‘A Punch Called Buckhorse’

If you had been alive and kicking in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries and someone had said to you that they were going to give you a buckhorse you would have immediately gone into defence mode, because you would probably have been aware that a ‘Buckhorse’ was a much used slang word for a punch on the side of the head. However, you may not have been aware of the word’s unusual origins because as you have probably already guessed it had absolutely nothing to do with horses!

This particular head punch was first coined after a well regarded heavyweight prize fighter’s nickname, his actual name was plain old John Smith, but because of his distinctive appearance people called him Buckhorse, apparently he was so ugly as a child it was said that a mere glimpse of him was enough to make a horse buck!

The poor man actually had a large misshapen head; not congenital, but most probably caused by a childhood disease such as encephalitis. Ugly or not it didn’t stop the ladies from being attracted to him; especially the married ones, as many a distraught husband could have testified to.

According to an article in The Eccentric Magazine printed around the turn of the eighteenth century he was born on the wrong side of the blanket in the house of a sinner near Drury Lane in London, which I think is a polite of saying he was born to an unmarried mother in a cockney brothel!

Life was harsh for everyone in those days, and even more so for people like him who weren’t viewed as entirely normal, and so in order to survive he quickly learned how to steal and fight. Fortunately for him he turned out to be an accomplished boxer (or did he?)  It is not my intention to take any credit away from the man but I believe it was his affliction as opposed to skill that he won so many fights, I think because his head was so big his opponents couldn’t help but target it unaware of its almost mystical durability and basically punched themselves out. It is also recorded that he once fought and won one of those degrading eight men battle royals at James Figg’s noted boxing academy. A large man with gnarled hands and a deformed head he must have cut an imposing figure to his opponents; especially when preceded by a reputation for not being able to feel pain. He has an impressive official record of 53 wins out of 71 fights, and fought all the top names of the day, losing only to top names like Somerset John Cooper and the legendary Jack Broughton.

In later years; destitute and singing in bars and brothels to eke a living, he became a hopeless alcoholic drifting from town to town and tavern to tavern, this is when the strange saga of the ‘Buckhorse’ punch was born.

In desperation at his predicament the wily old rascal developed a cunning ploy for getting free drinks. He would deliberately make a nuisance out of himself in each tavern he visited by ambling over to a customer’s table and begin singing at the top of his voice until they got so fed up with him they bought him a drink to go away; most of the time relying on his fearsome reputation and menacing appearance to brow beat them into it. Some brave souls who were not so easily intimidated chose to give him a smack in the head instead. You can imagine the shocked expressions on their faces when they realised their punches had no effect on him and he was still standing in front of them. Although, I think if they had chosen to give him a good hard body shot the outcome may have been different, but most chose to simply punch in him the head.                            

But such was the nature of his deformity that the mounds of dense flesh and tissue covering his skull rendered his head virtually impervious to pain, which as I said earlier, I think went a long way to bolster his fight career; I mean it must be hard to beat a man that doesn’t feel pain. He was a quick learner where free drinks were concerned and he quickly changed tactics and began giving people the option of hitting him instead of listening to him sing. In other words he basically charged people for the privilege of punching him in the head. Ouch! He would enter a tavern look round for likely victims (or marks as they are sometimes called) once he’d spotted one he would amble over to their table and say “If you buy me a drink I’ll let you hit me in the head and I’ll go away and stop pestering you, if not, I’m going to stand here and sing,” and nine times out of ten his little ploy worked.

And thus the legend of a punch called buckhorse was born! His infamy spread far and wide and he became something of an annoying celebrity, landlords of most taverns dreaded the thought of him coming into their premises, but what could they do about it if and when he did. They could hardly throw him out, he was much too big and tough for that, they couldn’t call a local bobby because they didn’t exist at this time, so most let him get on with and some even paid for a drink out of their own pockets to get him to leave. And for the next 100 years or so it was common place for workaday men and women to threaten each other with a buckhorse in much the same way as people say, I’ll give you a belt around the ear, nowadays.

Sadly, poor old Buckhorse had a lonely end; possibly from the result of taking one too many blows to the head; but more likely that he froze to death,  his emaciated body was found penniless and alone in a roadside ditch clutching his best friend up close to his chest – a cheap bottle of gin.