James Figg (d. 8 December 1734)

Identifiers

Occupations

  • Master of the Noble Science of Defence
  • Victualler
  • Prize-fighter

Names

  • James Figg
  • James Fig

Biographical details

Allison Muri, University of Saskatchewan
June 2022

Long was the great Figg, by the Prize fighting Swains,
Sole Monarch acknowledg'd, of Marrowbone Plains;

London Journal 327, October 30, 1725

James Figg, Master of the "Noble Science of Defence," was born in 1684, in Thame, Oxfordshire. He began his career in London by 1714 as a scholar of Master Timothy Buck of Clare Market, and specialized throughout his career in "Trials of Skill" (combats with weapons such as swords, daggers, and quarterstaffs). His earliest bouts were largely at the Boarded House in the Bear Garden in Marylebone Fields, shown on Henry Pratt's plan of "Marybone" (1708).

Figg established his House at the sign of the City of Oxford near Adam and Eve Court just off Tyburn Road (also called Oxford Street) in 1721. Here on the 16th of November, 1724, the condemned thief Jack Sheppard is said to have stopped for a drink on the way to his execution at Tyburn:

In his Way he call'd upon Mr. Figg, the famous Prize-Fighter, to take a reconciling Glass; and Mr. Figg gave him a Pint of Glass of Sack and a Toast, which he drank, and took his Farewel.—Parker's London News or the Impartial Intelligencer 937, Wednesday, November 18, 1724

Figg supposedly fought a farewell bout at the Bear Garden in August 1723, but he continued to accept the odd challenge at that venue:

Our Modern Gladiators at Marybone on Wednesday last seem'd to be more in Earnest with their Sharps than usual: for after Figg, a noted Master of the Science, had entirely disabled his Antagonist, as his farewell to the Bear-Garden, another of these useful Heroes mounted, and gave a voluntary Challenge to be immediately decided; which was accepted by a Person commonly call'd the Bold Brasier, and, in a few hearty Cuts, his Boldness was defeated.—Daily Journal 795, Friday, August 9, 1723

Yesterday a Prize was fought at Marybone, between the famous Figg and one Mr. Donald in plain Buff, as they call it, which being uncommon, brought a greater Concourse of People there than has been known on any of the like Occasions; but they were disappointed of much Sport by the former's cutting the latter on the outside of the Arm, and entirely disabling him not only for the present, but likely for ever.—Daily Journal 824, Thursday, September 12, 1723

In 1724 Figg built an Amphitheatre attached to or next to his House. The address given in advertisements was "Figg's new Amphitheatre, joining to his House, the Sign of the City of Oxford, in Oxford Road, Marybone Fields."

The new Amphitheatre was the cause of a dispute between Figg and his landlord Bouch, who claimed Figg had erected a room on the property without a lease to do so. Figg won the suit in November 1726, a decision of much interest to the papers, which generally repeated the same details:

This Evening there is to be an Hearing before the Master of the Rolls, between Mr. James Figg the famous Prize-Fighter, and Mr. Bouch a noted Mason, his Landlord, concerning the Amphitheatre built by the said Mr. Figg at his House in Tyburn-Road, without Leave or Lease from his said Landlord.—Daily Journal 1823, Thursday, November 17, 1726

Yesterday in the Evening came on before Sir Joseph Jekyll Kt. Master of the Rolls, a Hearing between Mr. Bouch, Landlord to Mr. Figg, the famous Prize-fighter, and the said Mr. Figg, about the Amphitheatre built in Oxford Road near Marybone Fields, which went for the latter, with Costs of the Suit.—Daily Post 2238, Friday, November 25, 1726

Following this decision Figg advertised the premises as "Mr. Figg's regularly licens'd Amphitheatre, at his House, the Sign of the City of Oxford in Oxford Road, Marybone Fields" (Daily Post 2273, Thursday, January 5, 1727). Subsequently, the combats were advertised as taking place at "Mr. Figg's Great Room, at his House, the Sign of the City of Oxford in Oxford Road, Marybone Fields."

The Great Room was taken over from 1732 to 1733 by Figg's pupil Thomas Sibblis, with the location of the Amphitheatre now identified as "Sibblis's Great Room, (Late Mr. Figg's) in Oxford Road, in the Adam and Eve Passage." 

