Episode 5: Kings of the Cockpit
Recorded: April 5, 2021
By: Jesse Sidlauskas
Transcripts of BLOODLINE episodes are provided and intended only as supplemental to the episodes as a research or accessibility aid, and should not be relied on as exact or complete transcription of the episode. Expect some omissions, additions and discrepancies between this text and the episode.
COLD OPEN. From John Manesty by William Maginn
· Maginn, William, and George Cruikshank. John Manesty. London, J. Mortimer, 1844.
That’s the lore of the last moments of the 12th Earl of Derby, Lord Edward Smith-Stanley. This scene from an out-of-print book of fiction, titled John Manesty, London Merchant by William Maginn. published less than a decade after Lord Derby died in 1835. If you were around the cockpits—or horse tracks—in the years after Derby’s death, you might have heard variations of the tale when people got to talking about the prolific and legendary cockfighter.
Today, we’ll be exploring the lives of some of the all-time-great cockers of England and the world up to that time, including Derby and some of his contemporaries.
Previously on BLOODLINE, we’d discussed how the British began modernizing cocking just before the 18th century began, partly out of necessity, but also due to changes in the world around them. A generation or so later--in the late-1700s and early 1800s—men like Derby and his contemporaries lived in a golden age of cocking where the competition was dominated by tradesmen, some professional or full-time. The attraction of the cockpit had changed for many, from an opportunity to gamble, to a place to watch skilled contest and gamefowl.
At its biggest events, coinciding with horse races, cocking shifted in this period from individual mains, held between two cockfighters and attended by a large number of gamblers to multi-person subscription mains, held more frequently between groups of many cockers and attended by a growing number of gamefowl aficionados (rather than disinterested gamblers).
They adopted rules, artificial spurs and the use of scales for matching cocks by weight as well. These and other factors (improved travel, for one) and would lead to a gamefowl industry in full swing by the mid-1700s, employing full-time and professional cockers at a growing number of cockpits with jobs as feeders, setters-to (handlers), breeders, cockpit keepers, gaff makers and ancillary suppliers.
This episode explores the lives and careers of a few of the greatest cockers the sport has known from the Golden Era of cocking. We’ll take account of Lord Derby’s career as well as that of his rival, Joe Gilliver, a working-class chicken man whose rank was unsurpassed at any cockpit. Finally, there’s Joe’s great nephew, Bill Gilliver, a lifelong cocker working before and after the sport was outlawed.
Before this Golden Era of cocking had formed, there was more of gambler and hustler than of craftsmen in the few that might call the cockpit a source of income. It is among this early fray that we find William Tregonwell Frampton, a man of the sod and turf, who was born into one era and ushered in the next.
Born in 1641, Frampton is known as “the father of the turf” among the track-goers for being the first professional horse trainer, but he was a man of many talents, employed at Newmarket as the master of race horses and also kept and fought game cocks at the Newmarket pit, sometimes on the monarchs behalf through the rule of Queen Anne, William III, George I and George II.
He fought mains with success and picked up fees for outside clients of the track as well, and was paid about 1,000 pounds per year by the crown, an amount roughly equal to $70,000 salary today. This salary was paid beyond the expenses of the operation he oversaw, which included acquiring horses as well as several other employees of the stables.
A portrait of him painted by John Wootton depicts Frampton hunched in a chair wearing a jacket, unbuttoned. His pants are knee-high with hose. He is probably in his 50s with wispy brown hair cut back from his cheeks and forehead. A crooked, aquiline nose distinguishes his face. He has a releaxed stare, fixed on the observer. One corner of his mouth curls back into what appears to be a slight grin, or maybe a sneer, depending on what you know.
A British battle cock in full trim stands at one shoulder on a table behind him—likely a depiction of his famous game bird, Old Sourface.
History tends to paint Frampton as an unscrupulous gambler while paying respect to his obvious skills as a sportsman. The marks against him, however, appear to stem largely from the fact that thre aren’t many stories about Frampton. In fact, there are typically two stories given for Frampton, both of them are negative and one is made up.
Frampton’s long-standing position as the keeper of the royal race horses and gamefowl for almost 30 years suggest he probably didn’t make scandal or scams his bread-and-butter. During the period, he owned, bred, sold and even jockeyed many of his own horses. He bred cocks and fought mains with success, and loved falconry.
Of the surviving stories about Frampton, the one most steeped in reality involves a match race on his home course at Newmarket against the horse of a northern country duke. While the Duke’s horse was in training, one of Frampton’s grooms and the northern jockey negotiated a trial race to find out the race outcome in order to win bets.
