Hugh Miller encounters Wolverton

Hugh Miller was a Scottish geologist and something of a polymath. He made an extensive trip through England in 1845 and later wrote about his experience. His destination was Olney, where the 18th century poet William Cowper had once lived. As you will read from this account he was quite shocked at his reception in Wolverton.

I took my seat in the railway train for the station nearest Olney—that of Wolverton.  And the night fell ere we had gone over half the way.

I had now had some little experience of railway travelling in England, and a not inadequate idea of the kind of quiet, comfortable-looking people whom I might expect to meet in a second-class carriage.  But my fellow-passengers this evening were of a different stamp.  They were chiefly, almost exclusively indeed, of the male sex—vulgar, noisy, ruffian-like fellows, full of coarse oaths and dogged asseverations, and singularly redolent of gin; and I was quite glad enough, when the train stopped at the Wolverton station, that I was to get rid of them.  At the station, however, they came out en masse.  All the other carriages disgorged similar cargoes; and I found myself in the middle of a crowd that represented very unfairly the people of England.  It was now nine o’clock.  I had intended passing the night in the inn at Wolverton, and then walking on in the morning to Olney, a distance of nine miles; but when I came to the inn, I found it all ablaze with light, and all astir with commotion.  Candles glanced in every window; and a thorough Babel of sound—singing, quarrelling, bell-ringing, thumping, stamping, and the clatter of mugs and glasses—issued from every apartment.  I turned away from the door, and met, under the lee of a fence which screened him from observation, a rural policeman.  “What is all this about?” I asked.  “Do you not know?” was the reply.  “No; I am quite a stranger here.”  “Ah, there are many strangers here.  But do you not know?”  “I have no idea whatever,” I reiterated; “I am on my way to Olney, and had intended spending the night here, but would prefer walking on, to passing it in such a house as that.”  “Oh, beg pardon; I thought you had been one of themselves: Bendigo of Nottingham has challenged Caunt of London to fight for the championship.  The battle comes on tomorrow, somewhere hereabouts; and we have got all the blackguards in England, south and north, let loose upon us.  If you walk on to Newport Pagnell just four miles—you will no doubt get a bed; but the way is lonely, and there have been already several robberies since nightfall.”  “I shall take my chance of that,” I said. “Ah,—well—your best way, then, is to walk straight forwards, at a smart pace, keeping the middle of the highway, and stopping for no one.”  I thanked the friendly policeman, and took the road.  It was a calm pleasant night; the moon in her first quarter, was setting dim and lightless in the west; and an incipient frost, in the form of a thin film of blue vapour, rested in the lower hollows.

    The way was quite lonely enough; nor were the few straggling travellers whom I met of a kind suited to render its solitariness more cheerful.  About half-way on, where the road runs between tall hedges, two fellows started out towards me, one from each side of the way.  “Is this the road,” asked one, “to Newport Pagnell?”  “Quite a stranger here,” I replied, without slackening my pace; “don’t belong to the kingdom even.”  “No!” said the same fellow, increasing his speed, as if to overtake me; “to what kingdom, then?”  “Scotland,” I said, turning suddenly round, somewhat afraid of being taken from behind by a bludgeon.  The two fellows sheered off in double quick time, the one who had already addressed me, muttering, “More like an Irishman, I think;” and I saw no more of them.  I had luckily a brace of loaded pistols about me, and had at the moment a trigger under each fore-finger; and though the ruffians—for such I doubt not they were—could scarcely have been cognizant of the fact, they seemed to have made at least a shrewd approximation towards it.  In the autumn of 1842, during the great depression of trade, when the entire country seemed in a state of disorganization, and the law in some of the mining districts failed to protect the lieges, I was engaged in following out a course of geologic exploration in our Lothian Coal Field; and, unwilling to suspend my labours, had got the pistols, to do for myself, if necessary, what the authorities at the time could not do for me.  But I had fortunately found no use for them, though I had visited many a lonely hollow and little-frequented water-course—exactly the sort of place in which, a century ago, one would have been apt to raise footpads as one now starts hares; and in crossing the Borders, I had half resolved to leave them behind me.  They gave confidence, however, in unknown neighbourhoods, or when travelling alone in the night-time; and so I had brought them with me into England, to support, if necessary, the majesty of the law and the rights of the liege subject, and certainly did not regret this evening that I had.

