During my recent research into Royal Ascot I stumbled across an 1830 newspaper report relating to the death of pugilist Tom Shelton, a sportsman considered ‘one of the brightest stars’ of the Regency era.
Weighing in at 12 stone 7lbs – Tom Shelton
Tom Shelton’s boxing career is described in great depth in Pearce Egan’s Boxiana – Volume 2 (1824) and again in Volume 3 (1829) where his decline in stature (as age set in) is well recorded.
Born in Wrotham in Kent on May 1st 1787, Tom Shelton began life as a canal worker in and around the Thames estuary. It was hard labour for small pay, so by the age of 16 Shelton entered the ring for the first time at St Giles’ Fields for a prize of just five shillings. He was initially considered to be a ‘miller’ in style, meaning that he was not afraid to trade blow for blow with his opponent – but showed little regard for his own safety. But very soon ‘The Navigator’ (as he was named) became widely renowned as a ‘scientific boxer – a truly great man in the ring- a good in-fighter, but a left-handed hitter’. Boxiana describes a number of gruelling contests in which Shelton fought bravely to the finish. It is both awe-inspiring and sickening to read about the punishment he endured over a great many bouts between 1812 and 1825. For example on more than one occasion Shelton fought on with multiple broken ribs.
However the most harrowing tale of all relates to an incident occuring outside the ring, which all-but foreshadowed Shelton’s untimely end. In the summer of 1812, at the age of 25 Shelton found himself in Hampstead on a drinking binge with a friend. As the day wore on the men began to gamble, the stakes for which became increasingly serious as they became more inebriated. Boxiana relates that when Shelton actually lost the clothes off his back
The last desperate stake was HIS LIFE. The destructive effects of gaming were never seen in a more horrid point of view, than in this transaction between Shelton and his associate… It is scarcely possible to admit of the reality of the circumstance… to witness one man staking his life with perfect indifference as to the event, and viewing the other equally as callous, not only in winning the life of a fellow creature, but claiming the performance of the contract, with all the barbarity of a Shylock.
There but for the grace of unlucky good samaritan Mr Croker
When Shelton lost this final throw of the dice, his dreadful friend ordered him to hang himself from the nearest tree. Considering this to be the right thing to ‘fulfil the character of an honourable gambler’ he immediately proceeded to do so. Fortunately, a passer-by named Croker intervened to take Shelton down, thereby saving his life. Croker was rewarded with two black eyes and a broken nose for his troubles. Consequently, on 14th September 1812 Shelton was tried and found guilty of assault. Just before sentence was passed his wife Mary suddenly stood up to address the bench, stating that from this prosecution ‘she was ruined in her little shop and business, and her four young children deprived of subsistence’. She added that, ‘excepting some such irregular fits and frolics, Shelton was a good husband, and laborious and attentive to his duties’. Remarkably, the judge was greatly impressed by this act of matrimonial loyalty and Shelton was discharged.
‘Honour’ in gambling – what a frightening concept
It is really quite appalling to consider how close Shelton came to killing himself as a result of heavy drinking and gambling. However, it was not that Shelton had suicidal tendencies – rather that he was following a convention going back to medieval times whereby a wager was considered enforceable as a legal contract. In short Shelton went too far because he was drunk, but could never relinquish his respect for the boundaries of ‘honourable gambling’, even if his life depended on it.
The Fives Court – where Shelton often gave boxing exhibitions
During his boxing career, Shelton often took part in organised displays, involving sparring contests with various other well-known pugilists, and he regularly acted as a second in other bouts. As his career reached its conclusion, there are several newspaper reports describing benefit nights held in his honour. So it would seem that Shelton was a widely liked and respected sportsman.
Shelton became a pub landlord around 1820, and as his career drew to a close used his pubs for boxing events, and later dog-fighting contests. But his association with sport and the wagering involved in the outcome meant that gambling remained very much part of Shelton’s persona. By 1829 Boxiana recorded him as a man in decline, hardly surprising as Shelton was into his 40s and no longer in the top bracket of prize-fighters. He was very much yesterday’s man, and perhaps the loss of celebrity led to more serious and prolonged involvement in gambling.
