The Oxford Old English Gamefowl Club
As noted earlier, there are many Game Clubs throughout the country; these are similar to other clubs which deal with other standard breeds of poultry. They encourage the breeding of pure breeds of poultry and are involved in exhibiting. This is a worthwhile hobby and many prominent people are involved, including the Queen Mother who breeds Orpingtons.
The main clubs involved with Game Fowl are the Carlisle Old English Game Club and the Old English Game Bantam Club. Both are concerned with breeding Game birds for presenting ( ‘penning’) at shows held throughout the country.
The Oxford Old English Game Fowl Club is concerned with maintaining the old type of Old English Game ( as opposed to those bred purely for showing). There are therefore two distinct type of bird:
1. Oxford type or ‘Pit’ Game;
2. Carlisle type or Exhibition Game.
Herbert Atkinson drew and painted birds which were very similar to the Carlisle type birds, but unfortunately , I understand from good authority, that due to crossing with foreign blood many of the Oxford birds are quite unlike true Old English Game in shape or conformation.
For reasons which will become obvious the vast majority of the British public have never heard of the Oxford Old English Gamefowl Club. Known to cockers as the ‘Oxford Club’, and to its members simply as ‘the Club’. it was started in 1885 mainly as the result of the efforts of H.E. Atkinson, of Ewelme, Oxfordshire and has survived ever since. The object of the club is to preserve the breeding of the traditional old English strains of gamefowl, but not for their visual attraction. The birds are bred for the prime purpose of fighting.
Below an assortment of fighting cocks:
Old English Game : Black Red
Old English Game : Duckwing
The birds above were painted by Herbert Atkinson : note the shape and pleasing appearance. Many birds today do not achieve this high standard.
A Mixed-Blood Aseel x OEG from Thailand
Fought with natural spurs.
Black & White Splashed Cock
18 moths old Slasher-Fighter of mixed blood
Anyone who tells you anything to the contrary is misinformed or if he is a member, he is a liar. The Club has got plenty of those within its ranks.
As of mid 1991 the Club comprises 86 members. Amongst these are 8 titled men, and several lawyers. There are no policemen, no clergymen, and no women. Woman are not barred, there just aren’t any at the moment.
The Club holds two meetings a year. New members have to be sponsored by two existing members who have known the prospective new member for at least five years. About ten Mains per year are fought, generally of five to seven birds.
New members are ‘vetted’ personally and professionally, and their criminal convictions are checked using the Police National Computer. People with criminal convictions will not generally be admitted. This is of course an illegal misuse of the computer. Prospective members with ‘unfortunate’ business histories or who have attracted media attention in an unfavourable light are also frowned upon.
The Club operates a strict ‘Black Ball’ system; one vote against you and you don’t get in. It is an extremely secretive organisation. In 1991 a member was expelled for conduct likely to bring public attention to the club.
There appears to be a standard line of defence which is used by Club Members who are put on the spot by enquirers. The first thing that they do is to absolutely deny that the Club does anything except breed Game Fowl for showing. The second is to say that the Club has one Annual Show for members and invited guests only. That would be an acceptable response to the interested enquirer, except for the fact that no member will say who the Club officers are, or even who is the current Secretary for correspondence.
Some idea of the secrecy involved can be gained from the following comment from a senior member:
You have to understand my position. If it gets out to other members of the club that I have been talking to you I am in deep trouble. It is quite possible for very nasty things to happen to me, and my life would not be worth living.
In the early days of this research when I was still prepared to use forthrightness and openness in my approaches to sources of information I telephoned a man who lives in south Cumbria who I knew to be a member. He is well known for what he does for a living, and he also knew of me, albeit not that we had ever met.
We both knew quite a lot about each other, but he was obviously shocked to hear that I knew that he was a member of the Club. I told him about my work to which his response was that he did not know what I was talking about and could not understand why I should telephone him. I could sense the fear coming down the telephone. I then told him that I knew full well that he was a member, and told him the date that he joined! This loosened his tongue considerably. He spent the next ten minutes telling me that I was stirring up a hornets’ nest and he thought the whole project was a very bad idea. He did say something interesting:
Although you might be having trouble finding out who the Oxford Club members are, many of them are known to the authorities. They have got us all catalogued and listed, and the only reason that we don’t get a lot of attention is because it is so hard for them to actually catch us at it. Knowing about us is one thing, but proving a court case is quite another.
