Tour of Lost Birmingham Nᵒ.32: The Bull Ring & the Spectacle of Bull Baiting (High Street)

Drawing by Samuel Lines Senior. Held by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The Georgian Bull Ring (part of Birmingham's market area, now a shopping centre) would have been a very crowded and muddled hodge-podge of buildings, many of which encroached over the roads and left scarce room for pedestrians, let alone carts. The Shambles was a group of butcher's shops, which can be seen on the right of the image, above, and filled the area leading to St. Martin's church (left). As the town grew this traditional market place became too small and crowded, and so, from 1801, the Bull Ring was cleared of many of the obstructions, including the Shambles. This was done by the Street Commissioners who were in charge of maintaining the town, and especially in keeping the markets running smoothly.

At the time when this whole area was cleared, a small metal ring was removed from the middle of the ground between the Shambles and St. Martin's church. These rings, that were found in other towns too (Ludlow still has a street called Bull Ring), were 'an iron ring that sticketh in the corne market, to which the bulles that are yearelie bated be usallie tied',* and it was one of these rings that had given the Bull Ring its name. Bull-baiting was a popular recreation in markets, dating back to origins perhaps in the 12th century. The bull would be attached to the ring and dogs would be set on it, this was thought to improve the quality of the meat and make it 'softer in digestion',* as well as provide 'sport' for the spectators in the market. In fact, there is evidence that bull baiting was developed not as an entertainment, but solely as the way to slaughter the meat of older bulls, which would often be tough, and was common practice for butchers.** It is no surprise that the Birmingham 'bull ring' was placed by the butcher's shambles, as it would be a short journey from the killed bull to having the meat then placed on sale.

There is very little evidence of the tradition of bull baiting in Birmingham's market, but if bull baiting began less as a sport and more as the common process of slaughter, this is not so surprising. The area known as the Bull Ring was first shown on the 1778 map, before that (1750 map) it was just the Shambles and the corn market recorded, so it could be that the ring was a late addition to the market area and the practice relatively short lived within the market place. Equally so, the actual ring could have been in place for many, many years, but the area only became known as the 'Bull Ring' at this time.

There are some mentions of bull baiting in the records. In the 1760s a man called John Cooper was given permission to bait a bull in the Bull Ring 'whenever he pleased' by the Lord of the Manor,* probably for the supply of baited meat, but Showell tells us that bull baiting was completely prohibited in Birmingham in 1773.* There were still attempts, though, to bait in and around the town in 1777:
'There have been great Disturbances in the Hamlets of Deritend, Erdington, Saltley, and other Places, in or near this town [Birmingham], occasioned by Bull-baiting, and other Methods made use of to collect disorderly People together, to the great Annoyance of the Publick Peace'.**
The reason for banning bull baiting at this time was less about any mistreatment of the animal and more about unruly groups of people and the 'unsanctioned use of the streets'.**

It was not till the early 1800s that the practice came under any real criticism with regards to cruelty to the animals involved. Although Birmingham was free from bull baiting by this time, many surrounding areas, especially in the Black Country, still maintained a number of blood 'sports', and complaints were issued in the Birmingham Gazette about the custom:
18 March 1828

The 'sport' was also thought to cause drunkeness, and alongside a blood-lust, consequently could lead to violence through fighting and domestic abuse, which are hinted at in the article. Bull baiting was finally banned by law in 1835, though the last known instance in England was in 1838 near Birmingham Heath on the outskirts of the town.*

Bear baiting in a provincial town, 1749. The bear is being
taunted and hit with wheel-barrows.

Top image drawn by Samuel Lines Senior
* References on request
** Emma Griffin, England's Revelry: A History of Popular Sports and Pastimes, 1660-1830.