Bull-baiting is the "action of baiting a bull with dogs", where baiting refers to the practice of setting one or more dogs to "worry a chained or confined animal". Bulls of course, were not the only animals regarded as suitable for such treatment and horses, badgers, and particularly bears were also regularly baited at one time.
The practice of bull-baiting was first described by William Fitz Stephen in his Description of London of circa 1180, who noted how "on almost every feast day" one could see "fat bulls with butting horns, or huge bears" that would "do combat to the death against hounds let loose upon them". However whilst bear-baiting might have been the 'sport of kings', according to the Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports, it was bull-baiting that was "probably the most popular form of animal baiting sport". Indeed for many years bull-baiting was a common public entertainment at most wakes, fairs and festivals held in Britain and led to the development of various breeds of dog such as the bulldog and bull terrier specifically, whilst the British Bulldog and John Bull have since come to be regarded as the very symbols of national consciousness.
Bull-baiting was however more than just a public entertainment, as there was an old superstition that a bull's blood was in fact poisonous, and that baiting a bull thinned out its blood and thus rendered it fit for human consumption. Even for those who rejected such notions there was a widespread belief that baiting improved the taste of the beef. Therefore many local authorities made it a legal requirement that bulls should, for example be "sufficiently bayted accordynge to the Auncient Orders, decrees, and customs of this Kingdom of England", whilst in the old Court Roll of the Manor at Barnard Castle, it was stated that "no butcher shall kill any bull two years old upwards, unless he first be brought to the ring and sufficiently halted." Indeed at one time such regulations were rigorously enforced; one butcher was fined for selling unbaited beef at Weymouth in 1618, whilst the regulations were still being enforced at such Yorkshire towns as Hull, Thirsk, and Skipton in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was for this reason many of the market towns in England once featured their own civic bull ring fixed in the market square, where bulls were baited on a regular basis throughout the year.
The Sport of Bull-baiting
Whatever William Fitz Stephen might have written about "combat to the death", as far as bull-baiting was concerned, it wasn't the intention to kill the bull, whose days were numbered in any case, as it was destined to be slaughtered and eaten. The fate of most bulls was to be transformed into beef, and baiting the bull was simply part of that process. And whilst a well trained dog might seriously injure a bull, that wasn't the objective, as the sport of bull-baiting was largely about the performance of the dogs. This is not to say that the bulls were in any way pampered; their tails would be docked, and their horns either blunted or shorn, whilst it was often the case that pepper would be blown into the bull's nose in order to ensure that it was sufficiently annoyed to provide a decent challenge for the dogs.
The bull would be tied to rope which was fastened either to a stake driven into the ground, or to a ring permanently fixed into the pavement. Once the bull was secured in this manner a succession of dogs would be given the opportunity to try their skill against the animal. Naturally the bull did its best to avoid the attentions of the dog, although according to The Spectator of 1711, from the bull's point of view, the "chief Aim is not to gore the Dog with the Point of his Horn, but to slide one of them under the Dog's Belly, (who creeps close to the Ground to hinder it) and to throw him so high in the Air that he may break his neck in the Fall. This often happens." Indeed almost every contemporary print of bull-baiting features a just-tossed dog in mid-air. Samuel Pepys was to record in 1666 of how he had seen "some good sport of the tossing of dogs", whilst John Evelyn wrote in 1670 of one bull who "toss'd a dog full into a lady's lap".
From the dog's point of view, the objective was to avoid being tossed by the bull or indeed being trodden on, and fasten its teeth firmly in the bull's snout, thus "pinning the bull" and 'winning' the contest. As John Houghton once noted, the "custom was for owners of dogs who wished to bait the bull to each pay entrance fees and if their dog pinned the bull they received a prize. The reward might be five shillings, a gold laced hat, a silver watch, or an ornate dog collar". There is a record of a bull-baiting held at Barton Stacey on the 27th October 1788 where the prize offered were "Twelve shillings for the best dog, Six shillings for the second best and Three shillings for the third best."
Of course, as with most sporting contests it was the also the occasion for much betting and as Houghton noted, "Many great wagers were laid on both sides". It was therefore the case that many therefore disapproved of bull-baiting for precisely this reason. Gambling was regarded as immoral by the godly, as indeed were various other activities associated with bull-baiting such as drinking, profanity and the such like, which was why the Puritans endeavoured to put an end to animal-baiting, although as Thomas Macaulay suggested this may have simply been "because it gave pleasure to the spectators". In any event bull-baiting, together with most other sports, was certainly frowned upon during the period of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, although it is doubtful whether the administration's attempts to outlaw the practice were completely successful.