When his career ended, Shelton went back to the tables
On Monday 22nd June 1830 Tom Shelton returned to The Ship in Montague Street, Bishopsgate, having been absent from duty for over a week. After dinner with his family and smoking his pipe, Tom confided in his wife that he had lost £800 gambling at Ascot Races. This was a colossal sum of money, perhaps 10 times what Shelton could earn annually. He said he had already tried and failed to secure an advance from employers Trueman & Hanbury. In consequence of this, Shelton was now compelled to surrender himself to Whitecross Debtors Prison on Wednesday morning, with his destitute family in tow.
Life was grim for families inside Whitecross Debtor’s Prison
Not for the first time, Mary Shelton tried to rally her husband at his time of need. Despite his recent neglect of both family and business responsibilities, she argued that they were both young and able to work, & that by ‘giving up gambling and using honest and persevering industry, he might get through all his difficulties.’ Apparently soothed, Shelton asked his wife to get him a gin and water before retiring to bed. But when she was gone he produced a bottle of prussic acid from his coat pocket, swallowed the contents, and was dead before she returned.
This story of a family ruined by gambling addiction resonates very strongly today. For, at the end of the Regency period questions were raised about the dangers of unrestricted gambling and the effect it was having upon society. Then, like now, the spectre of poverty and alcohol dependency quite often played a role in the process of ruination for gambling addicts.
As early as 1828 the Morning Post decried the proliferation of gambling transactions throughout Windsor during Royal Ascot, stating that
It is high time that some serious notice be taken of these base proceedings for it is most shameful and scandalous, that in a small town like Windsor, so near our chief seats of learning, and moreover the residence of the British Monarch, these vitiating receptacles should with impunity be allowed to remain
A common ruse was the thimble table – turning gambling into pure deceit
Though Shelton’s death and inquest were widely reported it was only a matter of days before it became old news. The following week’s headlines moved on to Mr Stevenson, a ‘sporting gentleman’ who threw himself from a window ‘under the excitement of feeling arising from his having lost £7000 on the Derby – He was not expected to survive.’ In fact it was not until the Gaming Act of 1845 that bets were finally deprived of ‘legally binding’ status, relieving men like Tom Shelton from the shackles of so-called ‘honourable’ behaviour when settling debts.
I have tried to find out what became of Shelton’s family. Considering the stigma associated with death by suicide, the inquest was a very sympathetic one. Emphasis was placed on Shelton’s previous suicidal tendency, and a string of witnesses testified to the unbalanced state of his mind, meaning that a verdict of death by insanity was quickly arrived at, to give his grieving widow some crumb of comfort. The only remaining clue I could find relates to the activities of a London prize-fighter active in the 1840s named Tom Shelton – perhaps this was one of his sons following his footsteps into the ring.
Are we more civilised today? Gambling is policed by…. the gambling industry
In the most deprived areas of modern Britain betting shops proliferate, gorging themselves not on the rich but the poorest element of our society. Not just live sports but daytime TV is riven with readily accessible options for having a flutter, – there seems to be no escape. In the late Regency era gambling was equally pervasive; at card tables, sporting events, or practically anywhere likely to attract crowds. You would be faced with all manner of games of chance, many of which were rigged to ensure that losses would ensue. Then, just like today, gambling was tacitly accepted – and nothing done to counter its effects. Whilst we can forgive our ancestors for their inability to control the effects of gambling, I don’t know how we can explain modern day arrangements – whereby gambling seems to be regulated by the gambling industry itself. This smacks of putting children in charge of the sweet shop, and as long as it continues the misery and waste resultant of reckless gambling will continue unabated.
For more information on the growth and development of Boxing in the Regency period, I would heartily recommend David Snowdon’s Eganesque Blog and his accompanying Pierce Egan twitter account
For a cautionary tale of modern day gambling, see this very moving BBC report on jailed accountant David Bradford, and the effect it has had upon his thoroughly decent family.
For all else related to problem gambling, the following websites may offer help
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If you are interested in Regency sport, you might like my history of ‘Royal Ascot’ or to find out about Wicked William and the Epping Hunt