18th Century Cudgelling Matches

This is a sport that seems unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon – hopefully.  Cudgelling was a type of duel fought with wooden weapons and was also known as ‘single stick’, with its origin dating back to around Tudor times.

The aim of the competition was to break your opponent’s head with a single-stick i.e. to cut the skin on the head, face or neck so that blood was drawn. When the crowd saw blood, they would shout ‘a head’.  What a relaxing pastime this sounds, those Georgians sure knew how to have fun!

A Cudgelling Match between English and French Negroes in the Island of Dominica. courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art
A Cudgelling Match between English and French Negroes in the Island of Dominica. courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art

Competitors needed to be both strong and agile and have great speed as it could take quite some time to hit your opponent hard enough to draw blood.

The newspapers carried reports of this combative sport, so we thought we would share a few with you.

Reading Mercury 13 May 1799

On Whit-Thursday the 16th May 1799, will be given a very good hat of 15-shilling value to be played at cudgels for, the man that breaks most heads to have their prize; the blood to run one inch or be deemed no head, which is to be decided by the umpires. No counterfeit play will be allowed.

From 'Chairing the Member, from The Humours of an Election series', 1755 by William Hogarth. Wikipedia
From ‘Chairing the Member, from The Humours of an Election series’, 1755 by William Hogarth. Wikipedia

Reading Mercury 21 May 1798

On Whit – Monday the 28th of May 1798, will be given One Guinea to be played for at Cudgels, for the best man; two Shillings for the man that break a head; and One Shilling for the man that has his head broken for the first seven couples that play. No man to have the two shillings, unless he plays the ties off, with the consent of the umpires.

Fight with Cudgels, Francisco de Goya. Prado Museum.
Fight with Cudgels, Francisco de Goya. Prado Museum.

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Thursday, September 26, 1765

Monday afternoon a cudgelling match was fought on Wandsworth hill, for a laced hat, for the value of one moidore. The opponents on each side were nine, one part of which were named the London side and the other the Wandsworth side. Great dexterity was displayed during the contest by both parties, particularly by a dyer, a sugar cooper and a carpenter, on the London side; and by a maltster, a gardener and a farmer’s labourer on the Wandsworth side. When, after the whose eighteen had undergone a very severe drubbing, each from his antagonist, fortune though proper to bestow the hat on the countrymen, by a small pimple under the eye of one of the London side, breaking through his overstretching, from which sprung a little bloody tinged matter, which the umpire was held to be broken head.

Public Advertiser (London, England), Thursday, August 28, 1755

On Wednesday, there was a cudgelling match for a hat, on the Strand, near the ferryboat slip, when a quarrel ensued, several were wounded, and a woman killed by a stone being thrown at her.

London Evening Post, September 6, 1733 – September 8, 1733

There will be a cudgelling match each forenoon on the Race Days for two Guineas to him that breaks most heads, half a Guinea to the second person that breaks most heads, and Five Shillings to the third.

London Evening Post, August 14, 1733 – August 16, 1733

Hindon Races

There will be a cudgel match each forenoon (from nine to one o’clock) on the race days, for very considerable prizes.

6 thoughts on “18th Century Cudgelling Matches

    1. Sarah Murden

      That’s a good question. We didn’t find anywhere that actually specified, there were adverts calling for ‘gentlemen players’ and ‘gentlemen gamesters’, but that could simply mean males irrespective of social ‘class’. The rules appear to only apply to the contests themselves rather than to those who could participate. If we do find anything more specific we will be sure to update the post.


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  2. David

    “Stick fighting” is still common among youth in certain African cultures, the Zulu being a good example. It is considered manly, encourages bravery and stoicism, and hones the skills that would be useful on military campaigns. I think it is cultural and have never known it to have any pecuniary advantages.


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