TAKE A LOOK AT... (in Derbyshire)

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th September 1998 (p.1 & p.6), reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

TAKE A LOOK AT: BULL RINGS

Rural entertainments of old were not confined to pretty customs, one of the most popular diversions for many centuries was bull-baiting. It was a highlight of market days, annual wakes and fairs, and special occasions - such as the Darley Wedding in 1798 when about 370 guests were entertained at the end of the day by a ball and two bull-baitings.

Bradwell invariably had baitings during Wakes Week. Around 1820 one local character, old Frank Bagshaw of Hazlebadge, insisted on acting as the tether and had himself tied to the bull's tail. As soon as the dogs were brought on the scene the bull took flight and charged along Bradwell Brook, dragging a battered and soaked Bagshaw behind him.

It used to be thought that baiting a bull tenderised its meat. Thomas Muffett, author of 'Health Improvement' written in 1655, agreed that bulls made tough eating - but added 'violent heat and motion might attenuate their blood, resolve their hardness, and make the flesh soften in digestion'. A Chesterfield bye-law went so far as to oblige every butcher to bait a bull before slaughter on pain of a fine of 3s.4d.

A chain and swivel secured in a thick iron ring tethered the bull, frequently already enraged by having had pepper blown into his nostrils before the dogs were set on to him. These were trained to pin the bull by its sensitive nose, an agony often prolonged by allowing the beast to hide its snout from time to time in a purpose-made hole in the ground. The dogs were at little risk for the bull's horns had been tipped with rounded knobs.

A SPECIAL TREAT

Market towns laid on the spectacle amidst the bustle. A report from 1772 describes how during a baiting in Derby market place a pickpocket was caught with several stolen handkerchiefs about his person. An indignant crowd conducted him down the Morledge and tumbled him off the bridge into the brook where he received a severe ducking.

A baiting was recorded in Longnor market place as late as 24th September 1831, Ashbourne had a bull ring outside an inn in the market place, while Tideswell had two baiting sites and occasionally offered a bear baiting as a special treat. One of the town's old bull rings was known to be in local hands about forty years ago, and may still be in someone's safekeeping, but only four bull rings are known to have survived in the Peak District.

That of Snitterton lies at road level near the junction to Snitterton Hall. It was preserved by Derbyshire Archaeological Society in 1906, when one old villager recalled being told by his father how in the evenings men from Winster, Wensley and other villages would often bring their bulldogs to be tried against the bull at Snitterton. The village formerly lay on the busy Nottingham to Newhaven turnpike and, once upon a time, had three pubs. The Snitterton bull ring was so worn by the last century that a new one was laid, its staple set into a stone 2' wide and 7' deep - which it took four horses to pull - which was sunk 2' into the ground.

Eyam's bull ring lay hidden beneath the road in The Square for some forty years - until - it was rediscovered earlier this century; now the relic is more prominently displayed for the interest of Eyam's many visitors.

Embedded in a heavy block of stone, the bull ring at Foolow stands by the steps of an ancient stone cross on the village green, both ring and cross moved from their original sites.

‘IDLE AND DISSIPATED ELEMENTS’

Many decent folk obviously found the ‘sport’ barbaric and distasteful, the inhabitants of Ashbourne sought to ban it from their town, complaining that it attracted ‘idle and dissipated’ elements from surrounding villages. The justices apparently shared a similar view; from the seventeenth century alehouse bonds demanded that the innkeeper should not ‘knowingly introduce, permit or suffer any Bull, Bear or Badger Baiting, Cock-fighting or any other such Sport or Amusement in any part of his Premises’.

Just one year before the practice was prohibited by law, a bull baiting at Bonsall Wakes was interrupted by the rector, Robert Greville, as reported in the Derbyshire Courier of 2 August 1834:

'The brutalizing spectacle of a bull bait was about being exhibited at this place on Monday last, and about thirty or forty blackguards with bulldogs, clubs, etc., were assembled to enjoy the sport, when the worthy clergyman finding remonstrance vain, actually purchased the poor animal's release from the brutes at the price of a guinea. In the evening the same party demolished the windows, glasses, part of the furniture etc. at several public-houses and at one time, there were four or five fights going on at once. So much for the 'innocent recreations of the working classes'.

It is assumed that the deal included the bull ring, for an iron shackle, sunk into a spherical limestone boulder, has been kept in Bonsall church for very many years. A leaflet in the church points out, however, that the relic may in fact have been used to tether the parish bull, whose stud services supplemented the tithes of the rector. It is even possible that Bonsall's bull ring could tell two very different stories.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th September 1998.

Reference:
Photograph of St Hugh's Church, Foolow (elsewhere online)

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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