Bull baiting figure group, c1830

This ceramic figure groups depicts the barbaric sport of bull baiting by dogs. It was made in Staffordshire, c1825.

Bull baiting, a favoured pastime in England since the Middle Ages, was still a popular sport in the 18th century. It normally took place in the market place at festivals and fairs and attracted both poor and wealthy spectators.

What do you see?

The tethered bull

Normally a group of dog owners subscribed towards the purchase of a bull to set their dogs on. Butchers believed that baiting tenderised the beef-meat before slaughter, and once the bull had been tormented its meat was then sold.

The bull has been tethered with a thick rope which would have been attached to a stake or permanent ring in the ground. The rope was about 15 feet long giving little room for the bull to manoeuvre or escape its tormentors.

The dogs

Two dogs have been set upon the bull. One dog attacks its muzzle, the other has been tossed by its horns.

These dogs are bull terriers, bred specifically for this type of sport. Bull baiting required ferocious dogs that were recklessly brave when faced with an enraged huge bull. Traditionally bulldogs were used, but at the start of the 19th century the breed was crossed with the terrier to produce the more agile bull terrier.

The man

The man stands perilously close to the bull. Either the owner of the dogs or an enthusiastic supporter, he shouts encouragement ‘Now Captin [sic] Lad’ to them.

During bull baiting, owners often ran around the bull trying to break the dog’s fall with a pole or else catch them on their backs.

The Sport

Once the bull was tethered, the dogs were set loose and immediately attacked the most vulnerable areas. These included the muzzle, dewlap (the flap of skin at its throat) and the genitals. As soon as a dog managed to get hold, it clamped on like a leech while the bull kicked and tried to shake the dog off.

It was a brutal sport and the bull suffered considerably as shown in this extract from the Staffordshire Advertiser:

‘At Rowley Regis wake a two year old bull was worried in the most brutal manner…on Monday or Tuesday one of this bull’s horns was broken off, and the following day the other shared the same fate, and a portion of his tongue was also torn out of its mouth by one of the dogs. On the Thursday he was again dragged to the stake and worried for hours, the whole of his head and face being mangled and covered with blood, in a manner too shocking to describe. Two iron horns have been also riveted on to the stumps, and the bellowing and groans of the wretched beast, while undergoing this barbarous operation, are said to have been truly appalling.’

The cruelty of the sport drew increased criticism from the early 19th century. The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 finally banned any sports which baited animals.

Author: Cecilia Kendall, Curator

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