What’s in a name: the Fancy

London Fancy, Fife Fancy, Border Fancy, Irish Fancy, Scotch Fancy, the list goes on.  Ever wondered why ‘Fancy’ was added to their names?  Why not simply London canary, Fife canary, Border canary, Scotch canary?

Look up “fancy” in a dictionary and you will find that it is a contraction of ‘fantasy’, a pleasing creation of the imagination.  It can  be used as a verb (fancy a drink?), an adjective (a fancy costume), or a noun (something that takes your fancy), but we are looking for the origins of ‘Fancy’ with a capital F.  What difference does that make?  A great deal.

A typical definition of ‘the Fancy’ is ‘those who follow a particular sport, especially prize fighting‘ (1).  Of all the words to describe boxing supporters ‘the Fancy’ seems seems an unlikely choice, yet we still use it now in its shortened form of ‘fans’, meaning a group of enthusiasts who follow a particular sport, pastime or performer.

Surely these canary varieties weren’t named after sports fans? 

The use of ‘the Fancy’ as a collective noun for boxing enthusiasts did not become widespread until the early nineteenth century when Pierce Egan published the first volume of Boxiana (2), a celebration of what he liked to call ‘the Sweet Science of Bruising’.  His passion for the sport and a colourful writing style helped to widen the appeal of boxing as a popular sport.  It was not always so. 

Pugilism was regarded as an undignified activity associated with street brawls and prize fights at summer fairs at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but gradually rose in social status as rules were introduced to curb its excesses.  By the end of the century it was being promoted as a ‘manly art’ taught to gentlemen at London academies, and the leading fighters became celebrities.  Boxing had always appealed to ordinary Londoners, whose own lives were often harsh, but now they were joined by aristocrats (Lord Byron for example) and the gentlemen of the middle classes.  In a remarkable exception to the rules of society, the Fancy transcended the English class structure.

This is best illustrated in A Picture of the Fancy going to a Fight at Moulsey Hurst by George Cruikshank, with the key to people and places written by Egan.  It was based on a real fight between Jack Randal and Richard West (popularly known as West Country Dick) which took place in 1817 (3).  The picture is designed as a panorama 14’ long (4) and comprises a series of 41 scenes starting with Regency bucks drinking and placing bets at the Castle Tavern in Holborn (the favoured haunt of London’s boxing fraternity); the ride from Hyde Park Corner to the sports ring 15 miles away, showing the frequent stops at taverns and the mishaps that befell members of the Fancy along the way; the fight itself, complete with ‘whippers-in’ to control the crowd; and the final reckoning as the bets are settled at Tattersalls the next day (5).

Meanwhile ‘the Fancy’ was also being used  in a sense that will be familiar to readers of this blog: the cultivation of birds and animals for their special qualities, but it never received the same attention.  One exception is the account given by James Greenwood of his adventures in the ‘wilds’ of London (6), the parts of the capital that most visitors didn’t normally see.  One such experience was when he visited Bethnal Green for an ‘Evening with the Fancy’. 

He entered a pub where:

“The conversation was strictly birdy.  One person was bragging of his “slamming” goldfinch,and there was a dispute as to how many “slams” it could execute within a given time.  Another individual button-holed a friend and told him all about his “greypates” , while a third was learned on the subject of linnets, and recited that able bird’s sixty-four distinct notes . . . “

He made the acquaintance of a man ‘with a gruff voice’ who invited him to the Tinker’s Arms that evening where a benefit was being held for the widow and orphans of Jemmy Baldwin who had died suddenly ‘leaving nothing to bury him’.  Present at the gathering was Jemmy’s goldfinch in a cage with black drapes.

“There it hung, poor little creature, and there, as I could contrive to make out through the dense fog of tobacco smoke, now that my attention was specially called to the matter, hung thirty or forty small bird cages, each with an occupant. On every table in the room, further sweltered and stifled by having its habitation enveloped in a handkerchief, were at least half-a-dozen similar cages, and the birds within could be heard hopping about and chirping as merry as crickets.

I inquired of my gruff-voiced friend (who, by-the-by, turned out to be a very decent fellow) where was the use of bringing the birds if the didn’t uncover them for people to see.  “Oh I don’t know,” he replied.  ‘It’s their fancy don’t yer know; that and flashness’ . . .”

Greenwood’s new friend then told him of a ‘dawg-show’ at The Ship in Hunt Street.  There he found: 

“Matches for dog to fight dog, for dogs to kill rats against time, and against each other, and for dogs to “show for points” were yelled out with many oaths, and with a horrible din that made one shudder.  And in this precious amusement, in this one foul pot-house, were engaged at least sixty men, all on a Sunday evening.”

