History of Cock Fighting in the British Isles

  

 

The ancient sport of “cocking” or cockfighting while now prohibited in most of the “civilized world,” was once considered a perfectly respectable gentleman’s diversion.

  

Originally introduced to Britain by the Romans, cockfighting was popular among all social classes through the British Isles from the Middle Ages until the mid nineteenth century. Cockpits were common in most villages and spectators travelled from near and far to attend the fights.

 

Although the history of raising fowl for fighting goes back 6,000 years, it was not until 1607 that the earliest known book on the sport of cockfighting was written: “The Commendation of Cocks and Cock Fighting” by George Wilson. 

 

 

 

 

18th century cock fighting coloured engraving by Richardson

The Royal Cockpit coloured engraving c1808

Thomas Rowlandson. Public collection

 

 

A typical event was a Welch Main – an elimination contest to leave the last cock standing, usually starting with at least 16 pairs of cocks. The next round would comprise the eight winners, and so on until only one cock remained as the winner. The birds themselves were often fitted with expensive silver spurs designed to inflict damage to the opponent. These contests often coincided with local horse races when there was an influx of Gentlemen inclined to bet heavily on the outcome of the battles.

 

This barbaric sport reached its height of popularity in the British Isles in the mid 18th century with matches held regularly at cockpits in almost every town, as well as at all the major horse races. A knowledge of and taste for cocking were essential parts of the training of a gentleman. 

 

In Nottinghamshire, Sir Charles Sedley, of Nuthall and Bulwell, and Colonel Mellish of Hodsock Priory were avid lovers of cocking. They fought for large sums, and backed their cocks heavily.  Colonel Mellish, was so much addicted to betting and sport of various kinds, that he nearly ruined himself. 

  

Cockfighting bell Pocklington

The Cockfighting Bell illustration is from 'A History of Pocklington School' by P.C. Sands and C.M. Haworth.

 

The Pocklington School Cockfighting Bell has the names of Thomas Ellison and Johanes Clarke inscribed upon it. John Clarke was master at the school 1660 to 1664 and Thomas Ellison followed him between 1664 to 1693. 

Pocklingtonhistory.com

 

Ironically, though Pocklington was one of Yorkshire's top places for cockfighting, the most famous Pocklingtonian, William Wilberforce, was instrumental in it being banned. Just as Wilberforce's campaign against slavery took many years to come to fruition (he began the campaign in 1787 but slavery was not completely abolished until just before his death in 1833) so the movement to end cock fighting needed decades to succeed.

 

Wilberforce supported a motion to ban bull baiting, and later cock fighting was put alongside bull baiting on the abolitionists list. Wilberforce was one of the founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824 (later the RSPCA) and cock fighting became gradually less popular, particularly after the 1835 Act Against Animal Cruelty, but not completely banned until 1849.

 

The 1849 Act was passed to protect the birds' welfare and to stop the gathering of unruly spectators who so enjoyed the gambling and heavy drinking usually associated with the contests. However cock fights continued to be held illegally long afterwards, and as late as 1952 a cockfighting act was passed making it an offence to possess any instruments associated with the sport.

 

 

Beckbury cock fighting pit remains

 The remains of the cock pit in Beckbury, Shropshire

Shropshirestar.com

 

A rare survivor of a cock pit stands in the grounds of a private manor house in Beckbury, Nr Shifnal in Shropshire. It was erected in the early 1700’s very close to Beckbury Church. The location was chosen for a reason – sprinkling churchyard soil in the pit prior to a battle was believed to bring good luck!

 

It is said that roses were planted all around it, so that if the look-outs spotted police on horseback,  the birds would be put away and the gentry would pretend that they were simply admiring the display of flowers.

 

Why this pit survived while others have been filled in, landscaped or simply built on, is just an accident of history. 

 

Historian DH Robinson devotes several paragraphs to it in his book ‘The Wandering Worfe’ – named after the River Worfe which runs through the village. He wrote:

 

On top of a plateau overlooking the church, is the pit – a circular enclosure about 50 yards in diameter. It is protected by a strong, tall fence and entrance is gained through a gated opening on the north side.

In the very centre is a circular area raised three feet above the surrounding ground and measures 50 feet in diameter. It seems to be made of sandstone blocks.

On the southern perimeter are some sandstone steps leading to a small, underground chamber.

Tradition has it that this enclosure, dating possibly from the 18th century, was used for the matching of gamecocks and the underground chamber was utilised as a store for the alcoholic beverages needed to encourage the onlookers.” 

