By Harry Mottram: We claim to be a nation of animal lovers and often turn our disdain for barbaric sports such as bull fighting in Spain. And yet not so many generations ago the baiting and killing of many animals and birds were common forms of sport.
Bear baiting, cock fighting and bull baiting continued through into the 19th century – fuelled by a thirst for blood and fun – and by the gambling that often accompanied these activities. In Axbridge the autumn bull run held around Halloween and Bonfire Night probably harked back to a long lost traditions of Celtic Britain.
By the 1820s the more enlightened and the authorities had grown tired of the annual riotous ritual of setting dogs onto a tethered bull. It wasn’t just the cruelty involved – it was the drunken and riotous behaviour it attracted. In this scene we see a ritualistic representation of the event as the town’s burgesses clamp down on the archaic activity and all it represents. In 1835, parliament passed a law outlawing the practice.
These are accounts of the time:
“Be it known that on this day November fifth, that the corporation and the mayor of this town do ban the proposed baiting of a bull as a vial and despicable cruelty. And that any persons involved in such behaviour will be severely dealt with. By order of the Constable of Axbridge.”
“The bull will be baited outside the Crown Inn at eleven of the clock, when the corporation are at prayer, and then chased down St Mary’s Street to the Square and the George Inn by dogs and men with sticks, and thence whipped up the High Street along West Street to Outings Batch where it shall be tethered by anchor for sport.
“A crown for the best leading dog and half a crown for the second best. Scarcely had the Mayor H Symons and corporation entered the church when the rabble in defiance of the authorities baited the animal through the streets and then the batch beyond the precincts of the jurisdiction of the county magistrates.
“Here the rabble continued to enjoy their sport with some dogs with broken legs, the bull losing an eye, and the men using their staves to break the falls of the dogs when tossed by the bull.
“Be it known that John Stoward this day in the year of our Lord 1822 is convicted of wantonly and wilfully committing cruelty to a bull within the borough, and having been apprehended by the constables acting for the majesty’s justices of the peace and tried in the court will be fined five guineas and spend one night in the lock-up. God save the King.”

The town’s authorities ordered in law enforcement and a lively riot is played out as the Square and its bull baiters is cleared. No bull was injured in the is scene but one or two bull baiters suffer the odd blow.

That law in 1835 began the rules on animal cruelty that have continued to this day – with the Hunting Act of 2004 being the latest. The first laws were more to do with the social side of animal cruelty as cock fighting and bull baiting attracted gambling and disorder amongst the lower classes – while hunting with hounds by the upper classes were not seen as so disreputable by Parliament.