Nostalgia: Brutal sporting pastimes

Outdoor sports and games in Regency England ranged from the sedate and civilised to the brutal and barbarous. The baiting of animals for sport was not outlawed until 1835 and Stamford's violent bull-running was not banned until four years later. During the French wars, bear-baiting with dogs had ceased in England, but only because of the lack of bears from the Continent, and the baiting of dogs, bulls and badgers and cock-fighting continued legally without interruption.

Tuesday, 6th February 2018, 9:00 am
Lords cricket ground  the home of English cricket. Even the civilised sport of cricket has seen many brutal encounters between England and countries like Australia and the West Indies.
Lords cricket ground the home of English cricket. Even the civilised sport of cricket has seen many brutal encounters between England and countries like Australia and the West Indies.

Cock-fighting was particularly common and popular. It was usually carried out in the backyards of inns and taverns and huge sums of money were made and lost in betting. However, blood sports were not restricted to animals. Bare-fisted, prize fights between two boxers were especially attractive. Again, the interest was mainly gambling and the stakes could be very high. Prize-fight venues were usually kept secret until the last day to avoid the interference of magistrates. In March 1812 two men fought each other for 20 guineas a side: one was declared the winner after 57 hard rounds lasting 108 minutes!

In effect, football was also a blood sport. Whether played on Scarborough sands or on village greens such as Seamer’s, the rules were minimal. Players wore thick leather shoes armed with iron rims and studs. Broken legs were common injuries. Numbers in teams ranged from 11 to 21. “Black eyes, bruised arms and broken shins are equally the marks of victory and defeat”, wrote William Hutton, after watching one of these savage encounters.

Lord’s cricket ground moved to its present site in June 1814. In the grand match between the MCC and Hertford, the former won by 27 runs in one innings. The betting had been 5 to 4 in favour of the MCC.

Races of every kind took place – on foot, horseback and in boats. Once again, gambling seems to have been the principal inducement. Race-courses for horses were to be found all over the country and attracted crowds of many kinds, legitimate and criminal. During the 18th century, Black Hambleton, west of Helmsley, was the most famous course in Yorkshire. There the King’s Cup was worth 100 guineas. It was moved to Knavesemire at York after the course there acquired a grandstand.

There were regular meetings at Langton Wold which gained a grandstand in 1801. Some of the fastest Arabian horses were bred at Malton where the great horse fair was linked to the races. During Pickering’s race week there were assemblies, plays and cock-fights at the Black Swan.

The first horse race on Seamer Moor had been run in August 1758, but there seems to have been constant friction between Scarborough Corporation, one of the chief sponsors, and the Duke of Leeds’ estate agent. Just before the Duke sold Seamer to Joseph Denison in 1790, the last meeting on the moor took place the year before. Then two sets of races, both for £50 each, the one between two colts and the other for six four-year-olds, were held; but the race for all ages, also worth £50, “was not run for want of horses”.

Hunting foxes with horses and hounds was a relatively new pursuit, exclusive to the gentry. Henry Brewster-Darley of Aldby Park near Buttercrambe was the first in Yorkshire to popularise the sport amongst his class. He bred foxhounds for speed and endurance and ranged over great distances from Bulmer to Pocklington and from Gilling to Garrowby; but by the end of the century enclosure hedges made such free riding dangerous if not impossible. By then, “the best pack of hounds” in England belonged to Squire Humphrey Osbaldeston of Hunmanby Hall.

Tide permitting, foot races between men took place often on the sands of South Bay, Scarborough. After the Spa bridge was opened in 1827, it offered an excellent viewing platform for spectators. In 1840, for instance, two elderly gentlemen, both about 70, Thomas Bowser and George Duesberry, raced 100 yards against each other over the sands for a sovereign a side. Bowser won by several yards. Afterwards they and their friends and backers retired to Mr Tissiman’s “grog-house” in Carr (Cross) Street.

Earlier, the Gentleman’s Magazine had given notice of a foot-race round Scarborough’s bowling green for £500. Captain Richard Bell beat Mr William Donkin, the fishmonger, “with ease”.

To accommodate a foot-race of any length, “Scarborough’s bowling green” must have been quite extensive, and the only one of any size known to us at that time was bounded by St Thomas, Castle, Queen and Elders Streets, an area sometimes called Mount Pleasant.

This was the ground referred to locally as “the old bowling green”. It was here, in August 1688, that the Catholic mayor, Thomas Aislabie, was tossed in a blanket by garrison officers from the castle, as a humiliating punishment for caning the vicar of St Mary’s in his Sunday pulpit. Later, on his street plan of 1725, John Cossins indicated that “the old bowling green” was then on the high ground between Tanner Street and Granby Place, where much later the girls of the Convent school had their tennis courts. Thirdly, the Ordnance Survey map of 1852 named a substantial property fronting Elders Street as Bowling Green House.

The site, size and age of “the old bowling green” raise a number of interesting questions. Where were the new bowling greens? What kind of bowls was played there? Did residents or gentry visitors play outdoor bowls? In fact, we know that Scarborough had several “greens” or bowling alleys. Before it was built over in the early 1800s, there was a long alley running north and south behind the Assembly Room (Royal Hotel) and as far as the backyard of the London Inn in Newborough.

Another “green” was on former Franciscan priory land at the corner of St Sepulchre Street and what is now Springfield. It was not built over until 1821 when the Primitive Methodists established their first chapel there.

Finally, on another medieval friary site, outdoor bowls were once played behind the Blacksmith’s Arms (later the Castle Hotel) in Queen Street. This survived until the beginning of the last century.