Scholarship for its own sake has rather gone out of fashion, although I’m sure Spectator readers would be the last people to worry about that. But what of scholarship for barely any sake at all? A book like this, the result of enormously diligent library ferreting, doesn’t have any pressing reason to exist, but I am glad it does. Its pointlessness is its pleasure. Edward Brooke-Hitching has subtitled his work ‘The Most Dangerous & Bizarre Sports in History’, but what actually characterises these 90 pastimes is that no one plays them any more, usually for good reasons. Some of them were simply too cruel.
Sports such as eel-pulling, pig-sticking, cat-headbutting and fox-tossing all fall under this purview: these ‘games’ are senselessly brutal, but to players of the era they were merely light pre-supper entertainment.
Others were too dangerous. Waterfall riding and firework boxing might have seemed like good ideas at the time, but they introduced slightly too much deadly peril into the lives of their participants to thrive for long.
And some doomed sports were simply too ridiculous to survive. Boxing on horseback failed for every reason you can imagine, and one or two others. Brooke-Hitching, whose surname actually sounds like one of these sports, has a particular fondness for ski ballet, a lycra-clad combination of ice dancing and stunt skiing that was chosen as a demonstration event at the Calgary Winter Olympics of 1988. By the turn of the millennium the sport had ceased to exist. People kept breaking bones, and it looked idiotic.
Fox-tossing, or Fuchsprellen, didn’t have many rules. The aim of the game, which was played by both men and women, was to toss your fox as high in the air as possible. You did this with a strip of netting or fabric laid on the ground. There would be two of you, one at each end; the foxes would be released into the playing area; and you would then wait. When a fox foolishly wandered onto your netting, Whoosh! into the air it went. When you had run out of foxes — casualty rates were high, as no one thought to catch them on the way down — other animals would be let loose to keep the fun going. At the end, competitors would ‘finish off the wounded with some hearty clubbing’. Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was a keen fox-tosser: in 1747, his parties saw off an aggregate of 414 foxes, 281 hares, 39 badgers and one wildcat.
Live goldfish swallowing began in the 1930s at Harvard when a young freshman, Lothrop Withington, took a $10 bet to ingest one in front of 100 classmates. To settle his stomach he followed it up with a side order of mashed potato. A gauntlet was thus thrown down. Two weeks later Frank Pope of Franklin & Marshall College swallowed three, ‘just to show that those Harvard guys are sissies’. Harvard man Irving M. Clark then swallowed 24. ‘I could have eaten 50,’ he boasted. Gilbert Hollandersky at the University of Pennsylvania then wolfed down 25, dipping them in tomato ketchup and washing them down with orange juice. The record continued to rise, finally standing at 210 goldfish, before university authorities banned the practice for health and safety reasons. Native Americans said it was nothing new: their children had long swallowed goldfish in the belief that it would make them strong swimmers. The students moved on. One from Chicago University ate two whole phonograph records. ‘Fellow students,’ he said, ‘I did this for alma mater.’
Balloon jumping sounds wonderful. You would start in an open field, take a running jump and soar high into the air, mainly because you had a huge helium balloon attached to your back, precisely calibrated in weight and volume to your own physical proportions. It should have been revolutionary. ‘How would you like to own your hand-power jitney balloon,’ yelled Popular Science magazine in April 1923, ‘to spend your Saturday afternoons joyriding in the sky?’ It was easy to use, said enthusiasts, and relatively safe. Unfortunately, experience revealed that it was incredibly dangerous. Aircraftsman ‘Brainy’ Dobbs of the RAF was a huge fan and performed demonstrations to excite the public’s interest. One day he flew into a high-tension cable, and that was the end of balloon jumping.
Other entries include phosphorescent golf, ice tennis, walkingstick-fighting, tortoise racing and hunting with cheetahs. Another use for large, ferocious and swift felines was found in races held in London in the late 1930s between cheetahs and greyhounds. The cheetahs were as swift as you would expect, and easily beat the greyhounds when they could be bothered. But some of them had less interest in chasing phoney hares than in trying to climb into the stands and menace the punters. No one, it seems, had put their money on that.