(Originally aired 2023/12/30 - listen here)
When I became a publisher of other people’s fiction, I entered into a new era of “firsts.” Being an author’s first fiction submission. Being an author’s first professional sale. And in this case, the first time that I reluctantly declined the first submission of a story, and had the author revise to address the story’s weaknesses and resubmit it for a successful sale. That won’t always be the case. I’ve also had the experience of receiving a revised submission and, while it was clearly improved, it was edged out by other stories I liked better. But “Battling Poll” by Rose Cullen had a happy ending because I knew as soon as I started reading the new version that I’d be buying this one.
Rosie Cullen is an Irish born writer based in Manchester in the United Kingdom. She has written for both stage and screen and her short stories have appeared widely, including in The Copperfield Review and Nixes Mate. Her first novel, a semi-autobiographical family saga, The Lucky Country, was published in 2021. An historical crime fiction novel, Harlequin is Dead, the first of a series set in the London theatre world of the late 18th century is expected to come out in 2024 from Sapere Books. The short story, “Battling Poll,” was inspired by a former pugilist of the same name in that novel, and reimagines her origins. For more information about Rosie’s works, see the link to her blog in the show notes.
When we first discussed narration for this story, I hoped to find a narrator who could properly represent the protagonist’s identity as a Black Londoner of the 18th century. Rosie and others gave me leads on possible voice talent, but alas none of them worked out. My principle is that if I can’t find a good match for a character voice, I’ll take on the responsibility of being less than perfect myself, rather than leaving someone else open to criticism for it. So imagine, if you will, that this story is not being narrated by a modern American.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
by Rose Cullen
The first time I took note of Poll it was at a hanging.
The cart carrying the men to be executed followed its usual route from Newgate to Tyburn to the general entertainment of the crowds in the streets. The highwayman Dan Steele—a proper murderous villain—was making great play with those he passed, boasting of his exploits and what a fine show he would give at the end, to rousing cheers from his supporters. It was Dan that I had come to bid farewell. The other man, a poor ragged soul, looked about with wide, terrified eyes and could scarce keep upon his feet for the way they were trembling.
A great gathering was already assembled and were in jolly humour with all the noise of a fair. Men spilled from the taverns which had opened early, some still inebriated from the night before. Snafflers and scoundrels of every hue wove in amongst the throng. Games of chance were hastily set up. A girl and her ma were shucking oysters. Cries came from the pie sellers and muffin men. A musician struck up his fiddle in anticipation of the jig that would be danced by the condemned men. The Newgate Calendar was waved aloft, with its lists of the recent hanged, sensational accounts of their lives, their confessions and dying words.
I pushed my way forward until I was alongside the cart and that’s when I spotted the two girls. Nancy caught my eye first. A young beauty and no mistake, despite the plainness of her dress and the grubby tears that streamed down her face. I knew at once she must be the quaking man’s daughter come to witness her father’s sorry end. She had an arm hooked into a younger girl, her sister, a glowering creature who threw dark scowling looks at all who jostled to peer at them.
I am not in the habit of attending hangings but felt I owed Dan some due; he had an interest in fighting men and was amongst the first to sponsor my father’s bare-knuckle bouts. Black Sam is now a shadow of the man who held such sway with his fists. Injured bad about the head in a fight at Marylebone Fields his wits have never been the same again. It was then that Steele set me on my own career—for I was schooled at my father’s knee and knew all the tricks of fighting. What choice did I have? It was either fists or whoring. To be a servant was no choice at all. My father had been sold off a plantation as a boy, to play the part of a black page in a grand house, a fashionable accessory. Then turfed out onto the streets of London when he was grown too big for novelty and too surly. I would serve no one. Whilst men would wager on my fists and I might seize the prize I would punch and kick my way to infamy.
But I must look to my future. Never more so. My benefactor about to take his final exit, dancing a jig on the fatal tree. He caught sight of me from the jolting cart and waved his hat with a flourish.
“Jane! My Savage Beauty! Come to bid old Dan farewell?!”
I nodded up to him with a grin. “And to pray for your wicked soul, sir!”