You might think that bird displays and dog fights have little in common, yet those fanciers shared certain characteristics with the sporting Fancy: they were competitive, opinionated, and willing to back those opinions with hard cash.  Scan the advertisements in Victorian newspapers and you will find fanciers challenging all-comers to contest their birds, backed up by a wager.  Here is an example involving skylarks, linnets and London Fancies to be held in a ‘sporting house’ (i.e. a pub or tavern):

We can see here the golden triangle that defined ‘the Fancy’ of the nineteenth century regardless of their particular interest: a match between two combatants; drinking before, during and after the event; and gambling on the outcome.  In this sense, bird keeping had a lot in common with horse racing, dog fighting, cock fighting and, yes, boxing.

That begs the question: did sports fans borrow the term ‘Fancy’ from bird and animal fanciers or vice versa?  This brings us into the realms of etymology (7).  Here is one reference I found:  

“Meaning ‘fans of an amusement or sport, collectively’ is attested by 1735, especially (though not originally) of the prize ring.” (8)

Not very helpful, is it?  We are given a date, but no details.  What could that mysterious attestation be?  Fortunately, I think I know the answer.  The oldest English book dedicated to pigeons is the Columbarium printed in 1735 (9).  It refers to the ‘Fancy’, ‘fanciers’ and ‘Gentlemen of the Fancy’, but interestingly not to ‘fancy pigeons’.   

If I am right, the original Fancy refers to the people who kept birds for ‘amusement or sport’.

The trail doesn’t end there however, because where’s there’s a Fancy, there must be fanciers, and they first appear in The Bird Fancier’s Delight published in 1714 (10).  The book is a manual on keeping song birds, all of them wild-caught apart from the canary.  It tells us nothing about the ‘Fanciers’ who kept them; they appear only in the book’s title. It was followed in 1717 by a book with an almost identical title which offered music scores for teaching tunes with a flageolet (a type of flute).  Fortunately the next edition of the book, published in 1728 under the title The Bird Fancier’s Recreation (11), adds:

“As to the Colour, I shall say least, that depending entirely on the Fancy of those who buy them, only, for the instruction of my Reader, I shall mention some of the Terms us’d by Canary-Bird Fanciers viz. French, so called from the Breed of some brought over from France, but since much improved in the Colour by our Breeders at Home . . .”

This short extract is notable for two reasons:

Firstly, it is the oldest description I have found of what fanciers did.  Their primary interest was not fighting, gambling and getting drunk (although they may have indulged in those activities too).  It was not about the cultivation and improvement of dogs, cats, pigeons, rabbits, roses or dahlias, which all adopted the term ‘fancy’ over the next two centuries.  It was not about boxing or any other sporting activity of a violent nature.  These fanciers cultivated canaries.  

Secondly, we have “Fancy’, ‘Fanciers’ and ‘French’ mentioned in a single sentence about canaries.  As we know from A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds, that can only refer to one breed of canary that was held in higher esteem than any other: the Fine Spangled Sort.


  1. Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism by Pierce Egan with illustrations by Robert Isaac Cruikshank. A series of volumes, first published 1812.
  3. Randall won after 23 rounds.
  4. Prints of the picture were offered in the form of individual sheets or as a continuous scroll on a reel.
  5. Tattersalls is best known as the oldest bloodstock auctioneers in the world.  In the early nineteenth century it was a haunt of sporting and  betting men.
  6. The Wilds of London by James Greenwood,  illustrations by Alfred Concanen, published by Chatto & Windus in 1876.
  7. Etymology is the study of the origins of words.
  8. Columbarium: or, the Pigeon-House, Being an Introduction to a Natural History of Tame Pigeons  by John Moore. Privately printed in 1735
  9. The Bird-Fancier’s Delight, or choice Observations and Directions concerning the Taking, Feeding, Breeding and Teaching all sorts of Singing Birds (anon) published by Tho. Ward ‘and sold at his house in White-cross Street, near Cripplegate, 1714’.
  10. The Bird-Fancier’s Recreation: being curious Remarks on the Nature of Song-Birds  (anon) published by T. Ward ‘and sold at his house at the Bell and Bird-Cage . . . near Cripplegate, 1728’, P.75.

Source of the extracts from A Picture of the Fancy going to a Fight at Moulsey Hurst: The Printshop Window

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name: the Fancy

  1. very interesting Huw.Good luck tomorrow(I think) to all who are involved in the LONDON FANCY acceptance program in Zwoole..Brian Hogg OMJ

  2. Yes, good luck to this exiting project of reviving the London Fancy canary and many thanks for making this blog so interesting.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.