WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Belcher

This week’s word brought to you by the “no, it doesn’t mean that” police.

Belcher

A red silk handkerchief, intermixed with yellow and a little black. “The kiddey flashes his belcher:” the young fellow wears a silk handkerchief round his neck.

Whither my Love! ..Ah.. Whither are thou gone by Isaac Cruikshank after G.M. Woodward, 1798, public domain.

The kerchief’s namesake, James Belcher, was born in Bristol on 15 April 1781. He was the son of a butcher and raised to be such, but a talent for pugilism was in his blood: his mother was the daughter of Jack Slack, a famous fighter known as the “Norfolk Butcher.” James was much more successful than his grandfather, earning his own nickname, the “Napoleon of the Ring.” He was a natural fighter, with a form described as elegant; he himself was known to be “good-humoured, finely proportioned, and well-looking.” Pierce Egan, journalist, sportswriter, and general popular culture “man in the know,” wrote in 1812 in Boxiana, “Belcher’s style was original.…His antagonists were terrified by his gaiety and decision…and fightingmen in general were confounded with his sangfroid and intrepidity.”

Can you imagine Sports Illustrated writing of a boxer’s “sangfroid and intrepidity” in 2018, and anyone knowing what was meant? Sigh.

The New Coinage -or- John Bulls Visit to Mat of the Mint by James Gillray, published February 1817, public domain.

Belcher had a relatively short career because he had such a short life, dying at age 30 in 1811. He lost an eye by accident in 1803, and his fighting prowess began to decline as a result of the diminished vision and loss of depth perception. His last fight took place on 1 February 1809, and it was a punishing loss after thirty-one rounds. This battle robbed him of his former good humor, and he slipped into a foul disposition and depression.  He remains known as “one of the gamest fighters ever seen in the prize-ring,” and his name was as well known as Prime Minister Pitt and the Duke of Wellington.

The Sailor and the Quack Doctor by Isaac Cruikshank after G.M. Woodward, 1807, public domain.

And like Wellington and his boots, Belcher was also remembered by an article of namesake clothing: the belcher is a handkerchief that first began as blue and white spotted but now loosely applies to any variegated kerchief tied around the neck.

James Belcher, Bare-Knuckle Champion of England, by Benjamin Marshal (1768-1835), Tate Museum.

 

  • Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
  • Wikisource has a nice-sized biography of James Belcher, which includes accounts of his more notable fights.
  • Learn the fascinating story of Norfolk Butcher, Jack Slack, at All Things Georgian.
  • If you want to know Boxing back in the day, you must work your way through Boxiana by Pierce Egan. Or just follow him on Twitter.
  • Tom Dick & Harry gives a brief history of the English Bandanna and its founding father, James Belcher.
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