He laughed uproariously, “The devil shall have to catch me first!” He turned to his supporters, “Isn’t that right, lads?”
There was a great roar of approval from the crowd.
The cart drew up at Tyburn. I could see the liquid gleam in Dan’s eye, he was well in his cups, his supporters plying him with toasts and he full of banter and boasts. He knew his end was upon him but he should live on in legend and in song and he would cock a snook at death. The other man was dragged from the cart by the guards and making a great cry and wail of his innocence.
The crowd jeered, for no man is innocent and may as well hang for one thing as another. An apprentice lad pointed, his high-pitched hoot rang above the general noise, “That milksop has pissed and shat himself and not yet on the tree!”
At which, the younger daughter leapt forward and set about the boy with her fists. They flew in a furious shower of pummelling and the fellow, though a head taller and raising his arms in defence, was tipped on to his arse. He had such a look of astonishment as to be quite comical.
The older sister rushed to restrain her sibling. “Poll, come away!”
I could see that the apprentice did not much relish being the butt of his companions’ jokes. There was a blazing cast to his eyes as he found his feet again in the dirt. Straight away I sensed he was the sort of tyke that would not have his pride bested by any woman, never mind a chit of a girl. Young Poll had been yanked by her sister. But this lad would have the last blow, his fist was raised and clenched.
I could see his intent and yelled a warning.
Poll swung about dodging under his assault and, her eyes blazing in turn, dealt the lummocks a singeing blow square on the chin. He staggered back into the arms of his brothers who clapped him soundly and dragged him away. One lad winking at Nancy as they withdrew. “Your sister’s a fiery minx, ain’t she? Tis a pity your pa does not have some of her stomach!”
I was minded to think the same, as she had grabbed my attention so had a notion—that I might set up a school for female pugilists.
Some find hangings a great diversion, their own lives being so paltry—in watching another die they may feel for an instance that they have the great good fortune to be alive. I was thankful that Dan’s end was made quick; he had paid this Jack Ketch well enough for the execution of his job. The girls’ father was not so blessed. It was upwards of twenty minutes before he twitched his last.
The girls were led away by a thin pock-marked man I had not much noticed before. I must act swiftly on the idea which had begun to take shape in my mind and rushed to stand in their path.
“Them’s handy fists,” I directed to Poll. “I might have a use for them fists.”
“Pardon, if you please.” Nancy made to pass.
“I could train you up.” I kept hold of Poll’s eye and saw the interest there.
“To what?” the girl asked.
“A bruiser, like me.”
“Away, blackie.” The man glowered.
I remained fixed on Poll. “Think on it. Where’s your diggings?”
“Did you not hear me strumpet, make way,” the man snarled.
I took note of him then. His pinched mien. He was a man well past his prime, lank grey hair straggling from beneath his tricorn, but the cut of his cloth was fine enough.
“I’m no hedge whore and you shan’t be neither Poll.”
“By the Blue Boar in St Giles,” Poll threw back over her shoulder.
I nodded and smiled slowly; Poll was not so pretty as her sister but I could feel a quickening of my heart toward her.
A school for female pugilists. The idea took root in my breast. There should always be an interest in that spectacle since the days of the champion Eliza Wilkinson; even if only as a side show. I had seen women slide into the fighting life through gin-addled desperation, a side-line to their harlotry, thinking nothing of baring their breasts as part of the attraction. But I had fought for my own glory, saved my prize monies and had a mind to make a respectable retirement, never having met a man I liked in the marrying kind of way. I had no need of a husband’s protection and besides I still had the care of my father. Black Sam could help in the training, his wits would allow of that. This girl, Poll, should be the start of my establishment, my fancies raced ahead, we might even one day be partners and share the enterprise together.
Two days later I found where the girls were lodged and more in addition. Pretty little Nancy worked at her needle, mending dresses for the second-hand clothes trade. Poll had fetched up slaving for a washerwoman. Turning the great mangle to wring the sheets had developed her muscles, I hazarded. The money that the girls earned scarce enough to keep the dismal roof above their heads now that their father was no more. They should be in need of some assistance.
