The Foxearth and District Local History Society
Bull-Baiting in Lavenham and Bury

By Andrew Clarke

Bull Baiting by Julius Caesar Ibbetson (detail)

The morally-repellent activity of bull-baiting was once customary and legal, taking place annually in Bury, and  in the Market Place at Lavenham. It is odd to stand in what is now a car-park in Lavenham, and imagine the 'brutal and brutalizing practices' that took place 'amidst all the appliances for the light of the Gospel and the principles of common humanity'. By 1835,  public opinion had become so repelled by the 'sport' that it was made illegal. Even before that date, the 'sport' was actively discouraged with prosecutions for  public nuisance because of growing concerns about animal cruelty

The object of the 'sport' was for the dogs to immobilize the bull. Before the event started, the bull's nose was blown full of pepper to enrage the animal before the baiting. The bull was often placed in a hole in the ground. A variant of bull-baiting was "pinning the bull", where specially-trained dogs would set upon the bull one at a time, a successful attack resulting in the dog fastening his teeth strongly in the bull's snout. People believed that baiting improved the meat quality and tenderness when consumed.

Bas-de-page scene of dogs baiting a chained bull, urged on by two men.
Origin possibly East Anglia

Without doubt, Bull-baiting is a very ancient practice recorded in mediaeval times. According to Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801) baiting was still practiced "attended only by the lowest and most despicable part of the people." By that time baiting had reached a widely despised nadir and was about to be legally extinguished. But in the period of the Restoration and the early eighteenth century as many as three permanent Beargardens were in operation in the London area daily, with a variety of combat spectacles; The first references to commercial baiting in London date from the middle of the sixteenth century, and the first evidence of any kind of permanent bull-baiting structure dates from 1562, where they are depicted in a map of London

 The Bury and Norwich post November 7th 1792 reported

"The inhuman and barbarous practice of bull baiting which has been suppressed by the magistrates in the country is still continuing here this ferocious practice".

"On Monday last it was nearly the cause of loss of life to several individuals as a girl about twelve years old was tossed by an exasperated animal and much hurt that it was feared for her life. One Burton, a wool comber, was also dreadfully gored. The bull had got loose and ran through the principal streets of our town as far as Pakenham before he was overtaken by his numerous idle pursuers."

It wasn't just Bury that indulged in Bull-baiting. In Lavenham, it was cusomary to bait a bull on the market place, though by the nineteenth centuary it had been made illegal. The Bury Post on November 23rd 1842 reported that In all twelve persons from Lavenham were fined, some of them heavily and several went to prison in default of payment.The penalties and costs amounting to �43, were presented to Lavenham school.

"William Mattham landlord of Lavenham Black. Lion, Noah Must a horse dealer of Sudbury, John Chinney, Martin Stearn and William Gurling, all butchers of Lavenham, Isaac Scarfe, Fred Stock, William Snell and William Duce all of Lavenham were summoned to answer a charge by Henry Thomas, secretary of the Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, charging them with on November 5th at Washmere Green, Lavenham, that they did use a certain ground for bull baiting."

"John Smith said he went to Washmere Green at 12 o'clock on November 5th where a great many people were assembled, at between 3 and 4 a bull was brought from the direction of Lavenham and several persons fixed a rope to its horns, they then led it to a stake fixed in the ground where a collar was put round its neck and the rope taken from its horns, then by noise and other means the bull was irritated to make it wild, Carter being the most active in this, he also collected money from the spectators."

"Stearn had a dog which he set on the bull which it bit and several times, the dog was tossed in the air and severely injured. Gurling, Chinney and Ransom had dogs which they also set on the bull, Mattham was on horse back. and appeared to direct the proceedings. The bull was baited for about an hour and was torn about the face and nose, several of the dogs were much injured and bled a great deal. There were about 200 people present during the baiting with great uproar and filthy language being used."

"Mattham, Must, Ransom, Chinney and Carter were fined �5 each. Gurling 20s. Hughes, Snell, Stock, Scarfe and Duce were fined 10s. Mattham, Must, Stearn,Gurling and Duce paid their fines, the rest were committed to prison for 2 months hard labour, the prosecution gave the fines to Lavenham National school."

The following season in 1843 (November 5th always being the date) it was announced that a bull would be baited on the Market Place, the old and original ground. This apparent defiance of the authorities drew a large company of visitors and alert members, who found on their arrival the bull tethered by a rope to the ring, quietly feeding on hay which constituted the "bait".

In a subsequent issue of the Bury Post appeared the following letter.

To the Editor

. Sir.-

A few days since, being at Lavenham, my attention was directed to the front of a gentleman's house which besmeared in a conspicious manner in various places with black wash, forming a striking contrast with the light colouring adjacent. -

On enquiring the cause I found that the bull baiters who had been fined or imprisoned for their brutal barbarity, so far from being ashamed of their conduct, had aquired such influence among the ignorant inhabitants that they made an effigy of the gentleman who lives in this house, with the intention of burning it publicly, but dreading an additional fine they dissected it in a low public house. -

On the morning of Friday the 2nd, before daylight, one of the cowardly ruffians threw a number of stones into one of the chamber windows windows and broke three of the panes of glass, this was the third time they have been broken-yet many say they will not give information against these ruffians even if they know who it is. -

The gentleman bears a most upright and benevolent character, the sole cause of the persecution is that he or one of his family is supected of giving information to the Society whose agent put the law in force against their brutality. -

The ears of the family are still saluted with the bellowing of the fellows who frequent the public house where the bull was taken. -

Is it possible that in the 19th century there cannot be found so many respectable inhabitants in the parish as will require a sufficient police force to be sent to put a stop to these disgraceful proceedings. -

I am, Mr Editor,-
yours truly, -
"A traveller"

To this was added an editorial note as follows.

"It is lamentable to find this town in so benighted a state at the present day, amidst all the appliances for the light of the Gospel and the principles of common humanity. Advantage might be taken of the Act of the last Sessions to appoint an efficient police force, but we are more disposed to look to the influence of moral restraint than to the strong arm of the law, putting down these brutal and brutalizing practices".