by Mervyn Edwards
The Burslem Festivals of recent years have been civilised affairs compared to some of the Wakes celebrations of yore which saw bulls being baited in the middle of the town.
It is as well to remember that the activity was not always regarded as a working-class preserve. In 1174, William Fitzstephen wrote that the baiting of bears and bulls was a favourite pastime of Londoners in the winter. The sport was encouraged by English sovereigns and flourished for centuries.
The more respectable elements of society opposed bull baiting by the late 18th century, though it died very hard indeed. At Burslem Wakes in 1814, an infuriated bull injured a dozen people including a Burslem man who had his thigh deeply lacerated and a Longport man whose “recovery was very doubtful.” Noah Heath, a poet from Sneyd Green, famously wrote some verse on bull-baiting, opposing the brutality of the sport and the people it attracted. It was often organised near to pubs, and a metal bull-baiting ring was still to be found in front of the Old King and Queen pub in Sneyd Street even as late as 1892.
The baiting seems to have taken place in St. John’s Square though it was also arranged in close proximity to the Bull’s Head at Sneyd Green, which formed part of the Cobridge Estate. A group of dog owners would acquire a bull on which their dogs were set during the bait. Often, the bull would be led through the town by the bulward and the dogs would also make an appearance, perhaps to catch the scent of the animal to be tortured. One suspects also that this would increase the anticipation of spectators prior to the event.
At the Burslem Wakes of 1830, the authorities stamped down hard on an attempted bull bait and the man who had the animal – described as a newly-established publican and “late a guardian of the laws” – was committed to gaol. The practice was banned by Act of Parliament in 1835 but that did not prevent historian John Ward from remarking around 1840 that Burslem Wakes was “some years ago marked with more vulgar and demoralising scenes than have been witnessed since the practice of bullbaiting was prohibited.”
Author Arnold Bennett sometimes made references to this age-old Burslem bloodsport in his novels. In The Elixir of Youth, there is bull and bear baiting in the Cock Yard Inn, “from which burst a maddened bull killing a poor girl who was Black Jack’s lover.”
by Mervyn Edwards, originally published in Local Edition.