If you’re going to run a bear-baiting arena – it’s best not to get eaten by one of your bears.

In 1709, that was the fate of Christopher Preston who ran the Bear Garden at Hockley-in-the-Hole, a very dodgy part of the Clerkenwell district of London. It roughly corresponds to where Ray Street is today and there’s a little warren of streets in the vicinity that still has a slightly old world feel. But back to Mr Preston and his hungry friend.

Bears had a rough time in Clerkenwell circa 1700
Bears had a rough time in Clerkenwell circa 1700

Apparently the bear had got loose from its cage and Preston was “almost devoured” before his mates noticed. The Reverend Dr Pead apparently preached a very touching sermon afterwards at the church of St James’s in Clerkenwell. Though it’s hard to imagine what he could have said. No doubt a pithy parable summed up the tragedy.

On Mondays and Thursdays, bulls and bears were paraded through the streets to drum up business for the baiting. In 1700, the Daily Post ran its first recorded advertisement for the proceedings. It also included references to bare knuckle fighting and the kind of wrestling that left men blinded or maimed. Not everybody was enthralled. Local Christian folk distributed leaflets and petitioned the courts to close the whole thing down. This is the sort of notice that distressed them so:

At the Bear Garden, Hockley-in-the-Hole, 1710 – This is to give notice to all gentlemen gamesters, and others, that on this present Monday is a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate Market against one from Hony Lane Market, at a bull, for a guinea, to be spent. Five let-goes out of hand; which goes fairest and farthest in wins all. Likewise a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before, and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him; and also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three o’clock.

And Hockley thrived in these years with bulls and bears meeting a bloody fate and swordsmen duelling for the amusement of socially very mixed crowds – from fancy fops to thieves and cut-purses. They’d all eat furmenty and hasty pudding while enjoying the bestial carnage. The old dwelling house that adjoined the Bear Garden was a pub called the Coach and Horses that is still there today.

(Source: Old and New London – 19th century publication)

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