That was soon apparent as I approached their mean cellar. Nancy stood below at the narrow door and a bawd was on the step above decked out in her frippery.
“Mistress Knowles has sent me to fetch you, if you are willing,” the bawd sniffed. “To help keep house, mend, and shift. It’ll be your board and keep and more besides if you are minded and show willing.”
Nancy looked hesitant and covetous of the pink and purple gown with its trim of lace. But then a hand was laid on Nancy’s shoulder and drew her back within. In her place stood the thin wiry man. “Get away about your devilish business. You are not welcome here.”
The harlot bridled, “You have your chance, Nancy Treddle!” she called down to the girl now out of sight. “Better than an old goat like this reeky pox-marked moldwarp!” Then flounced up the step and passed me with a huff. The door slammed shut behind her.
I paused, was now a good time to speak with the girls? It seemed the vultures were already circling. I had learned that this old goat was Mr Isaac Gridley. He had a shop of second-hand clothes and Nancy was one of the needle girls mending the better class of garment that wanted a stitch or two. Was his interest in her welfare simple philanthropy? I doubted it very much. That hand on her shoulder had spoken of possession in more ways than one. Mr Gridley should be a veritable guard dog now that he had such a delectable prize within his grasp. It turned my stomach to think of his thin mean claws pawing at Nancy’s young ripe flesh. His pitted snout nestled in her blossoming buds. Well, I would not think on that. It was that game bird Poll that I had come for, with or without Nancy.
A man on the corner was casting a cutty-eye in my direction. I did not like the look of the rogue. Pa had taught me from the earliest age to have a half-eye for them that might want to blackbird me onto some ship at Deptford bound for the West Indies. He was born a slave and wanted no child of his to suffer that fate. My mother had been a scullery maid from Kent, dead long years past from a coughing fever. My lighter colouring only added to the threat. I found the little clasp-knife I kept in my pocket and gripped the handle for reassurance, at the same time shooting the cove a sharp look to signal that I had his measure. He slunk away into the alley behind.
To business. I stepped down to the poor mean dwelling with fresh purpose.
‘You think our Poll can earn that kind of money?”
“She’s got the guts for it,” I asserted.
“And have her teeth knocked out most like—along with her brains, then where’s her prospects?” Nancy cast a worried glance at her younger sister.
Poll had passed me a shy look as she held the door wide. I made a bold entrance to the miserable room which the young Treddles called home; I had come with a fair proposition, I declared. When Isaac Gridley attempted to interject, I made it clear that my business was not with him and I would not be put out of the door until I had been heard.
Poll leapt forward with Gridley’s hat accompanied by a swift curtsey. “Good day Mr Gridley you was just taking your leave, was you not, sir?”
The shopkeeper scowled but bowed in turn and bade farewell to Nancy. Promising to return on the morrow for her answer.
“I’d train you up.” I addressed Poll direct.
“Poll has employment.”
“Stirring the great copper and mangling sheets. I know. And her hands will cripple with chilblains and her back bend double under that labour.”
“It is honest work.”
“And so is mine. I am no trickster or deceiver.” I pushed advantage. “I’d take a cut, mind, be like her manager. My father is Black Sam and a noted champion, we’re starting a proper school. There’d be a small room and mat, no rent for the present—” My heart was in my mouth looking between the two girls.
Nancy paused, her girlish features twisted in an agony of uncertainty. “I have an offer of marriage. Poll may come and keep house for Mr Gridley. That is the promise.”
So, the old lecher had wasted no time in courting the young beauty and would make a skivvy out of Poll.
“And what does Poll want?”
“Pa wanted for us to stay together,” Nancy answered; the shape of her decision made.
“Pa’s dead.” Poll took a step forward.
At that Nancy slapped her quick and hard on the cheek; then clasped her mouth, a sob rising in her throat.
Poll nursed her reddened cheek and hung her head.
I sighed, “I will wish you well of your nuptials then, Nancy Treddle, and bid you both good day.”
Day had fast turned to dusk when I emerged. The narrow derelict streets of the rookery already deep in shadow. A link boy stood about trimming his wick. I pulled my shawl tight and took my bearings. A dog crept by and licked my shoe. I could take a short cut from the end of the street that would bring me quicker to Holborn.
