BRITISH COMICS

(Rover Homepage)

GIPSY JEM OF THE BOW STREET RUNNERS

Last episode taken from The Rover issue: 1714 May 3rd 1958.

One man stood between Jem Hawthorn, the gipsy, and the Championship of England. That was the champion himself, the famous Ned Crabb.

 

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the name of Crabb was known to every member of the fancy, as the followers of boxing were called. Hawthorn, however, was almost equally well known. In a short space of time he had fought his way to the top. Hawthorn was well known for another reason. He was a constable in the force of six men controlled by blind John Fielding, the magistrate of Bow Street. The idea of a police force was new in London, and many people had opposed Fielding’s plans at first. But the successes of his small force were changing public opinion, and the constables were becoming accepted. They were, in fact the beginnings of the famous Bow Street Runners. Hawthorn had beaten every challenger on his way to the Championship. After defeating Tom Barton, he sent the usual formal challenge to Ned Crabb. Three weeks after the challenge, he still had no definite reply from the champion. “He keeps putting off a meeting with excuses,” said Hawthorn, when John Fielding asked him what progress he was making. Fielding, who always wore a black bandage across his eyes, nodded. “The champion is afraid of you, Jem,” he said. “You think so?” asked Hawthorn. “I am certain of it,” said Fielding. “You will have a hard job to bring him up to the mark, Jem.” “I am going to him now, to repeat my challenge to his face,” answered Hawthorn. Ned Crabb ran a boxing academy not far from Bow Street. It was the sort of business that many successful fighters dabbled in. The bucks and dandies of the day often fancied themselves as sportsmen, and would pay well for lessons from an expert. Hawthorn walked round to the academy, which was situated in a quite street in Westminster. As he approached the entrance, he noticed that there was a coach waiting outside the building. Blinds were drawn at the windows of the coach. Hawthorn was a good judge of horses, and he could see that the team hitched to the coach were magnificent animals. A man who owned such horses must be a man of importance. The coach, however, had no coat-of-arms or other insignia on its panels. It was painted plain black. As Hawthorn reached the boxing academy, a figure wrapped in a cloak came hurrying out. From the build and light step, Hawthorn guessed that the person was only a youth, but he could not see the face. The young man climbed quickly into the coach. The coachman whipped up the horses, and the coach clattered away. It was a mysterious incident, and Hawthorn stored it away in his mind. As a constable, he found anything unusual of interest. But his first concern was to see Ned Crabb. Briskly he strode into the building. Ned Crabb had just finished a bout of sparring. He was hanging up his practice gloves, and chatting to a group of elegant young men who lounged about the ring. Hawthorn, with his athlete’s built and homespun clothes, was a contrast to the languid dandies. Crabb frowned as he saw Hawthorn approach. Then he forced a smile. “Have you come for a lesson, gipsy?” he called. The fashionable young men laughed, but Hawthorn replied calmly. “All I have come for is an answer to my challenge, Ned,” he said. “When will you meet me?” Crabb smiled again. He was as tall as Hawthorn, a few years older, but in the prime of his strength. “Why should I meet you?” he said, lightly. “I am the champion.” “I mean to take the title from you,” said Hawthorn. There was no trace of boasting in his voice. “I have defeated all the challengers between us. You must meet me.” “No one says ‘must’ to me!” rapped Crabb. “An upstart like you has to wait his turn! I have no need to fight every man who has a pair of fists!” “I repeat my challenge in front of these witnesses,” continued Hawthorn, patiently. “I ask you to meet me for your Championship!” “And I say I please myself what challenges I accept!” retorted Crabb. “Leave my academy! I can waste no more time with you!” Hawthorn looked at him steadily for a moment. Then the gipsy turned and walked out. He knew now that John Fielding was right. The champion was afraid to meet him.

 

THE FIGHTING PRINCE

 

Fielding was waiting when Hawthorn got back to Bow Street. The magistrate listened in silence as Hawthorn related what had happened. “You will have to keep repeating your challenge, Jem,” he said, when Hawthorn had finished.

 