When Frampton found out about the event, he told his jockey to ride with an extra 7 pounds in the saddle and tell no one. At the trial race, the Duke’s horse won by one length, a difference Frampton thought could be covered easily without the secret 7-pound handicap. He and his friends are said to have bet heavily into the northerners. They were unaware that the Duke had also ordered his jockey to run with a 7-pound handicap hidden in the saddle. With neither side being aware of the other’s trickery, both assumed they’d win. On race day, the horses ran just as expected without the 7 lb weights, the Duke’s horse winning by one length.
Assuming its truth, this story contrasts with Frampton’s decades-long job in court, which would suggest he relied more on his skill than cunning to earn his wages. He was the first professional horseman and perhaps the first full-time cocker in England. He was a professional competing among amateurs.
At the end of Frampton’s long career, advancements in breeding would lead to the development of the thoroughbred horse, and in the cockpit at this time, cockers began to show battle-crosses that were smaller than their shake-bag ancestors.
Frampton owned and fought a famous cock named Old Sourface the subsequent progenitor of a bloodline of crosses bred by him and his nearest friends and family. The cross, called Smittenwing, is a spangle breasted red with yellow saddle feathers and white legs. The "Cockers manual" printed in the late 1800s says they were "unquestionably the best birds at that time." A title formerly held by Charles II’s Pyle bloodline.
A1687 letter to his relative Thomas Chafin illustrates the value of bloodlines and breeding knowledge early in Frampton’s career. Frampton had sent two daughters of Old Sourface, warning him: "Be sure you do not part with your best cocks to those that love the sport, for if you should they will have as good as you have, and will not desire your assistance, which must not be."
Whether his legacy is fair or not, Frampton’s skills are rarely questioned, and he was a cocker and horse man who straddled two eras, being born of the one and paving the way for a new era of professional and full-time cockers such as Lord Derby and his feeder, Paul Potter, and many others who would define an industry and organize the sport and change cocking the world over.
Aristocrats such as King George IV, Lord Vere, Lord Grey or Lord Derby mixed in with common chicken men like the father-son pairs of feeders from the Gilliver and Potter families, or the Birmingham handler Tom Hines to form new ranks on the sod of the cockpit between 1750 and 1850.
Lord Derby was the most prominent of the bunch. His name appears frequently in the history books of the time, and is rarely seen without declarations of his dominance in game fowl.
We have him to thank for the use of the term “derby” to mean a contest open to a field of competitors, a term that would later be given to the style of cockfight hosted in the latter half of the 20th century in the U.S.
This was the result of Derby’s role as a founder of the Oaks Sweepstakes, a horse-race which was devised at his estate, “The Oaks”, the inaugural running of which he won.
Derby and others then devised a similar race the following year for colts, and Derby won its naming rights in a coin flip, giving the Derby Stakes its name. They are among the oldest horse races in existence, and run each year at Epsom.
Black-breasted reds were very popular throughout England during this time, but Derby's were especially coveted. Unlike other black-reds of the period, his were white-legged with black striping, the same pattern appearing in the beak. He kept the bloodline over his whole life, the better part of a century.
They were good fowl by all accounts, and Derby’s long-term work and close observation of the family was likely ahead of it’s time for most cockers of the period. From an 1882 book, Famous Racing Men, we get this description:
“Under his care and superintendence, the Knowsley breed of black-breasted reds was brought to perfection, and at Chester and Lancaster the north-country earl was well nigh invincible. It may be truly said of him that he was the greatest cocker that ever lived.”
Derby’s bloodline would be influential in several American game strains, notably the Claibornes, which are said to be of a Knowsley black-red over a
His obituary in Gentleman's Magazine noted that “He possessed the reputation of having the best breed of cocks in England."
The 19th century historian Ralph Nevill said Derby "was without question the most celebrated cocker of either ancient or modern days, and in this light never had his equal. During his life he fought more mains, and very generally successfully than any person ever known."
A generation earlier, cockers had bred fowl as if each generation was a new canvass, lacking either the means or the understanding needed to develop a bloodline through many generations.
Derby was also a prolific breeder and fighter, reportedly hatching as well as fighting 2,000-3,000 each year, keeping them on farm walks and fighting them at 2 years. Like other landlords of the time, he made his country walks a stipulation of tenant contracts.
Lord Derby inherited the Earldom in the late 1770s, and in 1790, he footed the bill for the construction of the Preston cockpit, a brick-and-timber building with a domed skylight and elegant arched windows along the upper concourse wall. Rows of spectator seats descended down to the 12-foot diameter cockpit floor.
