Sporting combat with broadswords can be traced back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when British “gladiators” fought in public exhibitions of martial skill, with a variety of weapons. Famous prize fighters such as James Figg were renowned for “the Manly Arts of Foil Play, Back-Sword, Cudgelling and Boxing,” the latter being of course the last one to survive into modern times. Prize Fights were held in London at the Bear-Garden, a theatre near Shakespeare’s Globe, where good blows were rewarded by the public the throwing coins upon the stage. The diarist Samuel Pepys saw many such bouts at the Bear Garden, and recorded:
“I felt one of their swords, and found it to be very little, if at all blunter on the edge, than the common swords are.”
During the 19th century, displays of military prowess at Grand Assaut d’Armes were popular forms of public entertainment throughout the British Empire, and included competitive combat with broadswords, singlesticks, foils, bayonets, and a variety of mounted and mixed-arms combat. Although there was no organised governing body, the victor in such a competition would be entitled to claim they were the Champion. For, for example, the winner of a Grand Assault in London could claim to be Champion of England, while the victor of the Grand Assault in Edinburgh would be Champion of Scotland. They would then fight each other to determine Champion of Britain. They might be challenges by a Russian or Frenchman for Championship of Europe, and the winner would inevitably travel to America in order to claim Championship of the World.
These titles were thus passed back and forth by a series of personal challenges, and anybody, civilian or military, from anywhere in the world could challenge for the title. However, as might be expected, the Broadsword Championship was dominated by British military personnel. The combat could be fought on foot or mounted, or both, the rules and fashion varying over time.
In 1886, the undoubted Broadsword Champion of the World was Captain Duncan C. Ross:
“possessor of the greatest honor which can be bestowed upon a British soldier — the Victoria Cross – captain in the British Army, a life Mason (an honor seldom bestowed upon any man), present champion broadswordsman of the world, past champion wrestler and all-round athlete, and the hero of a thousand adventures”1
Fig. 1: Captain Duncan C. Ross, Broadsword Champion of the World, fights another British officer, Captain James McGregor, at the Cleveland Academy of Music, using thirty-six inch broadswords (National Police Gazette, 19/11/1884)
Ross was challenged by Captain Jennings of the Eighth Irish Hussars in San Francisco, where Ross worked as an instructor for the US military. Jennings defeated Ross, and became – briefly – World Champion. However, Ross demanded a rematch, and won his title back.
Jennings then departed for Sydney, Australia, where upon arrival he claimed to still be “champion of the world.”2 A mounted sword contest for Championship of the World was held at the Bondi Aquarium, where, in front of a large crowd, Jennings was defeated by a local challenger, “Sergeant J. R. Donovan., late Drill Instructor to 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, Champion Swordsman of Australia.”3
Donovan was immediately challenged by “J. C Meats, late 2nd Dragoon Guards (Scots Greys).”4 These two gentlemen seem not to have liked each other much, and the contest turned into a messy, controversial affair, where Meats, well ahead on points, received a thrust to the groin. Over his protests, the Police stopped the combat before he bled to death, and each side claimed victory.5
Before the question of which of these gentlemen now held the title of World Champion could be sorted out, Duncan Ross arrived in Sydney in December 1889. It seems Ross, having heard about Jennings and the Australian competition, had caught the first boat out to set the record straight. The result was:
“GREAT BROAD-SWORD CONTEST.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD AT ISSUE.
Saturday afternoon will witness the greatest broadsword contest ever fought out in Australia, when Duncan C. Ross, the world’s champion, meets Captain E. N. Jennings, ex-champion, in a mounted broadsword contest for the championship of the world, and £100 offered by the directors of the Bondi Aquarium Company.”6
With the score in Jennings favour 7 to 3, Ross broke his sword, and the contest was rescheduled for the following Saturday. The next weekend 5,600 spectators arrived to see Ross come from behind to win the contest by 11 points to 9, retaining his title.
However, Jennings soon had his revenge. “At the Caledonian sports in Melbourne on January 25th, 1890, in the presence of 25,000 people, including the Governor and his suite”7 Jennings convincingly defeated Ross in a rematch on the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Embittered at his loss, Ross returned to the United States soon after. Jennings, however, did not hold his title long. In December 1890, Donovan once more defeated Jennings,8 and Jennings also returned to California. In 1891 Donovan faced another local swordsman, Professor Parker in a “Broadsword Contest, Mounted and Dismounted”:9
The Advertisement for the last ever authentic World Broadsword Championship, printed in the Sydney Morning Herald and Evening News, Sydney, 7/2/1891
“The Sword Fight.
The long-expected sword contest between Donovan and Parker for the championship of the world was fought in the Coogee Palace Aquarium Grounds on Saturday afternoon in the presence of a large assemblage, which included members of Parliament, city merchants, and prominent lawyers. Donovan, who had held the championship for some time, lost it on Saturday, the result being a decisive victory for Parker.”10
This appears to have been the last verifiable World Championship. 11 The newspapers record a clear “chain of custody” from Ross to Professor Parker, and Parker was never challenged for the title. When, in 1902, a Major R. E. Roth, D.S.O. who “claims the sword championship of the Commonwealth military forces,”12 arrived in Sydney, this:
“brought Professor Parker to this office on Friday, and he says that he holds the championship…, and he also desires it to be known that anyone seeking to obtain that title must measure blades with him. Professor Parker further states that he contested the championship ten years ago at Coogee with Sergeant Donovan, in the presence of about 9000 people, and was successful in winning the match.” 13
Thus the authentic World Broadsword Championship, as far as can be determined, still rests in Australia in the hands of Professor Parker, who passed away at Marrickville in Sydney in April, 1916.14
1. Referee, Sydney, 17/7/1912
- Referee, Sydney 9/6/1887
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 5/1/1888
- Freeman’s Journal, Sydney, 14/1/1888
- The Sydney Morning, 6/2/1888
- Referee, Sydney, 27/11/1889
- Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, Qld. 9/6/1890
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 7/2/1891
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 7/2/1891
- Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17/2/1891
- Of course, that didn’t stop others elsewhere in the world claiming the title. Both Ross and Jennings continued to claim they were World Champion upon their return to America. In Seattle on April 20, 1898 Jennings was defeated by a Russian, Ivan de Malchin of St. Petersburg, who thereafter started calling himself “Broadsword Champion of the World,” and went to San Francisco to attempt to fight a Frenchman, Louis Tronchet. In March, 1899 “Captain Duncan Ross, champion swordsman of the world, lost the decision a in a mounted broadsword contest tonight to Captain W. S. Bice of this city.” Donovan also went around Australia for years claiming to still be Champion of the World. He was, however, defeated by “Mr. E. Flynn, of Newcastle”, veteran of the Zulu wars, who claimed the title for himself and in 1899 issued a public challenge to “make a match sword championship of Australia with Mr. Peterkin, the present holder of that title.” These competitions seem to have kicked around for some time, and as late as 1907 there was another “World Championship” advertised in Portland, Oregon. Ross, too, seems to have kept calling himself World Champion, and in 1912 he still planned to “to defend his title of world’s champion broad swordsman against all comers at the International sword contest in Chicago next July.”
- Evening News, Sydney, 18/10/1902
- Evening News, Sydney, 18/10/1902
- Queensland Times, 25/4/1916. See “The Life, Death, and Life of Professor Parker” at http://www.stoccata.org for further details.