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Literature, History, Heritage

Of Cock Fights and Duels

On 9 June 1783, Carl Gottlob Küttner spent a day in Holyhead discovering the town’s diversions during his wait for the next boat to Dublin.

Market place, Holy Head, Anglesea. A coloured engraving showing the market place of Holyhead in the 1780s. The archway in the wall at the back leads to St Cybi’s graveyard. Source: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales ~ Creator: S. Sparrow (fl. 1770-1780) ~ Date: 1786

In 1783, Carl Gottlob Küttner (1755-1805) travelled via Holyhead to Dublin for his new post as house teacher and travel companion in the household of George Beresford (1735–1800), the second Earl of Tyrone. Originally from the Electorate of Saxony, Küttner worked as tutor in Switzerland where he caught the Anglo-Irish earl’s interest. Tyrone hired the young German and invited him to join the family seat in Ireland. As an avid traveller with a keen interest in different cultures, Küttner kept a meticulous record of his journey.

Bildnis des Küttner. An engraving showing Carl Gottlob Küttner later in life. The original portrait was created by Johann Friedrich Tischbein from the famous Tischbein family of artists. Source: Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig; Digitaler Portraitindex ~ Creator: Friedrich Tischbein (1750-1812) ~ Date: 1803

After crossing the Channel at Calais, Küttner undertook a bit of sightseeing in England before heading westwards into Wales. Finding Anglesey’s ‘whole nature shrouded in sadness’ owing to the island’s sparse vegetation, Holyhead was more to his liking as he particularly enjoyed the view across the harbour from the window of his guesthouse. Waiting for the next mail boat for Dublin, Küttner discovered cockfighting and the town’s involuntary role in Irish duelling.

The south view of Holyhead Collegiate-Church, in the isle of Anglesey. Detail from an engraving showing a view across the old harbour, possibly similar to the view enjoyed by Küttner from the window of his guesthouse. The numbers label different parts of the harbour: 1) Holyhead Bay, 2) Ynys Cybi, 3) Ynys Rug. Source: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales ~ Creator: unknown ~ Date: 1742

Unlike other towns in Wales, such as Conwy, Denbigh or Welshpool, Holyhead did not have a built cockpit. Instead, the fights took place on a grassy patch near Küttner’s guesthouse. In his travel account, he gives a detailed, if deeply disgusted description of the one and only time he witnessed the spectacle of two birds fight each other to the death. ‘At last,’ he writes, ‘the animals bowed their heads to the ground, but even then they were pushed against another, and even then they would attack each other, half dead and swaying, until one of them remained motionless stretched on the ground.’

Thus we poor Cocks, exert our Skill & Brav’ry / For idle Gulls, and Kites, that trade in Knav’ry. A satirical print showing a cock-fighting match in the unfinished kitchen of the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. The room resembles a purpose-built cock pit typical of many towns across Britain. In contrast, Küttner witnessed the Holyhead cock fight on an open grassy patch. Source: The British Museum ~ Creator: John Kay (1742-1826) ~ Date: 1785

Küttner also visited a location that occasionally served as a duelling ground for Irish opponents. At the time, while not outright banned by law, duelling was treated as a serious offence in Ireland. The regular mail boats across the Irish Sea therefore turned Holyhead into the first and most easily reached port of call for Irish noblemen seeking satisfaction. Thinking of the social norms and pressures at home in the German countries, but also in Britain and Ireland, he writes, ‘Man knows no higher good than life and places it above everything else – then he travels across the sea, braves a difficult crossing with the certainty, or at least probability, to destroy his life or that of another.’ Even today, it is possible to find traces of these Irish duels in Holyhead. Major William Houghton was shot dead in a duel with Captain Wolsely in 1796. He was subsequently buried in St Cybi’s churchyard where his tombstone can still be visited today.

Collegiate church, Holy Head, Pl. 2. A view towards the town of Holyhead with St Cybi’s church in the centre as seen from the side of the old harbour. Source: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales ~ Creator: James Newton (1748-ca. 1804) ~ Date: 1785

The following morning, Küttner found a place on the next mail boat for Dublin where he landed thirty-six hours later after a stormy and rough crossing. He stayed in Ireland for the next two years, before setting out again as travel companion for his young charge through Italy, the Netherlands and France. In 1793, Küttner returned to Leipzig where he published several books about his many extensive travels through Europe.

Amelia (detail). Illustration to Henry Fielding’s ‘Amelia’, for the ‘Novelist’s Magazine’ (London, 23 vols., 1780-1788, Harrison & Co; Volume I, Plate IV). Küttner’s journey to Ireland took place during a time when some duels were still fought with swords, while pistols became the increasingly preferred weapon of choice. Source: The British Museum ~ Creator: printmaker William Walker (1729-1793); artist Daniel Dodd (fl. 1761-1780) ~ Date: 1780

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Of Cock Fights and Duels by Rita Singer. The story was originally published on Ports, Past and Present on 22 April 2022 and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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