Match in Victorian England

by J. Christoph Amberger
excerpted from The Secret History of the Sword

Since quality steel blades were still prohibitively expensive at the end of the 18th century, many fencing systems centered around the wooden practice weapons. For the broadsword (double-edged), the backsword (single-edged), and the spadoon, the practice weapon was the singlestick, wielded particularly "by those whose social position did not admit of their wearing 'the sword' (i.e., the small-sword.)"[244]

In the 1700s, singlestick and cudgelling were popular pastimes, not only "in Moor's most pleasant Field, where Northern Lads / With Western Youths, contend for broken Heads,"[245] but all over Britain.

By the mid-1850s, however, when Thomas Hughes wrote his famous Tom Brown's Schooldays, singlestick had become a neglected art even in the rural areas of Southern England. Hughes himself recalls singlestick competitions as a rustic amusement in the 1820s, where every country fair boasted singlestick or backswording tournaments in which local and regional players competed for prizes. His account of this sport ranks among the best in English literature:

The weapon is a good stout ash-stick with a large basket-handle (...) The players are called "old gamesters,"--why, I can't tell you,--and their object is simply to break one another's heads: for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop.[246] A very slight blow with the sticks will fetch blood, so that it is by no means a punishing pastime, if the men don't play on purpose, and savagely, at the body and arms of their adversaries.[247]

The old gamester going into action only takes off his hat and coat, and arms himself with a stick: he then loops the fingers of his left hand in a handkerchief or strap which he fastens around his left leg, measuring the length, so that when he draws it tight with his left elbow in the air, the elbow shall just reach as high as his crown. Thus you see, as long as chooses to keep up his left elbow, regardless of cuts, he has a perfect guard for the left side of his head.[248]

Then he advances his right hand above and in front of his head, holding his stick across so that its point projects an inch or two over his left elbow, and thus his head is completely guarded, and he faces his man armed in like manner, and they stand some three feet apart, often nearer, and feint, and strike, and return at one another's heads, until one cries 'hold,' or blood flows: in the first case they are allowed a minute's time, and go on again; in the latter, another pair of gamesters are called on. If good men are playing, the quickness of returns is marvelous; you hear a rattle like that a boy makes drawing his stick along palings, only heavier, and the closeness of the men in action to one another gives it a strange interest, and makes a spell at backswording a very noble sight.[249]

But while the broadsword and spadoon are cut-and-thrust weapons, singlestick fencers were not allowed to thrust. Cuts were executed from a hanging guard by a flipping, whip-like action of the wrist. Parries were always taken in pronation.

The weapon typically consisted of an inch-wide, yard-long ash-wood stick that tapered toward the tip. Eighteenth-century singlesticks had a basket-like guard ("pot") made of reed; later versions were outfitted with triangular guards of stiff cow or buffalo hide. Fencers stood with their legs straight and fought without lunging or advancing. There was, however, considerable movement of the feet, "as in the fencing of the rapier period."[250]

Singlestick continued to exist in urban English salles and was still practiced in the 1920s, mainly by British public schools and by American Navy cadets, who used it for cutlass practice. At that point, however, it had dropped its unique double-armed hanging guard and had been adapted to the rules of modern sabre fencing.

The use of the point was re-introduced and cuts at the legs were allowed (although they were considered foul play by many salles.) Hutton recounts an incident at Henry Angelo's St. James's Street School of Arms in the late 1850s, when a Mr. Rolland squared off against a notorious bully, non-commissioned officer in the Royal Artillery Sergeant T-y, who had unfairly beaten Rolland in a previous encounter by cutting "inside the leg," even though both combatants had agreed on regarding this action as foul play.

The pair engaged; the sergeant led off in his customary violent fashion, but Mr. Rolland played in a manner that had never been seen before. This time he was serious. Usually he would lead off with a frank attack; now he was strangely quiet. He parried the furious blows, and only now and then replied with a riposte. T-y, fancying that this man was afraid of him, redoubled his energy, and gradually tired himself, which was exactly what his opponent intended he should do. At last the supreme moment arrived. Rolland all of a sudden crouched like a tiger, like a tiger sprang forward and with all the force of his spring and the weight of his mighty arm landed a fearful blow exactly on the point of the inside of his adversary's knee. The biter was bit. Sergeant T-y uttered a shriek of agony, and fell fainting on the floor. He was carried to the dressing-room, where they fomented his leg with hot water and did the best they could for him at the moment. He was taken in a cab to the hospital where he remained over a month, and it was three months before he was able to mount a horse again.[251]

The hit didn't improve the Sergeant's salle manners. In a later incident, an opponent's singlestick broke off at the buffalo-hide hilt. T-y took advantage of the situation to land several vicious hits on his unarmed opponent. Seeing himself abused in this unfair and ungentlemanly fashion, his victim used the basket the way many soldiers used their hilts in close combat, namely to land a tremendous punch against the face of T-y that sent him sprawling to the floor. Angelo, who had been watching the encounter, added a kick for good measure and told T-y to pack and never show his face again at his school.


244 Castle, Egerton. Schools and Masters of Fence, London & New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1910; p.293. [back]

245 In Ward, Edward. A Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms, London, n.y. (c. 1712) II, 8. [back]

246 This is a corruption of the real duel's "first blood" rule, which allowed a duel to be ended after one of the parties had been injured. It also corresponds to the "Anschiss" of the early German Schläger regulations: A Mensur could be ended after one of the fighters had received a bleeding cut one inch long or deep. It is preserved in the modern Mensur's criteria for announcing a "Blutiger," which allows a second to stop the ongoing round of the bout. [back]

247 Hutton, however, recounts an instance in which two combatants almost beat each other to death, "their shirts (to say nothing of the skin underneath them) are torn to tatters, but nothing of it counts until one of them gets a 'broken head.'" See Hutton, Alfred. The Sword and the Centuries, (London: Grant Richards, 1901), Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1973; p. 354. [back]

248 It seems that the tying down of the left arm varied according to region: "In Glouchestershire it was evidently fastened to the thigh, the arm being at full length; in Wiltshire it appears to have been fastened to the belt in such a way that the man could raise his elbow to protect his eyes but nothing higher." See Hutton; p. 348. [back]

249 Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays (London: Macmillan, 1857), Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989; p. 35 f. [back]

250 Hutton; p. 348. [back]

251 Hutton; p. 359. [back]

Copyright ©1998 J. Christoph Amberger. All rights reserved.

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