Figg died at his house in Oxford Road on the night of December 8, 1734. Newspapers reported that Figgs's son was born the day after:

Last Thursday 7 Night Mr. Figg, the celebrated British Prize-Fighter, was buried at St. Mary-le-Bone, and the Night following his Wife was delivered of a young Champion.—London Journal 808, Saturday, December 21, 1734

The best biography of James Figg is by Tony Gee, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi-org.cyber.usask.ca/10.1093/ref:odnb/9417.

The Environs of London Volume 3, County of Middlesex, by Daniel Lysons (1795)

Marylebone Extracts from the Register. … "James Figg, buried December 11, 1734." The celebrated prizefighter.53—The amphitheatres of the prize-fighters afforded in his time a favourite amusement, which reflects little credit on the humanity of the age. These trials of skill were frequently attended with much hurt, and were sometimes fatal to the combatants.54 Figg, who long bore the palm of victory from all competitors, is extolled by Captain Godfrey in his treatise of the science of defence, as the greatest master of the art that he had ever seen; he calls him the Atlas of the sword, and says, that he united strength, resolution, and unparalleled judgment.55 He was for many years proprietor of the boardedhouse in Marybone-fields, near Oxford-road. Here he frequently exhibited his own skill, and at other times made matches between the most celebrated masters or mistresses of the art, for the noble science of defence was not confined to the male sex; we find Mrs. Stokes, the famous city championess, challenging the Hibernian heroines to meet her at Mr. Figg's.56 Sometimes bear-baiting, tiger-baiting, &c. were exhibited at this amphitheatre.57 A bull-fight was once advertised to be performed by the grimace Spaniard, who had for some time amused the town by making ugly faces. A great company was drawn together by the novelty of the promised entertainment, but it ended as the business of the bottle-conjuror did some years afterwards.58 A portrait of Figg is introduced by Hogarth, in his second plate of the Rake's Progress. There is a print of him in mezzotinto by Faber. After Figg's death, the celebrated Broughton occupied an amphitheatre near the same spot, and was for many years the hero of bruisers, as Figg had been of the prize-fighters, till at last he was beaten on his own stage, by Slack a butcher.59 The victor was supposed to have gained 600l. by the event of the battle; the sums won and lost by the bye-standers were to a great amount, the house being crowded with amateurs, some of whom were of very high rank. Not long afterwards a stop was put to all public exhibitions of boxing and prize-fighting, by act of parliament. They had been long found prejudicial, in a great degree, to the morals of the people, and were grown into disrepute, even among the amateurs of the art, who found that the stage-owners imposed upon them by making up sham battles, in which the combatants had settled the event before they mounted the stage. From about the year 1730 to 1750, the newspapers teemed with their advertisements, which generally contained the challenges and answers of the boxers, all couched in the same style of boasting assurance.60