“Crabb will have to meet you in the end, or admit publicly he is afraid.” “I want to meet him now, not in six months’ time,” growled Hawthorn. From outside came the rumble of wheels as a carriage stopped. Hawthorn went to the window. The coach that had halted in front of John Fielding’s house was the one with the drawn blinds that Hawthorn had seen outside Crabb’s academy. The young man in the cloak jumped down and hurried to the house door. Hawthorn heard Fielding’s servant open the door, and a mumble of voices. Then the young man burst into the room. He was still muffled up, and his hat was pulled over his eyes. “Mr Justice Fielding!” he exclaimed. “I must speak to you in confidence!” “Jem Hawthorn is one of my trusted men,” said Fielding, calmly. “You may speak freely in front of him.” “This is a very confidential matter,” said the young man, doubtfully. “You may rely on our discretion, Your Highness,” said Fielding. “You know me!” exclaimed the young man. “A blind man remembers voices,” said Fielding, mildly. “I have heard you speak when I have been at the Palace of Westminster.” The young man dropped his cloak and flung his hat in a corner. He had a rather stolid face, and he would not have attracted attention in a crowd, but for one thing—he was the heir to the throne! “Jem, our visitor is His Royal Highness the Prince George,” said Fielding, “grandson of our monarch, King George II.” Titles did not awe Hawthorn, and he looked with frank curiosity at the young Prince. At that time, George was about seventeen or eighteen. His father, the Prince of Wales, was dead, and George was heir to his grandfather. In a few years time, he would be crowned as George III. But there was nothing particularly regal about the Prince at this moment. He had the air of a youngster who was in trouble, and had no idea how to get out of it. “How can we help you, Your Highness?” asked Fielding. “I came because of the reputation you and your constables are making,” answered the Prince. “But this must be between ourselves, you understand! No word of it must reach the King.” “You have my word for it,” said Fielding. The prince hesitated, then went on quickly. “I have lost a ring! A diamond ring my grandfather gave me!” “Stolen, you mean?” said Fielding. “I think so,” nodded the Prince. “And I think I know where. That is why the King must not know!” “At Crabb’s boxing academy?” suggested Hawthorn. The Prince turned to him in surprise. “I saw you come out of there not long ago,” explained hawthorn. “Yes,” said the Prince. “I have been going there secretly for lessons. My grandfather would forbid me to mix with prizefighters if he knew! But every man of fashion learns how to use his maulies nowadays!” Hawthorn’s expression did not change, but it amused him to hear the Prince using the slang of the ring. It seemed unlikely that the heir to the throne would ever have much opportunity to use his maulies in earnest. “Two or three times a week I spar with Ned Crabb,” said the Prince, a note of pride in his voice. “Naturally, I take off my rings when I wear the practice gloves. I remember taking off my diamond ring before the bout today. It was not until I was on my way back to the palace that I realised I hadn’t picked the ring up again. I could not remember seeing it after the fight.” “You have inquired at Crabb’s academy?” asked Fielding. “I sent my man back there, but the ring was not to be found,” answered the prince. “Crabb swore he had not seen it.” “And you believe him?” asked Fielding. “I have never suspected Crabb of dishonesty,” said the Prince. He frowned. “But you see what that means? The other men there were my friends, a discreet circle of high-born gentlemen who could be relied on to keep silent about my visits. If Crabb did not take the ring, one of my friends did!” “A considerable scandal, if it came out!” said Fielding, drily. “The heir to the throne robbed at a boxing academy by one of his noble friends!” “Exactly!” gasped the Prince. “You understand why my grandfather must not know? I must get that ring back before the King notices I am not wearing it!” “We will do all we can, Your Highness,” Fielding assured him. “Can you give me a list of all the men who were at the boxing academy with you today?” Hawthorn brought pen and paper, and the Prince scribbled a list of names. Fielding bowed his thanks. “And now leave it to us, Your Highness,” he said. “We will report as soon as possible.” “Do not come near the palace!” said the Prince, hastily. “There are too many wagging tongues there! I will come to you, late tonight.” He hurried out, his cloak wrapped round him again. Fielding smiled faintly. “Read out that list of names, Jem,” he said. The Blind Beak sat silent as Hawthorn read of the names of friends of the Prince who had been present at the academy. “Lord Harrowby!” repeated Fielding, as Jem came to the last name. “That’s interesting. “I saw him there,” nodded Hawthorn. “A young buck with a fortune in clothes on his back!” “And you can wager he still owes his tailor the money,” said Fielding. “Harrowby is in debt to his ears. He has lost so much at the gaming tables at Fallon’s that he has been forbidden by Fallon to visit the place again until he settles what he owes.” Fallon’s was a well-known club, much patronized by the young dandies of the city. “You believe Harrowby is the thief?” said Hawthorn. “A man would have to be desperate to steal from the heir to the throne,” replied Fielding. “Crabb may be reluctant to fight you, but I do not think he is a thief. Besides, he would not endanger his valuable connection with royalty in such a foolish way. Of all the other men present, Harrowby seems the only one in sufficient trouble to take the risk.” “Shall we call on him?” suggested Hawthorn. “We must handle this carefully, Jem,” said Fielding. “Remember, no scandal must leak out. Can you watch Harrowby for a time without arousing his suspicions?” “Ay, that I can,” growled Hawthorn. “Then see how he behaves,” instructed Fielding. “Look for the signs of a debt-ridden man who has suddenly acquired wealth!”

