On the north side of Newark Market Place stands a reminder of this onetime ‘sport’ in the form of a stout wooden post with a chain and ring attached.
It was to a post like this that, on feast or market days, a bear or bull would have been tethered, either by its neck or leg, and attacked by specially trained dogs.
Although the ring dates back to the early 19th century, the present post was put up in 1962, not necessarily in the original location.
With bears, no pretence was made that baiting was anything other than an amusement for the spectators; with bulls destined for the butcher’s slab, however, baiting was considered almost a necessity as a means of improving the flavour of the meat.
Writing in 1751 Dr Charles Deering noted that, in times past, whenever a bull was due to be slaughtered in Nottingham, the butchers were obliged by statute to bait it in the market place.
In Newark, part of the town’s shambles were located in a row of shops on Ironmonger Lane (now demolished) which lay behind the shops we see today on the north side of the Market Place. Here, in a narrow alley between the back of the shops and the vestry door of St Mary’s church, carcasses would be cut up producing a pungent odour that was said to drive the congregation to the far side of the church.
A bull tethered to a baiting post would normally be sufficiently enraged to respond to the noise of the crowd and the dogs straining at the leash. But if it needed further encouragement, and additional trick was to blow pepper into its nose.
The dogs were then loosed at it one at a time. Each would try to seize the tethered animal by the nose. To maintain some semblance (or pretence) of a fair fight, a hole in the ground was sometimes provided into which the bull might thrust the vulnerable part of its anatomy.
Deering’s account of bull-baiting in Nottingham records that it had been the responsibility of the mayoress to provide the rope to tether the bull, the cost being met by a tax of one shilling levied on all Freemen of the city.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Deering Noted that this custom was no longer observed, and that in lieu of the rope tax butchers now paid 3s 4d (16p) for every bull they killed. The payment as referred to as pin money, recalling the climax of the baiting process when a successful dog, having caught the bull by the nose, was said to have ‘pinned’ it.
The baiting of bears was a related, but less frequent phenomenon.
Indiginous brown bears had died out in England long before baiting became a popular pastime and animals had to be specially imported.
For a bear baiting attended by Queen Elizabeth I in 1575 no fewer than 13 such imported bears were provided. Eye-witness Robert Laneham wrote that it was “very pleasant to see”, especially “the nimbleness and wait of the dog to take his advantage”, while the bear, tearing himself free and shaking his ears, afforded an excellent spectacle “with blood and slaver hanging about his physiognomy”. The contest usually ended with the death of the bear.
Many variations – usually refinements of brutality – came into vogue to spice up the various forms of baiting. Whipping a blinded bear was popular at one time, as was the baiting of a pony with an ape tied to its back.
Baiting and its variations began to decline gradually in the late 17thCentury. In Newark there is a reference to a bull-baiting in the Market Place as late as January 1781. This may have been part of the New Year celebrations and was said to have been “enjoyed by a crowd of several hundred”.
Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries Puritans continually agitated for an end to the practice, and the conscience of the nation was eventually touched in 1835 when an Act of Parliament outlawed such spectacles.
Even so, in the early years of the 20th century there were still people alive who had seen baiting in Newark. In his autobiography, First Interval (1954) the Balderton-born Shakespearian actor-manager, Sir Donald Wolfit writes that as a child – he was born in 1902 – he used to visit the shop of Ebenezer Smith (tea merchant and chandler STREET NEEDED + LINK TO NEW PAGE) with whose daughter he took piano lessons. This aged Smith, wrote Wolfit, claimed to have “seen and taken part in” bull and bear-baiting in Newark Market Place when a young boy. (Possibly he was of an age to have witnessed the spectacle before the 1835 Act).
After talking with Smith, Wolfit wrote, “My head would be buzzing….. with stories of murder and sudden death, of bulls being baited by dogs in the market square [sic], of dancing bears led on chains to be baited after the bulls were led away, until in my imagination the whole of the great square was full of those bloodcurdling sights and sounds”.
Researched & written by TW.