I turned into a ginnel that led through a fetid courtyard where an old crone sat on a step and reached out a hand for alms. But my mind was still playing over the scene in the cellar; a missed opportunity. I had felt sure young Poll would have taken my hand then and there and brought her sister round to it were it not for Mr Gridley’s various proposals. With my thoughts so distracted I failed to notice the figures looming out of the darkness from behind until one had grasped me by the arm whilst the other attempted to put a burlap over my head. My wits were slow but my instincts were not. I squirmed about and kneed out sharp to the man with the sack. He grunted. With my free hand I grappled for the knife in my pocket whilst I tried to wrestle free of restraint. A blow rained down on my head, the force of which shot through my spine, I staggered but was still on my feet and the knife in hand. Then, in a moment, all was black as the sack slipped over my head. I lashed out with the blade and caught one of my assailants—he cried out in a shocked agony and released my arm.
“God’s teeth! Seize the bitch!” the man cried.
I leapt back, groping for the sacking that blinded me. My ears were thrumming from the blow but I heard steps running towards the yard. The old crone cackled. And then I heard the thud of an object hitting one of my attackers and his sharp cry. I yanked the burlap from my head in time to see a cobble flying towards the second man and hitting him square at the back of his thick skull. My would-be-kidnappers had had their fill and with a flurry of oaths made haste away.
I caught at my breath. “My thanks—” and turned to find young Poll emerge from the ginnel.
“I saw them coves follow yer. I guessed what they might be about and run to warn you.”
“And very grateful I am, Poll!”
“You’d have stuck ’em anyways.”
“You have a good aim, that’s another fair attribute.”
Poll shrugged but even in the dimming light I could see a blush rise up her cheeks.
“Again, my thanks.”
“I told Nance she must let me give it one chance.” Poll scuffed her clogs. “That is why I follow.”
“She is agreed?”
“She will not stop me when I am set.” There was a sudden steel in her eye.
I nodded, the girl had grit and plenty of it.
“We start tomorrow then.”
Poll arrived in the afternoon, having quit the washerwoman and packed up a bag of scant possessions.
“Nance ain’t happy, says Mr Gridley won’t be neither.”
“He would make a slave of you—both of you.”
Poll nodded. “Nance only thinks to be respectable. But there’s more than one way and no need to marry that old curmudgeon. She thinks she will have the pick of all his dresses and make herself a very fine lady.” Poll grunted. “You’re not married then?” She cast a sly glance at me.
I held her gaze. “I am not so inclined, and besides—a husband might put his feet up and should drink all my winnings.”
Poll grinned, “You’re right there! Only with us it was our ma got the taste for gin, did for her. Pa was the one kept us neat.” Her eyes narrowed. “Now he is hung and some ratfink taken the reward—the same that planted them stolen goods I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Ah, is that the story. A common enough tale.”
“So, you will put me to work?”
Over the succeeding days Poll was made to exercise her muscles in a dozen new ways. I had her jumping up and down as though she were a rabbit bouncing across the yard. My father would hold a heavy canvas bag that was slung up in the yard and she must hit at it as hard as she could for hours on end, Black Sam encouraging and goading her along. In the evenings she could scarce bare the throbbing pain and the scrapes across her fists from the rough canvas. I rubbed a mixture of boiled water and vinegar stinging into any cuts. Then I would apply a poultice of honey to take down the swelling and inflammation in her hands, murmuring soothing words all the while she is gritting her teeth and trying to blink back the exhaustion which assailed her.
“You missing the mangle then, Poll?” I jested.
The girl shook her head vigorously. “I ain’t quitting.”
“I knew you was a rum one. Good girl. Them fists are hardening nicely. Knuckles calloused. And your wrists, you can feel it can’t you?”
Poll nodded. “They can take more of the pummelling, I can tell.”
“Rest up tomorrow and then the day after you’ll see your first opponent.”
Poll looked up sharp.
