Bull-baiting and bullock-hunting in late Georgian London

The nineteenth century saw the gradual growth of intolerance of cruelty towards animals; the SPCA (Society for the Protection of Animals, later the Royal Society) was set up in 1824, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. In addition the growth of urban areas and a move towards order within them led to a concomitant move towards ending pastimes and traditions that disrupted the flow of traffic and disturbed commerce.

So I am not surprised to see a prosecution at Bow Street for bull-baiting. This might have been the ancient cruel sport shown in the illustration below or a wider reference to ‘bullock-hunting’.


Baiting bulls involved tethering one in a yard or market square and setting dogs on them. Bets were taken on the dogs’ abilities to attack and bite the bulls and to avoid being thrown or gored by them. In the eighteenth century other animals were treated with equal cruelty. For example, cocks were set to fight each other while men gambled on the outcome, fireworks were attacked to the horns of cattle or cats’ tails, and birds were imprisoned in cages for stones to be thrown at them.

The bullock hunt was an urban pastime that occurred frequently on market days in and around Smithfield (in central London) or out in the east at Whitechapel (where there were very many slaughterhouses). A bullock would be ‘yahoo’d’ out of a herd, enraged, and chased through the streets by screaming apprentice boys and other local youths.

By the 1820s there were concerted attempts to stamp out all of these ‘cruel’ sports, especially those that took place on the streets. In July 1825 the sitting justice at Bow Street, exasperated by the local officers’ inability to deter bull-baiting, issued a warrant to arrest two men who had been identified as the key culprits. We don’t know whether they were caught but it probably sent them to ground at least.

Such overt animal cruelty was largely eradicated from London’s streets in the later 1800s but this did not necessarily herald a new dawn for its animal population; cruelty continued, just not for ‘sport’. Outside of the capital of course wealthier traditions of animal cruelty continued (and still continue albeit less brazenly) because they were legitimized as the pursuit of gentlemen ‘hunters’, not ‘Smithfield yahoos’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 7, 1825]

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