Sunday, June 1, 2014

Victorian Singlesticks

Singlestick, a popular form of fencing in the 18th and 19th century, has a varied background and loose definition. To the English and Americans of the period, just about any form of stick fighting was referred to as singlestick. The history of singlestick has various roots, as well. We’ll first explore the English progress of singlestick through backsword and cudgeling. Part two will cover singlestick of the Victorian era and its relationship to the French La Canne.

Part 1 - Backsword and Cudgeling
From Walker's "Defensive Exercises"

Why is it even called Singlestick?
In some cases stick fighting involved two sticks. The London Year book of Daily Recreation and Information from 1832 gives this definition:
“Single-stick playing is so called to distinguish it from cudgeling, in which two sticks are used: the single-stick player having the left hand tied down, and using only one stick to defend himself and strike his antagonist. In cudgeling, as the name implies, the weapon is a stout cudgel, and the player defends himself with another having a large hemisphere of wicker-work upon it.”
The English Dialect Dictionary of 1898 also describes a type of backswording that included two sticks
“Two sticks were used, one as a guard, the other an offensive weapon, with baskets or without.”

A nice explanation, but of course no one seemed to adhere to this definition when referring to singlestick. Singlestick, backsword, and cudgeling all have different meanings, but were often used interchangeably.

Background of Backswording

The basis of English singlestick comes from the use of the backsword. The backsword was originally a single- edged weapon used in prize-fights, but later came to refer to singlestick and cudgeling.

A definition of the backsword comes from the Century Dictionary and Encyclopedia of 1897 published in New York:
Back-sword (bak’sord), n 1. A sword with one sharp edge. Used for cutting rather than thrusting, sometimes curved, and frequently straight. It usually has a basket-hilt, and was the common weapon of citizens and country people when the rapier and afterward the small-sword were worn by gentlemen.
2. A cudgel fitted with a basket-hilt, used for a particular kind of single-stick play.
3. A cudgel-play in which the back-sword (in sense 2) is used, peculiar to certain counties of England, and still kept up at festivals and the like in the attempt to preserve old customs. The guard is with the left arm, and the object of each player is to break the skin of his adversary’s forehead so as to draw blood.

This style of singlestick was also present in colonial America. The 1908 reprints of The Youth’s Companion in a multi-volume collection on American History tells us that “The game of cudgeling was something like short-stick fencing, the object being to give resounding raps upon the antagonists head. After a series of cautious movements, the players would warm up to their work and deliver rattling blows with great rapidity, each good hit being rewarded by the vociferous applause of the onlookers gathered in a compact ring about them. A beaver hat of the old-fashioned cocked style is brought forward as the prize of the victorious cudgeler. A good beaver hat was a costly article in those days, worth as much as fifteen dollars.”

American Colonial Youths at Singlestick
Sporting Magazine published an account of a Singlestick match at Trowbridge in1809, with an engraving of two "gamesters". It says of backsword or singlestick that it "is a game of high antiquity, and the most warlike extant. When the fate of nations was principally decided in battle by the sword, it was the policy of our ancestors to render its use familiar to the bulk of the population, hence arose the courtly tournament, and the plebeian exhibitions at wakes and festivals of courage and skill, in sword and dagger, sword and potlid, cudgels, backsword, &c. &c. the prizes for which still remain annually given in many parts." Potlid seems to refer to the guard or "pot" of a singlestick.
Somersetshire Gamesters from the 1809 Sporting Magazine

English National Pride
In 1886 Walter Pollock published an article on the Backsword and Cudgel in the April issue of the Saturday Review. He says that, though waning now, the prowess of Englishmen with the backsword had long been an object of national pride. Broadsword and singlestick were more congenial to the English spirit because of “the qualities it requires of its devotees, strength of hand, hardihood and determination.” This is in contrast to “the nimbleness, elegance, and highly-cultivated cunning of the foreign play.”

James Figg
Pollock presents the most famous backswordsman of the time in James Figg. He blames Figg’s genius for fighting as a cause for the decline of the backsword as a gladiatorial weapon in stage fights and prize-fighting. Figg became famous for his bare-fist boxing, and the backsword was slowly driven out of fashion. It resurfaced in the rural districts of England as cudgeling, using stout sticks rather than blades, and played for prizes at county feasts or fairs.

Transitioning from “sharps” to “sticks”
In this transition from “sharps” to “sticks”, Pollock notes why the head is target.  “The evolution of the game, extraordinary as it may seem, is easy enough to follow if we start from the fact that a cudgelling match, for love or for stake, was at first mostly conducted on the lines of those glorious contests on the London stage. Now the only decisive sign of defeat in a bout with sharps was the appearance of blood on any part of the body; with cudgels, however, or singlesticks it was found difficult, if not impossible, to draw blood, except for the head. Hence the infliction of a bloody – technically a “broken” – head on the adversary was the main object of the match, and consequently most of the blows were aimed at that part.”

Pollock also explains the use of the arm. “Another point to keep sight of is this; although it would have been very unsound fencing to attempt to stop a sword-cut with hand or arm – after the manner, for instance, practiced in ancient foil play – with cudgels, as the chief care of the player was to guard his head and crack his adversary’s, he very soon realized the advantages of stopping a blow with his arm, in the hope of effecting a successful counter at the same moment.”
From Walker's "Defensive Exercises"

This, however, often turned the fight in to a wrestling match as players would seize their opponent’s stick with the unarmed hand. This was corrected by making a rule that “although the arm might be used for parrying, the position of the hand should be fixed by grasping the belt. Finally, the belt or handkerchief was passed under the thigh and tied in a loop of such length that, when it was firmly grasped with the left hand, the elbow could be raised as high as the crown.” This allowed the left arm to block blows.


