The Money Business -
Buying and Betting
It is perhaps reasonably obvious that the mere possession of a few fowl does not involve a great deal of money. They are reasonably easy to breed in the back garden (with a few exceptions), and the cost of some feed corn is not prohibitive to the average pocket. As a Manchester cocker, and ex-dogfighter told me.
I used to keep Pit Bull Terriers as well as cocks, but the trouble with dogs, especially fit ones, is that the grub is bloody expensive. On top of that you’ve got the vets bills, you don’t have that trouble with fowls. You can buy them for next to nothing if you know where to look, you can get the grub for nothing from farmers, and they will live quite happily in any old shack so long as the roof is good. Draughty places don’t worry them at all if they can keep dry. There ain’t no vets bills neither. If you can’t fix them up yourself they go straight in the pot.
Quite a few markets around the country sell fowls of all descriptions. Southall Market in West London has been mentioned elsewhere, but there are various other gathering places which have become well known. A Cambridgeshire cocker told me:
The place to go in this part of the country is Swaffham Market. They sell a lot of birds, and most of them are rotten old dunghill fowl that no self-respecting bloke would be seen dead with. Might be all right for a few eggs or the pot, but no good for doing the business. Even so, once in a while some old boy from out in the fens will put some birds in that are worth having. It sometimes happens when the old boy dies and the family get rid of his birds not knowing the value of what they are selling. Just once in a while you can pick up a real bargain for peanuts, but you have to be quick because there are eyes everywhere in that place. The one dead easy way to meet cockers at Swaffham is to bid for a decent bird and then wait for them to approach you to see if you've got anything to offer them. If you do buy, put the bird somewhere secure because if you leave it in the open and blink it will vanish before you have a chance to open your eyes again.
A rough rule-of-thumb amongst the naked-heelers is that they will pay anywhere between £30 and £150 for a trio, but prices for birds from the USA and scarce oriental fowl such as Thai Game and Shamos may sell for hundreds of pounds sterling.
Old English Game Fowl and strains derived therefrom for fighting with spurs will fetch a great deal more. Until 26th May, 1991 it was extremely difficult to quantify exactly how much more, but then something very curious happened. Sir Mark Prescott, a well-known racehorse trainer from Newmarket, Suffolk held a Game fowl sale at his home. Quite apart from his reputation as a racehorse trainer and an expert on coursing dogs, Prescott has an equal reputation for his fine collection of English/American gamefowl built up over twenty two years of careful breeding. In those twenty two years he had never before sold a bird to anyone, but he decided that due to increasing pressure of work he could no longer maintain his breeding activities.
A sale catalogue was produced which rightly pointed out that this was the first public dispersal sale of gamefowl in Britain this century, although other sales have occurred from time to time. In fact the Rare Breeds Society have an annual sale which includes Game fowl.
The Prescott sale attracted a huge amount of interest both from breeders and cockers. In addition, it attracted the expected interest from the low class tabloid media who wanted to find a story in it if they could. Due to Prescott’s reputation and standing, no-one was foolish enough to print anything suggesting openly that he was a cocker, and it is something that he has always denied. Nevertheless , it did bring along two undercover ‘investigators’ from the News of the World . One of these was Graham Curtis Hall, a man from Worcester with an appalling criminal record. He is employed by the newspaper to act as an ‘agent provocateur’ to create animal cruelty offences in order that the News of the World might have some shock-horror-cruelty stories to print. The full story of Hall is contained in another Chapter. At the end of the day the sale realised in the region of £5,000, and individual lots were sold for up to £400.
Many of the regular cockers from the road people get their birds ‘for free’ by the method explained by a Suffolk cocker
If your birds are any good it is a good idea not to let the gypsies find out where you live. First of all they will offer to buy your bird, but if you refuse they’ll be round to nick it. They never give up, if they have to come back half a dozen times they’ll have it away. You need about three big guard dogs because they have no trouble coping with one.
Stories about the inclination of gypsies to steal gamefowl are legion, and various examples appear elsewhere. There are various other hazards attached to fighting with gypsies as well.
One of our local gypsy sites has regular matches, but if you are new to them you need to be a bit cunning or they’ll catch you out. One of the gypsies is only too keen to match his birds with you, whilst his woman hangs around in the background. If his bird is winning you will not notice her. As soon as it looks as if his bird is getting a battering, she will suddenly, appear out of nowhere and pick up the bird saying
“I’m not having no cockfighting here, we’re Christians.”
Her husband will then argue that he should not forfeit the match because he did not pick his bird up, and he can’t be responsible for his woman’s actions.