 

A ROYAL REWARD

 

Fielding sat alone in his room that evening. The room was in darkness, but a blind man did not need light. Fielding was patiently waiting, and he turned his head towards the door when he heard footsteps.

 

Hawthorn came in, carrying a candle. “What news, Jem?” asked Fielding, before Hawthorn spoke. The Blind Beak had recognised the footsteps. “Harrowby did not stir out until this evening,” answered Jem. “Then, half an hour ago, I followed him across town. He went to Fallon’s.” “Fallon’s!” repeated Fielding. “I waited, but he did not come out again,” added Hawthorn. “It seems he has settled down for an evening at the gaming tables.” “Now we have him!” breathed Fielding. “Jem, be so good as to order my coach!” With Hawthorn at his side, Fielding was driven across town to Fallon’s. He rapped on the imposing door with his stick, and a powdered footman answered. The footman looked nervous when he recognised the Blind Beak, but he admitted them. Fallon, the owner of the club, looked equally nervous, but he conducted his two visitors to a private room. As they passed an open door, Hawthorn had a glimpse of the gaming tables, with men playing cards. Harrowby was there, talking noisily, his face flushed. When they were in the private room, Fallon closed the door carefully. “And now, Mr Fallon,” said Fielding. “I would like the diamond ring that Lord Harrowby gave you tonight!” Fielding could not see the expression on Fallon’s face, but he heard the man gasp. “The diamond ring?” echoed Fallon. “How did you know Harrowby gave me a ring?” “I guessed!” said Fielding. “Harrowby was barred from your tables until he settled his debts. Tonight you admitted him again. It was not hard to suppose that he had given you the ring in payment of what he owed.” “That is true,” began Fallon. He stopped. “But why should you want the ring?” “Did Harrowby tell you where the ring came from?” asked Fielding. “He said it was a family heirloom that he was reluctantly forced to part with,” answered Fallon. “He deceived you,” said Fielding. “The ring was stolen.” “Stolen?” gasped Fallon. “From whom?” “That I cannot tell you,” said Fielding. “But if you will give it to me, I will see that it is returned to its owner.” He held out his hand. Fallon hesitated, then took a magnificent diamond ring from his pocket. Slowly he put the ring into Fielding’s hand. “Are you going to arrest Harrowby?” asked Fallon anxiously. “Such a scandal! In my club!” “There will be no arrest,” said Fielding. “You can tell Harrowby I am returning the ring to its owner. He will have to find some other way of settling what he owes you, I am afraid.” Hawthorn and Fielding rode back together to Bow Street. They were waiting in Fielding’s room when the coach with the drawn blinds clattered up to the house. The Prince hurried in, an anxious look on his face. “Have you any progress to report?” he gasped. For answer, Fielding held out the ring. The young Prince was speechless with relief for a while. Then taking the ring, he slipped it on his finger, stammering his thanks. Suddenly he frowned. “But where was it? Had it been stolen?” “We agreed that the less scandal about this, the better,” said Fielding. “Shall we leave it at that, Your Highness?” “But what can I do to show my gratitude? How can I reward you and your constable?” “I ask no reward,” answered Fielding. “It was my duty as a magistrate. But your Highness might do something for my constable.” “Name it!” said the Prince, grandly. “Persuade Ned Crabb to meet him for the Championship of England!” said Fielding. “The Championship?” repeated the Prince. “Jem Hawthorn is entitled to the fight, but Crabb is evading him,” explained Fielding. “You are Crabb’s patron. A word from you that you would like the fight to take place soon, and Crabb can hardly refuse.” The Prince smiled. “You shall have your fight, Hawthorn!” he said.

 

 

HARROWBY SEEKS REVENGE

 

Two days later, the Fancy was agog with the news that Ned Crabb had agreed to meet the gipsy to fight for the title. Another piece of news that caused less stir was that Lord Harrowby had disappeared.

 