“Bess Bamber, she’s fighting down in Wimbledon Fields—against no one of consequence. But you shall see what Bess can do and you will remember when you comes up against her. We’ll lay the challenge whilst we’re there. I’m thinking end of May you’ll be ready for your first outing—if you’ve still the stomach for it.”
It was a fine day for the time of year and a lively crowd were gathered in Wimbledon for the sport. I could feel Poll afire and twitching beside me with a nervous energy, eyes darting every which way as she took in all the business, the ceremony and etiquette. Bess’s opponent was a poorly prepared scrapper but the woman put up a brave show and the rounds went on well past the hour.
Later, as we scrambled back onto the cart I had borrowed, I prodded Poll, “So, what did you take note of?”
Poll thought a moment. “I thought Bess would aim for the face with every blow, but instead she laid about the body.”
I nodded. “You’re slugging bone on bone, see, aiming for the head, that’s a lot of cutting and blood, on hands and face. You hit the body, can hurt just as much and less damage to the fists. Pick your moments see, when you come in with a jab to the chin or a side blow to the skull.”
“I seen that. Still, plenty blood.”
“There’ll always be blood. It’s what the audience comes for.”
“And that girl looked half-blinded by the end.”
“Swelling round the eyes, always looks bad.”
“The other girl was swinging but Bess’s dodging.”
“That’s right. You got to duck and dive too my pretty if you want to keep them good looks of yours.”
Poll was silent.
I laid a hand on her knee. “Now you’ve seen it close, fighting might not be to your fancy no more. I don’t hold you to nothing, Poll.”
“Bess’d fight me in your stead, makes no matter.”
Poll tightened her lips and then grasped my hand. “I am determined.”
I squeezed her hand in turn, and liked the feel of it in mine. A good honest hand. I thrilled that she let it rest and did not pull away. Poll cast a sidelong look with an impudent smirk, “And besides, you have not lost your good looks, Miss Black—for all your fighting years, I shall trust in your training to keep mine too.”
“And I will have a care, Poll, I promise you that.” She may not be as pretty as her sister but Poll’s looks had quite crept up and stolen my fancy. “You must learn to lead with the first two knuckles. That way you will not damage your hand so much and you may strike with greater accuracy.”
Her hand remained clasped in mine all the drive back to Southwark as we jostled up close together.
A location for the bout was fixed at Marylebone. Post-bills printed. The announcement of the challenge appeared in The London Daily Post.
A note arrived to inform Poll that the first Sunday of the Marriage Banns had been called for Mr Isaac Gridley and Miss Ann Treddle, the ceremony should take place at the beginning of June after the proscribed third Sunday. Nance hoped that Poll would join her and then afterwards take up residence in Mr Gridley’s house. She was grateful that Mr Gridley was still so kindly disposed towards Poll.
Poll replied informing her sister of the date and venue of the Challenge.
“You read and write?” I remarked.
“A little, my hand is not so fine as Nance; our pa taught us.”
“It is a useful skill for affairs of business.”
“Should you like me to teach you? We may make fair exchange?”
“I see I shall have to have a care, Poll Treddle, or it is you shall have the management of me.”
She smiled at that as though the notion pleased her. That night I offered her a share of the comforts of my bed and we made a regular and cosy fit of ourselves.
Broughton’s rules were agreed. There should be no grabbing below the waist. A round should last until one or other pugilist went down but they should then have to square off in the count of thirty. An opponent was not to be hit when they were down. There would be no hair pulling or eye gouging. To ensure this last, both parties agreed to hold a half crown in each hand and the first to drop their coin should lose the battle. Bess had been reluctant to this condition but persuaded at last that they would attract a more sporting crowd and larger stakes if they could show that female bruisers were of as professional a demeanour as Mr Jack Broughton.
The noise and hub bub of the gathered spectators rose to greet us as I brought Poll to her corner. She was dressed in a simple skirt and plain chemise but I had strapped her breasts for modesty and safety. I could tell that Poll was glad of this when we caught sight of Nancy on the arm of Mr Gridley.
It vexed me to see Nancy so openly displayed by the lecherous villain. For villain he was, of that I had no doubts despite my lack of proofs. The more I thought on the hanging of Robert Treddle and the consequences for his daughters, the more I was convinced that Gridley had played a part in it. But I must keep mum or sour all relations.