Footnotes

  1. A poem of Dr. Byrom's (printed in Dodsley's collection), describing a famous combat between Figg and Sutton, begins, "Long liv'd the great Figg, by the prize-fighting swains "Sole monarch acknowledged of Marybone plains."
  2. In one of the advertisements from Broughton's amphitheatre, announcing a trial of skill between two prize-fighters, it was promised that the beauty of the sword should be rigorously displayed, and that there should be no bandage nor wound drest till the battle was over. Rowland Bennet, who frequently fought at Broughton's, generally made it his boast in his challenges, that the ever-memorable gladiator Timothy Buck (celebrated in the 436th number of the Spectator) fell by his unfortunate hand. Daily Advertiser, July 3, 1745.
  3. Page 41.
  4. "We hear that the gentlemen of Ireland have been long picking out an Hibernian heroine to match Mrs. Stokes, the bold and famous city championess; there is now one arrived here, who, by her make and stature, seems mighty enough to eat her up: However, Mrs. Stokes, being true English blood, (and remembering some late reflections that were cast upon her husband by some of that country volk,) is resolved to fee her out vi at armis. This being like to prove a notable and diverting engagement, its not doubted but abundance of gentlemen will croud to Mr. Figg's amphitheatre on Wednesday the 24th instant, on purpose to see this uncommon performance." Mist's Journal, Nov. 20, 1725.
  5. Read's Journal, July 22, 1721.
  6. See Read's Journal, Nov. 8, and Nov. 22, 1718.
  7. The following advertisement announced this celebrated combat.—"The battle between Mr. John Broughton and Mr. John Slack will be decided at the Amphitheatre in Oxford-road, to-morrow the 11th instant, exactly at 11 o'clock. Note : By desire of several noblemen and gentlemen, tickets for the matted galleries will be delivered out at Mr. Broughton's house in the Haymarket. "As Mr. Broughton some time since took leave of the stage, it may not be improper to acquaint the publick, that nothing but an insult, which to let pass unresented would highly impeach his manhood, could ever have provoked him again into the lists; but he flatters himself it will only furnish an opportunity to add one more wreath to that trophy which, during the space of twentyfour years, he has been raising by an uninterrupted course of victories; and henceforth hopes that he shall meet with the indulgence of the old Roman champion, and be at liberty with him to say Hic victor cæstus artemque repono."
  8. The two following advertisements may serve as specimens of the language of the amphitheatres.—"At Broughton's new Amphitheatre in Oxford-road, the back of the late Mr. Figg's, on Wednesday next the 13th instant, will be exhibited an experimental lecture in manhood, by Hawksley and Benjamin Boswell, professors of athletics. "My behaviour in a late combat with Mr. Smallwood, notwithstanding my inexperience at that time in the art of boxing, having given a favourable opinion of my prowess, and being ambitious to give a farther demonstration of it, do now invite the celebrated Mr. Boswell to a trial of his abilities; and doubt not, in spite of his jawbreaking talents, to give him so manly a reception, as to convince the spectators that I need not despair of one day arriving at a Broughtonian excellence in this science; nay, perhaps, of obliging that all-conquering hero himself to submit his laurels, and resign the boasted Hic victor in his motto, to "I shall do my endeavour to convince my antagonist, that though ambition may excite him to the attempt, yet great abilities are necessary to secure him success in this arduous undertaking; and believe I shall stop the progress of this aspiring upstart in his imaginary race of glory, and totally expel all thoughts of laurels, mottoes, &c. out of his head, by the strength of the arm of, "Gentlemen, your old combatant, "Benjamin Boswell." Daily Adv. Nov. 1745. "Aut Cæsar, aut nullus. "At Broughton's Amphitheatre, this day the 11th instant, will be a tremendous decision of manhood, between the celebrated champions James and Smallwood. The various proofs these heroes have given of their superior skill in the manual combat having justly made them the deliciæ pugnacis generis, and being too ambitious to admit of rivalship in the lifts of fame, are determined, by death or victory, to decide their pretensions to the palm. As not only their whole "fortunes, but, what is much more dear to them, their whole stock of glory is at stake, it is not doubted but the utmost efforts of art and nature will be exhibited in this encounter; and thereby the dignity of this heroic science be vindicated from the scandal it has suffered from some late unequal conflicts, occasioned by the unmanly attempts of vain pretenders who are totally unqualified for such arduous undertakings. Note: As this contest is like to be rendered horrible with blood and bruises, all Frenchmen are desired to come sortified with a proper quantity of hartshorn; and it is hoped the ladies of Hockley and St. Giles's who should happen to be pregnant will absent themselves upon this occasion, left the terror of the spectacles should unhappily occasion the loss of some young champion to posterity.—Noblemen and gentlemen are desired to send for tickets to Mr. Broughton's, in the Haymarket, which will admit them into a part of the house appropriated for their better accommodation, price 5 s." Daily Adv. Dec. 1745.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

