In 1867 the adoption of the Queensbury Rules had transformed the popular sport of pugilism into modern professional boxing. Previously prize fights had been bare-knuckle affairs, vicious and brutalising, so much so that they were made illegal. But as with many illegal pastimes that involved gambling they were hard to police, operating as they did in secret behind closed doors.
In 1891 the National Sporting Club was founded out ‘of the ashes of its roistering predecessor, the Pelican Club’ in Covent Garden. The NSC took over the Pelican’s venue which had space for 1,300 punters. The Pelican’s guests had been ‘a mixture of peers, gentlemen, journalists and actors’, but this had not prevented it going bankrupt during 1891.*
In July 1891 the Pelican Club may have already folded (as Andrew Horrall’s study suggests) but its proprietor, a Mr Wells, was still summoned to Marlborough Street Police Court charged with selling intoxicating liquors and tobacco without a license.
The case had been brought by a detective supervisor of Excise, Mr Llewellyn, who had posed as an ordinary member of the public and had gained access to the venue on 7 March 1891. He had ‘donned evening dress, and without being challenged by anyone’ entered through a side door.
There was a ‘glove contest’ that night and so Llewellyn watched ‘some boxing and asked for some drinks, and remained there until about two the next morning’. The case had been up before the magistrate on at least one previous occasion and the defendant’s counsel had raised a point of law which the magistrate, Mr Cooke, now saw fit to adjudicate on.
He told Mr Wells that under the law selling ‘excisable articles’ (i.e alcohol and tobacco) to members of a bona fide club was not as such a sale and so was permitted without a license. However, ‘where a club was carried on by a proprietor without a reference to members it was a sham club’, and a license was most certainly required.
In this case Llewellyn was not a member of the Pelican Club, nor was he challenged or asked to prove that he was, so in selling him alcohol and cigars Mr Wells and his staff were at fault under the law. In Mr Cooke’s opinion he felt that the Pelican Club required a license to sell alcohol even to its members so either way, Wells was in breach of the law regardless of the clever arguments of his lawyer, Mr Poland QC.
He fined Wells a total of £35 plus costs (about £2,000 today) and the obviously frustrated and disappointed club manager asked him if ‘every proprietary club in London was illegal’. Mr Cooke declined to comment but granted him leave to appeal. If the club had indeed folded by this time poor Mr Well must have felt this was a yet another blow to his business prospects.
[from The Standard, Thursday, July 09, 1891]
*Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London C.1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment c.1890-1918: the transformation of entertainment, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2001), pp. 124-5