blood sports


blood sports
   Many of the traditional sports and pastimes of England were what would now be classed as 'blood sports' and have long since been outlawed and suppressed. Badger-baiting, bear-baiting, bull-baiting, *bull-running, dog-fighting, *cock-fighting, and throwing at * cocks are the best known, but there were many more obscure ones such as goose-riding, where a goose with a greased neck was hung up by its feet and horse riders tried to pull its head off as they galloped past, and sparrow-mumbling, where men tried either to remove the feathers or to bite the head off a live sparrow, using only their lips and teeth. As opposed to fox/hare/stag-hunting, angling, and grouse shooting, the historical pattern for each of the popular sports is broadly similar. From the earliest records to about the middle of the 18th century, they were an accepted part of English life, both rural and urban. Admittedly, the Puritans had tried to ban some of them, and there were individual voices speaking out against cruelty, but on the whole Church, State, local authority, and the social elite either supported or at least accepted them, and the general people revelled in them.
   The baiting of animals with dogs was very popular, with bull-baiting being the most common and taking place at any time, but particularly popular at *wakes, fairs, elections, and other gatherings. It involved tying a bull to a permanent ring, or stake driven securely into the ground, with about fifteen feet of rope secured to the base of its horns. Dogs were then let loose, one or several at a time, and encouraged to attack or 'bait' the bull. Any dog could be used, but in most places people bred and trained animals for the 'sport' - bulldogs, mastiffs, and so on. As its horns had been blunted, the bull's main defence was to toss the dogs into the air, and the dog-owners were adept at catching them on sloping poles to break their fall. This was clearly popular with the audience - many pictures of the custom choose this part to illustrate. The sport was given legitimacy by the belief that beef from baited bulls was much more tender than from normally slaughtered animals, and in some places local regulations insisted that bulls be baited before being killed (N&Q 9s:9 (1902), 255).
   Bear-baiting was just as popular but less common. In its heyday, it had attracted royal support, and had reputedly been introduced to England, from Italy, in the 12th century, and to have been first seen in this country at Ashby-de-la-Zouche in Leicestershire. William Fitz Stephen mentions it in London, c.1183: '. . . or huge bears, do combat to the death against hounds let loose upon them' (Fitz Stephen, c.1180: 58). An illustration of c.1340, from the Bodleian Library, is given by Armitage.
   In urban areas, blood sports were indeed big business. Institutions like the Bear Garden at Bankside, Southwark, were famous for their spectacles, and its successor at Hockley-in-the-Hole, Clerkenwell, became a popular byword for animal sports. At Hockley they offered a twice-weekly programme, throughout the year. Bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog-fighting, were regular fare, but on other occasions one could witness whipping a blindfolded bear, and the baiting of other animals including a leopard, an African Tyger, and a mad ass. On more than one occasion, horse-baiting is mentioned, and Strutt includes a 14th-century illustration of the 'sport' (p. 333). The advertisements often proclaim a forthcoming event as to the death! which was clearly far more attractive than just an ordinary baiting. Both John Evelyn (16 June 1670) and Samuel Pepys (14 August 1666) recorded visits to Bankside, although Evelyn did not like it: 'I most heartily weary, of the rude & dirty passetime ... ' Evelyn's distaste seems to be at the start of a new sensibility, but the consensus over blood-sports began to crumble seriously in the mid-
   18th century as the isolated voices gradually coalesced into a unified, vociferous, and passionate movement for reform. The reformers attacked the traditional sports on two moral fronts: first was the genuine outrage against cruelty to animals, often set in a Christian context, and second was the concern with the effect that such pastimes would have on the moral character of the working classes. William Hogarth's popular engravings of Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) are good examples of the changing moral climate. They show, in succession, boys torturing small animals, adults mistreating horses and donkeys while, in the background, a bull-running is in progress. This callousness leads to murder and an end on the dissection table. Similarly, a schoolteacher writing in 1833 characterized the workers of Staffordshire, with their penchant for blood sports, as 'ignorant, vulgar, and wicked to excess' (Malcolmson, 1973: 119).
   The opposition to blood sports comprised only part of the drive against the leisure pursuits of the working classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Street *football and mass *November the Fifth celebrations, for example, were also under attack from the new moralists, on the basis that they were violent, drunken, degrading, brutish, and potentially dangerous to respectable people and their property. There was naturally resistance from participants, and these sports became a major moral battleground between the traditionalists and the reformers from the mid-18th to the early 19th centuries, with successes and setbacks on both sides. The reformers won in the end, of course, and major breakthroughs were the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in June 1824 (it added the 'Royal' part in 1840), the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1849. It is clear, also, that there were overt class aspects to the reform movements. Sports which had widespread upper- or middle-class support, such as fox-hunting, were either ignored or expressly excluded from the campaigns, and in a case such as cock-fighting it was only when the gentry had largely forsaken the sport that real action was taken against it. Those which can take place in private, such as cock-fighting, dog-fighting, and badger-baiting, still persist.
   See also *bull-running, *cock-fighting, throwing at *cocks.
   ■ Malcolmson, 1973; Hutton, 1994; Boulton, 1901: i. 1-34; Edward G. Fairholme and Wellesley Pain, A Century of Work for Animals: The History of the RSPCA (1924); Strutt, 1801 (1876 edn.); John Armitage, Man at Play (1977).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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