Express & Star

How the West Midlands was last bastion for bloodthirsty bull baiting

It is a slice of ancient journalism that has lost none of its bite, none of its power through the passage of time. It is a crafted, cutting denouncement of the sickening spectacle that was bull baiting.

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Image of a bull bait from the 19th century in the West Midlands

Recalling childhood memories of a contest at Loppington, Shropshire, J. Grice wrote in 1878: “The most barbarous act I ever saw. It was a young bull and had little notion of tossing the dogs, which tore the ears and skin of his face in shreds and his mournful cries were awful.

“I was up a tree and afraid the world would open and swallow us all up.”

No one, now or then, could fail to be repulsed by the blood-stained picture painted by Grice.

By the time he penned the piece, the blood sport had been banned, outlawed by the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act. In reality, long before the act was introduced, spectators had seen baiting in its true horrific light and walked away.

Many towns and cities had already barred gatherings, using the 1822 “Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle” to prosecute organisers, even though bulls were not covered by the legislation.

The Aris Birmingham Gazette of November 19, 1827, reported: “Joseph Hughes and John Hill, miners; Joseph Hancox; bricklayer; Robert Mountain, labourer; Samuel Millward, nailer, all of West Bromwich, were convicted in the penalty of £5 each under the stature ‘to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of cattle’ for baiting a bull in West Bromwich on Monday, the 5th instance.

“In default of payment, all three have been committed to the House of Correction in Stafford for three months each.”

Yet in the 17th and 18th century, it was wildly popular. Hundreds would gather to watch a terrified, tethered animal set-upon by dog after dog, pepper first blown up its nostrils to increase the animal’s agitation.

As incongruous as it seems today when Punch and Judy shows are denounced as too violent, children who visited carnivals and wakes 350 years ago witnessed, wide eyed, bull and bear baiting.

Mere misguided entertainment was not the only driving force behind bull-baiting’s rise. It was believed the snarling dogs tenderised meat that would later be served.

And it was very much a West Midlands “sport”, our region was the heaving hub of bull baits. We owned it. It is our segment of guilty history.

It was the chosen leisure activity of pit workers, a tough, fighting breed who brought crowd violence to contests. The Stafford Advertiser of October 12, 1822, stated: “The Staffordshire colliers, who are the chief performers at the stake, are, generally speaking, a harmless, hard-working race of people.

“Numbers of them travel to a wake or fair with the purpose of having a set-to. As soon as the ale begins to operate, they show the greatest anxiety for a fight. It is not an uncommon thing to see Bilston or Wednesbury colliers knocked down a dozen times on the pavement, without apparent injury, so hard are they by nature.”

The signs remain around you: Sedgley’s Bull Ring, Birmingham’s Bullring, Ludlow’s Bull Ring: all arenas for the stomach-churning entertainment.

In fact, stray Old English bulldogs, simply let loose after their baiting days were done, at one point posed such a menace on the streets of Bilston, civic leaders ordered all strays to be shot on sight.

Tettenhall was an important bull baiting base and in 1815 the authorities were moved to issue a public warning: anyone attempting to unveil it at the annual wakes would be prosecuted.

Legislation drove what was left of the “sport” underground. It took place in Oakengates a year after the ban, documents show.

Record books tell of human casualties. Bilston Workhouse Register of 1801 reveals James Harvey was carried into the building after breaking his leg while bull baiting. A year later, Thomas Phillips suffered the same fate through the same pursuit in Willenhall. Also in 1802, William Morris died at the workhouse after taking part in a bull bait.

In 1807, William Jones was treated for a dislocated shoulder. Revellers at Bilston Wakes, 1818, witnessed a Wolverhampton man being gored to death.

This region evidently paid a painful price for its love of animal torture. And the cost was not only measured in deep gashes and broken bones: there was a steep rise in rustling as unscrupulous “sportsmen” swiped bulls for the forthcoming fights.

The last statutory case of bull stealing for baiting took place in Bilston and involved a Darlaston thief.

Queen Elizabeth I was the unashamed early public relations patron of bull bating, she sold it to the masses. The monarch loved it, simply couldn’t get enough of it.

So much so, she demanded it be included in Coventry’s Hock Day celebrations, a shindig for tenant farmers.

On May 25, 1559, Elizabeth declared a civic reception for the French ambassador and his entourage should conclude with a spot of bull baiting. That’s akin to King Charles taking Emmanuel Macron to a dog fight.

By the early 1800s public opinion was turning against the pursuit. The press certainly wanted it banished.

When it was placed on the entertainment list for the 1832 wake in Bilston, the Stafford Advertiser decided enough was enough. In a distant echo of Covid’s recent spread across the nation, the Advertiser blamed the event for sparking a cholera epidemic.

On September 1, it informed readers: “Cholera has made, and is still making, dreadful havoc in the neighbourhood of Rowley, Tividale, Tipton and Bilston, most especially are the two last mentioned places visited by it.

“The dreadful visitation was not known in Bilston prior to their late wake and towards the close of the week, which was devoted to the awful practice of bull-baiting, drunkenness, debauchery and general dissipation connected with such seasons, the cholera broke out; at first entirely among those persons who had given themselves to the practices of the wake week.”

Rowley Regis wake, in the same summer, was marred by one landowner’s decision to tether a bull in his field and allow visitors to test their dogs against the beast, for a price.

This was beyond the pale for even a public who saw baiting as showbiz. “On Monday alone,” the Advertiser reported, “26 dogs were counted, brought by the lowest rabble from Birmingham, Walsall, Wednesbury etc for the purpose of worrying this poor animal and on Wednesday, instead of employing a butcher to put an end to the creature’s suffering, his rapacious owner sold him to some fellows from Brierley Hill to undergo similar tortures at the wake there.”

The paper’s fury is understandable and justified.

We know bull baiting took place for the last time in Lichfield in 1822. The Lichfield Mercury report of the event, published on May 30 that year, reveals, in graphic detail, why residents no longer wanted its shadow on their streets:

“The bull was brought from Fazeley on the fair day and brought to the Greenhill Wake at Lichfield. It was there beaten by four men, two of who were subsequently imprisoned for their part in the proceedings. The bull being tied to a stake, a dog was let loose on it.

“To support the animal in its suffering, we suppose, it was given a quart of ale and it then broke away from the stake, causing much commotion and dismay amongst the crowd. The bull was recaptured in Rotton Row, brought back to the stake and beaten again.

“It was then taken to Rushall, about eight miles from Lichfield, and again beaten there. It being placed in a stable, the wretched creature went mad and killed two dogs and was finally put out of its misery.”

In 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote: “With my wife and Mercer to the Beare-Garden where I have not been, I think, for many years, and saw some good sport of the bulls tossing the dogs; one into the very boxes. But it is a very rude and nasty pleasure.”

That it was – and unspeakably cruel. Sadly, our region appears to have been the last to realise that.