In the pageant the bull is represented by a symbolic bull’s head Pic: BenFowler

The Axbridge Pageant has been put back to 2022 due to Covid-19

We claim to be a nation of animal lovers and often turn our distain 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.

Many residents were disgusted by bull bating, leading to them lobbying for its end

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 Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night probably harked back to long lost traditions of Celtic Britain.

Children would re-enact the bull run as it was an exciting if bloody event

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.

Bull bating was sometimes marked by violent disorder

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.

In 1835, the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in Parliament that outlawed “Blood Sport” in the United Kingdom ended bull baiting – but critics pointed out that blood sports of the upper classed like stag hunting continued

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.

Bailiffs on the left bull baiters to the right and disgusted residents above – a perfect set piece in the colourful pageant. Pic: Chris Loughlin

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.

Law v the bull baiters

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 bailiffs were used to quell any trouble – in the days before the establishment of the police

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