He was partially right. The ‘authorities’ think they know who the members are, but a lot of their information is in fact misinformation put out by members to mislead. Even people heavily involved in the poultry world have the wrong idea, such as this man from Crawley in Sussex:
I am not a popular man with the Oxford Club. Firstly they won’t have me as a member because I live on a council estate and am not a professional man. It’s not that I want to fight birds, I am only interested in breeding. Secondly, I have put a lot of hackles up by interbreeding my Asils with Oxford type birds. They would not be bothered if I did it with Carlisle type birds.
The fact that he lives on a council estate and is not a professional man is nothing whatever to do with it. The rest of what he says is about right, plus the fact that he does not know the right people.
By this stage it was not surprising that I was starting to stir up the pot a little. The expected telephone call was not long in coming:
“Hello, is that Dr Peachey?”
“Yes, can I help you?”
“I hear that you are busying yourself sticking your nose into our business where it doesn’t belong”
“If you mean I am running a research project into cocking, you’re right. Do you want to help? ”
“Let’s put it this way. If you don’t stop wandering round enquiring into Club affairs, we’ll see to it that you don’t have any legs to walk around on. Get it?”
Before I got the chance to tell him that I’ve been threatened by far worse individuals than a few self-important cockers he put the phone down. I am not easy to intimidate.
Whilst the Club has a good number of top people, it also has a lot of ordinary working class men. The situation is well illustrated by the following quote from Ed Reid, the Canadian who introduced the American Pit Bull Terrier into Britain, and who is this country’s leading authority on the breed. Although not a cocker or fowl keeper himself, he has come across one or two:
In the mid 1970’s I went to the funeral of Joe Mallen from Cradley Heath in the West Midlands. He was one of the most famous breeders of Bull Terriers and gamecocks of all time, and a member of the Oxford Old English Game Club. It was incredible. He was just an ordinary bloke to all intents and purposes, but the guest list at the funeral read like Who’s Who . I was introduced to Lord this, and Sir that, and a man who was already well known in the animal world and later became more widely known to the public. I didn’t know then, but I know now, that they were all members of the Oxford Club, within which it seems social rank is of no consequence. Normally these people would not have been seen dead in the company of an ordinary working class man.
As my research progressed it was necessary to use subterfuge to track members down. Several fell victim to being told that I knew for a fact that they were members when I didn’t, I just had fair reason to suspect it. I knew that I was getting close to the mark when the following came to me from a source that I cannot indicate in anyway:
My son is one of quite a few gamekeepers I know who breed gamefowl for fighting. The birds that he rears are supplied to a Royal estate, and they are not for looking at, if you know what I mean.
I certainly do know what he means. The next member of the club to telephone me was in nothing less than a flat panic. He was obviously terrified. He was a member of the Bench, a barrister who had been made a Judge. The conversation went as follows:
Judge: I hear you know something about me that is a pretty closely guarded secret. I just want to know if you intend making it public.
BFP: I suppose you mean that I know you are a cockfighter. I’ve got no particular interest in making it public because this is an academic research study which depends upon confidentiality for any information at all.
Judge: You do realise don’t you that there are a good few members of the fancy at the Bar, and that any one of us is finished personally and professionally if it gets out into the gutter press. Quite apart from that, you could be in serious danger personally, you know.
BEP: Are you threatening me?
Judge: No, not at all. I am just pointing out that you make your professional living in front of people like me and it could be said that you are dependent upon the goodwill of certain parts of the judiciary.
BEP:Come off it. ‘Certain parts of the judiciary’ as you put it would be only too happy to stick you in jail if they got half a chance.
Judge:All right, I’m sorry. I just don’t want my name being bandied about in connection with gamefowl. I hope I can rely on your discretion.
In January 1992 I heard that a man had been dismissed from his employment as a gamekeeper because his employer had been informed that he had been speaking to me about certain birds that were reared on the estate. This man has been so frightened by whatever has been said to him that he has left the county completely, and moved to the other end of the country.