The other financial aspect of the sport is the betting. This study has revealed that there is a very definite pattern to this, and the gamblers can be fairly divided into three types, the steel cockers, the ordinary naked-heeler, and the gypsies.
A member of the Oxford Club described the situation so far as he was concerned:
You have to understand that the Oxford Club is almost totally different in its attitude to almost every other cocker in the country. Our prime aim is the actual sport itself. We are not terribly worried about the money situation. A lot of our members have got plenty anyway so a bet on a battle is neither here nor there really. We generally put up £5 a Derby match and £30 - £50 on a Main. That's for a five to seven bird Main, but really the betting is incidental to our prime purpose which is watching the sport.
An Essex cocker offered some explanation as to what he considered to be a code of ethics as regards money
When I was fighting birds I had a few mates around Braintree, Ongar and Henham areas who I used to spar them with, but we never had serious battles locally. I travelled all over the country for the real thing, I didn’t do it locally because if you did all you were doing was taking money off your mates. What’s the point in that?
This sort of attitude is definitely not shared amongst the Eastern Counties naked heelers:
In general the average bet in our area (South Lincolnshire/North Norfolk) is £50 to £100 per match. I like to fight for £100 myself. It is a sum that an ordinary bloke can raise with a bit of effort without being too much, and an amount that a rich bloke won’t worry about anyway. It seems about right to me.
Other people from the same area have persistently quoted average bets in the region of £30 to £100, and sometimes up to £200 or £250.
Gypsy cocking is another matter altogether, and it is only here that large sums of money are involved. Very similar stories have been reported from almost anywhere that gypsies fight. The most extreme was recounted to me by an Essex cocker who testifies to the veracity of this story.
If you have matches with gypsies you can bet a lot of money. Sometimes the whole site would have a whip-round to raise a large bet against an outsider. The biggest bet I’ve seen involved a gypsy losing his trailer on a single battle. Must have been worth £20,000 I suppose. He was not too bothered; he said he’d soon get another one because he didn’t lose very often.
Another man who is probably one of the most ‘serious’ followers of naked-heel cockfighting in the country, has a most interesting arrangement with another man who happens to have plenty of money and is interested in gambling on all fighting sports
Unlike most people I have got financial support. If I need to raise a large bet to fight gypsies or something I go to a man with the money. I have an arrangement with him that he puts up the bet, and we split the winnings 60/ 40 in his favour. He does not keep or fight birds, but he is a fanatical gambler who will bet on any animal sport, particularly dogfighting and cockfighting. He just loves the gamble. He was a really major villain in his day; says he got most of his money by withdrawals from the Post Office. Trouble was he didn’t have an account there! His method of withdrawal was by robbing them, or rather arranging for other people to rob them for him. He invested it all in safe Securities and now lives a life of comfort on the interest. My birds have a habit of winning so we have both done quite well out of our arrangement.
In the East Midlands lives one of several gypsies who are known as ‘Chicken George’. This nick-name was picked up from the famous book ‘Roots’ by the American negro Alex Hailey, which was developed into a major television series some years ago. One of Hailey’s ancestors was a slave who had the job of feeding and training his master’s fighting cocks. This particular ‘Chicken George’ has birds at walk all over the Eastern Counties and is well respected as the man to beat. His position is quite simple:
Well it’s like this you see. I sit here and I wait for them to come to me. If they think they’ve got a bird what can do mine, they come to me with the money. I want a grand (£1000) to fight, and sometimes I want two if I think it will be a really good match. I don’t want to piss about with fifty quid here or there. It’s not worth conditioning a bird for.
Beyond the direct finances of the sport there are peripheral money considerations which may be grouped together as money spent on the sport in support activities and businesses. These are identifiable as domestic businesses , which includes the publication of books on the sport such as this one, imports of cockfighting equipment, and subscriptions to cockfighting journals, all of which are foreign. On the domestic business front, one example, a leather craftsman tells his story in the Introduction. I have found various others, such as this man from a village in the Yorkshire Dales, who used to keep gamefowl but now given up.
I am a Blacksmith by trade, and although I’ve given up now I used to make quite a few sets of spurs for chicken lads in my area. In West Yorkshire, especially places like Keighley and Otley, chicken lads are two-a-penny. Everybody’s doing it and I could get rid of as many sets of spurs as I could produce.
The gloss to this man’s comments were added from what might seem an unlikely source, a solicitor from Bradford:
When I was a young trainee solicitor in 1964 I was articled to a firm in the middle of Huddersfield. The Senior Partner was a bit of a character. He kept cockfighting spurs in the office safe, because that was obviously the safest place for them. He never actually mentioned the sport, but he did keep gamefowl. He knew some very funny folk from high up in the Pennines, so I drew my own conclusions. I knew better than to ask questions about that sort of thing.