Bull-baiting was however revived during the Restoration
and thereafter continued and thrived as an urban sport for the next hundred and fifty years. However whereas the local authorities had previously regarded the provision and maintenance of a bull ring as part of their civic responsibilities, during the seventeenth century such payments gradually petered out, as attitudes towards the sport changed. In Cambridge
for example, the civic payments stopped in 1660, although bull-baiting continued to be practiced in the town until the 1790s, when the bull ring was finally removed when the town was repaved
In fact, over the course of the eighteenth century bull-baiting gradually and peacefully disappeared from most of the country, as in most market towns the authorities began to officially discourage bull-baiting. This does not appear to have been due to any concerns for the welfare of the bull as such, but was rather due to fears of public disorder and reflected a growing sense of official disapproval of the use of public streets for public entertainment. Bull-baiting had always been "a plebeian sport requiring a large open space" and was therefore "always played on publicly owned land", and since the civic authorities controlled the land in question it was within their power to do so. There were repeated instances of local authorities prosecuting those who practised bull-baiting, with such prosecutions generally citing the "nuisance of baiting in the public street or highway"
However whilst bull-baiting gradually disappeared across most of the country during the eighteenth century, there remained isolated pockets were the sport continued. Bull-baiting continued in Lincoln where it was a traditional part of the Guy Fawkes celebration and it took a series of repeated fines and jail sentences to suppress the sport during the early nineteenth century. The real stronghold of the sport however, was in the West Midlands, particularly in such towns as Birmingham and Wolverhampton, where bull-baiting was regarded as part of the traditional festivities organised by the working people for their own entertainment, being therefore ingrained as part of the popular culture of the region. Here the sport refused to disappear, although the local authorities made continual attempts to prohibit its practice on public order grounds.
The Final Abolition of Bull-baiting
It was during the late eighteenth century that the issue of cruelty to animals first began to be regarded as a social problem which required a solution, and the ancient practice of bull-baiting became a target for reform. It was William Pulteney who first proposed a bill to formally prohibit bull-baiting in 1800. That bill failed as did a similar proposal in 1802, thanks to opposition from the likes of William Windham and George Canning. In 1809 a more general animal rights bill also failed in the House of Commons, an event which directly led to the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Liverpool on the 22nd October 1809.
Thereafter the Society was at the forefront of the campaign to ban the sport, although its efforts were often counterproductive, as the publicity generated occasionally inspired revivals of bull-baiting such as its brief reappearance at Horsham in Sussex in 1813. In 1822 another bill was put forward by Richard Martin, who was a leading member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), although he was also a keen fox-hunter, as were many leading lights of the SPCA at the time. Martin's bill was successful and became the Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle. Although this act specifically excluded bull-baiting from its provisions, nonetheless some magistrates believed that it did in fact prohibit bull-baiting. A number of prosecutions were brought under the Act, until that is six men were convicted at West Bromwich on the 7th Nov 1827 for bull-baiting and all six all refused to pay their £5 fines. A writ of habeas corpus was issued in respect of one John Hill and when the case eventually went before the King's Bench, the charge was dismissed, and established the principle that bull-baiting was perfectly legal when carried out on private land.
It nevertheless it remained the case that bull-baiting was prohibited on public land, and therefore although the sport retained considerable popular support in its stronghold in the West Midlands, it became increasingly difficult to organise events without the support of private landowners who came under increasing pressure to conform to the new consensus. Bull-baiting was finally and formally outlawed by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, although this piece of legislation has been described as "an ideological statement rather than a political act", since bull-baiting had largely disappeared by that time. Indeed, as noted above bull-baiting had largely disappeared from most of the country well before even the earliest attempts at abolition were mooted.
(1) To state the obvious, certainly as far as cattle are concerned, the female of the species are retained to produce milk, whilst it is the male of the species that gets eaten.
(2) Note that references to the 'civic bull ring' in relation to bull-baiting refer to an actual metal ring permanently fixed into a town's market square, and not to any kind of public amphitheatre.
(3) The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is of course now known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or RSPCA.
- The Oxford English Dictionary
- Steve Roud, The English Year, (Penguin, 2006)
- Emma Griffin, England's Revelry: A History of Popular Sports and Pastimes, 1660-1830 OUP/British Academy (11 Aug 2005)
- Tony Collins, John Martin, Wray Vamplew, Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports (Routledge, 2005)
- Chambers' Book of Days - entries for January 14th and July 14th
- Amy Weldon ‘the Common Gifts Of Heaven’ Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text, Issue 08 (June 2002)
- Early Opposition to Hunting