Not much was written on singlestick during this period, since most of its purveyors were likely uneducated. Probably the most comprehensive was a piece by Donald Walker in his 1840 book Defensive Exercises. This book had a chapter on the method for singlestick, along with fencing, broad sword, wrestling, throwing, guns and rifles and other combat styles.

Walker states that “Basket-sticks, similar to those used in broad-sword exercise, but rather heavier, are used for this exercise. Both parties strip to the shirt. In some parts of the country, paddings are used to save the arms, especially the elbows; but this is never done in London.”
Spalding Fencing Equipment 1915

Thomas Hughes, the author of the 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days, recalls the weapon used in backswording of his youthful days.
“The weapon is a good stout ash-stick, with a large basket handle, heavier and somewhat shorter than a common singlestick.

Alfred Hutton, the eminent Victorian fencer and scholar, suggests in the 1911 Encyclopaedia of Sport and Games Volume IV that, though not in general use, a sort of demi-mask was sometimes employed, covering the face up to the eyebrows and leaving the upper part of the head exposed.
Singlestick Demi-Mask as Described by Hutton

Singlestick Play – Method of Play
The match would start with a hand shake and a somewhat perilous pronouncement of “God preserve our eyes!” Pollock notes that a single bout could last an half an hour and more without a blood.

Pollock describes the conditions of a match in his article. “Under such conditions there could be no question of lunging or retiring, and consequently the adepts of this ungraceful art, when intent on winning a stake or a new gold-laced hat by breaking a head, had to stand squarely to each other and within close measure. Starting from a high hanging guard, keeping their hands as high as possible, and covering the left side of their head with their raised elbow, they belaboured each other with their baskethilted cudgels until blood made its appearance, when the seconds would stop the fight to see whether at least an inch of the crimson token of defeat could be measured.”

Pollock also gives some of the strategy. “Long practical experience having proved how difficult it is to draw blood out of a man’s head by a heavy round blow, the expert player’s chief aim was to find or create an opportunity for a “nip” at the head or face which would tear the skin. He might be content with trying to overcome his adversary by scientific traversing and superior quickness of eye and hand, or he might attempt to compel him to lower his guard or his elbow by merciless cuts on the ribs or shoulders. In the latter case, however, he risked receiving the fatal flip himself should his opponent have the fortitude to disregard all body-cuts, so as to be ready to profit by the slightest opening.”
From Walker's "Defensive Exercises"

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica also describes the action of singlestick play: “Under the first and second Georges back-sword play with sticks was immensely popular under the names “cudgel-play” and “singlesticking.” Not only in the cities but in the country districts as well, wrestling being its only rival. Towards the end of the 18th century the play became very restricted. The players were placed near together, the feet remaining immovable and all strokes being delivered with a whip-like action of the wrist from a high hanging guard, the hand being held above the head. Blows on any part of the body above the waist were allowed, but all except those aimed at the head were employed only to gain openings, as each bout was decided only by a “broken head,” i.e. a cut on the head that drew blood. At first the left hand and arm were used to ward off blows not parried with the stick, but near the close of the 18th century the left hand grasped a scarf tied loosely round the left thigh, the elbow being raised to protect the face.”
The Old Guard

And in Tom Brown’s School Days, Thomas Hughes gives a more appreciative description of the action. “The players are called “old gamsters,” – why, I can’t tell you, - and their object is to break one another’s heads. If good men are playing, the quickness of the return is marvellous; you hear the rattle like that a boy makes drawing his stick along pailings, 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.”

From the December 1809 article in Sporting Magazine is a description of the rules.
  1. That the stage should not be less than sixteen feet square – the ring of ropes from forty to fifty feet diameter.
  2. The basket sticks to be three feet two inches in length
  3. The winner of most heads to carry the prize
  4. Should a stick break, or fall out of the hand, and the adversary, not observing, strike, and the blow so given draw, blood, the head, nevertheless, is not to be allowed.
  5. No head to be allowed, except the blood runs an inch above the chin.
  6. The umpire to decide all the disputes.
The article continues on to outline the order of the matches, and concludes that the furnished prizes should consist of those usually given, such as a hat with gold or silver lace of from fifteen to thirty shillings value, or a purse of from twenty to fifty shillings. 

Walker’s 1840 book Defensive Exercises describes the method used for singlestick fighters.
“Most players prefer to stand with the right foot forward; but some prefer the left. The body is held upright; the head, backward; the leg, straight; the right arm, advanced and nearly straight; the hand, opposite the forehead, but rather higher; the stick, slanting towards the left shoulder. The left hand grasps a handkerchief, which is tied loosely round the left thigh; and the left elbow is elevated and thrown forward, so as to protect the head. The principal point of attack is the head; first blood from it, or from the face or neck, above the level of the lower jaw, being decisive. In the position already described, the head is thoroughly protected. It is, therefore, necessary to get the adversary out of that position before attacking his head. This may be attempted by attacking him under the arm, at the point of the elbow, or on the ribs; or you may wait until he attacks you, and then try to strike at his head before he can get back to guard. All the blows are to be made from the wrist, the great art being to strike them as quickly as possible, and return to the primary position, in which the head is thoroughly protected, before the adversary can get at it.
The Guard from Walker's "Defensive Exercises"

Singlestick would evolve during the Victorian era to more of a saber fencing style, and continue to refer to other styles such as the French la canne, which shall be further investigated in part 2.