It is reported to have seated up to 700, and during the races, was the de-facto "break room" for sweeps. In the latter-1800s, the building became a meeting place for reform movement speakers such as teetoloers, suffrage rights leaders and was briefly home to the first Mormon missionaries in England. It remained a cockpit long after Derby’s death in 1834 and even in the years after the sport was outlawed in 1849.
A police raid documents one such occasion.
When the law descended, the Preston mayor was in the audience and tried to hide up a chimney, but got lodged with his bottom half hanging out. As the story goes, the officers recognized the magistrate’s lower half and decided it best not to bother. Leaving him hanging, so to speak.
For more private battles Derby was known to host cockfights as after-dinner entertainment in the drawing room of his home at the Oaks, where a drawing room on the lower floor was modified to include a fold-away cockpit in the floor.
Furniture would be cleared from the room and the hinged floor-boards folded back to create bench seats for spectators and a cockpit in the center sub-floor area. When not in use, everything folded back, allowing the drawing room its original function … whatever that may is.
The estate home would have made a fancy back-drop to a cockfight, contrasting starkly with the country gatherings nested in shrubs or the city cockpits with their crowds and noise.
The room was 33-by-38-feet with a recessed wall on one side and an 18-foot ceiling. A cornice with medallions ornamented the upper walls to compliment decorative Corinthian columns. The rooms upstairs could accommodate 50 guests and those on the North side of the home had a distant view of London from its hillside perch among the oak trees.
He was married twice. He had three children with his first wife, known as Lady Hamilton, who wound up leaving him for another lord. Derby would not grant her a divorce, and she was unable to marry the man. Socially exiled, she lived abroad for awhile and eventually died in 1783.
Soon after, Derby married Elizabeth Farren, a well-known actress of the period and the two seemed to have a happy relationship until her death, shortly before his own.
The Oaks residence was torn down in the mid-1950s. The stables are the only piece of the estate still entact, and much of the land, including the ruins of Lord Derby’s villa, are now a public park.
None of his children appear to have taken up the sport. His eldest son, the 13th Earl of Derby, pursued another passion, albeit with cockfighters’ zeal, amassing what was at the time Europe’s largest zoological collection of mammals and birds from across the world kept at Knowsley Hall, the family seat.
Throughout his cockfighting career, Derby worked with the top feeders of the day, particularly Paul Potter. The duties would pass to Potter’s son later in Derby’s life, and when the Earl died, the younger Potter inherited all of his birds, spurs, bags and fighting equipment, including the silk bags used for transporting the fowl, embroidered in Lord Derby's black and white racing colors with the image of a fighting cock.
JOE GILLIVER and WILLIAM “BILL” GILLIVER
One of Derby and Potters contemporaries, Joe Gilliver, was said to be the greatest authority on gamefowl that ever lived. Born into a well-established family of yeomen cockers in Polesworth, England in 1759, Joe Gilliver would become master of gamecocks to King George III and IV.
Joe made a name for himself as a ready competitor in any sport, and had a reputation of straightforward honesty, which is said to have endeared him to his noble patrons.
But he also was good at winning cockfights and drew attention over his career for pulling off some impressive wins.
Once, while readying a show of roosters for a main at the Royal Pit in Westminster, a well-known sportsman named Crutch Robinson made a big bet that Joe would win the event in one day, an unlikely outcome since they’d planned to fight the best-of-contest over several days, meaning a couple dozen or more fights, depending on the wins and losses.
He pulled it off, though, managing to win all his fights on the opening day in decisive fashion.
In 1815, he was feeder in the most expensive main on record. The event consisted of 7 fights, each with a 1,000 guinea bet plus a 5,000 guinea wager on which side would win the majority of the fights. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equal to about $90,000 per fight and $450,000 to the overall winner by today’s dollars. The entry Gilliver was feeding won 5 of the 7 fights in the famous main, further cementing his reputation as a professional feeder who could win high stakes.
Though he won some grand purses, the mains he fed for were often staked to much lower sums. He regularly fed shows to fight against the best cockers or feeders in the country.
The same year that he won the famous Lincoln cockfight, Gilliver fought mains at three of the 6 major horse meets.
At Manchester, he fed for the cockers of Nottinghamshire in their main against Lancashire. Gilliver’s cocks cruised to an easy win in the five-day contest after winning the first 14 fights on the first day.
He won another main that same year at the Chester race meet, feeding for the cockers of Cheshire in a match against those from Staffordshire.
