Figg, James (DNB00)

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.