George Strange was born in 1843 at Prioryfield, in one of a group of tiny stone cottages isolated at the end of a long track off Hook Street. He was the second in a family of seven children born to William and Elizabeth Strange between 1841 and 1857. His parents were labourers and such education as he had took place at the Dame School in Hook; a single-cell, thatched cottage with bare limewashed walls and a flagstone floor. Late in George Strange’s teens, the family moved into rented cottages at Cobb Gutter off the narrow Flaxlands Lane between Hook and Braydon. Here was a double row of ten thatched cottages, served by a central well and clustered within an arrangement of ditches (gutters) which can still be seen in the field, adjacent to Bolingbroke land. George took one cottage and the rest of the family moved in next door.
The young George Strange was a pugilist, regularly fighting for beer and a purse of money in a field behind the Wheatsheaf (now Sally Pusseys) on the Wootton Bassett road. Although bare knuckle boxing was illegal, it attracted big crowds and significant bets were placed on the outcome of a bout. It was also extremely rough.
George’s reputation for picking a fight was legendary. It is said that when he walked into the pub, banged his fist on the bar and exclaimed “Here oi be!” the room emptied. Those who didn’t want to be his next victim and those who wanted a good view of anything which might happen next, quickly moved out to the field at the back. Thickset, with a large moustache and a bullish appearance, George always shaved his head so that opponents could not grab him by the hair. Fights usually lasted until one man fell from exhaustion, although there were occasions when the proceedings were stopped for a beer break because neither protagonist could see through the blood in their eyes. George’s bare-knuckle exploits would have taken place with the knowledge of the Wheatsheaf’s famed and formidable Sarah Purse nee Garlick (1815-1885) after whom the pub is now named.
George Strange never achieved the success of famous Victorian pugilists such as Thomas Sayers who was champion of all England in 1850 and whose funeral at Highgate Cemetery was attended by ten thousand people. Sayers’ final bout was attended by 12000 people including Charles Dickens and had to be broken up by the police when his opponent tried to strangle him with the rope of the boxing ring! After his retirement, Sayers’ fans raised £3000 to buy him a house in Camden, London. In true boxing tradition there was even a riot in the graveyard on his burial, which the Morning Post of November 1865 reported as: “an exhibition… of irredeemable blackguardism, brutal levity and barbaric ferocity.”
George Strange never reached these dizzy heights of popularity. An ill-tempered, cruel and abusive man, he was frequently drunk and his cart horses Captain and Noble were accustomed to find their way home with him unconscious in the cart. He died in Swindon in 1925.
(Extracts taken from Mark and Lorraine Child’s article in the Friends of Lydiard Tregoze Report No 23 and from information on Thomas Sayers in the Highgate Cemetery Handbook.)