    I entered Newport Pagnell a little after ten o’clock, and found all its inns exactly such scenes of riot and uproar as the inn at Wolverton.  There was the same display of glancing lights in the windows, and the same wild hubbub of sound.  On I went.  A decent mechanic, with a white apron before him, whom I found in the street, assured me there was no chance of getting a bed in Newport Pagnell, but that I might possibly get one at Skirvington, a village on the Olney road, about three miles further on.  And so, leaving Newport Pagnell behind me, I set out for Skirvington.  It was now wearing late, and I met no more travellers: the little bit of a moon had been down the hill for more than an hour, the fog rime had thickened, and the trees by the wayside loomed through the clouds like giants in dominos.  In passing through Skirvington, I had to stoop down and look between me and the sky for sign posts.  There were no lights in houses, save here and there in an upper casement; and all was quiet as in a churchyard.  By dint of sky-gazing, I discovered an inn, and rapped hard at the door.  It was opened by the landlord sans coat and waiscoat.  There was no bed to be had there, he said; the beds were all occupied by travellers who could get no accommodation in Newport Pagnell; but there was another inn in the place further on, though it wasn’t unlikely, as it didn’t much business, the family had gone to bed.  This was small comfort.  I had, however, made up my mind that if I failed in finding entertainment at inn the second, I should address myself to hay-rick the first; but better fortune awaited me.  I sighted my way to the other sign-post of the village: the lights within had gone up stairs to the attics; but as I tapped and tapped, one of them came trippingly down; it stood pondering behind the door for half a second, as if in deliberation, and then bolt and bar were withdrawn, and a very pretty young Englishwoman stood in the door-way.  “Could I get accommodation there for a night—supper and bed?”  There was a hesitating glance at my person, followed by a very welcome “yes;” and thus closed the adventures of the evening.  On the following morning I walked on to Olney.  It was with some little degree of solicitude that, in a quiet corner by the way, remote from cottages, I tried my pistols to ascertain what sort of a defence I would have made had the worst come to the worst in the encounter of the previous evening.  Pop, pop!—they went off beautifully, and sent their bullets through an inch board; and so in all probability I should have succeeded in astonishing the “fancy-men.”

To understand what all the fuss was about, and for a full account of what happened in this sleepy corner of North Bucks, here is Sir Frank Markham’s account from his History of Milton Keynes and District.