 

http://cryptozoologynews.blogspot.com/2012/05/rare-glimpse-of-midlands-only-intact.html

     

   

Reconstructed Welsh cock fighting pit

At the rear of the former Hawk and Buckle Inn, in Vale Street, by the existing malt-house, was a cockpit, now re-erected at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagan's, near Cardiff.  The precise date of the building is uncertain, but a silver tankard hall-marked 1726, engraved with two fighting cocks and the name 'Denbigh', is said to have been offered as a prize at the cockpit. 

Peoples Collection Wales

 

The cock pit by William Hogarth, Royal Collection

 

Sources:

As stated with phtographs or within text

 

pocklingtonhistory.com

http://cryptozoologynews.blogspot.com/2012/05/rare-glimpse-of-midlands-only-intact.html

peoplescollection.wales

shropshirestar.com

museum.wales

nottshistory.org.uk

wikipedia.com

royalcollection.org.uk

 

Roman mosaic of cockfighting barbara leigh folk art article

In this ancient Roman mosaic, two cocks face off in front of a table displaying the purse for the winner.

National Museum of Naples 

 

Cocks would be trained for many months before fighting, and were looked after by men called 'feeders'. Birds practised sparring every day and after exercise were fed and watered.

 

The correct diet was extremely important, and each feeder followed his own secret feeding programme: brandy, raw steak, maggots and even urine were just some of the varied ingredients used.

 

For the contest two owners would place their gamecocks in the cockpit, and they fought until ultimately one of them died or was critically injured.

 

Cockpit as a term was also used in the 16th century to mean a place of entertainment or frenzied activity. William Shakespeare used the term in Henry V to specifically mean the area around the stage of a theatre. In Tudor times, the Palace of Westminster had a permanent cockpit, called the Cockpit-in-Court.

 

Cock pit steps in Westminster, London.

London is such a treasure trove of history, as can be seen by this photograph of the Cockpit steps which still exist in Wesminster.  The cockpit no longer remains.

 

 

But it was not only in the major towns in which cock fights were held, and not only the landed gentry that took part. They also flourished in more remote areas, particularly in the north of England and Wales. 

 

The Black Bull Inn the small town of Pocklington, Yorkshire had a Cock Fighting Pit built within it and Pocklington school still has a Cockfighting Bell that was used in the 17th century.

 

Pocklingtonhistory.com provides a fascinating glimpse into this “sport”, and shows that against the law or not, there were newspapers advertisements for these fights well into the 20th century. 

 

Pcklington cockfighting notices c1820

Advertisments placed in the York Herald for forthcoming cockfights c1820

Pocklingtonhistory.com

 

Cock fighting print Welsh folk art

One of a set of six cockfighting prints published during the 19th century. This print, entitled 'One Down', was drawn and engraved by C. R. Stock.

Peoplescollection.wales

 

 

 

Cock fighting commemorative glass rummer

 

Glass rummer from Pontypridd, inscribed with an image of fighting cocks, with the name J. Lewis. 1850.

Museum.wales

 

 

The popularity of cock-fighting in Wales peaked during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, at a time when a series of religious revivals nationwide condemned sports and pastimes as sinful activities which guaranteed hell and damnation for all involved. 

 

In Wales covered and open air pits were used for cockfights. The circular indoor cockpit re-erected at St Fagans National History Museum stood originally in the yard of the Hawk and Buckle Inn, Denbigh, and although its exact date is uncertain, may well have been built during the late seventeenth century.

 

It is an unfortunate fact that cockfighting is still legal and thriving in many countries particularly in the Far East, with unbelievably, organised tours on offer. And in recent years men were jailed in the Bristol area for cock fighting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can always rely on William Hogarth for amusing depictions of  rowdy 18th century London life.

 

Here we have the Cock Pit, opposite.

 

At the centre of the crowd is Lord Albemarle Bertie (d.1765). The scene takes place in the Royal Cockpit in Birdcage Walk, St James's Park, where Hogarth depicts a chaotic crowd gathered to watch a fight between two birds. The shadow of a debtor suspended in a basket above is cast across the pit.

 

At bottom centre is a 'pit ticket' which would have granted admission to the fight. The print is lettered at bottom left: 'Design'd and Engrav'd by Willm Hogarth', and at bottom right 'Published according to Act of Parliament Nov 5th 1759'

 

www.royalcollection.org.uk

 


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