Bull-ring at Ashburton

Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries vol. 1, no. 1, (1900) pp.26-28.

Provided by Michael Steer

The centre of Ashburton town is known as "The Bull Ring". Fences used to be placed along the pavement and the cattle and sheep would be gathered in the centre for sale. Kerb stones, the holes where the fences used to fit can still be seen. Prior to the market, the space was reserved for bull-baiting. This article resulted from discovery of the original stone block and ring to which the bulls were fixed. The Internet Archive makes available, in its Community Texts Collection (originally known as Open Source Books), books that have been digitised by Google from a number of libraries. These are books on which copyright has expired, and are available free for educational and research use. This rare book was produced from a copy held by the Harvard University Library, and is available from the Internet Archive.

BULL-RING AT ASHBURTON - In the alterations recently carried out at the Ashburton Market, the workmen found while excavating in the fish market, a block of stone with a massive iron ring securely fixed to it. Old people well remember such a ring existing in the open space between the Old Market and the house where the Capital and Counties Bank now stands. It disappeared in 1850 when the old Market was demolished, and the road way levelled, and as it now appears was used in filling in the foundation of the new building, then in course of erection.

This relic is then, the veritable "Bull-ring" from which the central open space takes its time honoured name, and brings up a host of memories, among them those of the brutal and gross sports of our ancestors, with which it was so intimately associated in the good old times. The sport of Bull and Bear-baiting is very old and is mentioned in 1174 by Fitz-Stephen, in his description of London, in which he says: "in the afternoon of every holiday in the winter the young men amused themselves by baiting bulls and bears with dogs". For bull-baiting there was this excuse, that the flesh of that animal is naturally tough and unsuited for food. The baiting made his flesh tender and digestible, and therefore enhanced its value to the butcher; moreover, a Statute ordered old bulls flesh might not be exposed in the shambles unless baited. In reality, the excited state of the animal just before death disposed it for putrefaction, and like a hunted hare, it must be cooked in time or be soon unfit. Here then, almost to the time of living memory, was a stout iron ring, securely leaded into a granite stone, about midway between the end of the Market house and the houses opposite. To this ring the bull was secured by a rope three or four yards long, fastened by a collar round his neck. By means of the length of the rope the bull could turn round and watch his enemies, which were low strong mastiff dogs, with short noses and great power of jaw, still known as bull dogs. The sporting community of those days bred and trained numbers of these dogs on the endurance and pluck of which wagers were made.

The situation of the Ashburton Bull-ring was well adapted to permit a large number of persons to enjoy the sight free from danger; and we can picture to ourselves the windows of the old gabled houses being packed with eager faces of women and children. The Rose and Crown Inn, we may be sure reaped a rich harvest at such times. The wide opening of the Corn Market Chamber in the tower, just under the face of the clock would be crowded with those privileged persons who liked to see all from a safe place. A ring of excited men and youths, holding dogs still more excited, and women too, would form around the bull, now secured to the ring, and perhaps vainly testing the strength of the rope, but at a distance clear of his horns. At the appointed time a well trained mastiff would be let loose, and would advance creeping upon its belly, that he might if possible seize the bull by the nose, which he is carefully endeavouring to defend by laying it close to the ground while with his horns he attempted to toss the dog. In this way the two manoeuvred amid breathless silence until the dog made a jump to seize the bull's nose; if the bull was quick he caught the dog on his horns and tossed him many feet away in the air, sometimes to the height of twenty or thirty. Then with a rush men and women jumped forward to catch the dog and break its fall on the ground, for which purpose the women wore stout aprons which they held spread before them. In doing this, the bull if his attention was not diverted by the onslaught of another dog, might toss or gore a person, which frequently happened. The second dog would then try his powers, perhaps be tossed, or if fortunate, succeed in fastening to the bull's nose, in which case the dog's backer would run in and seize a foreleg of the bull; if he could hold it up for two minutes, the dog still keeping his grip was declared victor. Dog after dog came on, and as the baited bull expended its strength in furious wrath and vain attempts to charge his enemies, it became weaker and wilder, giving an opportunity for younger dogs to taste his blood, to the admiration of the assembly. When at last he had no more strength to resist, a butcher appeared and gave the coup de grace. The carcass was dressed and sold in the market.

Such then, with many variations, were the brutal scenes the now quiet and respectable Bull-ring has witnessed. The barbarous pastime was encouraged by the rank and fashion of the age, but happily after a time, public opinion turned against it, and the sport was removed from the town to a distant field where only the lowest class of the sporting community followed it, and in 1835 was totally abolished by Act of Parliament. The last Bull-baiting was held in a field at the end of Carrion Pit Lane, on which occasion the bull broke loose, creating a panic and stampede.

It is said the first stage coaches between Exeter and Plymouth, about 1755, so arranged their time on occasions of a Bull-baiting at Ashburton, that passengers could witness the sport. The creating of the direct road through Ashburton the Royal Mail early in the century necessitated the discontinuing the sport in the public highway and its removal to a field. I am not aware that the owners of house property around the Bull-ring were ever compensated for their loss of privi___ and consequent injury to their property.