But before this calm settled there was an event which made national news and which materially upset for a few days every railway official at Wolverton Station. Just before the advent of the railways, bare-knuckled prize fighting was the sport of princes. The pugilistic art had the warm support of the Prince Regent who was anxious to put down duelling as a solution to quarrels, and so the noble art of self-defence was encouraged. The ‘fancy’ or the ‘prize ring’ was at its zenith about 1830 but then began to degenerate. Prize fights became gathering places for the scum of a region – and such fights were only determined after scores of rounds when one contestant or the other was completely insensible – or dead. Parliament now banned what had become not only a brutal and murderous sport, but the occasion of public uproar. Consequently contests had to be arranged by stealth – but somehow the railway companies knew and ran excursions from all over England to the nearest station to the scene of the contest .
In 1841 the Championship Belt was held by Ben Caunt who had beaten W. Thompson (better known as ‘Bendigo’) in a some­what dubious fight. Bendigo was anxious for his revenge, and in April 1845 it was announced that police or no police the fight it would take place for a purse of £200 a side – a small sum, but the betting was soon of Littlewood proportions.
Ben Caunt was an ugly giant of a man, 6ft 2in and 17 stone, but he could train down to 14 stone. ‘Bendigo’, the nineteenth child of a poor but ferocious Nottingham woman, was a cocky fellow 5ft 9in and a thorough ruffian. He was the darling of the Midlands and Caunt was the hero of London and all around. Their managers agreed that the f1ght should be at a place half way between London and Nottingham, so they chose the demure and self-respecting town of Newport Pagnell, or the nearest ‘safe locality’.
The London & Birmingham Railway immediately put in hand plans for excursions from London, Manchester and Nottingham to Wolverton. On Sunday 7 September 1845 Bendigo and his party arrived at Wolverton and went on to the Swan Irlll at Newport. The Chief Constable for the Ncwport Hundreds promptly informed Bendigo that he had a warrant to arrest any­body breaking the peace. On Monday Caunt and his party travelled from London to Wolverton by train, and choosing the best accommodation in the area put up at the Cock in Stony Stratford. un the same day hordes of excursionists arrived at Wolverton from Nottingham, Manchester or London, and most walked to Newport. The Nottingham men had all brought ‘Nottingham twigs’ (cudgels) with them, and seemed to be a para­military formation. Between Newport and Stony Stratford any miserable dossing place in a barn was let at exorbitant prices – and the owner of any broken down old rattletrap charged a sovereign a head for the journey of a few miles.
On Monday evening Caunt’s manager suggested that since the Chief Constable seemed such an obstinate wet blanket, the fight should take place at Whaddon, four miles south of Stony Strat­ford just outside the Chief Constable’s sphere of influence. From here they could move to Northants or Oxfordshire if need be. Bendigo’s friends reluctantly agreed.
Meanwhile the prize ring commissary or master of ceremonies, with his cart full of gear, made his plans and on Tuesday morning, 9 September 1845, he set off from the Cock at Stony Stratford to Whaddon. A crowd of 5,000 followed him and at Whaddon the Nottingham squads arranged the ring and arena. But now the police interferred again. The Buckingham magistrates were determined to prevent the fight.
And now a superb solution was discovered. Five miles west of Stony Stratford was the sleepy village of Lillingstone Lovell which had only just been transferred from Oxfordshire to Bucks, and a mile away was the Northants border which was quite unpre­pared to resist invasion. Lillingstone Lovell was also the site of a previous championship match for the same reason, so that old hands knew all about it. It had been transferred to Bucks in 1844, but only for local government purposes, and not for police pur­poses. So off the commissary, his Nottinghamshire squads and thousands of spectators (now reinforced by fresh arrivals from Wolverton) went to Lillingstone Lovell. A 20ft square ring was erected. Around it was a 12 yard deep ‘inner ring’ which only the elite were supposed to occupy. But of course the crowd had other ideas and the disorder was immense, but there was not a constable in sight.
At last the two fighters, all knee breeches and stripped to the waist, the referee, umpires and seconds, were all ready. The fight began. We cannot describe it round by round as the television commentators love to do, for there were ninety-three rounds! Both men were battered almost into insensibility. Their hands looked like masses of jam. In the midst of pandemonium the referee gave the match to Bendigo, a decision that was hotly disputed then and long afterwards.
The mob now streamed off to Wolverton, thirsty and bloody minded. Every pub on the way was sold out. At Wolverton the railway officials closed the iron gates against the disorderly mob until their trains arrived. It is doubtful if anyone could have protected the refreshment room damsels against some of the demands the mob!
The whole event put the sporting world in an uproar but all reed that it was a disgusting and disgraceful exhibition. Newport Pagnell, Wolverton, Stony Stratford, Whaddon and Lillingsto­ne Lovell had seen some incredible sights and even the publi­cans did not like the crowd.
Since then Lillingstone Lovell has been a pattern village of the utmost good behaviour. Most visitors who go there now are ecclesiastical enthusiasts who admire the 13th century church with I5th century brasses which are worth seeing. As for Bendigo, he became a revivalist preacher.