Cock-fighting

 
     

Cock fighting had strong claims to being the period's most widespread sport. Annual open contests for high stakes were mounted at the Cockpit Royal in Hyde Park, where the season began on Shrove Tuesday. Cockfighting ranged across the social classes from the rougher style of cocking described in the song 'Wednesday Cocking," where a dispute between rival Black Country colliers and nailers led to a fight in which the two birds were trampled to death to the Cockpit Royal. In the mid-range socially were country gentlemen breeders. Contests between country gentlemen were often geographically based with one area playing another in tournament style process of elimination.

Cocking had complicated rules defining both the responsibilities of the handlers and the limitations placed on their interference with the birds. Cock-fighting matches were held in a cockpit and often held in association with race meets. The "Racing Calendar" in the 1770s would print model articles for a cock match, leaving blank spaces for entering the time, place, number of cocks to be fought and particulars of the stakes. These referred also to following 'the usual rules of cock-fighting as it is practiced in London and Newmarket,' which included a count to ten in several circumstances, which might interrupt the fighting, the count and weight classes were to carry over from the cockpit to the prize ring.

The cockpits were in general a hurly-burley place where all social classes mingled intent on their frenzied betting and the matches. Though every town of any size boasted a cockpit, country gentlemen were known to hold matches in their drawing rooms. This pastime was a common enough practice to prompt furniture makers to offer cockfighting chairs. It is said that the new wife of the Earl of Derby prevailed upon him to end the practice of cockfighting in their drawing room. There were cockpits in London at Grey's Walk and Jenny's Whim Tea Garden and a new one opened at Millbank in 1831. The admission 'tip' of 5 shillings at the Cockpit Royal on Birdcage Walk at St. James Park no doubt made it beyond the pale of the lower classes.

For all the evils inherent in the fighting sports, they did play an incidental role in the movement of sport towards more equitable competition. Cocks fought in a ring and were precisely paired by weight in all the more heavily staked cock fights, much more so than were their human counterparts in bare-knuckles bouts. Gamecocks were also thoroughly trained for their match long before any but rudimentary training was thought necessary for human fighters. The popularity of cocking and the large sums staked on the contests were a strong incentive to refine and balance the competitions. The current set up for tournaments had its genesis in cock-fighting.

The cocks often had bone or metal spurs strapped over the birds' own to insure a fight to the death. Cockfighting began to wane in England only after The Royal Society for Cruelty to Animals began to bring actions in the late 1830s based on an 1835 Act against animal cruelty.

Gentlemen watching a cockfight in the drawing room.

There is a cockfighting match held in a drawing room, rather like the illustration at left, in chapter 4 of Ross Poldark by Winston Graham. The match is held at a party to celebrate a betrothal, of all things! Graham seems to have captured the mind set of Georgian England.



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