On the books front, the publication of books on gamefowl, and historical books on Game Fowl is centred almost entirely in the hands of one man, Dr Joseph Batty, publisher of a huge variety of books on other poultry breed books and birds in general. A former Professor of Applied Economics, and renowned breeder of the Carlisle-type Old English Game Fowl, he has a very good portfolio of very high quality work. He is a Past President of the Old English Game Club. Although not involved in cockfighting, Dr Batty’s knowledge of everything to do with gamefowl is second to none, and he has been of great assistance to me in this research.
Apart from equipment that is being manufactured here, it seems that there is a regular import trade. Equipment such as spurs, muffs, and bridles, usually of a low quality are being imported from the Far East. These items are readily available in that part of the world because cockfighting is generally legal there. Indeed, in the Philippines there is a government Cockfighting Commission which controls the sport, not unlike the Horse Race Betting Levy Board in Britain. The astute observer might comment to the effect that this is not the only similarity between the Commission and the Board. Cockfighting and the horse racing industry have always been closely linked in Britain. When it was still legal there was invariably a Main of Cocks as a side-show at the racecourse. Most of the stuff from the Far East is plastic and of poor quality, and in bright fluorescent colours. It has become widely known amongst cockers as “Taiwan Crap”.
The United States of America is another understandable source of cockfighting equipment. A man from Sussex who denies being a cocker, but who obviously knows a few, told me:
Quite a lot of cockfighting equipment in this country is coming in directly from America. I have a friend who travels over there on business quite regularly, and he goes and looks up places advertised in the ‘‘Grit & Steel” for me. He gets me leashes for tethering out my birds, cocker’s belt-buckles and things like that which you can’t get in Britain. ‘There is not trouble getting this sort of thing into Britain because some of it is not actually contraband, and that which is prohibited goes unrecognised by the Customs people because it is not the sort of thing they are looking for. Lets face it, would you recognise a cocker’s leash if you saw it?
My answer to his question is that although I would now, I certainly would not have done before I started my research, and I’m not at all surprised that law enforcement agencies don’t either. Cocking imports can take a much more subtle form. The activities of a certain member of the Diplomatic Corps make very interesting reading indeed, and show what can be achieved with a little cunning and access to a Diplomatic Bag (which is totally exempt from Customs inspection or control, by reason of international,law).
Over the last five years or so in this country the fighting strains have been ‘improved’ by what are known as ‘Briefcase Japs’. Originally some eggs of Japanese fighting strains were smuggled out of Japan to America by a diplomat in a briefcase. These arrived in Britain by a similar method in the mid-1980’s, and there were quite a few of them bred in the Chichester area of Sussex, and also in the Heart of England to West Midlands area. Whether or not any of these basically Japanese birds are still around I do not know, but I do know that they have been crossed into some of the Old English Game strains, much to the indignation and rage of certain members of the Oxford Club who consider this to be a foreign pollution of the old strains. There was a hell of a row in Old English Game circles about it.
That leaves the cockfighting journals. Essentially there are four of these available by mail order from America, the best known of which is called “Grit & Steel’ and has been mentioned earlier. I have seen a lot of copies in this country, from all years, current to ancient. The others, such as “The Feathered Warrior” are less common, but it is possible to send a combined subscription to a single supplier of the magazines.
In addition to the American journals there is a publication available from Holland called “Game Dogs and Gamecocks International”. Whilst the Editor, Mr Jan Kuiper, does not openly advocate either dogfighting or cockfighting, that is what the magazine is about, as well as a good deal of mention of legitimate use of terriers to hunt vermin such as foxes, rabbits and rats. Some of the legitimate working terrier community in Britain are totally unamused at having their legal activities linked in print with activities that are illegal. The magazine also advertises dogfighting and cockfighting equipment from a variety of mail order sources, so by and large it is quite easy to get proper equipment for cocking.
What is impossible to estimate is the amount of money that is being spent on cockfighting in Britain each year. There are certainly many hundreds of people involved, most of whom keep fowls. If each of them only spent £5.00 a week on their birds and sport, we are immediately into astronomical figures nationally. If we limit the estimate of the number of active cockers to just 1000 (and there are many more than that), that guarantees that a quarter of a million pounds is passing out of cockers’ pockets annually.
Aseels are much used for fighting.
This hen is from Thailand and is two-and-a-half years old. She would be ideal for breeding. Generally hens are not used for fighting, but Aseel hens are notoriously quarrelsome and will fight.
|Examples of the Shamo-type Birds|
These came from Japan and are very strong.
The English Gamecock
By Herbert Atkinson