Sunday, 5 June 2011

Cock Fighting in North Staffs

Cock fighting reached its heyday in the last years of the 18th century and into the following century. All the communities of North Staffordshire claimed supporters of the blood sport but Hanley was a centre with two cockpits in close proximity; one in Northwood at the Cat and Fiddle and another at the Cock in Provident Square in the town centre. Their closeness made them close rivals. The former was a favourite of the Blind Duke of Devonshire who with other gentleman who wager bets at the popular cockpit in Northwood.
The cockpits were in general a hurly-burley place where all social classes mingled intent on their frenzied betting and the matches. Though every town of any size boasted a cockpit, country gentlemen were known to hold matches in their drawing rooms. This pastime was a common enough practice to prompt furniture makers to offer cockfighting chairs. It is said that the new wife of the Earl of Derby prevailed upon him to end the practice of cockfighting in their drawing room.

For all the evils inherent in the fighting sports, they did play an incidental role in the movement of sport towards more equitable competition. Cocks fought in a ring and were precisely paired by weight in all the more heavily staked cock fights, much more so than were their human counterparts in bare-knuckles bouts. Gamecocks were also thoroughly trained for their match long before any but rudimentary training was thought necessary for human fighters. The popularity of cocking and the large sums staked on the contests were a strong incentive to refine and balance the competitions. The current set up for tournaments had its genesis in cock-fighting

By the end of the 18th century regard for the sport divided along class lines. The aristocracy and the labouring class rather favoured the sport whilst the liberal educated middle classes rather frowned on it. Local Miners a hardened breed in those days tended to support cockfighting and would flock into Newcastle in race week in June. The convention being that cock fighting at the ample yard in the Cock in the grounds of St Giles take place in morning before the bloods went off to Knutton to watch the races. Other popular venues included the Green at Penkhull and a secluded spot near Salverley Green between Cresswell and Fulford. There is a local story that a posse of local police raised the establishment and pursued the local gentry across fields in a vain attempt to catch participants
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Leek itself was a popular place for blood sports in the early 19th century. An 80-year-old man writing in the 1880s recalled the Leek of his youth and the raucous atmosphere that followed sporting activities
"I can remember the block of stone in the centre of the market place to which the bull was tethered, and also the crowds, which used to assemble to see the "game" though I was too small to venture there. At Wakes Time there used to be bear baiting on Ball Haye Green and in the Black Swan yard. Wakes and Fairs have not altered greatly in character, except that the presence of the police has checked the old times battle which took place between "town" and "country" and between different sets of men from different villages. I have seen as many as three of these battles take place simultaneously in the Market Place and though fists were the only weapons used, the combatants carried marks for many days afterwards".

But even by 1820 the sport was falling out of favour and by 1849 the practice was made illegal. Scotland followed by the end of the century. This does not mean the blood sport ended participants still carried out the nefarious activity even up to the present day.