A Prize fighter, a Game Chicken, and a Giant walk into a bar…

The Intro Gallery of A Decade Afield displays artwork amassed during the pre-Museum days. It includes charcoal drawings by Edward Troye, bronzes by Carroll Bassett, a pastel of Harry Worcester Smith, and a portrait by Benjamin Marshall of John Gully. Who the heck is John Gully? Why should he be included amongst such company and in a sporting museum?

This painting was given to the National Sporting Library in 1977 by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, as highlighted in the NSL winter newsletter that year.

Gully was born in 1783 in Bristol, England. After his father’s death, he took over the family butcher shop, but it apparently did not do well. Gully was next seen in debtors’ prison. The only way out of debtors’ prison was to have your debts paid, which was near impossible if your family had to raise or save the money that they already did not have. A person could technically be there from days to, literally, years. Gully must have been the only person whom debtors’ prison ended up helping him.

In 1805, during his incarceration, he was visited by his long-time friend, Henry “Hen the Game Chicken” Pierce. Pierce was the reigning prizefighter and, after some goading by fellow inmates, the two men sparred. Surprisingly everyone, Gully came out of it looking like an appealing contender. His debt was paid by a gentleman named Fletcher Reid, described as “always actively alive, like a true sportsman,” on the condition that Pierce and Gully have a proper match with the title on the line.

Arthur Shepperd (British/American, 1875–1957), John Gully vs. Henry Pierce, 1807, oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches, Private Collection

Pierce won in an astounding 64 rounds. However, so impressed was he that upon his retirement, “Hen” was ready to literally hand over the title, but Gully wanted to earn it. To do so, he fought Bob “the Lancaster Giant” Gregson twice and emerged the victor with the championship in hand.

John Gully vs. Bob Gregson, 1808, engraving, Wikipedia

Boxing appealed to all the classes, from working class to royalty and grew to be one of the most popular sports in Britain towards the end of the 18th century. One of the reasons for this is because of “the emergence of several skilled, colorful champions,” including Gully. He was the kind of athlete who, once he reached the pinnacle, he retired. He seems to have wanted a better life and once he made enough money to do that, he left. Despite frequent pleas over the years, reportedly even from King George III’s son, the Duke of York, for “just one more mill,” Gully declined them all. His boxing career, which saved him from a possible life in debtors’ prison, lasted all of three years.

After Gully’s 1808 retirement from boxing, he turned his attention to horse racing as a bookmaker and later as an owner. In 1827, Gully purchased Mameluke, fresh off his Epsom Derby earlier that year. The next race for the Thoroughbred was St. Leger at Doncaster. There were many false starts which led to much confusion and Mameluke facing the wrong way when the race finally started. He was able to correct himself but still lost to a filly, Matilda. It was discovered that many of the jockeys and even the starter were bribed to stop Mameluke from winning. Gully lost £40,000 on the race. He unsuccessfully challenged Matilda’s owner to a rematch.

John Frederick Herring, Sr. (British, 1795-1865), Matilda beats Mameluke, Finish of the 1827 St. Leger 1827, 24 x 35 3/4 inches

Mameluke was still considered a strong contender on the race circuit, winning the 1828 Port Stakes. Artist Benjamin Marshall, who also moonlighted as a sports contributor to The Sporting Magazine with the nom de plume The Observator, dubbed Mameluke the second-best horse in England.

The Sporting Magazine, July 1828, Rare Books Collection, National Sporting Library & Museum

In 1832, Gully and his partner, Robert Ridsdale, won the Epsom Derby with St. Giles and St. Leger with Margrave for a total of £85,000. Gully’s lucrative winning streak continued with Ugly Buck (1844), Pyrrhus the First (1846), Mendicant (1846), Hermit (1854), and Andover (1854).

Gully next tackled, albeit briefly, politics. He was elected in 1832 as a Whig Member of Parliament for the borough of Pontefract and remained in office until 1837. During his term, Charles Dickens was a parliamentary reporter and wrote this about Gully: The quiet gentlemanly-looking man in the blue surtout, grey trousers, white neckerchief and gloves, whose closely buttoned coat displays his manly figure and broad chest to advantage, is a very well-known character. He had fought a great many battles in his time and conquered, like the heroes of old, with no other arms than those the gods gave him.

(after) Benjamin Marshall (British, 1768-1835), Charles Turner, engr., John Gully, early 19th century, mezzotint, 25 5/8 x 18 7/8 inches, National Portrait Gallery, London

It is believed that Dickens’ character of Mr. Gregsbury in Nicholas Nickleby was modeled after Gully. Gregsbury is an MP who interviews one of his constituents, Mr. Pugstyles. As I just learned, “pugilism” is another term for boxing. Dickens was clearly familiar with the MP and at a time when politicians were much more accessible, it is possible they knew each other.

Of all his incarnations, Gully’s longest-lasting, and possibly most successful, career was as a racehorse owner. His personal life was just as rich. Gully was married twice, and each wife bore him 12 children. Interestingly, his progeny is also encompassed within NSLM’s mission. His grandson William Pedley and great-grandson Eric Leader Pedley were both renowned polo players in California. The latter was part of the second class inducted into the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in 1991.

Benjamin Marshall (English, 1768–1835)
Portrait of John Gully, 1815
oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 12 inches
National Sporting Library & Museum,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1977

Gully’s story could be an ESPN documentary: failed butcher, debtors’ prison, championship boxer, horse race owner, profitable bookmaker, and then Member of Parliament (I can see the promos now!). Though his portrait only slightly alludes to his colorful life, it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

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