FIGG, JAMES (d. 1734), pugilist, was a native of Thame, Oxfordshire. He became a master of the ‘noble art’ of self-defence, and established an amphitheatre or academy of arms adjoining his house, the sign of the ‘City of Oxford,’ in Oxford Road, Marylebone Fields, London. There he taught the use of the small- and back-sword, cudgelling, and pugilism to a large number of gentlemen, and his fame as a swordsman became so great that he was praised in the ‘Tatler,’ ‘Guardian,’ and ‘Craftsman.’ Figg frequently displayed his own skill, and at other times made matches between the most eminent professors, both male and female, of the art of defence. On one occasion Mrs. Stokes, the famous city championess, challenged the ‘Hibernian heroines’ to meet her at Figg's. Sometimes bear-baiting and tiger-baiting were exhibited at the amphitheatre, and once a bull-fight was advertised, though it did not come off. The popularity of these entertainments is evidenced by the fact that the doors were opened three hours before the performance began. Byrom notes in his journal, on 14 April 1725: ‘We took coach to Figg's amphitheatre, where Mr. Leycester paid 2s. 6d. for me. Figg and Sutton fought. Figg had a wound, and bled pretty much; Sutton had a blow with a quarterstaff just upon his knee, which made him lame, so then they gave over’ (Remains, i. 117). A humorous poem was written by Byrom on this trial of skill (Dodsley, Collection of Poems, ed. 1775, vi. 286; Malcolm, Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London, edit. 1810, ii. 165):

Long was the great Figg by the prize-fighting swains
Sole monarch acknowledged of Marybone plains.

It is turned into prose in Thackeray's ‘Virginians.’ Indeed, neither Ned Sutton, the pipe-maker of Gravesend and champion of Kent, nor Tom Buck, nor Bob Stokes, could resist his skill and valour. He was never beaten but once, and then by Sutton in one of their previous combats; and the defeat was generally allowed to have been owing to Figg's illness at the time. In August 1725 a singular contest took place in the amphitheatre. Sutton and a female ‘heroine’ of Kent fought Stokes and his consort of London. The sum of 40l. was to be paid to the man or woman who gave the most cuts with the sword, and 20l. to the combatant who dealt the most blows at quarterstaff, besides the collection in the box. Figg fought his 271st battle in October 1730, with one Holmes, whose wrist he cut to the bone. In December 1731 he and Sparks contended with the broadsword at the French or Little Theatre in the Haymarket, before the Duke of Lorraine, Count Kinski, and other persons of distinction. A newspaper of the day observed that ‘the beauty and judgment of the sword was delineated in a very extraordinary manner by these two champions, and with very little bloodshed; his serene highness was extremely pleased, and expressed his entire satisfaction, and ordered them a handsome gratuity.’ Figg kept a great tiled booth on the Bowling Green, Southwark, during the time of the fair, and entertained the town with the ‘manly arts of foil-play, back-sword, cudgelling, and boxing.’ The performances began daily at noon, and closed at ten o'clock (Egan, Boxiana, i. 44). Figg died on 7 Dec. 1734, and was buried on the 11th in Marylebone churchyard. Captain John Godfrey says: ‘Fig was the Atlas of the sword, and may he remain the gladiating statue. In him strength, resolution, and unparallel'd judgement conspired to form a matchless Master. There was a Majesty shone in his countenance and blazed in all his actions beyond all I ever saw. … He was just as much a greater Master than any other I ever saw, as he was a greater judge of time and measure’ (Treatise upon the Science of Defence, 1747, pp. 40, 41). His portrait, by J. Ellys, was engraved by Faber. Another portrait, painted by Hogarth, was bought by Mr. Vernon at Samuel Ireland's sale in 1801 for 11s. There are also portraits of Figg in Hogarth's ‘Modern Midnight Conversation,’ the ‘Rake's Progress,’ plate 2, and ‘Southwark Fair.’ One of Figg's tickets of admission, engraved by Hogarth, is highly prized by collectors.


[Nichols's Anecdotes of Hogarth (1833), pp. 298, 387; Egan's Boxiana, i. 20–9, 44; Byrom's Remains, i. 194; Hist. Reg. 1735, Chron. Diary, p. 6; Lysons's Environs, iii. 259; Malcolm's London Anecdotes (1808), pp. 46, 339–42, 344–6; Noble's Contin. of Granger, iii. 479; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, Nos. 3874, 3875; Thackeray's Virginians; Thornbury's Old and New London, iv. 406, 430, 455, vi. 58; Reliquiæ Hearnianæ (1869), iii. 164; Cunningham's Handbook of London (1849), ii. 534; Hone's Everyday Book, ii. 780.]

T. C.