If you work away at things for long enough, eventually the normal lubrication that makes the system run begins to wear a little thin. So it proved to be with me. One of my more interesting callers was a friend in Special Branch who had come across my name in a file. As it turned out, there is considerably more than one Branch file with my name in it, and for a variety of reasons, mostly connected with the fact that I am a retired police officer. I was told that a certain unidentified Special Branch Officer had been approached by an identified senior politician who had expressed his concern at the stage my investigations had reached. I was to be advised that I was much too close to certain people for comfort, and if I did not back off, I might expect certain consequences. Those consequences would be known to me as a former policeman, so it was unnecessary to spell them out.
I pointed out to those involved that it was a very bad idea indeed to covertly threaten me, because contingency arrangements had already been made to deal with any circumstances which might arise were I to be the victim of any misfortunes. Making no bones about it, I said that the first thing that would happen is that my secure list of known cockfighters and cockfighting supporters would be published in the national press within days. I explained that it was in no way a function of my research to make public the names of Oxford Club members, or anyone else, but in the event that my academic integrity was to be impinged upon, I was quite happy to do whatever was necessary to protect my position.
That was, and still is, my attitude to anyone who wishes to threaten me over this whole issue. They should thoughtfully consider the fact that I know who they are, and can prove it if necessary.
What constitutes a ‘good’ bird is laid down by standards drawn up by the club concerned, On the following pages the Oxford standards are listed.
The Oxford Old English Gamefow Club - Revised Standards of Perfection
Head: Small and tapered, skin of face and throat flexible and loose.
Beak: Big, boxing, crooked or hawk-like, pointed, strong at the setting on.
Eyes: Large, bold, fiery and fearless.
Comb, Wattles & Ear-lobes: Of fine texture, small and thin in undubbed chickens and hens.
Neck: Large boned, round, strong, and of fair length, neck hackle covering the shoulders
Back: Short, flat, broad at the shoulders, tapering to the tail.
Breast: Broad, full, prominent, with large pectoral muscles, breast bone not deep or pointed.
Wings: Large, long, and powerful, with large strong quills, amply protecting the thighs.
Tail : Large up, and spread, main feathers and quills large and strong. In the hen inclined to fan shape, and carried well up.
Belly: Small and tight.
Thighs: Short, round and muscular, following the line of the body, or slightly curved.
Legs: Strong, clean boned, sinewy, close scaled, not fat and gummy like other fowls, not stiffly upright or too wide apart, and having a good bend or angle at hock.
Feet: Toes thin, long, straight and tapering, terminating in long curved nails, hind toe of good length and strength, extending backwards in almost a straight line.
Spurs: Hard, fine, set low on the leg.
Plumage: Hard, sound, resilient, smooth, glossy and sufficient without much fluff.
Carriage: Proud, defiant, sprightly, active on his feet, ready for any emergency, alert, agile quick in his movements.
In Hand: Clever, well-balanced, hard yet light-fleshed, corky, mellow and warm, with strong contraction of wings and thighs to the body.
Serious: Thin thighs or neck; flat sided; deep keel;
Defects: pointed, crooked or indented breast bone; thick insteps or toes; duck-feet; straight or stork-legs; in-knees; soft flesh; broken, soft or rotten plumage; bad carriage or action; any indication of weakness of constitution.
Note. As would be expected the emphasis is on those attributes which emphasize the fighting ability, such as ‘close heeled’, broad breasted, sprightly, etc. However, the true measure is whether the birds fight to the death. The normal fancier accepts the description as good enough at its face value, but the Oxford man only accepts what he sees in the Pit, when the birds are fighting to the death.
From; The Nonnes Preestes Tale
by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
A yeerd she hadde, enclosed al aboute
With stikkes, and a drye dych withoute,
In which she hadde a cok, hight Chauntecleer.
In al the Land, of crowying nas his peer.
His voys was murier than the murie orgon
On Messe-dayes that in the chinche gon.
Wel sikerer was his crowying in his logge
Than is a clokke or an abbey or logge.
By nature he knew ech ascencioun
Of the equynoxial in thilke toun;
For whan degrees fitene weren ascended,
Thanne crew he, that it myghte nat been amended.
His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And betailled as it were a castel wal;
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon;
Lyk asure were his legges and his toon;
His nayles whitter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
Sevene hennes for to doon al his plesaunce
Whiche were his sustres and his paramours,
And wonder lyk to hym, as of colours;
Of whiche the fairest hewed on hir throte
Was cleped faire damoysel Pentelote
Note: From earliest times cocks have been held in high esteem and verses and books have been written. The poem above is one of the earliest attempts.
To Chapter 8