Bess Bamber arrived at the scratch looking mean and tough, flexing her muscles and with her fists up like a good boxer; believing she had the prize already.
I patted my apprentice on the back. “Go to it Poll!”
Poll took up her position and the signal was given. At once Bess launched in ready to jab and punch the green stripling. But to the surprise and delight of the audience Poll started to jump about, bouncing like a rabbit. Bess frowned in confusion, throwing punches but they’re hitting air and the next thing Poll has caught her on the side of her jaw. A blow like a hammer. Bess is shaken but steadies and jabs back and moves around in a tight circle as Poll comes around and about, every so often darting in with a mean jab.
I had to stop myself from laughing out loud, Poll was playing her own game against a seasoned opponent. But oh, how glorious it was, if only she could keep it up!
A rising hum and buzz rippled through the crowd; Poll might not have the weight advantage but whenever she lands a punch it’s on target and doing plenty of damage.
But Bess was following her now, keeping her eyes trained—all at once she leapt in at Poll from underneath, catching her a fierce blow. Poll staggered and fell back, losing balance and then she was down.
How quickly fortune could shift; I felt the blow as though it had landed on my own chin and it was all I could do not to rush forward and take Poll in my arms. “Come on Poll,” I urged under my breath.
The crowd were jeering now. They did not want so quick a defeat.
Poll scrambled back up onto her feet and presented at the scratch. Fists clenched, determined not to lose her coins. The round is called and each returned to their second.
I could sense that Poll was mad with herself.
“You must not underestimate Bess,” I hissed in her ear. “She is dangerous—but so are you, you can prevail.”
Poll gave a curt nod.
She was more cautious now, still leapt about but also kept her defences up. And then she met the mark I had proposed, opening an old scar above the left eye.
A ripe excitement exploded in the chants and shouts from the sporting crowd. They scented blood and sure enough it was trickling down the side of Bess’s cheek.
All at once Bess attacked with a ferocious burst of punches, one landing square on Poll’s jaw, my girl slid to the ground and this time it took all her effort to regain her feet.
I pushed a tankard of small beer between her lips.
“You do not have to go on. You have done enough.”
Poll shook her head and pressed back into the bout.
Both fighters are tired now and once or twice they fall into a clumsy embrace, Poll’s head lolling to one side.
I felt every blow, and would trade places in an instant.
Bess came in again but Poll anticipated and side stepped at the last, swung about and jabbed her sharp on the nose. Moments later there’s a smear of blood. Poll swerved again and penetrated the falling defences with a singeing upper cut which lifted Bess right off her feet. The old bruiser crumpled to the floor, never to find those feet again, two half-crowns rattling to the ground beside her.
In the general hullaballoo Nancy rushed to her sister’s side, “Poll, dearest Poll! You are injured. You have had this chance, foolish girl. You must come home to me now.”
“It’s alright Nance. I shall be alright.”
“I will look after you. Come away with me now.”
Poll shook her head.
“You cannot want this, for your life,” Nance insisted.
“That’s for Poll to decide,” I cut in.
“Come Nancy, tarry no more.” Isaac gripped her arm. “Leave your sister to her filthy trade if she will not see what is right and proper.”
“Nancy, do you not see? I have won the prize. I dun it for you! And I shall win again. You do not need to marry this man.”
“What do you say?” Nancy was all confusion.
Poll looked quickly to me.
“You are most welcome to come to us, Nancy.”
Nancy stepped back, “No. I am to be Mrs Gridley, wife to an honest merchant, you ask me to forsake all that—for what? I cannot, Poll.”
The two sisters stared at each other a long moment until Nancy allowed herself to be led away.
I could see a tear edged up over Poll’s swollen eyelid.
“I thought to save her from him.”
“I have lost you a sister, I’m sorry for it.” I placed a hand on her shoulder.
Poll regarded me keenly from bruised and battered face, “But I have found another.” Then she let herself fall into my arms and I took her home.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Battling Poll” by Rose Cullen, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.
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