At Newton, Gilliver fed for a man named Leigh and narrowly won the main against Lord Derby with Potter feeding. Soon after, Derby and Potter got their revenge in a close contest at the Preston meet.
The Newton-Preston matches continued in the same way for several years always narrowly won and sometimes not at all --- at Preston in 1814, they were dead even with 23 wins each by the end of day 4. Though they could afford it, these weren’t high stakes mains, typically wagering 10 guineas on each fight and 100 to the overall winner. Despite the modest stakes, this annual rivalry featured the generation’s toughest cockfighters in the prime of their careers, each venerated in the cockpit as men who were as honest as they were competitive.
As they were in the cockpit, so too it seems was their time for this world—Potter, Gilliver and Derby all living very long lives, finally counted out within a couple years of one another. Gilliver, 72, and Potter both died in 1832. Derby, aged 82, died in 1834.
Joe Gillivers great nephew, William called Bill Gilliver, was another noted cocker in the family, born at the tail end of his great-uncles career in 1826. Bill grew up on his father’s game farm and showed talent for the sport at a young age.
His first cockfight, he recollected to a newspaper reporter when he was 80 years old, occurred when he was 12 and was against a parson, who had spotted a rooster he liked while riding past the farm.
Bill declined to sell the rooster, but offered to fight him for 5 pounds wager. Gillivers bird whipped the clergyman’s handily, winning Bill the $5. He then sold him to the man for 2s.
When he was 17, Bill Gilliver fought six mains one after the other at Buckingham and won them all.
Another memorable victory was the main he fought on the lawn at Manley Hall, winning 8 of the 15 fights with one rooster. Gilliver was so impressed that afterwards, he commissioned a celebrated artist to paint a portrait of the cock.
During the work, the artist took a break, leaving the rooster walking the floor in the room with the canvass. When he returned, the painter found the gamecock in battle with its own depiction, leaving several pock-marks in the canvass. More than 40 years after the event, he still had the dimpled painting proudly displayed in his home.
Another time, after winning a main against the Earl of Berkley for 250 pounds at Battersea Fields, he learned that Albert, prince consort had been a spectator at three of the battles.
Several times through his career, Gilliver’s reputation for sincere honesty and his status as a man of cocking nobility, brought him into conversations with peers of the realm.
At Newmarket, he was able to tell Prince Edward (later Edward VII the king) about the day Albert, Edward’s father, had visited the cockpit. The story surprised Edward, who said he was shocked to learn that his father would have stepped foot in a cockpit, even once.
Gilliver replied that there was no reason a man should be ashamed of seeing two chickens fight, and that he hoped the Prince of Wales –Edward’s title then—would come see a main.
Following the ban, Gilliver continued raising gamefowl and eventually started competing in the country’s booming poultry exhibits, winning several awards. In his early 70s, he visited France, watching one of his roosters win its fight and crow over its vanquished foe earning Gilliver some respect from the locals in an area of the country where the French birds were expected to beat English roosters.
Afterwards, Gilliver took out an ad in an American paper stating he’d stake his roosters against any in the world for between 100 and 500 pounds, to be fought in France. He got no takers.
For years until his death, Gilliver shipped fowl all over the world, fetching 2 pounds for every battle cock, about $250 in today’s money.
Bill Gilliver owned and operated the Gamecock Inn in the Gilliver hometown of Polesworth in the latter half of the 1800s. After entertaining a magistrate and his guest with stories one day, he offered the pair a beer, apologizing that, though he though they merited more, he was only granted an ale license, prompting the local politician to
The building is said to have had an upstairs loft complete with hidden exits into the alley.
By the time Bill Gilliver died in 1916 at the ripe old age of 96, cocking in England had been banned for well over a half-century. The advancements made by cockers like Derby, Potter and the older Gillivers would change the world of cockfighting around the world, but mainland British cockers were largely deprived of the windfall, which would eventually see breeds and practices diffuse into the rest of the world as cockers like Bill Gilliver traveled and sold fowl to France and other countries to pursue their passion … or some form of it, at least.
So how did this happen? How did we go from the hey-day of Royal Cockpits with Georgian cockers like Derby, Potter and numerous others, who thrived as respected craftsmen in a trade to disparaged barbary within a couple decades the old Earl or his long-time feeder’s deaths?
How did a nation of cockfight and racing fanatics wind up being the home of the animal rights movement?
In next episode, we’ll candle the egg that hatched the modern animal rights movement to see if we can find the answer to that question.
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Bloodline is created by me, Jesse Sidlauskas. Music from this episode is Lobo Loco “You get the blues”.
Ya’ll keep’em crowing.