A writ had been issued against him for debt, but the sheriff’s officers who arrived to escort him to the debtors’ prison found that he had fled. Hawthorn had forgotten Lord Harrowby. The gipsy was in serious training for the most important fight of his career. As usual, his training mainly consisted of sparring with Khan, his pet cheetah, on the wild and desolate Hampstead Heath. The fight was to be held in a field on the outskirts of the city. On the day of the match, streams of coaches and people on foot converged on the spot. Prominent in the crowds were parties of gypsies, Hawthorn’s Romany brothers, who were the gipsy fighter’s keenest fans. Hawthorn himself joined Fielding at Bow Street. The Blind Beak was to take Hawthorn to the fight in his coach. Hawthorn was quite calm as he discussed the fight with Fielding. This match was important to him, but he was never nervous at the prospect of a fight. “Well, the coach will be here in a moment, Jem,” remarked Fielding. “Time we were preparing to leave.” “I’ll fetch Khan,” answered Hawthorn. Before he could reach the door, it was flung open. A man jumped into the room, sword in hand, and kicked the door shut behind him. “Harrowby!” exclaimed Hawthorn. “Stand where you are, gipsy!” snapped Lord Harrowby. “You, too, Fielding!” “What are you doing here, Harrowby?” asked Fielding calmly. “I’ve come to kill you both!” said Harrowby. “Because of you two, I’m being hunted like a dog!” “because we stopped you from being branded a thief?” said Fielding. “Don’t be a fool, Harrowby!” “I’m going to cut you both down!” rapped Harrowby. “You’ll never be Champion of England, Hawthorn! I’m getting out of the country, but before I go I’m repaying you both!” He lifted his sword. Hawthorn stepped across in front of the Blind Beak. “Very noble!” sneered Harrowby. “But I’ll deal with Fielding when I’ve finished you, gipsy!” His blade flashed like a streak of light. Hawthorn flung himself aside. He stumbled, and went down. Harrowby lunged, Hawthorn tried to roll aside. A red weal showed through his torn stocking as the blade ripped his leg. The door was hurled open. A snarling figure had flung its weight at the woodwork. Khan leapt into the room. Harrowby screamed as the cheetah plunged for his throat. Hawthorn dragged himself to his feet. Shouting at Khan, he managed to drag the cheetah away. Harrowby lay limp, his clothes torn and bloodstained. Fielding still stood in the corner, where he had been trying to follow the fight between Harrowby and the gipsy. Hawthorn called to him. “It’s all right now! I’ll lock Harrowby away. Then we can leave for the fight!” He dragged Harrowby out. In the passage he paused. Blood was streaming down his leg from the sword thrust. He tore the stocking away, and wrapped a handkerchief round the wound.

 

THE LONG MAUL

 

Many accounts have been written about the fight between Ned Crabb and Jem Hawthorn for the Championship of England. It is still discussed as one of the classics of the bare-knuckle days.

 

When Hawthorn climbed into the ring, nobody knew that his new stockings hid the fact that there was a bandage round one leg. Fielding, of course, had not seen that sword slash, and nobody else knew of the fight with Harrowby. The leg was stiffening, and several boxing experts in the crowd noticed the unusually flat-footed way in which Hawthorn stood to his mark. It was his sure-footedness that had carried Hawthorn to victory in many fights. Ned Crabb looked solid and dangerous. He had been wary of meeting Hawthorn, but now the match had been forced on him he was ready to fight hard. It was not Hawthorn he was afraid of, but only the loss of his honours. A vast crowd was packed into the field. The gypsies gave Hawthorn a roaring cheer as the men toed the mark. Fielding sat in his coach at the back of the crowd, his hand on Khan’s collar. Not far away, a young man peered from behind the blinds of another coach, a plain black one. A great shout went up at the first set-to. Crabb swung a massive fist. But this time Hawthorn could not dance out of danger. His leg put a stop to fast footwork. He just blocked it, and hit back. Hawthorn and Ned Crabb hammered at each other, toe to toe, like two men made of iron. Crabb was one of the old breed, and this pounding suited him. He had beaten many a man by being able to absorb just that little bit more punishment than his opponent. After the fight had been on for over half an hour, it began to rain. Nobody in the crowd moved. The two fighters went on slogging it out in the mud. They both went down time after time, and came up again. A man was beaten if he could not toe the mark inside thirty seconds. But these two men looked unbeatable. They were soaked with rain, and streaked with mud and bloodstains. Bruises stood out on their ribs. Hawthorn’s mouth was swelling, and Crabb had a discoloured eye. Still they fought. The crowd had fallen silent, exhausted by their own excitement. But the two men in the ring fought on. The punches came slower. Both men were swaying on their feet. Their seconds watched them anxiously. But neither man would give in. Their bodies were failing, but their courage was as high as ever. The end finally came in the seventy-third round. Crabb lurched in, swung a punch, and missed. He swayed forward, straight into the punch that had all Hawthorn’s last strength behind it. Ned Crabb went down in the mud. Hawthorn stood swaying there while the thirty seconds ticked away. Crabb’s seconds signalled that their man was finished. A great shout went up from the crowd. Fielding smiled from his coach, and Khan growled softly. The young man in the plain black coach applauded loudly. A cheering crowd of gypsies swarmed into the ring. Hawthorn’s knees buckled, and he sank to the ground. It was then that the gypsies saw the blood oozing through his stocking. Exhausted and weak, Hawthorn was carried away. But the gipsy was content. He had written his name in history, as a constable of the Bow Street Runners, and as the Champion of England.

 

 

THE END

 

GIPSY JEM OF THE BOW STREET RUNNERS - 12 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1703 - 1714 (1958)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2006